What scares me, really scares me, about Orson Scott Card's
just-released EMPIRE is that his near-future tale of an America
gone mad with factional conflict doesn't end --- it just stops to
catch its breath.
How do I know? After I closed the cover, there was that creepy
feeling I used to get from some of the grislier fairy tales we were
exposed to before political correctness made monsters under the bed
"inappropriate." I just knew they would go on rampaging
through the pages, doing what they were doing without the benefit
of my horrified presence. My goaded imagination had set them in
motion and there was no turning back.
Now, many (many!) years later, I have no trouble imagining Card's
complex and often politically inscrutable characters simply going
on between the pages, picking up a clue here, a tentacle there,
morphing into ever-varied levels of heroism and conspiracy; getting
killed in strangely perfunctory, inopportune moments, or just as
likely, pulling off a next-to-impossible covert tour de force.
EMPIRE is about America on the verge of collapsing into war with
itself, and in the wake of a presidential assassination by
home-grown terrorists, half the battle is telling the "good" and
"bad" players apart.
Equally inspired by gaming strategy and contemporary history (areas
in which Card consistently excels), EMPIRE brings his two passions
together with volatile impact. But there's more, as those TV gadget
ads always exclaim; in this case, much more. Being a person for
whom faith and ethics are paramount, Card cannot resist being both
a storyteller and an apologist/crusader for the most endangered
human type on the face of the earth: the Moderate.
Instead of building other worlds in other universes, or
time-traveling into realms of imagination where rules are as
flexible as alien body types, Card set himself the daunting
challenge of a contemporary plot that could unfold tomorrow, a year
from now, a decade away...or never. And the one big stream of folks
who seem entirely overlooked in both the actual and fictional
scenario of life in the Western world are those who don't want to
be herded into uncompromising ideologies like Right and Left,
Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative, Religious and
Secular, and all their mind-numbing variations.
His recipe includes slices of the ubiquitous power of the World
Wide Web and its ancillary, ever-increasing communications
technology; snippets of shows like "The West Wing" and "24"; a lot
of CNN, Fox and Al-Jazeera journalism; reminders of the horrific
realities of 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza; a bitter swallow or
two of the North American scourge of negative political
campaigning; stirred with a ladle of speculation that brings greed,
egotism, anger and incompetence together in a seething brew. Bake
until done in the hell of your choosing.
It all sounds pretty cynical and pessimistic, but EMPIRE wears its
crusading armor responsibly. While Card becomes a bit long-winded
and too intensely detailed at times, he is also meticulous in areas
where readers know they can trust him --- research, sourcing,
credibility and fidelity to his theme. In fact, he's about the only
major fiction writer in America today who can craft a gut-wrenching
350-page thriller with an unashamed message of warning and wisdom.
He's taken on a big pulpit and a scary sermon; and I can say Amen
to it with numerous others. But Orson Scott Card still scares
Reviewed by Pauline Finch (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 21, 2011