Tor hardcover - 369 pages
Cover art by John Harris
Book reviewed January 2009
Rating: 6/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Twenty years ago, on the strength of Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead as well as the Alvin Maker series and outstanding short fiction such as "Unaccompanied Sonata" and "Lost Boys", Orson Scott Card was very widely regarded as one of the leading authors in the SF/F genre. Today his books still sell well but he does not garner the same sort of acclaim and awards, and a surprising number of critics and fellow authors are dismissive not only of his recent efforts, which even a devoted fan must admit are not as consistently powerful as his earlier work, but of his entire body of fiction.
Sadly, I suspect much of this disdain is politically motivated. Card has been an outspoken advocate of conservative politics (even though he declares himself a Democrat). Some of his opinions, especially his opposition to same-sex marriage, have been widely denounced in the SF/F community. To some, the fact that Card is a devout Mormon confirms that he is homophobic, although the reasoning behind disparaging an entire religion in the name of tolerance escapes me. Having labeled Card a bigot, his detractors are then quick to insist that he was never really a very good writer to begin with (see, e.g., the commenters on this recent post from Matt Staggs' Enter the Octopus blog) and should be disqualified from any major awards (see this post from Feminist SF blog -- a blog I usually enjoy, not least because it taught me the useful Bechdel Test -- expressing outrage at at the American Library Award for giving Card a well-deserved lifetime achievement award for teen literature).
There is of course nothing wrong with disagreeing with Card's political views, many of which I disagree with (including his opposition to same-sex marriage), but his politics are a piss-poor reason to denigrate his outstanding fiction. If anything, Card's firmly held beliefs only make it more amazing that he can write so effectively and even-handedly about social and moral issues, without lecturing or proselytizing. Orson Scott Card's best works, such as Speaker for the Dead and "Unaccompanied Sonata", are heavily steeped in moral dilemmas, yet I doubt anyone who knew him only from those works would tag him for a right-wing zealot. I have read some thirty Orson Scott Card books and on only one occasion, his near-future thriller Empire, did I feel the fiction was undermined by Card force-feeding the reader his own political opinions.
The reason Card almost always avoids this pitfall is that he does not write as a religious or political advocate; he is first and foremost a storyteller. His fiction is always worth reading because he has a deep sense of compassion for his own characters and an uncanny gift for bringing the reader to care about those characters and what happens to them.
I have seen Card dismissed as simply "polished" by authors who on their best days could never hope to bring readers to tears or cause them to question their own worldviews, both of which Card achieves on a regular basis. Orson Scott Card is among the finest authors the science fiction and fantasy genre has ever produced. Because of the power of his storytelling and the remarkable readability of his prose, he is also one of the most accessible contemporary SF/F authors for readers new to the genre. We do the field a great disservice if we do not acknowledge his tremendous contributions.
Even a great writer has to work at it, however, and I suspect that Card's more recent books suffer a bit because Card has become too confident in his own skills and is not agonizing as he once did over his fiction. Ender in Exile reflects his remarkable talents, but also the sort of dubious decisions about where to take the story that undermine some of Card's recent novels but almost none of his early work.
Before we wade any further into Ender in Exile, let us sort out where it fits in the Ender series. The short, incomplete answer is that it roughly falls between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. The long, complete answer is so complicated we've set up this separate Ender Chronology diagram to lay it out. Even though Ender in Exile takes place before Speaker for the Dead and some of the other Ender books by internal chronology, I strongly recommend starting with Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.
As Ender in Exile begins, the Formic Wars are over, and the political jockeying that will prevent twelve-year-old Ender Wiggin from ever returning home from war has begun. Ender is sadly unconcerned about how this will play out, however, distracted by his understandable obsession with the formic race and why the hive queens behaved as they did in the last war. While Ender seems not to care whether he can go home, he is deeply wounded by his parents' apparent willingness to abandon him. How Ender deals with his feelings of betrayal is a strength of the novel.
Once it is decided that Ender may not return to Earth, he heads off with sister Valentine on the first of mankind's colony ships to the stars, traveling at near-lightspeed to Shakespeare Colony, founded by survivors of the war, where Ender is to serve as governor. The preparations for the trip occupy roughly the first third of the novel, and the second third takes place during the two-year voyage. Ender has to be on guard throughout the trip, because the ship's commander is an egomaniac who has decided that he, not Ender, should govern the colony when they arrive. He believes that Ender is too young to serve as governor, but the existing colonists, who owe their lives to Ender, may not agree.
Two other passengers on the voyage are Alessandra Toscano and her mother Dorabella. Dorabella has volunteered both of them as colonists and hatched a screwball plan for Isabella to marry Ender. By far the best moments with Alessandra and her mother come in their initial chapter, while still in Italy. We first see Dorabella through her daughter's eyes as a flighty, perhaps delusional woman. But gradually we come to see how this was Dorabella's way of escaping from her own cruel and domineering mother. Card develops their relationship very effectively.
The problem is that Alessandra and her mother are tangential at best to Ender's story. Perhaps that is why Card was drawn to this part of the novel - he is so good at creating characters and interpersonal relations that he could not resist dwelling on these two new characters. This is an Ender novel, however, and the focus should be Ender. And Ender's story is not about hanging around in a spaceship for two years, clashing with the pig-headed ship commander and getting chummy with a young woman and her matchmaking mother, when readers of the other books in the series already suspect they have little future together.
Far, far more important to Ender's story is the discovery of the Hive Queen. This novel was a chance for Card to flesh out Ender's meeting with the Hive Queen, who we know from Ender's Game is waiting for him at the new colony. This encounter must have been a heart-wrenching moment for Ender, combining the joy of realizing he had not wiped out the formics as he feared with the trepidation of suddenly being asked to devote his life to a potentially futile quest. Incredibly, however, Ender in Exile goes into even less detail about this meeting than Ender's Game. In Ender's Game it is a four-page afterthought, but in Ender in Exile the meeting with the Hive Queen takes place offstage. Ender's young companion Abra simply sees Ender disappear into the castle the formics built for him, then sees him emerge with something tucked inside his jacket.
After this meeting, Ender travels to another colony led by his Battle School classmate Virlomi, a significant character from the Shadow of the Hegemon-Shadow Puppets-Shadow of the Giant sequence. This leads Ender into a confrontation that resolves one of the key loose ends from the Shadow books. It was nice to see this plot thread tied up, although a bit aggravating to watch Ender so willing to risk his life in the confrontation, when his first responsibility plainly should be to the formic race.
The failure to elaborate on Ender's meeting with the Hive Queen and on the gravity of Ender's new task illustrates the central weakness of Ender in Exile. Ender Wiggin is one of the most beloved characters in science fiction. We want to know how Ender developed from the brilliant but confused child of Ender's Game into the wise and mature man of Speaker for the Dead. Ender in Exile misses the opportunity to show us.Ender in Exile exemplifies Orson Scott Card's talents; it is easy to read, entertaining, and at times moving. Yet in the end it proves only a minor sidebar to the main sequence of Ender novels.
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|Copyright © 2009 Aaron Hughes|