>Book Thoughts: Empire by Orson Scott Card

>Orson Scott Card is probably best-known for his Hugo-award-winning Ender’s series of novels. The series combines hard-core military strategy with moral and ethical dilemmas that make for not only good science-fiction, but good literature. I’d heartily recommend most of the Ender’s series to anyone who wants to see just how good science-fiction can be when done well.

Card’s other novels have been hit or miss for me. I loved Enchantment, but could barely force myself through his last novel, Magic Street. That said, there are more Card stories I’ve read I’ve enjoyed than those I haven’t and I’d even go so far as to consider him one of my favorite authors. He’s also one that when I hear a new novel is coming out, I will immediately go and put it on reserve.

Even as his worst, Card combines big-ideas with realistic characters. And as I said before, he’s shown a good ability to make military sci-fi relatable and interesting.

Which is why going into his latest novel, Empire, I had high hopes. The novel is a depature from the typical Card story (not there really is such a thing). It’s the near-future (from details in the novel I’d say after the elections of ’08 or ’12). Al Quieda attacks the United States, wiping out the president, vice president and several other senior officials in one fell swoop. In the chaos that enuses, the Speaker of the Senate is made president, something certain sects within the military don’t like. Before long the military has broken off, declaring themselves the legitimate government of the United States and fighting to preserve and restore the Constitution. The country falls into civil war, pretty much divided along the red states vs blue states lines.

Card’s near-future thriller, at times, reads like a Tom Clancy techo-thriller. A battle across the streets of New York against mechancial killing machines, designed to target authority figures feels like vintage-Clancy
.

The problem is that while Clancy can pull of the high-tech mystery thriller believably, Card fails to do so here. The plot takes absurd twist after absurd twist. The hero of our story, Major Ruben “Rube” Malek is one part Jack Bauer, one part Fox Mulder. He wrote up a briefing on how terrorists could attack and cripple the United States, only to see it used in the course of the novel. He become paranoid in the extreme, feeling he’s being set-up by every side and that he can “trust no one” as he tries to make sense of the attacks and who is behind them. (There are hints the proposal was leaked by high-ranking governemental officials to create hysteria and put them into postions of power).

Rube is a conservative, married to a liberal who used to work for the (now) President and many such political debates ensue. In the Ender’s novels, the debates from both sides of the aisle worked well but here it just seems like pages of political rhetoric thrown-in with no real impact on the overall story or the plot development.

As for the plot itself, there are some major loopholes that too glaring to make the book truly enjoyable. For one thing, it’s hard to fathom that the United States would be attacked so by Al Quida and then forget about it. It seems as if Card wanted to find a way to bring about his civil war and did so using the threat of terrorism. You would think America might feel a bit outraged at such an attack, no matter who is in the Oval Office or his or her popularity, but that thread is barely given more than lip-service here. Perhaps that will be a thread of later novels (the ending does leave it open for more novels to come, should Card choose to do so), but it comes across as too obvious an exclusion here.

The biggest problem with Empire is that it’s got some good pieces but those pieces don’t come together to form a complete novel. The first half is good but the last half of the story which features bizarre plot-twist after bizarre plot-twist quickly loses steam. Which is a shame. This had the potential to be great and could have been the start to a great new series of novels for Card. As it is, it’s just a mess and a disappointment.

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