Xenocide, Orson Scott Card (TOR, 1991{Macmillan Audio (2006), Narrators: Scott Brick, Gabrielle de Cuir, Amanda Karr, John Rubinstein, Stefan Rudnicki})

(Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Cultural Contact)

xenocideGrade: Ε — (Epsilon) Readable in genre, but you could probably do better.  

In brief:

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card is the disappointing sequel to Speaker for the Dead and third volume of the Ender series.  While it has some interesting elements, much of the book feels like one story shoehorned into another. What is more, it has a twist in the middle that forever changes an excellent Science Fiction world into a mediocre Science Fantasy one.  Combined with its long philosophical dialogues that only work because the author has final say in the argument, an okay story is dragged below the bar or mediocrity.

Setting:

Far future (3000+ years), with most of the plotline occurring on the planet Lusitania, a world with an indigenous intelligent species called the Pequeninos or Piggies, and where a significant human colony also exists.  Unbeknownst to most of the human colonists, but known from the outset by the main characters and the reader, there is also a considerable Formic, or Bugger colony present, that has been transplanted by one of the main characters: Ender.  A significant second plot line is also played out on the planet of Path, a world whose culture is derived from ancient Chinese belief systems.

xenocide2In Depth:

Few Sci-Fi Universes have seen as many turns in their core nature as the Ender Wiggins world of Orson Scott Card.  What began as one of the great Coming of Age/MilFic tales in Ender’s Game, became a wonderful and touching tale of adults dealing with death the concept of the “other” in Speaker for the Dead.  Sadly, another set of twists in the nature of the Ender Saga failed totally in Xenocide and in one sense, ruined forever the series as a World that can be taken seriously.

Xenocide picks up the story of Ender, his family, Jane the AI, the Hive Queen and the Pequeninos more or less where the story was left off in Speaker for the Dead.[1]  It also follows a new thread of characters, individuals of remarkable intelligence on the planet of Path.  Path is a colony world whose culture is based loosely on ancient China, and who also suffer from what appears to be OCD. While Ender and those on Lusitania struggle to ensure that they are not wiped out by an approaching fleet intent on xenocide (thus the title), the OCD Chinese characters are set at odds with them, trying to discover what has happened to make that attack fleet disappear. As the story plays out, there are a series of personal and familial events that set characters and cultures at odds with one another while the looming threat of the destruction comes ever closer.

Described like this, the third in Ender’s Saga sounds like a remarkable set up for a book, and in one sense, the first half or so is.  There are personal tales of adventure and Prof. Card excels at ensuring that even the antagonists of the tale are sympathetic and have logical, even good hearted motivations. Additionally, as is ever his skill, he avoids having any one ideology come out right, and never belittles the cultural beliefs of others.

Orson-Scott-CardIndeed, this tale had all the earmarks that could have made it an Alpha story.  Sadly, while Speaker for the Dead managed to put forward philosophy and ideological investigations in a beautiful and interesting way, Xenocide delivers them as a set of very long on-a-soap-box style dialogues and monologues.  Furthermore, on a personal level, I find Orson Scott Card’s continued use of having only a hand full of extra special, super people making any contribution to society getting a bit old, and more than a little disturbing.[2]

Even then this could have been a solid enough book.  After all, I don’t have to agree with a philosophy to be fascinated by it, or enjoy the book in which it is presented.  Unfortunately, it is not the philosophical considerations that ruin this book, and the world in which it is set.  It is the plot that does that.

About 2/3rds of the way through this novel lies one of the worse deus ex-machina plot twists I have ever seen.  Really, this WTF? moment ruins changes the quasi-hard nature of the books and destroys the whole world in which the Ender Saga is set. Without going into spoileresque details, suffice it to say that a world that has always bordered on Hard Science Fiction suddenly switches tacks and become Science Fantasy with no precedents set in previous books.  Indeed, even in this book it seemed a total nonsequitor.

In this sense, this novel feels like several story ideas were bolted together and slammed into the Ender Universe because of that series popularity.  It really, really failed.  That is a pity, because the new character lines with the world based on Chinese culture played to some of Card’s greatest strengths, and were truly interesting. Even some of both the interspecies interactions and the personal storyline events on Lusitania also rang true.

In the end, however, there was too much haranguing of ideologies, and what forgiveness Card’s writing skills normally allow for this were undermined by a literal ‘wishing-makes-it-so’ solution that had no precedents in the series and effectively ruined the Ender’s World.  Oh, I will read the last in the series, and have of course read all the Shadow series that parallel it, but the plot twist in this one is so bad, and so fundamentally changes the nature of the Universe in which it was set, it even taints my enjoyment of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

As with all of the Macmillan Audio books in this series, Xenocide is narrated by a fine cast of different voice actors (Scott Brick, Gabrielle de Cuir, Amanda Karr, John Rubinstein, and Stefan Rudnicki), each of whom narrates chapters based on the perspective in which they were written.  Thus, if a chapter runs primarily from the perspective of a given female character, it is read by one of the women narrators, if it is primarily from the POV of a male character, it s read by a male narrator.

This is a very good gimmick, which for the most part plays quite well, blending the best elements of audio drama with audio book presentation.  Once and again it seems odd to hear the voice of one character read by another, but all in all, it works.

There is also a very interesting afterword by Orson Scott Card, where he discusses what he had in mind for the book.  To the man’s credit, he notes in it the history of his writing of the piece and hints that not everyone liked it.  To that end, like or dislike his works, like or dislike his beliefs, one cannot fault Prof. Card on his intellectual astuteness.


[1] Well, for one character, the relative time dilation of close-to-light speed travel means events occur more or less right after the close of the previous installment, but for Ender and those on planets, it occurs decades later… but still, plot wise, not much has developed over that time.

[2] Effectively, it would seem that Prof. Card is a proponent of the concept that only a handful of the chosen ever make worthwhile contributions to humanity.  At least, that’s the way it comes off in his books.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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