Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Children of the Mind, by Orson Scott Card

Today I'm finishing up the Ender Series with the ''final'' book, Children of the Mind. I put final in quotation marks there because at the end of this audio book Card said he had a final, definitely final for real this time, book planned to wrap up some plot threads that were left open at the end of the book. On the one hand I can understand Card's decision to leave them open, but on the other it feels like the series does need a little more closure.

I'm going to be honest, I didn't care for this book, although I found it fractionally more tolerable than Xenocide. Fractionally, mind you. I had heard some bad things about this book ahead of time so I didn't exactly have high expectations and after the experience of Xenocide I was expecting this to be a bit of a train wreck. Fortunately it's not a train wreck. I still didn't find it enjoyable, but I think it's because Card took the series into a highly philosophical, emotional, and ultimately literary perspective. Which is fine. There are plenty of people who like books like that. But that's just really not what I'm interested in. At least the way that Card wrote it anyhow.

Children of the Mind picks up where Xenocide left off, with the fleet armed with the MD Device still on its way to Lusitania and the threat of annihilation for not only the Hive Queen and the Pequeninos but Jane as well as Starways Congress plans to shut down the ansible network. Most of the work of the main characters is centered around this plot that finally gets a resolution to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Well, almost anyone. And if the book focused mostly around that it would be okay, but a lot of the book involves people getting involved in long talks about their relationships or feelings or what it means to be sentient, and arguing with each other on these topics. And I didn't find myself enjoying the heavy emotional stuff at all. I can't say whether it's Card's writing, the fact that I wasn't emotionally invested in most of the characters, or if I'm just a unsophisticated genre nerd who likes spaceship action but doesn't care about good character development if it hit him over the head with a brick. It could be a combination of those factors, or none of them entirely. It just feels like Children of Dune with lots of people sitting around talking, but instead of events I wish we could actually be seeing they're talking about philosophy, theology, history, and their emotions. It just felt to me like the ratio of action to contemplative navel-gazing was off.

This book also feels like it should be much older than it is. Children of the Mind was published in 1996, but it features a couple of planets that are dominated by national cultures. The world of Path has classical Chinese culture, the world of Divine Wind is Japanese, and Pacifica has Samoan and other Southern Pacific islander cultures (although we just see Samoan in the book). Except I feel like we're not really seeing the true cultures in these books, we're seeing more a theme-park, simplified, almost stereotyped version of complex cultures which have actually been horrifically stereotyped in other media. Now is it as bad as 1940's old-timey racism? Thankfully no. But it feels like an attempt to include diversity while not making an effort to really understand the cultures that you're trying to include. I'm probably overthinking this excessively, but it's another thing that kind of threw me off about this book.

And finally, Card tries to do some world-building in the book but I think it actually backfires because it doesn't make much sense. Although the last book finally got around the hurdle of FTL travel, the majority of humanity still does not, and has not had, access to it. This means that all interstellar travel has to go at relativistic speeds and experiences extreme time dilation. While the passengers may only experience a few weeks or months of travel time, the journey will actually take them decades. So this makes the logistics of interstellar travel fairly difficult and humanity's really only connected through the instantaneous communication of the Ansible. Except in the book Card states that Starways Congress, and I got the feeling this is done on a regular basis, will recruit government administrators from one planet and then transport them to another planet where they're needed. This just seems impractical or downright silly. It'll take government officials decades to get to the planets where they're needed, and by that point it'd be easier to train a local baby from birth to do the job you need them to do in thirty years anyway. Or there are large, interstellar corporations that are involved in finance on all the Hundred Worlds. But that doesn't make sense either because trade between the planets would also be a logistical nightmare. Entire markets could rise and fall in the time it takes to ship goods from one star system to another. In such a case, it would only make sense for each system to be self-sustaining and interstellar travel to be limited to the truly necessary.

 And I could almost understand some planets being monolithic cultures because they're effectively isolated, but Card describes some planets as cosmopolitan with entire communities of off-worlders. Which again, makes no sense. For everyone else, leaving your home planet to travel the stars is described as this horrible experience because with time dilation everyone you know and love will be old or dead by the time you get back and the whole planet will have changed. So I'd think people would be very reluctant to travel between planets except as absolutely necessary, but it feels like a fairly common affair. I appreciate Card's attempts at world-building but it just raises more questions than giving the world answers.

Ultimately I was disappointed in this book, but not as disappointed as I thought I would be. As I said, there seems to be a lot of people sitting around and talking about their feelings. If you like that sort of thing then this is probably a good book for you. But if you prefer something with slightly more of a pace, I think you can safely forego this book.

- Kalpar

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