Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: Empire by Orson Scott Card

Here on the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, it seems perfectly appropriate to post this review of Orson Scott Card's Empire, a novel that imagines a new civil war in a fictionalized modern America.

The premise is simple enough: as the rhetoric between America's right and left has grown more heated, the country has become more divided and ripe for a civil war. The dividing lines here are not so simple as red state / blue state, but instead leans toward an urban / rural divide.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT: The action follows Major Reuben "Rube" Malek and Captain Bartholemew "Cole" Coleman, a pair of former special ops soldiers, the latter of whom has just recently been assigned to work with the former. Before they've really gotten to know one another, they discover terrorists using plans that Malek created as part of an assignment to draw up possible scenarios for assassinating the President. They almost thwart the plot, but both the President and Vice President, along with several members of the Cabinet, are killed. Of course, the problem isn't just terrorists: how did they have the exact plans that Malek drew up?

Early action revolves around the two trying to clear his name and find out who really passed these plans on to terrorists. Very quickly, however, civil war erupts as group with high tech military toys seizes control of New York City in a bid to oust what they see as an illegitimate government in Washington or secede from its influence.

I will avoid giving away much more. As a thriller, it was fine. That's not a genre I tend to read--we picked this up on the basis of Card's name, because we needed an audio book for our recent trip to Ohio. If it had been an ink-and-paper book, I imagine it would have been a page-turner--certainly, it kept our interest all the way through.

In his afterward, Card makes an impassioned plea for Americans to reject the divisive, hateful, and closed-minded rhetoric of both sides, and it's a thought-provoking little afterward. From what I've read Card is fiscally liberal, socially conservative, and at least since 9/11 has been fairly hawkish--that's an oversimplification, because Card's views refuse to be sorted by anything like party lines. And that's perfectly understandable--neither the Republicans nor the Democrats as political parties have a truly coherent worldview with ethics and politics that follow from them.

All that said, in the novel itself Card seems much harder on "the Left" than "the Right." I'd like to say that this is simply a function of his characters, that the characters represent themselves and not Card himself, but I've read enough of his essays to recognize when he's using his characters as a mouthpiece for his own ideas, and that seems often what's going on here. That's his prerogative, of course, but when some of that commentary seems like oversimplification, exaggeration, or over-generalization, then it goes back to the author and there's just something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe, as Card might well say, this is simply a function of my own biases. I can't say for sure that it isn't, and that did bring me back around several times to question both my own positions on some of the issues that came up as well as my view of the novel.

The plot itself is... fine. It's a bit unbelievable at times, but better than a lot of films (for what that's worth), and it moves along nicely while also being very willing to surprise (nay, shock, at least at one point). Kudos to Card for that.

There was another idea that was a powerful driver of the story: early in the novel, we see a fictional Princeton historian and professor who argues that if America "fell" at this point in history, its achievements would be ephemeral, at least by the standards of Rome which, when it fell, shaped the culture of Europe and the near east for centuries afterward. The reason, he says, is that America is still in its republican stage, not having passed to being an empire. Although he claims not to be advocating this, he claims that only as an empire could America achieve anything of lasting cultural significance. As the novel's title suggests, this comparison to Rome runs deep through the book and was one of its more interesting aspects.

In the end, this wasn't great literature, it probably won't survive the fall of America, but it was an enjoyable and sometimes thought-provoking read.

1 comment:

  1. My criticism of Card in a nutshell, you said it: "...he's using his characters as a mouthpiece for his own ideas..." and he does it in every book. It gets tiresome, and violates the characters in a very basic way. When you write a book (or a story) the characters take on a life of their own; their motivations and actions can sometimes surprise you, but you have to go with them. Forcing them into your preconceived ethical or social mold, no matter how terrific your writing skills, just doesn't work. At least, that's how I see it.