Sunday, July 6, 2014

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

Miro found himself at the door of the cathedral.  In the cool morning air it stood open.  Inside, they had not yet come to the eucharist.  He shuffled in, took his place near the back.  He had no desire to commune with Christ today.  He simply needed the sight of other people.  He needed to be surrounded by human beings.  He knelt, crossed himself, then stayed there, clinging to the back of the pew in front of him, his head bowed.  He would have prayed, but there was nothing in the Pai Nosso to deal with his fear.  Give us this day our daily bread?  Forgive us our trespasses?  Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?  That would be good.  God's kingdom, in which the lion could dwell with the lamb.

Then there came to his mind an image of St. Stephen's vision: Christ sitting at the right hand of God.  But on the left hand was someone else.  The Queen of Heaven.  Not the Holy Virgin but the hive queen, with whitish slime quivering on the tip of her abdomen.  Miro clenched his hands on the wood of the pew before him.  God take this vision from me.  Get thee behind me, Enemy.

The third book of the Ender series picks up where Speaker for the Dead left off: Starways Congress, the organization which controls the known universe, has sent a fleet to destroy the world of Lusitania, home of the descolada, a crippling virus which has the power to destroy all human life.  But not only are Ender and his family on Lusitania, but the only two sentient non-human life forms ever discovered: the formics, who were carried there by Ender in the second novel, and the pequeninos, who depend on the descolada for the operation of their life cycle.

Xenocide deals with the efforts of Ender, his sister Valentine, his adopted children, and the artificial intelligence program known as Jane to stop the Lusitania fleet.  Whether they do or don't, I can't tell you--the novel ends before the fleet arrives (which takes years and years, considering the distance required for space travel).  In the process, though, they manage to invent faster-than-light space travel and unravel the mystery of philotes, the elemental rays which connect all life in the universe--so there's that.

In many ways, Xenocide reproduces the themes of the first two novels.  It argues passionately for a world view that recognizes all forms of life as valuable and encourages its reader to imagine what it is like to be the Other, whether it's an alien entity or a human rival.  What it adds to these is a sense of how complicated that recognition can be.  The pequeninos and formics are hatching a plan to build their own spacecraft and save their species, but that would mean spreading the descolada throughout the universe.  How does one properly recognize life when the continued existence of one means the elimination of the other, and vice versa?  And what counts as life, anyway?  Jane is alive, in a sense, and one possible solution--shutting off the communication networks in which she exists--may mean her death.  One of Ender's stepchildren theorizes that the descolada itself could be a form of sentient life, deserving of its own right to exist.  Would destroying it be xenocide, the destruction of an entire intelligent species?

Xenocide also offers an interesting take on religion.  One of the few new characters introduced is Li Qing-jao, a girl on the planet of Path who is tasked in aiding Starways Congress and the Lusitania fleet.  She is "godspoken," blessed by the gods of Path with superior intelligence, but also forced to undergo humiliating rituals of penance to rid her of uncleanliness.  Spoiler alert--it turns out that this condition is a form of genetic OCD inflicted on the super-intelligent citizens of Path to keep them under control.  When this is revealed to her, Li Qing-jao dismisses it as an evil lie meant to keep her from true obedience.  She is, in a way, the very picture of the unskeptical fundamentalist that Orson Scott Card has been portrayed as--perhaps rightly so.  I thought Ender's thoughts on Qing-jao were especially interesting:

Qing-jao, I know you well, thought Ender.  You are such a bright one, but the light you see by comes entirely from the stories of your gods.  You are like the pequenino brothers who sat and watched my stepson die, able at any time to save him by walking a few dozen steps to fetch his food with its anti-descolada agents; they weren't guilty of murder.  Rather they were guilty of too much belief in a story they were told.  Most people are able to hold most stories they're told in abeyance, to keep a little distance between the story and their inmost heart.  But for these brothers--and for you, Qing-jao--the terrible lie has become the self-story, the tale that you must believe if you are to remain yourself.  How can I blame you for wanting us all to die?  You are so filled with the largeness of the gods, how can you have compassion for such small concerns as the lives of three species of raman?  I know you, Qing-jao, and I expect you to behave no differently from the way you do.  Perhaps someday, confronted by the consequences of your own actions, you might change, but I doubt it.  Few who are captured by such a powerful story are ever able to win free of it.

What to make of that in light of Card's own trenchant Mormonism?  Or Miro's compulsive re-imagining of the story of the Holy Viring to include the hive queen, above?  What does it mean to be "free" of the stories we tell?

Despite these fascinating aspects, Xenocide shows signs of diminishing returns.  The characters simply aren't complex or interesting enough to support what is at this point maybe 1,500 pages of fiction, and start to wear a little thin.  The technological efforts of Ender and the Lusitanians starts to verge on absurd: the "philotic connections" are awfully New-Agey, and the time it takes them to invent faster-than-light travel (which involves momentarily leaving the fabric of spacetime) beggars belief.  But the plot remains compelling, and deferring the one thing the third book seemed to promise--the arrival of the fleet--is a canny move that pretty much ensures I'll have to read the next one.


Brent Waggoner said...

I really want to read this because I loved Speaker so, so much but I'm still on the fence.

Brittany said...

If you feel like the characters/realism is lacking but want to stay in the Ender universe, I would highly recommend checking out the Bean side of the series. It begins with Ender's Shadow (same time as Ender's Game, but from Bean's perspective) and then continues to follow Bean and the rest of the Battle School kids who return to Earth. It's more political/philosophical rather than religious and verrry compelling!

Christopher said...

I've read Ender's Shadow, which I liked. Mostly I just want this plot to be resolved.