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Orson Scott: You Card! Dissecting the Good and Bad of Empire

Written by: Carol Zolnowsky, Special to CC2K

Image I’ll come right out and say it:  I am completely torn about Orson Scott Card as a writer.  His stories are fascinating and thought-provoking, but his style and his sense of character drive me absolutely insane.  This is especially true for his new book Empire.  At points, this book had me screaming in frustration and threatening to throw it across the room.  At the end of it, I was able to sit back and reflect on ideas surrounding Trust, Patriotism, and Duty, and the novelty of seeing myself represented as the villainous “other” in a novel.  What can I say?  I love a book that makes me think.

Here’s the setup:  Rube Malich is a Special Ops officer who was assigned to plan a presidential assassination so the Secret Service could learn how to defend against it.  Sort of like those shows where they get someone to break into your house so you know which doors you need to put locks on.  Unfortunately for Rube, someone put the plan into action before any defending got done, and now both the President (a thinly veiled allusion to George W. Bush) and Vice President are dead.  Conservatives are convinced that the liberals are behind it, finally acting on their dissatisfaction with the ongoing war and the controversial election results.  Liberals are convinced that it’s a conservative plot to blame liberals so that the military can declare martial law and have the kind of control that they’ve always dreamed of.  Before anyone can speak reason into the situation, America is split between red states and blue states, and is on the brink of Civil War.  Rube and his new assistant, Cole Coleman, are trying to figure out who is really to blame so they can expose the truth and stop the whole fiasco without too much blood being shed.  Thrilling!

I’ll start with the things that frustrated me.  His writing is, if anything, too realistic to be good.  For instance, by Chapter Four the President and Vice President of the United States have been assassinated.  Brave opening, because, honestly, where do you go from there?  The problem is that you just really don’t see it coming.  See, most writers do this thing called foreshadowing that avid readers have come to expect.  Card doesn’t do this.  Instead, he has his two just-as-clueless-as-the-audience main characters meeting for the first time in a public park, and one of them just happens to be able to recognize movement under the water and the other one just happens to recognize this as a sign of an attack, and they are able to react accordingly and arrive just in time to not quite save the day.  At the end of the chapter the first two links in the chain of command are dead and the reader is more baffled than shocked.  It’s like the first few minutes of September 11: when we flipped on CNN, we had a greater sense of confusion than tragedy.  Card’s writing unfolds more like real life than writing.

This happens again when the walking tank robot things invade New York.  No, seriously.  And again, our beleaguered heroes were just in the right place at the right time.  There was no intelligence, no secret mission into what was about to be the center of the next battle on American soil.  They just woke up early one Sunday morning and decided to visit the memorial at Ground Zero, and then…hey, what’s that tank thing?  Is it shooting at us?  By the time it’s over, the reader is only starting to realize what is happening.

These big should-be-climactic events are not the only places where Card leaves us saying, “Wait, what?” when the facts are revealed.  The protagonists are many, and thus are mere broad sketches than actual characters.  There are so many, in fact, that a solid dozen of them are just portrayed as the hero’s private army, and are not so much characterized as individuals, but as this set of really capable and loyal men who have names and professions and ethnicities but they don’t really matter and you couldn’t tell one from another if you tried.

The villain is equally sketchy, pun fully intended.  The good guys deduce his identity by figuring out who has the money, ability, education, and motivation to pull off something like this, announce his name, and while all the characters sit back and say, “Ah, of course!  Who else would it be?” the reader is saying, “Wait, who?” and starts flipping backwards through the pages.  Don’t bother.  He wasn’t actually mentioned before.  The sense of betrayal and shock you’re expecting will never come to pass, as this villain is a complete stranger to you.  He was never once mentioned in a conversation, or on the news as commentary or setting the scene.  It almost feels as though Card realized suddenly, two-thirds of the way into his book, that he needed a bad guy, so pulled out his Dictionary of Names that People Don’t Actually Have and made someone up on the spot.

Some of the things that frustrate me are also reasons why I love this book.  As I said before, I did not identify with the good guy in this novel.  I grew up in the SF Bay Area, and it’s hard to find a more liberal neighborhood.  Now I live in Seattle, and again, we’re pretty blue up here, and it’s not because of the rain.  So to suddenly be forced to see the world through a politically conservative viewpoint was…disorienting to say the least.  To see liberals like myself through this viewpoint was downright maddening.  I wanted to interact, to defend myself and my thoughts and my reasons, but unfortunately, it’s a book and it doesn’t really give a damn what I think.  I didn’t like that this book dragged me so far outside my comfort zone, but at the same time, I love that this book dragged me so far outside of my comfort zone.

Lastly, because this is becoming the Review That Never Ends, I love Card’s gift for philosophy.  In all of his books, hidden between all the brilliant characters and the thrilling plots and the fascinating window on a possible future, there are meditations on major themes in life.  Truth.  Beauty.  Freedom.  Duty.  Honor.  The one that still has me philosophizing in my spare time is his message regarding Trust.  Rube is having trouble figuring out who in his government he can trust, but he has some old war buddies he knows he can count on.  He knows he can trust his wife.  He knows he can trust his secretary.  He hopes he can trust Cole, who was just assigned as his assistant.  He trusts these people with his life and there is no doubt of their integrity.

But that’s the funny thing about trust, Card seems to say.  Just because you trust someone implicitly does not mean they won’t turn around and stab you in the back when you least expect it.  Trust does not change the way others act towards you.  It changes the way you act towards others, and in the end, only the people you really trust can ever really betray you.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that.