Friday, March 14, 2008

1004. Empire

Empire by Orson Scott Card

It should be stated that when I first saw this book by Card in the bookstore, I expected it to be completely different in tone, politically, than it turned out to be. Stay with me though, as I try to explain a couple of more points. At the time, my TBR (to be read) pile was rather large, and I was low on funds, so I skipped it. I don't necessary 'worship' everything Card has written, but since the story of Ender Wiggins came out, I made it a point to read quite a few of his novels.

So, finally, the paperback version of the book got published, and in preparing for the 2007 holiday season, I went to add it to my Amazon 'wish list' (don't hesitate to buy me a book from there!)--hoping! Well, I read a couple of reviews, and suddenly I was starting to worry that this might not be such a good book. Was it the politics of Card that would not agree with me? Was it something else entirely in this book? Finally, after joining BookMooch and PaperBackSwap, the book became available and I decided to 'get it' and read it for myself.

So, yeah, the politics of Mr. Card do not seem to agree with mine. On the other hand, we are not that far apart -- it's not simply a matter of 'Blue States' versus 'Red States' as the Civil War in his book becomes. Politics in the America (USA for you foreigners--I know, we're very obnoxious like that) of today are more complicated. That's not necessarily a reason to NOT read a particular book. Unless of course you already know that a particular person is an outright liar and a deceiver. I have read things and watched movies or documentaries from a perspective that I did not agree with, yet I wanted to learn that side of the story.

The premise of the book is very simple. A grizzled old vet, Captain Malich, returns home to finish his post-graduate education in order to advance both his military career and his post-retirement civilian one. As he advances to the rank of Major, we find him deep in the bowels of the Pentagon working on various assignments, most of them secret, and with purposes that not even his wife can fathom. It all seems pretty bewildering when Captain Coleman (Cole as he will come to be known) joins Malich as his #1 aide. But Cole is not the sort that gives up easy on new assignments, however obnoxious or overbearing or secretive the boss might be. He goes around the secretary and takes a drive to Major Malich's house where he meets Cecily, the major's wife. She has no clue what Reuben Malich is up to either -- but, Captain Coleman's initiative is enough to convince the major that he can be trusted.

And very quickly the action begins and escalates. There is an assassination attempt / terrorist attack in the Capital, Washington D.C. The major and the captain figure it out and are almost able to prevent it. But, through the attack, the American President is killed and the US government is thrown into chaos. This is but the first 'shot' in a 'war' played out mostly in rhetoric and behind the scenes. Because it appears that the movers in this war which threatens to engulf the whole United States are driven by left-wing forces (what we would call, "the Liberals in America"). And that's where Mr. Card lost me. So, yeah, maybe "the liberals" are unhappy that they 'lost' the 2000 election, but would they even contemplate the actions Mr. Card describes in this book? What sort of fantasy is this? Probably one concocted by 'Fixed News Channel' urm, sorry, meant to say 'Faux News Channel' which plays a prominent role in this book.

Okay, you can throw a counter-argument at me and say: 'well, no, it's not really the liberals that are causing all the problems and bringing the country to the brink of Civil War, but rather the puppeteer behind the stage who is manipulating events. Throughout the book we're given little hints that maybe things are not the way they appear, that something else might be going on, that there might be another reason for what is happening. But even that story thread is not resolved by Mr. Card by the end of the book.

And then there are the Mecha. Now, if you're a fun of Japanese Animation, you probably are very familiar with these mechanical fighting vehicles. There are a concept of near Fantasy or advanced Science Fiction, depending on how you want to view them. They are the "Mobile Suits" of Robert Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers'. In this case, they have advanced a bit to suit our 21st century tastes. In some ways they do jar the senses. Are they technologically feasible? The major characters in the story, like Major Malich and Captain Coleman believe that they are producible with today's technology.

So, Card's novel, becomes a Tom Clancy wannabe story full of intrigue and mystery and political background machinations with some spectacular climactic battles. Does Card pull it off in the end?

Sadly, I think that is precisely the moment where he fails. His background is spectacular, even if you don't agree with his politics. And his premise, about the power behind the throne is certainly plausible enough to have the ring of truthiness in it... But truthiness DOES NOT in any way equate with the truth. The danger this republic currently faces actually does come from real forces which are not even in hiding or pulling strings from the background.

Normally, Orson Scott Card's characterizations are flawless. But he does not give enough development to climactic political machinations. It is as if, that particular chapter was thrown in as an afterthought. In addition, Major Malich's old Ranger/Special Forces unit makes an appearance in the book. And while these characters are very enjoyable, they are sort of cartoonish and not fully developed. Finally, Cecily Malich could have been utilized just a bit more. In the end, her talents were left undeveloped in the closing chapter which left me wanting for more...

Fair warning: This book was written as a tie-in to a supposed video game franchise by Chair Entertainment. Whether that game ever came out or not, I don't know, but this could account for some of the problems with the book.

One final thought. Orson Scott Card has a longish essay at the end of the book trying to explain some of his views that underlie the novel. While there are some very good thoughts in there as a whole, in the end that essay comes across as more shrill than most of the debate taking place on American Airwaves today that it is aimed against.

I am not yet giving up on Orson Scott Card, but I am only giving this book 2 stars out of 4--and that's barely. I really thought about giving it 1.5 stars, but I did enjoy Captain Coleman and some of the action.

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