Friday, January 18, 2008

Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game
by Orson Scott Card
Recommended Age: 13+

The book that started not one but two celebrated series of science fiction novels started, in turn, as a story in Analog Magazine, which my father used to get when I was a kid, so it was always lying around. First published in 1977, Ender's Game is eerily predictive of some developments such as e-mail and the internet...but mostly, it is a far-out fantasy that inhabits its own unique, somewhat futuristic world.

Andrew, or rather Ender, Wiggin is a third child in a society that strictly limits population growth, so that most families are only allowed two children. As if that doesn’t make it hard enough to fit in, he is also a child genius (but then, so are his sadistic monster of a brother, Peter, and his loving but manipulative sister Valentine). But his isolation only increases when the International Fleet recruits him for an elite Battle School on an orbiting space station. Singled out for leadership, and with the gifts to go with it, Ender finds that he is also hated by many of the other students. Even while still a very little boy, he runs circles around his adolescent competitors in the zero-gravity war games, while the creepy computerized “mind game” messes around with his head.

Gentle, sweet, special boy that he is, Ender’s worst nightmare is to become a stone-cold killer like his brother. But he may have no choice. For Earth has been invaded twice by insectoid aliens, “buggers,” and mankind was barely able to fight them off before. Now a third war is brewing, and the kind of commander needed to control its super-complex and dangerous tactics has never yet been found. Time is running out... and Ender may be Earth’s last hope.

It is sometimes heartbreaking to see what the grown-ups put little Ender through to shape him into the military genius they need. It is also scary to see how, meanwhile back on Earth, Peter and Valentine have found a way for two kids with fake web names and a talent for writing to take over the world. Soon it becomes a question of which will come first: the war with the buggers, or the war between the nations of Earth. All the while, innocent—yet dangerously efficient—little Ender becomes a leader, a loner, a master strategist, an angry and tortured child, and the world’s only hope for survival. How will he hold up to his last and greatest test? And what will become of him afterward?

Finding out is as easy as picking up this moving, exciting book. The pages rather turn themselves, right up to the haunting end. As I mentioned before, this book is the first in a series of novels, and there is a companion novel called Ender’s Shadow, also the start of a series. Expect to hear more from me on these books, unless you get to them first.

Seventh Son
by Orson Scott Card
Recommended Age: 14+

This is the first book in a series called The Tales of Alvin Maker, an alternate-history fantasy set in the American frontier of the early 1800s, from the same author who created the Ender and Earthborn series.

I am recommending this book, but I also have some reservations, and they might as well come out now:
  1. Though I feel no particular love for the Puritan type of Christianity depicted in this book, as a Christian I couldn’t help feeling irritated by the author’s dogged depiction of Christians and their beliefs as foolish, to say the least.
  2. While I respect the concept of the devil having a hand in events, even while people are trying to guard against him – and how they often mis-identify who is on the devil’s side – I was a little disturbed by a “good” character who is indifferent as to whether his prophetic revelations come from God or the devil (except that he views God as kind of distant and ineffective).
  3. And although this tale takes place in an alternate reality where people have homespun “knacks” (magical powers), I also sensed a kinship to native American mysticism and occult spirituality that, in our reality, aren’t spiritually neutral but are actual religions. I come to books with an open mind, but not so wide open that I don’t notice when someone is trying to manipulate my beliefs with a religious agenda.
Take my reservations or leave them, but don’t write them off as simply the grumpings of a stick-in-the-mud Christian. It pains me to see any religion, Christian or otherwise, handled in the trite and cynical way Card has in this book.

My reservations aside – though they were never entirely “aside” while I was reading it – I thought this was a very entertaining book. It tells the story of a seventh son of a seventh son, born on a fateful day in the era of the young American nation’s westward expansion. Only it’s a very different America, with parts of it still loyal to the British crown, parts owing allegiance to England’s Puritan Lord Protector, and only the middle states actually “united” in a republican commonwealth. George Washington has been beheaded; Davey Crockett shot Aaron Burr in a duel; and a boy named Alvin Miller, thirteenth of fourteen children, arrives in the world on a day of tragedy.

Alvin’s birth is noted by a young girl who has the power to see the future. She becomes his protector as the boy grows up, never knowing who she is or realizing – until he is ten years old – that he has his own powers, and an important calling based on them. But before Alvin can begin to use his powers, he must survive attempts on his life – attempts by one of the very elements of nature that has been out to get him since the day he was born – attempts by the local preacher who thinks the being who visits him is an angel (he’s mistaken of course) – and even attempts by members of his own family, without knowing what they are doing or why.

In a suspenseful, magical, often funny, sometimes moving story full of family love and the hopes of a young nation, you meet not only Alvin but a large and colorful cast, including some historical persons playing out quite different roles from our version of history. And even though I was often irritated by the religious undercurrents in this book, I was also deeply affected by the story – including a climactic scene (involving a surgery) which made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

I would like to say that I am going to read more of the Alvin Maker series, but I’m not sure. While I basically liked this book, I didn’t lose sleep over not having the next book in the series. To make matters worse, I went to Amazon and read what other readers had to say about the series, and in their virtually unanimous opinion, it went steadily downhill after this book. But if you find Alvin irresistable (as I almost did), you may be happy to know that at least four other books relate his adventures: Red Prophet, Prentice Alvin, Alvin Journeyman, and Heartfire.

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