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Shadow of the Giant

Shadow of the Giant, the fourth in Orson Scott Card's "Shadow" books (and the eighth novel set in the Ender universe) further explores the life of artificial boy genius Bean and his role in natural boy genius Peter Wiggin's plan to unite the world under his hegemony.

It's about as good as all of his recent books. Which is to say, it's readable but lacks the passion and impact of his earlier works.

The premise of Ender's Game, super smart kids winning real wars, which worked so well in that first, classic book is stretched to the breaking point in the Shadow sequels. Ender's Game confined almost all of the interaction to the world of the children so the conceit never really apeared ludicrous. (It got tested in the Demosthenes/Locke subplot, but even then the focus was more on the Peter/Valentine relationship than how their avatars interacted the world.)

The Bean books however place the now-teenaged (and by SOTG, early twenties) geniuses squarely in the real world of adults and global geodynamics. After a while it just becomes ridiculous to see these kids literally running the world. Not necessarily because they're children, but because Card imbues them with an aura and effect that verges on the supernatural, something that clashes with the political/military SF convention of the books. And because often the adults around them are forced to act like idiots for the sake of the plot. For instance in Shadow of the Giant the secret military invasion plans of one country, devised by one of the battleboys, are revealed to the rest of the world, and the boy himself defects to the other side. But, remarkably, Card expects us to believe that the military hierarchy that commissioned those plans refuses to deviate from them in the slightest. And what reason does he provide for this insanity? Lack of initiative and imagination.

Even at a prosaic (as in, refering to his prose, though I'm not sure that's the right word for it) level Card doesn't engage me as strongly as he used to. His characters have always made speeches when they're not making smart alec quips, but lately the speeches have become too pat and the quips glib, even trite.

And again, from what little I understand of Mormon lore, he seems insistent on turning his protagonist into Joseph Smith. Not that there's anything wrong with that - but it does get repetitous.

Another failing is that Card launches right into the complex plot with minimal exposition to orient the reader. Back when I looked forward to a new OSC as much as I looked forward to a date with Willow Rosenberg I used to re-read the prequels to refresh my memory. But these days the books aren't worth my time revisiting first. As such, I spent much of the first hundred pages wondering "Now who was this guy again and what's he doing and why does so-and-so not like him?" A few pages of recap placed outside the story, in the vein of the Homecoming books for instance, would have been useful.

Given that SOTG deals with the exercise of military power by military geniuses it's strangely bloodless. Card is more concerned about the behind-the-scenes machinations than the campaigns themselves, which are often dismissed in a few short paragraphs. There's nothing wrong with that creative choice per se, but one gets the sense of the author working out a theory of world domination without considering the real impact on people's lives, ie, among other things, their deaths. Ender's Game, despite its own "it's only training/a game" conceit, presented a much more visceral portrayal of violence and conflict than SOTG.

I have to question myself though - to what extent is my opinion of the book coloured by my view of Card's politics, which I disagree with vehemently? SOTG contains a snide remark about the UN, is axiomatic in its assumption of American military and moral superiority (though, granted, the US doesn't play a big role in the story), characterises Islam as a religion that is fundamentally corrupt and prone to violence and terror, unable to be moderated even by a progressive, charismatic religious genius leadership... I almost expected an insulting remark about Meryl Streep, another of Card's bugbears!

And yet - the central thrust of SOTG, how Peter Wiggin unites the nations of the earth under one global, Human, banner - is occasionally compelling despite the book's flaws and my own less than intellectual responses; it's an ideal I'm very much interested in. A persistent theme in Card's works has been the formation of communities: what is the definition of "us" and of "them"? How Peter Wiggin manipulates, entices and reasons nations and groups into ceding power and identity to accept their place in a broader unity is the most fascinating part of the book. (Even if it too suffers from the "too pat" syndrome.)

This despite the fact that the outcome is never in doubt (after all, we've known about it ever since the second last chapter of Ender's Game). There's an obvious creative lesson in there (especially given my current fan work on the Star Trek prequel Enterprise). When the audience already knows where you're going you need to make damn sure that there are other sources of tension and mystery, or at least make sure the journey is interesting. Bean and Petra's story - the emotional focus of the book - didn't really grab me. Peter's machinations, though operating on a more intellectual level, did. Which is not the way it usually works for me.

It frustrates me that I now find Card's work so unsatisfying. Not only because he used to be my favourite author (Ender's Game is still my favourite novel), but because even now I find myself influenced by his writing.

When a teenager, I started an Cardesque short story concerning a young prodigy, isolated from her peers, in an intense relationship with her mentor. (One day I may still revisit "Tara's Dance", though I'll probably dispense with the suicide ending... which is what the neophyte writer resorts to instead of an ending ... as Card himself says... damnit.)

And now, years on, I'm writing near-future histories concerned with geopolitical dynamics. And many of the cadences and rhythms, the flaws and strengths (not that I'm comparing my feeble positives to his), the techniques and concerns, still echo a writer whom I once adored but now have trouble respecting.

Damnit, why can't I write like Varley instead?

To end on a positive, and less self-indulgent, note: Card still writes better endings than anyone. His tales finish on a sense of completion, but not finality. The story stops, but the momentum carries forward like a living, breathing thing.

Comments (1)

As a rule of thumb, my willingness to read the sequel to any novel is inversely proportional to the impact the original had; most of them turn out to be either a misguided attempt by the author to recapture past glory, or an even more cynical attempt by the author to cash in on that past glory.

Of course, from what I know of Orson Scott Card, he's too much of a professional to ever let the latter shine through, but still...

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 25, 2005 10:07 AM.

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