Review of Orson Scott Card’s "Empire"
I’ve read a few reviews of Empire on the Internet and in print, and each one is prefaced with “I love Orson Scott Card, but…” To be honest, this is how I need to start as well. I’ve read nearly ten of his other books, and adore them all. I’ve borrowed his entire short fiction work from my library three times now. He’s a brilliant author. This is why Empire‘s shortcomings baffle me so thoroughly. There are so many I’m not exactly sure where to start.
The plot is this: America is less politically stable than it thinks, and when the President and his Vice are assassinated it plunges into civil war as various factions vie for power in the aftermath’s vacuum. It’s very different from the story of something like Ender’s Game, but Card has also written some amazing geopolitical global warfare in the Shadow series, so I had really high hopes when I settled down to read Empire.
Card is a strict Mormon (though using that adjective is probably tautological…), and I’ve consistently been surprised at how balanced, fair and human his stories are – considering how ultraconservative some of his views are. I suppose when his stories were set in the far future or on alien planets, his ideology was masked or just didn’t rear its head. In a novel like Empire, though, which deals with a blue-state vs. red state war in the very near future, they dominate.
A small example is the way that several major characters are having a discussion (and these are superhuman genius soldiers who are flawless Christians whom we’re supposed to love), and they flippantly refer to Al Gore as being completely insane and of a left-wing conspiracy pushing an environmental agenda. I don’t mind his making these comments if he’s going to justify them, but they make the comment as if it’s an accepted fact. These characters are supposed to be the moderates, but the stuff coming out of their mouth is anywhere but. Things like that just grated on me.
Even if I disagree with some of the politics in a book, I’m still able to love it for its story and characters – often ending up more convinced or at least understanding of the author’s viewpoint (for example, in Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers.) But Empire‘s characters are one-dimensional, generically similar and talk like they’re starring in bad action films.
I’m not kidding when I say that he’s trying to make them flawless: they always have the wittiest possible thing to say, which is fine, except it’s the same wit for all three characters: Orson Scott Card’s. During conversations I would lose track of which soldier was which because they all held the same viewpoints and talked in a similar manner.
The story goes nowhere interesting. The super-soldiers stop the left-wing conspiracy and the United States returns to pretty much normal and everything is saved. The twists and turns were obvious and predictable and when the biggest “surprise” in the book happened I didn’t bat an eyelid – and I’m usually pretty terrible at picking plot twists.
I’ve been so surprised, because characters like Ender and Bean have made me laugh and cry, and his plots have had me shaking my head in amazement. I wasn’t able to stomach finishing Empire, though I forced myself to read three-quarters of it in the hope that it’d improve. I’ll be happy to try other books that he releases, but I pray that they’re nothing like this.