Saturday, August 12, 2017

Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card

Jane could feel it, the anguish of the bodies that she ruled now.  They were in pain, something that she hadn't felt before, the bodies writhing in agony as the myriad aiuas rebelled at having her to rule them.  Now in control of three bodies and three rains, she recognized amid the chaos and the madness of their convulsions that her presence meant nothing but pain and terror to them, and they longed for their beloved one, their ruler who had been so trusted and so well-known to them that they thought of him as their very self.  They had no name for him, being too small and weak to have such capacities as language or consciousness, but they knew him and they knew that Jane was not their proper master and the terror and the agony of it became the sole fact of each body's being and she knew, she knew she could not stay.

I know it's been said before.  But I'm going to say it again.  The strangest thing about Orson Scott Card and his Ender books is how unable he has been to practice their simple message of empathy in the real world.  Here's a passage written by the anti-gay marriage Card in Children of the Mind:

But that was absurd.  Her body was a woman's body.  And where did the choice of loves come from, if not the body?  Was there something male or female in the aiua?  Before it became master of flesh and bone, was it manly or womanly?  And if so, would that mean that the aiuas composing atoms and molecules, rocks and stars and light and wind, that all of those were neatly sorted into boys and girls.  Nonsense.  Ender's aiua could be a woman, could love like a woman as easily as it now loved, in a man's body and in a man's own ways, Miro's own mother.

The anti-gay reading of this passage is that we are all in a sense servants of our own bodies, that our physical maleness demands a certain sexual orientation that gayness perverts.  But it's hard to square that with the notion of the aiua, the soul, which in Card's universe fills even the "rocks and stars and light and wind" and has neither gender or sexuality, but is the font of love.  In Card's mythos, it's the aiua that has the power, and is the primary motivating spirit of the human being, and which demands empathy--not the body, which, like in Xenocide, crumbles into dust without it.

Children of the Mind is the last of the "Ender" novels (though there have been many more that focused on ancillary characters like Peter and Bean) because in it, Ender dies.  That's sort of a spoiler, but it's also part of the book's central conflict.  It's a bit convoluted, unless you've read the prior novels, so stay with me: The planet of Lusitania holds three sentient species, the "piggies," the Hive Queen whose race Ender nearly destroys in Ender's Game, and human beings.  All three are subject to a mysterious virus, the descolada, which may or may not be a species of its own.  The ruling body, the Starways Congress, is sending a fleet to destroy the world and commit the second "Xenocide" of entire species because of its fear of the descolada.

Ender and his associates are trying desperately to save the piggies and the Hive Queen with the help of faster-than-light travel, which only they possess.  It's facilitated by the friendly supercomputer Jane, who lives in the faster-than-light network of communications devices known as ansibles.  She takes the ship to a mysterious place known as "Outside," where the aiuas, or souls of things not yet born, live, and then teleports it back "Inside."  This process, in a way I don't really want to try to explain, ends in Xenocide with Ender creating versions of his sister and brother, the altruistic Val and the cynical Peter, though they are really projections of himself and thus his own aiua split in parts.  The Starways Congress is trying to kill Jane by shutting down the ansibles, meaning to save Jane they must "download" her aiua into one of the new vessels, Peter or Val, and use the other to house the aiua of the dying Ender.  (The brave version of this would be to have Ender in Val and Jane in Peter, but I'll let you guess how it turns out.)  Okay.  So the attempt to save Jane by putting her in a human body is basically the plot of his novel.  Got it?

The convolutedness of Children of the Mind isn't what makes it such a disappointing ending.  It's actually the opposite: all the complexity of the plotline is steadily built over the course of the three previous novels, and once there's nothing left to introduce, Children of the Mind kicks its tires for several hundred pages.  There's no radical challenge to what sentience might mean, as represented by the piggies and the Hive Queen or the aiuas.  Card introduces one intriguing possibility, that the descolada itself is a kind of language used by a species that communicate by manipulating genes (neat), but this plot is left unresolved.  (Is it resolved in another book, perhaps?  I'm not sure I want to know.)

I want to talk a little bit about something else that bothers me about the series.  In Card's planetary system, most sovereign worlds reflect a twentieth-century national identity.  There's Path, a Chinese-Confucian world, and Divine Wind, a Japanese-Shinto one.  There's a Nordic one called Trondheim and a Pacific Islander one called Pacifica.  Lusitania is Brazilian.  Card stresses, intriguingly, that these worlds are racially diverse; no one thinks it's weird that a white guy like Peter is on Divine Wind, because what matters is that it is culturally Japanese, not racially Japanese.

But the result is a strange projection of twentieth-century politics 3000 years into the future.  Think about what the world was like 3000 years ago.  We might retain, for example, the influence of ancient Egypt, but the idea of a polity that represents an abstract form of ancient Egypt as it was snapshotted in 1000 BC would be absurd.  On Divine Wind, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki help to inform the choice to use the "Little Doctor" planet-destroying device on the Lusitanians.  But as the events of the past week remind us, this only makes sense in a world in which humanity has been sane enough to keep its hands off nuclear weapons in the 3000 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which seems increasingly optimistic.  Card places these cultural fiefdoms light-years away from one another, preserving them, as if in amber, and the result is that he can avoid imagining the way cultures might communicate or cross-pollinate.  What it shows is a quality anathema to the highest-quality science fiction: a lack of imagination.

All that was easy enough to put aside when the Ender novels were providing new and interesting things to think about.  But Children of the Mind is so rote, relatively speaking, that the series' flaws loom larger.

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