Thursday, December 21, 2006

Review of EMPIRE by Orson Scott Card

This is the most I've struggled with writing a review in quite a long time, made all the more worse because I'm a big fan of Orson Scott Card: Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead were two of the books that influenced me the most when I was in high school. I also think that Card is a brilliant thinker when it comes to things like domestic politics and foreign policy, as evidenced by his weekly writings in the local The Rhinoceros Times newspaper. So when I first heard about his new novel Empire – which depicts a near-future civil war breaking out between the "Red" and "Blue" states along polarized party lines – I was most eager to read it.

So let me get straight to the point: I didn't like Empire.

To be curt: This Empire strikes out.

Empire is one of the most frustrating novels I've read in a very good while. For the first time ever, I had to force myself to reach the end of an Orson Scott Card novel, instead of plowing through it like a madman. Speaker for the Dead completely train-wrecked a Spanish class I took in high school 'cuz I couldn't stop reading that book instead of conjugating verbs. With Empire I got bored, put down the book, made myself pick it up again 'cuz I’d already said here on the blog that I wanted to read it, dropped it once more then figured I might as well go ahead and get this over with.

It's a book so rife with problems that I honestly don't know where to begin, but here follows a few. For one thing, Empire is a maddening mélange of milieus. Empire is written like Tom Clancy attempting a Left Behind-style hack job while channeling Michael Stackpole doing a Battletech novel... with sponsorship by People for a New American Century. And something about that: Empire could easily be accused of being a blatant ripoff of the Battletech/Mechwarrior saga set in the modern day. That was the most jarring thing that shook my belief in Empire: in this supposedly near-future setting, the Progressive Restoration forces are using BattleMechs straight out of Mechwarrior and riding around on motorcycle-hovercrafts. Hell, they even have Elementals fighting for them! If that one component of the story had been stripped out, I might have been inclined to look on Empire with a much more forgiving eye. But seeing as how Empire was originally conceived to be the setting of a computer game, I can only assume that the inclusion of such high-tech anachronisms came about because of a "Toys, toys, toys!" mindset to increase this story's marketability. At other times in Empire, it's pretty apparent that Card is drawing inspiration from the TV show 24 (which he admits being a fan of in the novel's acknowledgements). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but trying to throw 24's sense of suspense in this jumble of genres really doesn't help matters.

Worse: far more often than not, Empire seems too much like neo-conservative propaganda. Fox News, Bill O'Reilly and the never-named Republican President who was elected in 2000 are without exception depicted as being "the good guys", while the villainous Progressive Restoration movement is obviously supposed to be radical liberal extremists led by a thinly-veiled caricature of leftist bugaboo George Soros. In addition, Empire notes quite a lot of disapproval of the Democrat presidential candidate, who is always referred to as a female... hmmm wonder who that could be. Which I think that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be an even bigger disaster than the George W. Bush one has been, but beating the reader's head with the writer's political preferences like this does not add any more appeal to the story and in fact detracts from it.

The "civil war" that's advertised as being depicted in Empire is really a misnomer: a real civil war is when entire populations of a country gather around regional or ethnic similarities and engage in total conflict with each other. The American Civil War was a real civil war. The Korean and Vietnam conflicts were civil wars. What happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s was a civil war. Rwanda in 1994 was a civil war. Iraq is NOT yet a full-blown civil war. At the moment most of the fighting there is because of a number of fringe extremists... but we are definitely seeing that country split along pre-World War I lines enough that it's now more than likely that we will see a full-bore war between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations in the near future. When that happens, the U.S. would do well to pull out because there is nothing we will be able to do to stabilize Iraq as a singular nation at that point... but I digress.

As I was saying, the "civil war" in Empire is really a well-funded guerilla campaign launched against the federal government by the "Progressive Restoration" movement. There are some state governments that choose to side with the Progressives, but in no way is there anything like "brother against brother" going on here. The Progressives, for all their military hardware, are actually a very small organization compared to the might of the federal government and the various state National Guard units. So if you think that you're going to find neighbor shooting neighbor because one of them has a "W" sticker on his car, you'll be disappointed to know that nothing like that happens here.

Too many parts of Empire's plot stretch credibility past the breaking point. I mean, using a high-school protractor to calculate a missile vector aimed at the White House after just crawling out of the Potomac?

But what disappoints me about Empire most of all is this: Orson Scott Card is a pretty smart guy. I'm inclined to believe he's got a lot more astute wisdom than a lot of people do. He barely uses that in Empire. And I was so sure that he would have been wise enough to understand that the only real way out of this mad game between the conservatives and liberals, between the Democrats and Republicans... is to choose not to play the game at all.

Orson Scott Card seemed so apparently set to address, with the considerable weight of the respect that he's earned, the Gordian Knot that is modern American politics. It cannot be untied. The only way to solve the problem is to slice through it. Card squandered the opportunity here to at least tell people which drawer holds the cutlery.

With Empire, Orson Scott Card had a real chance to stand aloof from the insanity of the two-party mindset and thoroughly condemn it from his perch. He could have been seen as a leader with real ideas, much as the academic Averell Torrent – the one character I really liked – is divorced from being a slave to either the Democrat or Republican parties. But instead of ideas, Empire is ultimately a book that reinforces ideologies. Empire attacks the parties only superficially, without addressing the real cause of so much grief in this country: that both parties are interested only in raw, naked power... and will do whatever it takes to acquire that power, to hell with consideration of the individual or God-given rights.

So help me, I really cannot begin to describe how disappointed I am with this book. I feel like I've barely touched on most of the problems with Empire. I still don't know how to address them all.

Well, anyway, there it is: I can't recommend Empire. And I hate that I can't do that. You're supposed to come away from reading a book with either a sense of fulfillment or a sense of being challenged on some level, and Empire did none of those things. I gained nothing by reading this book and I don't know how most people could finish this book with any real sense of having grown from the experience. In short: Empire is a very lackluster read from a very wonderful author.

But hey, we can't hit the basket EVERY time we shoot, right?


Anonymous said...

I thought the character development
was good and it had excellent twists (i.e. Malich's death). The ending was brilliant. However, I still cannot justify the mechs (dear lord in a few years?) or the author's ways of avoiding a full-blown civil war, whch would have really turned it into a clever book. Overall, 6/10.

Anonymous said...


Yes, a full-blown civil war would have pulled this book back from the breaking point.

But it didn't happen.

I wasn't too happy about the voice most of the main characters had (the heroes, basically). i.e the conservative I-Hate-Liberals voice.

All in all the book was over too soon, I was hoping for a civil war series, maybe with foreign countries becoming involved. Boy, was I bloody disappointed.

Overall, 3/10

Anonymous said...

And just like Card talks about in the book, the media discredits anything they don't like simply because it takes a conservative side. Give me a break guys. Condemning the book because you don't like how the politics work out? A review should be more of a look at how well the book worked and not about how you think it should have been put together or what you think Card could have done with it. You condemn Card for not being "wise enough" to see that all politics are bad, but did you ever stop to consider that maybe he was still wise and that (God forbid) you might actually be wrong for a change? No, you didn't, because you are the "enlightened ones" who obviously know the best way for everyone to live based on your vast political experience and insight. Try giving a fair review based on the book itself and not the politics, since you yourself claim that ALL politics are wrong. You claim to not play the game, but by basing this review on the politics and condemning the book for it, you ARE playing the game.

Anonymous said...

i didnt mind the book, it was good. these Mechs and Hovercycles are believeable in some way. the only thing i didnt like about the novel was that there was way to much dialogue and not enough story. other than that, i liked the novel. the idea of a civil war breaking out would have been cool, but i like what he did. i like how orison related todays issues (war in iraq, increasing millitary technology, red and blue staters, the medias influence) to future political issues, and explaned how they still exist. my enjoyed how he explaned that the media only cares about money. for example: when the president was assassinated, all they cared about was how to sell more papers. and the way to do so, write articles about american war heroes being possible suspects in the assassination

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a great read, I just finished it. I didn't come into it with any expectations and I love politics so I decided to give it a whirl. I've only read Ender's Game and was impressed so I thought it would be a good set up.

The main characters were pretty holier than thou conservative but I didn't care - they were just characters. The Progressive Movement seemed like a bunch of angry Gore supporters pissed that we lost the election in 2000. Speaking of which, it now seems pretty odd that they waited to launch this during the primary season after the two terms of the unnamed president would be over. Well I didn't read this book for realities, I read it because the conspiracy theories and government related tinfoil hat stuff that goes interested me. I couldn't put the book down when I started, I think it would be a pretty fun movie or game.


I didn't care for Empire either. It wasn't even that I disagreed with the politics, it was just so thinly vieled. And the arabic stuff in their needed a little work. I know arabic, and it is difficult to transliterate something from English into Arabic and have it remain understandable (for a number of reasons). Even if he was using vowel markings, the letters don't match up well enough. I just wrote the word BLUES in Arabic in front of me. Problem is it can now be read as Blouse, Blues, Blows. If I remove vowel markings a number of other possibilities open up. I can believe the husband might have done something like this; but that his wife only taught herself how to read the lettering system, could decipher it easily was a bit of a stretch.