Empire: A Review
I received Orson Scott Card's "Empire" for Christmas and due to it being a light read and my freakish speed reading tendencies have already finished it.
My take: thumbs down.
In Empire Mr. Card explores the idea of a modern day American civil war, an intriguing idea to be sure, but not handled deftly in this book.
I was doubly disappointed as I am a big fan of Mr. Card's work generally, though I have found his work to be hit or miss. I had a variety of complaints big and small so let's go through them.
I understand from his afterward that the book tied into a game hence some of the plot points were pre-supplied, it felt like it. The plot lurched from place to place with none of the smoothness you want from an action thriller. The plot points never felt terribly connected, rather it seemed like a collection of ideas that never quite gelled.
His characterization was good as usual but we never had the time to get to know any of the characters more deeply as we staggered from plot point to plot point in what was ultimately a fairly short book, too short for the subject matter at hand.
From here on out there will most likely be spoilers so feel free to stop hereish if you plan to read the book.
One of my primary complaints with the novel Empire is simply that it never commits itself in any meaningful way. You never really know who the bad guys are, or who might ultimately be behind the shadowy plot to overthrow or subvert the government. I can understand the temptation to keep your options open in an action thriller like this, but at some point you need a 'bad guy' to hang your hat on and hate with proper enthusiasm. Even if the bad guy is ultimately either a decoy or a patsy you still must give us that individual, and this book never does that.
Also, the "civil war" such as it is, isn't. It's a little too slick, with minimal damage or loss of life. My second primary complaint is that Card seemed to shy away from causing damage and bloodshed. To me a novel like this gains most of it's emotional currency by committing some act of devastation then showing us how normal people would react to such a radical reordering of their lives.
In this book I believe only something like a hundred people die. Not to sound callous, but that's far too few for you to feel the enormity of the idea that people were trying to take over and subvert the American system of government. I wanted to see nukes popping over major cities and armed bands of liberals and conservatives beating each other over the head with mutant bunny corpses.
Another beef is a particularly writerly one, I never felt like he was willing to "go there." Going there means being willing to write the unpleasant truth, and this book don't have it. Going there would have meant showing the unpleasant face of modern political ideals, and he just doesn't touch that with a ten foot pole. Which to me seems to make ridiculous the idea that this is an ideological battle, such as the battle is.
Much like when I was talking about the lack of violence, he's not willing to show the consequences of political violence. In the book, when the "civil war" comes, giant biped robots pop out of nowhere and begin killing police and uniformed bellman in New York and do nothing else but try to get the New York City council to secede from the union.
Let me see if I understand this, a violent revolutionary group could conduct a violent takeover of an American city and they would have such iron control over their people as there wouldn't be one, not one reprisal?
Not one of these "Liberal freedom fighters" wouldn't be tempted to drag Bill O-Reilly or Sen Hannity out and hang them from the nearest street light? Sorry Orson, not buying it.
And that I think was the books ultimate undoing, the lack of truly evil purpose. This felt like a politically correct action thriller, and if there's any genre for whom PCitis is a death knell, that would be the action-suspense thriller.
We needed to see Liberals beheading their loathed conservative enemies, we needed to see conservatives burning abortion clinics with everyone still inside. We needed to see the spasm of unspeakable violence that would attend the very civil war Mr. Card contemplates.
By not being willing to "go there" Mr. Card has shown us an interesting idea and then simply not followed it through to its logical consequences. Giant robots and technology can never be as interesting as people, this is the basic misunderstanding people make about Tom Clancy's best work, though the technology virtually functioned as a character in its own right, to me it never overshadowed the men and women who operate it and must use it to kill other people.
Let me also add that I am a big fan of Mr. Card's work. I think The Alvin Maker series is about as good as it gets when it comes to speculative fiction. Which is probably why I was so disappointed by this work.
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