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Empire by Orson Scott Card

Cover art by Bob Warner

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

My first impression upon reading this novel is a better executed version of what Tom Kratman was trying to do with his freshman novel, A State of Disobedience. We have the same basic premise in both books, of a future Second American Civil War fought not between North and South, but between Left and Right. And as befits an author with numerous successful novels to his credit, including two each of Nebula and Hugo awards, Card deals with the subject matter in a skillful and nuanced way that never lapses into dreary lecturing, even when it is necessary to transmit sizable chunks of expository material. Even the opening expository bits at the head of each chapter are witty and engaging, making us think rather than merely telling us Information to Be Remembered for Future Use.

For instance, although Card has never served in the military, having gone straight from his LDS missionary year to higher education, his military characters feel as believable in their actions and attitudes as those written by military veterans. Of course it is possible that readers with actual military experience may be able to find places where his research has fallen short, or where no amount of third-person research can ever truly substitute for first-person experience. But I can say with authority that as I read through the point of view of Cole, he gave me the same feeling that I get when interacting with real soldiers and veterans here in the Primary World.

And while Card's sympathies are clearly with the conservative side of the world, he never permits his liberals to become merely cardboard caricatures of villains. To be true, he may well be avoiding it simply by giving them (particularly Verus, the main villain) relatively little screen time, so that we don't really see the thin places in their characterization. But it is quite interesting to note that the one and only character who really came across as a caricature of a position rather than a three-dimensional person was General Alton, the rock-ribbed conservative who spouted off about a military coup -- and then Card has Cole remarking upon how Alton went so absurdly over the top that he felt like a caricature rather than a real person with believable positions, which leaves us wondering whether we are seeing Alton's real face, or a skillful act delivered by someone who thinks Cole will react positively to talk so blunt it approaches the vulgar.

However, this doesn't mean that Card's handling of his characters are without problems. One of the strengths I remarked upon when I read Kratman's A State of Disobedience, one of the things that I immediately noted and picked out as an indicator that here we had a writer with promise, however unpolished, was his characterization of women leaders. In particular, I noted that while a lot of conservative writers might well create as their principal character a nasty female President who reads like a caricature of Hillary Clinton, most of them would probably set her against a male protagonist, thus suggesting that a woman in a leadership position is a monstrous un-nature -- but Kratman instead had his principal protagonist be a gentle but strong Hispanic woman governor of Texas.

By contrast, Card does not have one single woman in a leadership position. Yes, he has women having jobs and careers outside the home -- they're not all cookie-baking mamas like Rube's wife -- but in every single case they are assistants to male characters who actually take the lead. When he talks about "Congressmen," he's not just using the masculine as a generic that also includes women, as some conservative science fiction writers (particularly John C. Wright) do -- I get a strong feeling from those passages that in the world of this novel, every single member of the Legislature is indeed male (which is interesting when one considers the broad hints planted all over the book that it takes place not in some vague future, but in 2008, and that the assassinated President in the beginning of the novel is in fact supposed to be George W. Bush, who was the incumbent at the time it was published). He doesn't accuse women who seek and hold leadership positions of being monstrous un-natures who need to relearn their places as women -- he simply ignores altogether the very possibility that a woman could even desire to hold a leadership position. In this he makes the error of confusing statistical generalizations with absolutes. Men and women may typically tend toward different drives and personalities, but men and women are not sets of identical widgets stamped out with male and female connectors in a factory somewhere and sold in bins at Fry's Electronics. We're populations, with variations that follow statistical patterns, and there are going to be outliers in the prisms on either end of that bell curve -- and often it's those outliers who push the hardest to get their goals.

And even if you don't gag on the complete absence of any women in leadership roles (as opposed to women making careers of assisting male leaders), I have to seriously question the wisdom of killing off one of the two main protagonists midway through the novel. On one hand, bursting the "bubble of invulnerability" that often surrounds major characters does put the reader on notice that yes, this is a world in which characters we care about get killed, not just faceless mooks, so we'll feel a little more on edge about the surviving characters all the way through the rest of the book. We no longer feel confident as they go into danger that of course the author will find some way for them to get back out alive for the simple reason that they are the heroes and have to get their happy ending at the end. On the other hand, the shock of losing a character in which the reader has invested so much sympathy can be just enough to set that reader off the book -- or even off the author altogether. If a character in whom we've invested so much emotional capital can be blown away in an encounter that seemed to be safe, even from someone who had previously appeared to be a loyal and reliable subordinate, can we trust the author not to yank further rugs out from under our feet?

However, even with all the flaws in this novel, I do think that one point Card is trying to make with it is very important and relevant to present-day politics. In particular, his concerns about the growing polarization of American political discourse, by which each side has come to regard their position as the only sane, decent one, and anybody who holds the opposing position on a broad array of subjects to be either deluded or morally suspect, or both. In this sort of a climate of opinion, it becomes impossible to work with the opposition, and it can even imperil the entire idea of a loyal opposition upon which depend democracy and the freedoms we regard as fundamentally American. (Don't believe me? Read J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov's The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 , which meticulously documents how the Communist Party of the Soviet Union went from the relatively open debates of the 1920's to the nightmarish situation in the 1930's which dissent was treason and could get someone executed as an Enemy of the People. Yes, the concept of a loyal opposition is that critical to the maintenance of a free society).

Review posted December 14, 2009

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