Orson Scott Card – Xenocide

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Don’t we all want to believe in the myth of the free artist? If only we break the chains of record labels and publishing companies! A truly great author doesn’t need a pest of an editor. Their glorious minds just spill diamonds on the page. Really, this is an attractive fantasy. It means we can just write whatever the hell comes to our heads and it might be brilliant. We don’t have to actively seek criticism and feedback, since that will soil our purity.

For every brilliant album like The Fragile, you get a book like Xenocide. Actually, Dr. Dre was invovled in “Even Deeper” so maybe even that album isn’t a product of a single, untamed genius. Human beings are flawd and social animals. Without feedback or criticism, our ideas don’t improve. Becoming intelligent is no different than working out. You have to practice. You have to up the ante and you have to try new things and hear the words people different than you.

Card is clearly intelligent or else he wouldn’t be able to write the two previous novels. They were vastly different in style and were self-contained. There was an overarching story but the books weren’t separated just so it would be easier to sell them. They had a beginning and an end, different prose styles and different structures. That’s all before you get into how Card explores his ideas, how he focuses on characters and refuses to demonize everyone. These things are here too, only Card has no one to restrain him.

Lack of an editor doesn’t mean Card’s good habits can flow freely. It means he sinks to the sin of overwriting, joining the ranks of authors like King and R. R. Martin. He rambles on for most of the books, talking to himself and writing down notes. There so many passages that fit more a stream-of-consciousness narrative but this clearly isn’t one. The narrator is omniscient and the stream of thoughts don’tm provide any psychological insight. It’s a reptition of things we already know.

He’s similar to R. R. Martin not just in the rambling style, but in how the rambling holds the book back. When ramblings aren’t poetic or insightful, all they do is fill up the page and cause build-up. Build-up isn’t a good thing. There’s no reason to tease the readers with ‘something will happen!’ when it’s possible to write interesting things that are happening right now.

Only in the last 100 pages things are actually happening. Until then, people mostly speculate. Although there are many characters, the speculations aren’t patricularly varied. People mostly think about what happened, what may happen and what are the odds of something happening. It’s an author not sure how to move his story, so he writes neutral, meaningless things.

It’s tempting to write these paragraphs. Looking at how many words you wrote brings a feelings of satisfaction, of having done a work. Lying bricks in an order doesn’t automatically lead to a house. Writing a lot of sentences doesn’t automatically lead to a story or an essay or insightful philosophical musings. Card’s prose is more nimble and easy to read than other ramblers, but making it more pleasant doesn’t make it any less of a ramble.

The worst sin Card commits is lacking any purpose to his story. What’s Xenocide about, in the end? What does it add to the world of Ender? We shouldn’t judge other people too hastily. People may seem immoral to us but perhaps their value system is vastly different and we need to find a bridge. There’s no progression of ideas here from the previous novels. For all of its philosophical musings, the novel is empty. The only thing that happens is that the characters confront a virus, discover faster-than-light travel and start to rise against Starways Congress. Does that sound like a story that needs 600 pages?

The novel was apparently meant to go hand-in-hand with Children of the Mind but they were split in two. Whenever a book needs to split up because it’s too long a red flag rises. That’s a sign the story doesn’t actually end in the book itself (Here, it hardly concludes) and that the author found themselves writing a little too much.

The usual strengths are here. Although Starways Congress are the first actual antagonist in the series, Card generally refuses to paint people as wholly evil or wholly good. Characters are conflicted. People do horrible stuff and later Card makes us understand them without justifying it. The idea of ‘varlese’ is pretty brilliant – accepting that sometimes we have to kill a different species because we fail to communicate but not because they’re evil. The novel never develops these. We don’t get anything like the piggies’ radical view of death.

There’s also more techno-babble this time around. Expect a lot of ramblings in the last 100 pages about Outspace and Inspace. It’s good he doesn’t pretend this is hard science and the philotes are more of a philosophical concept than a scientific one. But Card spends more time telling us how it works and none of it is barely cool enough for Stoner Rock lyrics. Again, it’s an author whose pen are getting away from them. No editor was here to cut off the fat and leave the substance.

Normally these are the worst flaws a book can commit. Offend the reader, but at least be interesting. Boredom cannot be forgiven. Boredom merely kills the reader’s time and no one lives forever. Yet Xenocide is, overall, a bearable book. It’s not very enjoyable, but it’s never offensively boring. The rambling prose fattens the novel, but it never becomes a struggle to read. When things do happen, they’re interesting.

That’s thanks to Card’s great foundation. He always comes off as a compassionate, wise person in his novels instead of a homophobic conservative. The world is still dominated by concepts and ideas, rather than trying to predict hard science. There is still no main character, but a wide cast. Some get more focus than others, but each is given a rational basis for their actions (Although Quara is a bit dramatic). Card never demonizes anyone.

Such tiny merits manage to make the book fairly pleasant, if not great. It’s a huge step-down from Speaker for the Dead and makes me wonder if this is where the series ran out of steam. Still, Card manages to ramble and focus too much about build-up and avoid writing a horrible book. That takes some skill. There’s nothing here unless you really loved the first books, but if youd did the ride may be pleasant. Hopefully the sequel is worth it.

2.5 xenocides out of 5

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Isaac Asimov – Foundation’s Edge

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Asimov was a great mind who somehow wrote books that were nothing more than good. They were very enjoyable, and anyone who wants to write a straightforward adventure or mystery has a lot to learn from him. Yet none of them alone justifies Asimov’s place at the throne – they are no Grapes of Wrath or Catch-22. Foundation’s Edge isn’t that book either, but it’s the one that comes closest so far.

It is a product of a person who didn’t let old age stop him. We often treasure youth so much, as if by old age everything is over. The distance between this and the previous Foundation novels is felt. It’s not an old author returning to his well-known series to boil the pot a little. Rather, he returns to the series with the new things he learned over the year.

The story’s format and style is not very different, but it obviously tries to address previous flaws. For once, we get actual characters. Asimov’s characters are no longer chess pieces. This is just as dialogue-heavy as before, only now we can distinguish who the characters are by how they speak. It may a small difference, like Pelorat’s ramblings (and calling people dear chaps) or Golan’s toughness, but it is something.

Asimov doesn’t work against his structure – his stories are driven by plot and ideas, not characters. He just breathes a little more life into them to make them more fun. Pelorat’s character also feels like an author exploring himself. Asimov is our image of a ‘cold academic’, but in Pelorat he comes to the conclusion that a life that’s only the Life of the Mind is pretty empty and dull. It’s an alternative point of view that in previous stories he wouldn’t even consider.

The position of the Smart People is a new theme here, too. That must be something that comes from hanging too much around intellectuals. Asimov once said of Mensa Internatinal that they’re ‘aggressive about their IQ’s’, and this criticism of elitism is in this book. Asimov doesn’t hold an ideal view of a world where everyone is intelligent. Some people’s minds are just not good enough. But these don’t mean they’re automatically useless.

The Hamish people represent the ‘simple men’ who do manual work. Asimov doesn’t condescend above them, though. Asimov is mostly interested in how to prevent the intelligent people from getting drunk with power. That’s what the whole conflict of Second vs. First Foundation is about, and why the Second Foundation has such strict rules about tempering with minds.

Gaia is also Asimov’s attempt at acknowleding there is more to life than being an academic. It does come off as an asspull – a mystical thing that pops out of nowhere and becomes the center of the conflict. Like always, Asimov is good at controlling his asspulls and limiting them. They may have changed the conflict, but they don’t conveniently solve it. Gaia exists more to express the idea of actually living instead of just being an intellectual. It’s not a very deep exploration of that idea. Asimov sinks a bit into the One With Nature cliche. Still, it’s good to see him stretch beyond his comfort zone.

This is also the book where Asimov connects Foundation to his Robot, Eternity and Empire novels. This isn’t a Marvel Cinematic Universe syndrome, though, where the purpose is to point out references and think of how cool it is. Asimov references the ideas of these stories, not their actual plots. The value of the reference to the Robot universe doesn’t change if you read the novels or not. He even admits in the afterword that The End of Eternity isn’t exactly as it was described here.

Asimov’s prose remains as brisk as before. It’s a little less minimalistic, but it doesn’t read like an author who is beyond the power of editors. The occasional techno-babble is amusing. It’s so distinctly Asimov. He describes it in such cold intellectual langauge that is also very simple that these little details become amusing. The books would have been better off without explaining how hyperspatial travel works or how we can see the skies of various planets, but he always stops himself before it gets too far. If anything, it makes me curious to see how Asimov is like when he isn’t writing fiction.

Asimov remains a master at simple adventures. So far, this is the best in the series. On the previous entries, Asimov brushed his flaws aside because he was skilled enough at telling a cool mystery. This time he’s better at expressing ideas and creating actual characters. It still reads like Asimov’s more interesting ideas are in his essays. The story remains a simple adventure, but it’s better at every aspect than before.

3.5 Earths out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

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There are two sayings about reading literature that I hear often. The first is that the person just can’t get into the book. The second is that I should wait 1000 pages until the character killed in the epilogue for A Storm of Swords for a cheap twist, is connected to the larger picture. True, these statements aren’t said by the same people, but even the people of the second group don’t display an interest in reading. You’d think that if reading is such a task, people would prefer more minimalistic works.

The general public has better things to do than search the net for new books to read. The Sci-Fi/Fantasy community is more disappointing. We’re all familiar with Asimov, so how come nobody asked why the hell people are preferring a longer, less focused, less meaningful version of Foundation?

Asimov’s focus has tigthened, and in this novel he abandons the short-story format of the previous novels. These are still two seperate stories, only with a much stronger connection between them. Unlike a lot of trilogies, Asimov’s books don’t get worse as they go on. Rather, he has a better idea of what inspired his first book in the first place and he discards what’s useless.

Asimov, despite being famous for being a hard sci-fi writer and a scientist, doesn’t resemble any of the ‘scientific’ people I encountered. Go to your typical science class, and people will worship physics while being sure that psychology is for the rubble. Since it can’t be represented in pure mathematics, it’s therefore meaningless.

Asimov gets around that by saying ‘psychohistory’ also has hardcore mathematics and equation, but no one in the novel can really comperehend this subject. That doesn’t make it less important. Understanding people is, above all, the most important thing. Whether you want power or to advance society, human society is first of all made of people.

Without people, the physical sciences can’t exist. If people are the basis of all science, they are therefore should be a top priority for research. In a genre that’s more about science than people, it’s a bold statement. Never mind that Asimov can’t (and doesn’t try) to create characters. He must have had bad social skills. His conclusion has more in common with literary fiction than a lot of popular sci-fi.

While his characterization remains weak, they got to be a little more human last time and here the Mule is improved upon. He’s still simple, but the climax gives him a moment of humanity that Asimov didn’t seem capable of. Asimov tried to make him sympathetic in the previous novel – that’s another plus for the author by the way, how his work doesn’t actually have ‘heroes and villains’ – but here it feels real.

In Foundation and Empire, the Mule was a generic weakling who decides to take revenge on the world. On Second Foundation, his journey reveals itself to be something like Manson’s Antichrist Superstar. Like the Worm, he achieves all that power but is not sure what to do next. He may have defeated the external enemy, but he didn’t do anything about himself. The Mule got into a habit of conquering and defeating that he couldn’t stop, even if his next enemy is possibly not even real.

If Asimov combined the two novellas concerning the Mule into a single one, it’d probably be worthy of considered a classic. It’s this moment of humanity that’s so rare from epic fiction nowadays. Even if the Mule remains simplistic, he’s a well-made, sympathetic antagonist who’s not here for us to hate or root for his defeat, but to understand his mistakes.

The rest of the novel brings Asimov back to his pulp style, and it remains surprisingly in control. This is where Asimov destroys everything that was ever good in Game of Thrones. Like Martin, his plot is dense, in large scale and features plenty of twists and riddles. Asimov’s minimalism means you’re never drowning in details don’t help to move the story forward.

Asimov wants you to solve his puzzle, but you can’t solve the puzzle if you’re given 100 extra pieces that got nothing to do with anything. There’s a reason puzzle games, even plot-driven ones tend to be minimalistic. No matter how many riddles and twists Asimov pulls, they’re always in focus. They’re never drowned out by long descriptions of rooms or of what the character thinking. There are a few embarassing moments of techno-babble, but they’re read more like Asimov was sure he was going to invent the thing. There is charm in that excitement

It does get a bit silly in the end, where everyone suddenly assumes he thinks he knows he assumes he thinks he knows what the other person thinks he assumes he knows what the fifth person is eating. The climax, while fun, is ridiculous and borders on self-parody. It’s a series of amusing twists, but they’re more confusing than clear. Confusion isn’t Asimov’s purpose. He keeps you at the dark at first, but then makes everything crystal clear. It’s a minor slip, though. It doesn’t completely undermine the coherency that makes these books so fun. Asimov just let the pen get away from him a little.

This is the best of the first of the original trilogy. It may not provide a big, final conclusion but it’s not needed. It sees Asimov getting better at both his strength, and he gets over some of his weaknesses. It’s still not a classic, but as far as simple, fun adventures go it sets the standards. Asimov wrote an adventure that’s smart, fun and occasionally has something to say. If he’s so popular, how come nobody replicates it?

3 mules out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

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For a person who wrote so many books, it starts to look like maybe fiction isn’t Asimov’s thing. It doesn’t even read like he’s a got lot passion for it. He’s far more interested in grand ideas. That’s why there are no characters, and he cares little about pretending that they’re more than game pieces. Then again, he also knows the dangers of being pretentious, and Foundation and Empire remains a brisk, pulpy novel. It’s a weird thing. It’s a fun, shallow adventure written by an intelligent man who was probably too busy thinking to actually experience life.

Asimov occasionally inserts his grand ideas into the story. The conclusion to the first novella contained in this volume is a big deus ex machina. It renders all this running around irrelevant. The characters we followed had nothing to do with solution. Yet, it makes perfect sense in Asimov’s world. The only reason it was unexpected is because we’re still used to characters, even though they’re not driving the story. A solution that the characters came up with would’ve been easier to swallow, but will also see Asimov breaking the rules he created.

Doesn’t it sounded like the rules of psychohistory? Individuals are mostly meaningless. It’s the great masses that should be researched. Maybe Asimov got confused with masses of people and mass, the physical term. A hole is starting to appear, and it’s hard to ignore it when rappers are riding through it with the booming system.

If you can’t predict the behavior of one individual, how can you predict the behavior of masses of individuals? There is a composition/division fallacy here, but I can’t see how it connects. If the masses think in a certain way, doesn’t it stand to reason that an individual will most likely think in that some way? Psychohistory then does predict the behavior of individuals. It predicts the most common behavior ammong masses of individuals.

The science is messy, but if it were real and practical then Asimov would’ve written papers, not novels. At least he doesn’t use this as a crutch. ‘Prophecy’ is often used to make characters move the plot. It’s a great way to eliminate active personalities from your story and make it convenient. Since Asimov’s psychohistory deals with masses and not with individuals, it predicts that the whole Foundation enterpise will win – or at least, that its purpose will be achieved.

Time and again we see that it’s far more complex than it seems. The actual purpose of all these foundations remains in the shadows. Asimov also still has to create solutions for his conflicts that fit his rules. That’s why the first novella was successful, but it’s in the second one that Asimov goes to the edge. What’s beyond it is pretty foggy.

He introduces a character that messes up the whole equation. The predictions had a chance to be wrong, and by introducing a villain whose skill has power to completely change the equation – it’s more than a brand new variable – he raises up the question of whether or not this foundation thing will succeed.

He even tries to add some charactes. Bayta and Mis are the first real personalities here. They have dialogues that is recoginizably theirs, and behavior that is unique to them that doesn’t just move the plot. He even tries to create a unique villain with the Mule. The second novella shows a braver Asimov, one who tries to write more than a pulpy story.

He completely fails when he tries to be profound. When the Mule reveals itself in a pretty obvious twist, we get the obligatory villain’s monolgue. You’d think this was a tool of writers with zero creativity, but Asimov put some hard work into the Mule’s monolgue. He thinks that if the Mule will pour his heart out to us, it’ll make him more complex. He is more intriguing than a guy who just wants world domination, but it’s not enough.

Asimov spelling it all out clearly for us just emphasizes how shallow these novels are, in the end. He didn’t even try the obvious thing, to examine how an individual lives when he’s well aware of a ‘prophecy’ that has scientific basis. This is an interesting psychology to explore, because science’s role is, in the end, to predict. It’s one of the things that makes for a legitimate scientific theory. Asimov could have explored the individual and the collective, religion and science and I’m sure he has a lot of interesting things to say about this subject.

Alas, what Asimov really thinks is not here. Like its predecessor, the novel uses big ideas as a beautifying prop. It’s incorrect to say Asimov uses it to cover the lack of depth. Asimov remains as unpretentious as they come, with bullshit-free writing. Any time he does bother to describe characters or the scenary, he never rambles. He just wants to give you a general idea of who these people are and where they’re at, and then he moves onward with the plot. It removes any subtlety from the novel, but no rambling makes it easy and fun.

The series is often criticized for being episodic and lacking a main protagonist. That’s its strength, and what prevents it from spinning out of control. Imagine if George Martin took Asimov’s approach, and wrote episodic novels in Westeros instead of a sprawling melodrama. By giving out these little bits, Asimov’s world feels much more alive. It’s odd to say it about such a novel disconnected from human life, but it’s a series that points to a world that’s too big to capture in a single book, or a few. So, it will just give you a few bits here and a few stories here, and let you fill up the holes. It’s also useful not to beat the reader with your coolest symbols. If Trantor was over-described like anything in Martin’s novels, it would lose its mystique.

The series remains a fun adventure dressed up in big ideas, but not much beyond that. I hope there’s an exciting enough story in this series somewhere, because then it might finally be a classic worthy of its name. I have faith in Asimov. So far, he’s very in control of his ideas and knows what he’s doing best. The second novella’s pushing forward and then regressing is a bit sad, but maybe it’s not the right time yet.

3 mules out of 5