Shadow of His Former Self

Among my faults as a reader of sci-fi and fantasy is my excessive indulgence for authors engaged in long, slow declines. These are the writers who had one great book, or several, or just one really rip-roaring yarn entertaining enough to compensate for its literary flaws. So I keep buying their books, and buying and buying, long after they should have been put out to pasture.

If we weren't indulging them on name only, maybe they'd take the hint and retire, reputation relatively intact. David Eddings (and his wife) could have quit after five books and been remembered as the author of the Belgariad. Instead, he's still going at something like twenty, and he will always also be the author of the Tamuliad. (In case you're not familiar with the Eddings canon, which is, by now, a fortunate state to be in, being the author of the Tamuliad is not something you'd want to admit in public, were you he.) If we the readers would only stop buying, the publishers might take the hint and stop renewing the contracts that oughtn't be renewed. But nooo, we keep buying, like the suckers we are, and we get the books we deserve.

Which brings me to Orson Scott Card, living proof that writing a masterpiece acknowledged as such in your own lifetime either goes to your head or indicates that something has already gotten there. Ender's Game was a great book; it's already on middle-school assigned reading lists and I expect it to stay there indefinitely.

It worked because it had two things in spades. On the one hand, was a profoundly empathetic book: Card took his pint-size protagonist's fragility seriously. On the other hand, it was a deeply tough-minded book: Card didn't shy away at all from the harsh realities of the necessary dirty work of a wartime military with its back up against the wall. The combination of the two meant placing Ender in a genuinely insoluble moral conundrum while also giving voice to Ender's deeply human reaction. The book was rightly hailed, and it with Card's hard-headedness and warm-heartedness.

(Digression: readers who noticed one of these qualities but not the other have been in for some unfortunate shocks. I still remember a particularly awful Salon story by a pacifist who somehow forgot that the whole novel takes place in a military training camp and that the novel's hero stands out because he is the most thoughtful, most creative, and in some ways, most ruthless of his classmates.)

Since then, all evidence is that Card has come to believe that he alone of all humanity has the clarity of thought to understand grand geopolitical necessities and the compassion needed to write about tolerance in the face of the threatening. It hasn't been a pretty sight.

The usual metaphor for a slowly unfolding disaster is the train wreck. But that's not really right, because the train wreck has a definite end, whereas the Ender series just keeps on unfolding and unfolding, the magnitude of the wreckage increasing with every entry. (The current count is at seven books: twice now, an afterword has explained that what started off as one book turned into two at some point during the writing process. It shows.) I'm reminded of the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera, perhaps, or the business with Mustafa from Austin Powers. A man who started off as a reasonably healthy supporting character is now a mangled offscreen voice, begging desparately to be put out of his misery while the audience laughs nervously, wondering how much longer the suffering can continue.

The first two sequels, though by no means comparable to Ender's Game, were probably still above the zero line; the world is better off for their existence. Children of the Mind was where things went off the cliff: from the ridiculous Polynesian interlude to the ham-fisted romance, it should never have been allowed to be. I recognize that this would leave us at the cliff-hanger that ended Xenocide. But that was a pretty preposterous cliff-hanger, anyway. We could either imagine a better-written ending (which would be no less a deus ex machina than the actual one), or congratulate Card on a brilliant open-form ending that resists closure, or just chuck Xenocide too, as a necessary sacrifice to rid the world of Children of the Mind.

But at least the first three sequels were the ones in which Card was following out his empathetic impulses. Some of the character studies--especially in Speaker for the Dead--are well-observed, and the basic plots satisfy a fundamental sci-fi urge: use the power of what-if to invent difficult ethical quandaries and reflect on deep moral issues. At the time, I chalked up their increasing flaws as novels to Card's abandonment of his toughness: how else to explain the oozing sentimentality and the formulaic conclusion.

Maybe Card noticed something of the trend, because in the next three sequels, it's the tough-guy posturing that's predominated. And. Oh. My. God. Calling them "plot-driven" is too much of a compliment. If you stop to notice the dialogue, you laugh; if you stop to notice the didactic morals, you gag. The latest mistake in the series, Shadow Puppets, is where even the plot became worse than no plot at all would have been. Things just kind of happen. Then some other stuff happens. And you just don't want to hear about the kinds of stupid things supposedly hyper-brilliant characters do.

And, oh, the supposed toughness. I've seen the case for pre-emptive war put with some subtlety and flair. Card just kind of drops it on the table, like a dead jellyfish, and asserts that either you're tough enough to accept his (well, actually, one of his puppets', I mean characters') reasoning, or you're a girly-man and wouldn't have lasted ten seconds at Battle School. Last year, Card wrote an essay "proving" that anyone who criticized Bush's North Korea policy was either an idiot or treasonous, and much of Shadow Puppets' geopolitics run in the same vein: all sufficiently smart people will reach the correct conclusion, anyone who disagrees is stupid. Not all of these conclusions are belligerent, to be fair, but this is a book about war.

Same deal with abortion: at one point, the hero muses, with no apparent irony, that there's no difference between getting rid of three fertilized embryos (still single-cell, mind you), and killing twenty year-old children. The key factor here is the unique genetic information, I kid you not. And, mind you, this thought occurs to the smartest, toughest, human ever (genetically engineerd to be so, of course). Nor he is the only character in the novel to recreate Catholic morality without Catholic theology: another does it out of sheer stubbornness, one of the highest moral qualities in the Cardiverse.

The stubborness of human reproduction and survival is just about the only real virtue there, come to think of it. There are plenty of passages criticizing soft-minded government bureacrats, flaccid (that is, non Battle-School-trained) soldiers, and distant intellectuals; but compare the plebs, who just want to survive, and the natural leaders, who must forge the future in the fires of their own intellect. The contradictions are just astounding. Brilliant strategy is to be admired, but not the love of knowledge (even the love of knowledge that inspired the thinkers whose works the strategists adopt and adapt). It's great to admire architecture and beautiful cities, but there's no place for artists in Card's world, or at least none that he remembers to mention. Family is everything to Card. Most of us normal people would agree that it's the most important thing. But everything?

All of this incessant harping on how gloriously tough his gloriously smart characters are wouldn't be so grating if it didn't ring so false, in light of the book's plot. James Clavell wrote himself into a similar corner with Gai-jin, which featured a secret society of elite super-ninjas who couldn't pull off a single strike successfully in the course of the novel, out of about a half-dozen attempts. There seemed to be no conscious irony: everyone else in the novel fears them no end, and it's never superior Western technology or the tide of history that dooms them. No, it's always some stupid coincidence or a minor mistake in timing. The overall effect is comic in the worst way: the part of the novel that's supposed to inspire dread conjures forth only giggles.

And something similar happens when you have a whole novel in which essentially every named character is a super-genious. They have to outwit each other, and that's not going to happen unless one or another makes a mistake. Ender's Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon were laughable in places because of this issue: more passages than I can remember offhand in those novels were given over to explaining which crucial detail Super-genius Joe overlooked. The rough-and-ready solution Card fell back on there was usually to create a hierarchy of geniusosity: those higher up would be able to think through the entire thought process of those lower down, and then go one step further.

This particular trick only works so many times. Recognizing, perhaps, that it's outlived its usefulness, Card drops it in Shadow Puppets: here, he just lets the characters act like outright idiots much of the time, good ones and bad ones alike. They don't suspect traps obvious even to the reader, they forget to carry weapons when you or I would be demanding whole arsenals' worth, they use perhaps the stupidest, most insecure computer system I have seen described in recent fiction. There's nothing wrong with such a literary strategy, in general: it works in conventional spy novels, Rashomonic thrillers, and other fun genre novels. It's just that blatant idiocy doesn't sit well with constant insistence that these obvious idiots are super-geniuses: it makes you suspect that the author has an inflated sense of his own intelligence, too.

It was only near the end that I realized I was reading a Piers Anthony novel in disguise. There were the incredibly weak jokes that passed for dialogue; there was the wink-wink sexuality (all the even marginally dirty bits are edited out, the characters pair off in terribly convenient fashion, and the sexual energy hovers naughtily around procreation); there were the adolescent and pre-adolescent protagonists; there was the retread plot; there was the constant contrast between the magical few and the mundane many. And, above all else, there was the horrible lingering half-guilt of a novelist who didn't know enough to quit while ahead.