Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston

Sometimes a book does a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong at the same time.  The thing is, doing things right that we’ve seen before and doing things wrong that we’ve seen before are two completely different animals.  In many cases, especially in the same series, simply doing things that we’ve seen before can be the problem.  Case in point: the almost-incest thing was starting to get old in Speaker for the Dead.  When it becomes the a pivotal point of the first scene of Earth Unaware, you start to feel like Orson Scott Card is trying to tell us something.  I won’t dwell on it much, but Earth Unaware (indeed, the whole Formic Wars trilogy) was co-written by Aaron Johnston.  Considering that the majority of the latter contributors’ work to date has been bringing Card’s work to the comic book page, I anticipate little in terms of drastic changes to the end product as a result of his contribution, though I will name anything that appears to be more Johnston’s than Card’s.

Like the Ender books that the Formic Wars trilogy act as a prequel to, Earth Unaware is based on more down-to-Earth science than many Science Fiction franchises.  That’s not to say that all of the achievements in this books can be traced back to theories that exist today - the communication network in the Ender sequels, as well as the Formics’ manner of thought can travel any distance instantly - but faster-than-light travel for anything else remains impossible.  Extended amounts of time in zero gravity is shown to reduce bone mass and have other negative effects on the body, and it takes months in the fastest rocket available to travel from the Kuiper Belt to Earth.

Orson Scott Card has always been good at creating sympathetic characters, from Ender, to Bean, to Novinha, and the characters of Earth Unaware are no exception.  He opens the novels with a close look at the emotions of a teenage boy, Victor, and through this boy’s schema we view the world he lives in.  Even the humans that engage in more unsympathetic actions are given sympathetic motivations, though they’re clearly subjective in terms of just how much you forgive them for it.

While I’m praising the book, let me look a bit more closely at some of the things that give the book its identity: its ties to the Ender series.  The Formics (which have yet to called “buggers”, which I’m thankful for when you consider that even after they became martyrs they were still known by this name) are handled excellently.  We get a description of a Formic up close, as well as the bafflement of a species confronting them that won’t understand the way they think or communicate for another century.  In fact, all of the prequel elements are done well; one of the main groups of characters is on a scientific mission that will finally come to fruition in Ender’s Game, but it’s handled in context.  If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, this subplot makes sense from a purely narrative point of view, and if you have, it has that added bonus of foreshadowing events in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, though, there are some ugly elements. When you look at Orson Scott Card’s female characters, written almost thirty years ago, they really give you hope that he would have the wisdom to write them evenly in the modern day, when such things are looked at more closely.  Yet the women in Earth Unaware consist entirely of wives, potential wives, mothers, and “always right” leader figures that embody stereotypes of these roles.  This started in the first chapter and made the novel really difficult to read at times.  How hard is it to write a woman that might think of herself as something other than “must be motherly to the men” or “must marry someone”?  Toward the end of the book, a woman that might be an actual character is introduced, but so far she’s just smarter than everybody else and always right.  One is understandable, two is forgivable, but three is an admission of guilt.

For some poetic irony, the passages that I enjoyed the most are the ones that had the lead right to be there.  I tend to think that the MOP passages were Johnston’s contribution, largely because they read like a comic book, both in the action and in the sense that they completely ignore the seam between books.

The story with the minors is completely contained within Earth Unaware.  These characters might carry over to Earth Afire or Earth Awakens, but regardless of whether they do or not, the story aboard El Cavador have a beginning, middle and end within the book.  The story of Victor must start here, aboard El Cavador, and is able to take advantage of the format of the trilogy to give him the opportunity for a further story.  The story of the Makarhu and its crew is very much the same: it has its own beginning, middle and end, as well as leading into a new cycle of the same for the next book.

The story of Wit O’Toole and the MOPs, on the other hand, has no role here.  I have little doubt that O’Toole’s team will be important in Earth Afire and vital in Earth Awakens, but in Earth Unaware it is little more than a diversion.  An entertaining diversion, yes, and one that foreshadows the climax of the trilogy, but a diversion nonetheless.  It’s too bad that this fact wasn’t identified during the writing process, because Card strikes me as the type of author that would be able to fix this and turn it into a look at Earth’s politics at this point in the future.

Oh, and there’s only one woman of note mentioned in all of the MOP passages: a local woman that one of the soldiers takes interest in, a symbolic siren that leads Bogdanovich to disobey orders and get himself killed: the first time that we see an MOP specifically described as anything less than flawless success. Stay classy, authors.

Now that we’ve discussed the good, the bad and the ugly, what does that make Earth Unaware?  Ultimately, they make it a fairly average Science Fiction book.  That scale goes up if you intend to buy all three (which is what the book is clearly made for) and down if you tend to pay more attention to the role of the female characters than I do.  The characters are all emotionally fleshed out, the science is better than most, though not the absolute hardest if you’re not into that sort of thing.  It’s a fair mix of positive and negative elements that make me look forward just a bit to reading the next entry to the series.


Stewart Sternberg said...

Card is one of the few writers whose book I didn't finish once I started reading it. Instead I flung the thing across the room and after my tantrum picked it up and dropped it into the waste basket. I'm talking about his ill conceived "Empire."

I liked "Ender's Game," but never felt the sequels were worthy. In fact, I've never felt that aside from "Ender's Game" that he Card has deserved the reputation he's gotten.

William Silvia said...

I was a huge fan of Shadow when I read it when it came out, and I enjoyed Speaker for the Dead. The impression I've gotten is that it's all downhill from there, though.

Maurice Mitchell said...

I agree Card is the master at character development. I'm definitely looking forward to Enders Game, and since I've never read the sequels or prequels wonder how close we'll get to another epic six film series like Star Wars.