Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gatefather, by Orson Scott Card

Today we finish up the Mither Mages series with the final book Gatefather. The weird thing for me is I feel like I'm experiencing dejavu because this series feels a lot like the Ender series. The Lost Gate and Speaker For the Dead both start off really good with lost of promise and interesting subjects to explore. In the second books, Xenocide and The Gate Thief you start seeing some problems, and then by Children of the Mind and Gatefather it's turned into a giant mess of theology and spiritualism and the promise of the original books has been lost or shunted aside. The result is I'm left wondering what might have been rather than the story we got.

Gate Thief ends with Danny being possessed by Set, but putting his gates out of Set's control so Set can't travel to Westil. He has control of Danny's body, but no access to any of Danny's magical powers. How do we resolve this terrible problem of Danny being possessed by Satan? Space Jesus.

No. Seriously. Space Jesus.

Basically Pat, who I haven't mentioned because I hadn't thought she was important until she and Danny find out they're true loves, comes up with a plan to force Danny to kill her so that her soul or ka can go back to heaven. Or the name of the planet where all kas go when they die. Because her ka is leaving, it means that Danny's ka can follow her ka to the underworld and then somehow come back, bringing Pat with him, and defeat Set. There was a stronger rationale in the book for this but looking back it sounds like a downright stupid and crazy plan. Anyway, plan works exactly as advertised and Pat and Danny go and meet capital-G God.

Okay, so Card doesn't actually use the g-word in relation to the ka which Danny and Pat speak with when they arrive at heaven. They actually end up calling him/her/it/they Thoth. But within the book when they ask him what his name is, he merely responds with, ''I Am This One'' which sounds suspiciously like the ''I Am Who Am'' name of Old Testament God. Plus This One is responsible for making sure the universe runs and only asks people to serve it out of love rather than coercion which sound pretty darn god-like to me. Especially with the more feel-good ''God is Love'' Christian sects hanging around.

Anyway, Pat and Danny talk to God and then come back from the dead with more superpowers than they had previously. So yes, they become Space Jesuses...Space Jesi....Multiple Space Jesus. Again, Card is very specific about avoiding as much Christian name-dropping as possible when he describes all of this. He makes references to mythological versions of people going to the underworld and coming back such as Persephone or Osiris, but the similarities with Jesus are so similar I just can't ignore them. Plus when he starts describing ka and ba it sounds an awful lot like the discussions on philotes that happened in Xenocide and Children of the Mind. Which further strengthens the feeling of deja vu.

All of this is in the first third of the novel, by the way, and in the afterword Card himself says that was meant to be the ending of the book. However, the book plods along afterwards and there are so many problems I'm going to try to break this down to be as specific as possible. Mostly because there are so many squandered opportunities for an interesting story rather than long philosophical discussions about theology. Granted, I know some people who love long, philosophical discussions about theology but since it's highly improbably we'll find a definite answer any time soon the entire exercise seems mostly pointless to me.

I want to start with the waffling Card seems to do, both with the matter of free will and how magic works in his own universe. As I've established, Danny gets possessed by Set and has to fight for control of his own body, a fight he mostly loses until he becomes Space Jesus. But when Danny and Pat go to heaven, This One tells Danny that Set only controls Danny's body because Danny lets him. Whenever Danny tries to take control of his body it's not Set that's stopping him, it's Danny acting on Set's own suggestion stopping himself. Which I think is supposed to be empowering because it means our free will is ultimately in control of our actions, but I feel like it almost goes too far in the other direction. In The Gate Thief I complained about how there was a lot of, ''The Devil made me do it'' rationale for bad things that happened in the universe. Set and his Baal mages made people do bad things, rather than humans themselves being to blame. And while I agree that basically every system of morality rests on some sort of assumption of free will, that people are responsible for the consequences of their actions, I feel like Card backpedaled so much in the other direction that it undermines his whole previous story. The Baal mages, instead of being demons who can possess people, become incredibly underpowered. They float around people and suggest bad things they could do, make it easier for humans to act on their bad impulses. The impulses come completely from the humans, but the Baal mages make it easier for humans to overcome their inhibitions to acting on them.

It just seems like a huge disconnect from what we were told about the Baal mages previously that it feels like a drastic rewriting of how his universe works. Which extends to how magic works as well. In the first book and to a lesser extent in later books, it's stated that mage powers come from loving and serving the source of your power. Stone mages love and serve the rock. Plant mages love and serve plants. Wind mages love and serve the wind. So on and so forth. But I feel like Card got halfway through writing this series and had a different idea on how he wanted his magic system to work and just changed it in mid-stream. The reason mages are able to manipulate the world around them is because of their ba, or outself, which was originally a part of them. But then Card makes it that a mage's ba is made up of not-quite-human souls that decided to be an entourage or posse for a ka out of a desire to follow and serve that ka. And Danny, of course, has the biggest posse of them all because he's just so gosh darn wonderful. *cough Space Jesus cough* Any mention made of loving and serving the source of your power becomes supplanted by how big your entourage is. So really it feels like Card started writing the series one way, then changed his mind and started writing it another way and the result is confusing for me more than anything else.

Next, we have Danny and Pat. This really weirds me out because in the book they're both seventeen and decide that they want to get married, have babies, and spend the rest of their lives together. Now, I am certainly no expert on human relationships but I know that a lot of people who date in high school do not end up getting married. Not all of them mind you, but a significant enough majority that you can conclude most high school relationships aren't going to last. And then they get married at eighteen a month after they graduate high school. And this just feels...weird to me. The book is supposed to be set in the modern day so it's not like their life expectancy is forty or fifty so they should get married and crank out some kids while they have the chance. They can expect to enjoy the long, full lives of twenty-first century Americans. Eighteen just seems really, really young to me for people to get married and then ''live happily ever after''. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life when I was eighteen. (Well, more accurately I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life but then got evidence to the contrary a few years later.) I don't expect Danny or Pat to be any more knowledgeable or wise than I was at that age. Maybe it's meant for the teenage readers of these books, but it still feels really weird to me.

Finally, the book just seems to lose its focus once it gets past the Set problem. Well, once Danny has the Set problem contained at any rate. In the afterwords to all these books Card has said that he had a long, complex, detailed history of Westil that he wanted to show to his readers because it's been kicking around in his brain for thirty years. And he also had a plan to show a conflict where modern technology is mixed with magic. And we see some elements of that, with mage-modified tanks, jets, and helicopters and the North family offering to help the United States and their allies against countries like China. And for me this was a really interesting potential story line. I love me some good world-building, seeing rich and complicated worlds that feel just as real as our own, so I would have loved to dive into the intricacies of Westilian history or see the possibilities of modern warfare with magic. But Card decided those storylines were boring and decided to focus on theology and life and death instead. And teenagers talking about what they'll do after they graduate.

Now, in all fairness, there are probably some people who find those sorts of topics in books endlessly fascinating. Again, I have known some theologians in my time although I personally find theology about as productive as arguing whether unicorns come with pink or purple polka dots. But that sort of stuff isn't for me and I found myself desperately bored by all the philosophizing and arguing. And there are a few chapters, perhaps leftover from earlier drafts or outlines, where Card shows the magic-enhanced technology or super-powered mages planning to invade Westil with the benefits of modern technology, and those seem really interesting to me. But ultimately those plotlines get abandoned in favor of the aforementioned philosophizing. Maybe I should have known better, this being a Card book after all, to expect less action and more theology but I'm left with a profound sense of disappointment. Because while Card may have found it so terribly interesting, I just did not and really wish that these abandoned plotlines, which get sort of perfunctorily wrapped up with a wave of the hand, had been the focus of the book instead.

And, as I mentioned in my review Tuesday, Westil doesn't get a whole lot of development either. Card tells us he did this complex work of world-building but there's very little evidence of it within the actual book itself. Most of the book is focused on Iceway and Gray, which could be two global superpowers like France and Britain or the United States and the Soviet Union, but could be merely regional or local powers like Sweden and Denmark or Argentina and Chile. Westil ends up feeling small and unimportant compared to all the things going on at Earth in comparison.

Ultimately, I think this book was a disappointment more than anything else. I really wanted to see how the world would have to adapt to the return of magic in all its terror and glory, and instead I got teenagers debating theology. If people like that sort of thing, I'm sure they'll enjoy this book, but I'm left with the feeling of so much squandered potential and big promises of deep worlds that are left unfulfilled. Everything gets conveniently wrapped up by the end and the status quo remains largely unchanged on both worlds.

- Kalpar

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