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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Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

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Scott Card still puzzles me. Here, he’s beyond the power of editors. The writing is more dense, with more inner monologues and more pointless words. Nothing about it is terrible, but it does reek of an inexperienced author who can’t edit himself.

Authors who can’t edit themselves will let their worldview seep into the novel. If they lack critical thinking. then expect all the Good Guys to hold their opinion and all the Bad Guys to disagree with them. The novel won’t raise questions or confront the difficulty of its subject matter. At best, it will give the illusion of realism using cheap techniques like ‘surprise deaths’.

Where’s the bigotry, though? I mean, Scott Card is a homophobe and very strictly religious. This only goes to show you how bizarre and full of contradiction the human mind are. Religion and homophobia are, justifiably, close-minded dogmatic ideas. They’re about limiting our options, and won’t be held by people who try to think deeply.

Card broke the stereotype on Ender’s Game, and here he continues. In fact, if you didn’t know his background you wouldn’t guess Card holds such views.

It’s ironic I’m judging Card like this, in a review of a novel where judgment is a big theme. The religious theme of forgiveness is here, and just like in the previous novel Card doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s always looking at a subject from both sides, always willing to accept both the good and the bad involved. The best moment is the actual ‘speaking’.

Evil doesn’t exist in the real world. Everyone is convinced they’re right. We need morality and to mark some actions as wrong, but we must be wary of branding people as just ‘sick assholes’ and be done with it. It’s important to understand why they do what they do. This way we won’t go down that path, and we will be able to prevent it.

Murder is considered one of the most horrible things you can do, and Card uses it cleverly to make us question what is evil. From the viewpoint of an organism that doesn’t really die when they’re killed, there’s no such thing as murder. So when they do the same to you, can you really brand them as evil? They sure they were doing you good, bringing you to your next life.

His desire to understand people, the idea that we should see people as people through their flaws reflects in the characters. They’re all flawed humans, doing what they think is best. Some of them are crueler than others, but each has a reason for what they do. Some Card clearly disagrees with, like the religious zealotry of Quim or the Bishop. They never slide into the unlikeable. They never become wrenches in the gears of the plot that the heroes have to get rid of. Like everyone else, they have a worldview of their own that they adjust as they learn new things. Card never converts them to their side, but lets them learn like people do.

It sounds fun and deep, but it never goes as deep as it should. The biggest challenge is to take a true scumbag, a person who disregarded everyone else and make them sympathetic. Not every cruel person is a tragic case and could be redeemed. Some people do use their power for pleasure while hurting others. Some people are so extreme in their views they cannot be changes. He confronted the reality of inevitable violence in Ender’s Game, but here he’s hesitant. The novel has a bigger plot, a wider scope and states its subject matter more clearly. Yet it doesn’t match what came before for depth. Despite the simple plot, Ender’s Game did go much further.

The story itself is great though. The writing is more dense and a little more rambling. The easy flow of Ender’s Game is gone and Card has no stylistic quirks, but it’s readable. It also helps Card tends to ramble on the novel’s focus, its characters. The prose is otherwise is easy to read. Plain utilitarianism has its place, especially when everything surrounding it is good enough.

For a very famous series, its structure is vastly different than stereotypical sci-fi. Science fiction is burdened with the stigma that it’s all technobabble, silly worldbuilding and too much exposition. I even talked to some people who think sci-fi is all about new technologies.

Speaker for the Dead is a character-driven novel where gadgets take a secondary place. The best sci-fi comes up with meaningful technologies or aliens. They don’t ask how a new technology can function, but how it will affect society. The effect of technology is more central. It doesn’t bore us with how space travel works, but we constantly see how the lack of aging affects relationships. How the big computer network functions doesn’t matter. What does is that it creates a new ‘currency’, a new way to hold power without weapons. The new biology is also a symbol of such ideas. The whole ‘third life’ thing creates a situation in which killing is different, where ‘symbiosis’ is taken to the next level. Card is more concerned how such a difference in biology breeds different cultures, how they clash rather than the plain mechanics of it.

It’s also a perfect example of how a sequel should be. Books in a series should be separated for a specific reason. When we say a sequel should ‘stand on its own’, we don’t mean that it should be accessible for those who didn’t read the predecessors. ‘Stands on its own’ means the sequel is a work with its own unique qualities. It has its own style, themes and structure that separates it. A sequel shouldn’t just show us what happens next but offer something new. Speaker is different in many ways – prose, structure, characters, atmosphere – than Ender’s Game, and all that justifies its existence.

The flaws are negligible. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ender’s Game because it’s not as willing to face the darkness and it rambles more. These prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s still a great sci-fi story. It’s a story of ideas and characters, using setting, technology and aliens to raise questions instead of spitting technobabble. Whatever views Card holds, his story is multi-layered and doesn’t preach dogma but encourages understanding the unfamiliar. Hopefully, the good stuff doesn’t stop here.

4 dysfunctional families out of 5