Musing on Orson Scott Card

I first discovered Orson Scott Card by reading Songmaster, a book that has been on my 10 Best Ever list ever since. Songmaster spoke to me on several themes: turning pain into art; making meaning out of pain; the artist echoing back the audience's own emotions, whether joy or pain.

A lot of pain there. And a lot of beauty. To use another author's phrase, "beautiful melancholy."

Whenever I like a book, I seek out everything else by that author. I soon found that Orson Scott Card was Mormon, and I was not surprised. To me, a great deal of religion, especially Christianity, centers around finding a way to deal with guilt and pain. So does a lot of art -- written, visual, musical or other. So does a lot of human life, for that matter.

Orson Scott Card does it well. In every book or story I have ever read, he puts his protagonist through bloody-all. Job himself wouldn't trade places with these folks.

And each of them comes through the fire with a deep dignity and beauty in their souls. I am not the writer Card is, because he never makes that sound sappy.

But someday I hope to learn something about writing from Orson Scott Card. Fortunately for me, he has an online class.


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Treason (was A Planet Called Treason)
Among the things that make being a character in an Orson Scott Card novel riskier than wearing a red shirt on the Enterprise: Lanik Mueller is a "radical regenerative" who grows body parts that are not missing, giving him multiple arms, heads, etc. He is cast out of his family and wanders the planet, an exile world where survivors of a failed galactic coup were banished. In this mineral-poor environment, their descendants have focused on developing family talents, often appearing magical, like the ability to travel through rock.

Lanik begins as a mean and selfish brat, who grows in moral wisdom during his wanderings and trials in the wilderness. In the end, he learns secrets about his world and a way that he can contribute.

Parts of this book are so eerie and powerful they haunt me still.

Parts of this are like a retelling of the Biblical story of David and Saul. The powers of song are raised to a mystical level, with the Songhouse gently guiding the galaxy through the children it raises, teaches, and sends forth. Ansset is the most amazingly talented Songbird ever to enter the Songhouse; he is also emotionally crippled by early tragedy. The Songhouse heals his soul, only to send him into greater and greater tragedies, when the teachers decide that Ansset's Song is the only power that can tame a tyrant.

This is one of the rare books that deserves and repays many rereadings.

Hart's Hope
A fantasy novel -- not on the borderline of sf and fantasy, as so many of Card's books are, but full-fledged high fantasy. The style has an archaic flavor and the plot is very allegorical, which is a turnoff for some readers. This is also a tragedy; there is no happy ending. It is a powerful tragedy, and the tragically flawed hero meets his destiny with grace. Life does have tragedy; sometimes good people do bad things and have to suffer for it. But this is definitely not fun in the manner of Star Wars.

The Worthing Saga
This connected collection of stories has gone through many names and evolutions. Card seems to be continually trying to get it right. While there are parts of the saga that I find memorable, on the whole the book is best skipped unless you are already a die-hard fan and just have to read everything Card has ever written. This was the first Orson Scott Card book a friend of mine ever read, and I have not been able to get him to read another.

God puts His characters through Hell, too. That is a continuing refrain in this historical novel of the early days of the Mormon church. Card is brutally honest about the qualities of Joseph Smith and the early Mormons that later history has criticized -- as well as the qualities that caused them to be remembered through later history. He studies the history of a soul, in a woman who suffers the oppressions of industrial age England and of early patriarchal, polygamous Mormonism -- and who yet finds and maintains faith and grace. /

It's not easy being a kid -- especially in an Orson Scott Card book. The central character here is a 13 year old girl who is the heir to the throne of the world, dodging assassins, and under constant mental assault from the Wyrm who perceives her as the only threat to his control of humankind. Wyrms is strange, and not all readers like it -- but those who do, like it a lot. It is one of my personal favorites.

Ender's Game
Card intensifies ethical conflict and spiritual crisis by inflicting them on very young children. He probably read A Turn of the Screw at an impressionable age. Here very young children are being raised learning war games, so that the Earth can protect itself against a powerful alien assault. The young genius Ender masters the games and wins -- to face the moral consequences that have destroyed generations of adults.

Speaker for the Dead
Dealing with his own ethical crisis, Ender Wiggin has become a man who tells the truth about one who is dead and creates understanding and reconciliation in those who survive. He travels the galaxy as the Speaker for the Dead. The deaths he is called in for are tragic, fraught with conflict, affecting many lives. Storylines develop which will involve all humanity.

The consequences of the tragedies in Speaker for the Dead unfold; an entire planet is under threat of extinction, including two alien races, and the first computer based intelligence reveals itself.

Children of the Mind
Ender is dying, the computer intelligence Jane is under sentence of death, also the planet that is home to three intelligent species. The grand finale of the Ender Wiggin Saga.

Seventh Son
I've read this book almost as many times as I've read Songmaster. Card develops a fantasy system that satisfies logic and serves as an allegory for spiritual themes; he creates an alternate history in the 1700's where magic works and shows us Benjamin Franklin as a mage, William Blake as a prophet and Napoleon as a man who literally enchanted everyone who met him. Into this world a child is born: Alvin Maker, who has the power to overcome the Unmaker -- who is either Satan or Entropy, depending on which disbeliefs you need to suspend.

Red Prophet
Alvin's life continues to unfold -- with extreme trials and traumas, because he is an Orson Scott Card character after all. Some of the events of his earlier life are retold from a different perspective. And Huckleberry Finn gets its own revisionist historical treatment.

I did not like this book as much as Seventh Son, but it is still in the top 20% of anything I ever read.

Prentice Alvin
Alvin learns the extent and limits of his powers, while he becomes increasingly aware of the web of Making that unites his world -- and the Unmaker that threatens it. None of the other books in the series grabbed me quite like Seventh Son did, but the making of the living golden plow is an image that will stay with me forever. The character Peggy Guester also begins to develop further in this book, with some entertaining sub-plots.

Alvin Journeyman
Alvin under siege, by false accusations and the jealousy of his former master-smith. The relationship between Alvin and Peggy unfolds, and his quest to create the Crystal City moves on.

Peggy is in Charleston trying to influence the exiled King George to end slavery in the Crown Colonies and avert the terrible war she foresees between the states. Alvin's brother is using his own powers to selfish ends. Alvin is searching New England for guidance to make his dream of the Crystal City come true -- and he stands trial as a witch solely to help a confused young woman see the truth and save herself. Review at CNN

The Folk of the Fringe
A series of linked short stories following a group of Mormons through post-Apocalypse America, After It All Goes Boom. The trials they go through aren't as dramatic as he usually subjects his characters to -- well, other that the fact that much of the world is destroyed, government has fallen and most of what now passes as civilization is gone. But the theme is still the survival of the human spirit under trial.

The Abyss with Jim Cameron
A novel based on the movie. Not exceptionally memorable on its own, but compared to most movies or movie-novels it's outstanding. The final scenes of the movie are classics, and they remain powerful in the novel.

Eye for Eye
One of the old Tor Double Novels, this was published back-to-back with Lloyd Biggle Jr.'s The Tunesmith, and provides another perspective on the artist vs society. Card also wrote a foreword and afterword to The Tunesmith.

The Memory of Earth (Homecoming, Vol. I)
The most overtly Biblical analogy in all of Card's novels; I have been told that it is an even closer analogy to the Book of Mormon. The Planet Harmony was colonized 40 million years ago by idealists fleeing the destruction of Earth. A great computer, the Oversoul, was set in orbit to monitor human development and to guide it, by telepathic contact with genetically selected inhabitants. Technological advance is slow, integrated with cultural advance, and deliberately steered away from certain areas -- like war technology.

Now the Oversoul is breaking down. Its only hope for repair is the chance that civilization has been renewed on Earth, and that people from Harmony can be inspired to take the Oversoul back to Earth for repair.

The new messages that the Oversoul sends to the receptive persons on Harmony cause disruption. Others reject the new messages as heresy and delusion. They also cause family disruption; the man who receives the Oversoul most clearly, and who has been chosen by the Oversoul to lead the new Exodus, is the youngest of his family, with ambitious brothers.

Card also creates a matriarchal culture and matriarchal religion in the City of Basilica, which is trapped between two male armies as the controls of the Oversoul break down. This matriarchy is not completely convincing, and it is pre-empted by the Hero just as the matriarchy of Dune is, but I was impressed that a Mormon writer could create a matriarchal religion at all. Okay, call me bigoted. At least I enjoy being proved wrong.

Try the first two chapters online.

The Call of Earth (Homecoming, Vol. II)
General Moozh, using forbidden technology, conquers Basilica. This seems to thwart the plans of the Oversoul -- until the Oversoul reveals that two of the priestesses of Basilica are the daughters of Moozh, and that Moozh himself serves the plans of the Oversoul.

This is not the only time this series begins to sound like a soap opera -- but then, the Bible itself sounds like a soap opera in parts.

Card made the characters and the story strong enough that I got caught up in wanting to know what happened to everybody next. I also enjoyed spotting the Biblical parallels and allusions. If you like a straightforward storyline, though, this series may not be to your taste.

The Ships of Earth (Homecoming, Vol. III)
As Nafai and his family journey across the desert to an ancient landing site, they begin adjusting to the new roles demanded of them by the Oversoul. If you like examining the social consequences of philosophical ideas and the complications of living a faith-based life, you will enjoy this book. If you don't, you probably better not read it.

As you can probably tell, I liked it.

Earthfall (Homecoming, Vol. IV)
The Oversoul's tribe arrive at earth: to find it inhabited by two new races, perpetually at war with each other. Nafai's group must deal with a split among themselves, and also find a way to bring peace to the planet.

Intricate, well-developed cultures and ecologies, with lots and lots of philosophical implications. I loved it.

Earthborn (Homecoming, Vol. V)
The lone survivor of the starship Basilica  is waked by the Oversoul to monitor renewed conflicts among the human descendants of Nafai and the non-human races of earth -- and to help finally complete the quest for the Keeper of Earth. Very satisfactory wrap-up of the series.

Lost Boys
This was originally a story, then a novelette, now a quite lengthy book. I thought it was an extremely powerful story, but I did not feel it was weakened by turning into a book (unlike Spider Robinson's Stardance).

The book is basically a family drama, with a supernatural touch at the end. The end would wring the heart out of the Tin Man.

If you are either turned off by "family values" storylines, or disturbed by horrors happening to small children, you won't like this book. Also, there was some controversy over the original story because Card uses his own name, names of the rest of his family, and many of the details of his life in describing the central character of the book. Many people reading the story the first time thought that he was describing a tragic personal loss, grieved for him -- and then felt abused when they realized it was fiction. Apparently, the story has been around long enough now that everyone is clear about it being fictional.

I always rather liked the device of the author describing something as if it really happened to him. I think it works very well here.

Lovelock, with Kathryn H. Kidd
aka Lovemonkey. This is supposed to be the first in a new series, The Mayflower Trilogy, but neither of the sequels have arrived yet. The book does not stand very well on its own, except as speculation. It is a respectable entry in the category of books that explore the boundaries between man and animal, and all echoes of "What does it mean to be human?" (including those in Star Trek.)

Lovelock is a genetically engineered sentient capuchin monkey, fitted with recording devices and imprinted on a female human scientist whose entire life and thought it is his mission to record. This situation is set on the Ark, a giant starship about to leave Earth to colonize the stars, carrying multiple small villages of separate human cultures representing different ethnic or religious variants.

There is plenty of raw material here for plot development: Lovelock strains against the bonds of his programming and his status -- even in the eyes of his idol -- as less than human; the different villages within the Ark strain against each other; and any human colonization effort is up against natural conflict and danger.

So far, Lovelock has simply set up the conflicts and raised opening questions. If you like resolution, you will be frustrated. If you are comfortable with questions that don't have resolutions, try it.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus
Phenomenal. Alright, by this time you've begun to suspect that I like everything that Orson Scott Card writes. But this book is incredible, in any category. It works as science-fiction, as historical novel, as an exploration of ethics and philosophy, as a study of character, as damn good writing.

In a future where life on Earth is getting tougher and tougher as the consequences of our own actions pile up, a group of scientists studies the past through machines that actually view and record ancient events. One day one of the subjects in a viewscreen looks at the viewer and makes a personal appeal for help. Are the scientists actually visible to the past? Could they even affect the past? Is it possible to change the past?

As additional scientists are drawn into the study to determine whether the past can actually be changed, indications are found that the past has already been changed at least once. Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World, as disastrous as that once for the indigenous natives, was considered preferable to those who steered him from his original course -- leading Queen Isabella in support of the Crusades. Imagine for a moment the entire planet dominated by the Spanish Inquisition. Just for a moment. Don't hurt yourself.

The people of the future work to create a timeline where neither the indigenous "Americans" or the Middle East has to suffer, where Christopher Columbus's idealism can be directed to better outcomes in actual practice. In the meantime, we see the scientists themselves go through internal crisis over what they are doing, see relationships develop, see the personality of Christopher Columbus unfold, and learn about Native American tribal life.

If you can afford to keep a library, this is a keeper.

Treasure Box
Oh, boy! Oh, boy! If you enjoyed Ghost Story, Shadowland, or Neverwhere -- any book in which the characters are caught up in intricate layers of shifting reality and magic and what-is-going-on-here, you will love this. Plus Card creates a far more bizarre family than Married With Children.

Definitely for those who enjoy horror and fantasy, and not for the sf-only fans.

Try the first two chapters online.

Stone Tables
Okay -- the Homecoming series is no longer Card's most overtly Biblical fiction. Stone Tables is a novel of the life of Moses; the story has also been made into a musical. This is unabashedly Mormon; every element of the Old Testament account, including the miracles, is treated as matter-of-factly real, and several Jewish characters are represented as having foreknowledge of Christ. I find this fascinating: I am always interested in seeing the world from other viewpoints, and this is very well-presented. I also found Card's historical speculations interesting. While acknowledging that there is no way of knowing whether his theory is accurate, Card makes a very good case for Moses having lived in the time of Hatshupset, the only female to rule as Pharoah in her own right. Personally, I like the character of Hatshupset much better than the self-indulgent brat in The Ten Commandments. Hatshupset alone is worth reading Stone Tables for.

This is a romantic ghost story, with a fairly straightforward plot. If the complexities, ambiguities, and spiritual anguishes of Card's other tales turned you off, you may prefer this one. If the complexities and ambiguities were what turned you on, this one may let you down.

I got upset with Card for awhile because of his character's comments about the "homeless squatter" he finds in his house. The story moves on, the woman isn't actually homeless (it's much worse than that, really), and I forgave him -- but I'm still a little uncomfortable. I hope we have a chance to talk someday about homelessness and how homeless people are portrayed in fiction.

Try the first two chapters of Homebody online.

Enchantment has not only become one of my favorite fantasy books, but has also been one of the books I have the easiest time lending. :) My friends all love it so, too!
You can read a selection from Enchantment online.

Ender's Shadow disappointed only those readers, in my opinion, who were looking for another Ender's Game. Fans demand such impossible things from their authors -- "Give us another one just like the last one! Don't get repetitive!" Ender's Shadow was an entirely different book, telling the event's of Ender's Game from the viewpoint of another character, Bean. One of the things I liked most about it was the description of Bean's childhood on the street.

Additional Books

Maps in a Mirror
A collection of every one of Orson Scott Card's short stories up to the day of printing, this is one of the few books I ever paid hardback prices for and actually carried around with me. A treasure-house. Out of print now, but being reprinted as four different collections.

Storyteller in Zion
A collection of essays, now out of print; I have never read it and may never get to. I would like to hear more about it, though; if you have read the book, please write to me.

Characters and Viewpoint
This is a book on writing, part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series from Writers Digest Books. Originally published in 1988, it is still in print, still recommended between fiction writers.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
Part of the Writer's Digest Genre Writing Series. Printed in 1990, still in print, and recommended between sf-and-fantasy writers.

Complete Bibliography

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