Orson Scott Card

Reviewed 26 November 1998;
Updated 29 May 2001

This is a bit different from the normal reviews on this site. Orson Scott Card is one of the leading post-New Wave writers of science fiction. His work is almost always informed by a willingness to take moral stands that is all too often absent from the work of his contemporaries (which usually takes an ideological stand rather than a moral one; several of the essays in Ronald Dworkin's collection A Matter of Principle discuss the distinction). One recurring theme in Card's work is aggressive tolerance ("intolerance of intolerance"); the farther he strays from this theme, the less satisfactory his books tend to be.

Card's recent forays into hybrid quasimainstream-horror do not compare well to his overt speculative fiction. The narrative voices border on insincerity in the middle, and the books fail to include their themes--which are often weak--in their structures. I have not included any of these books here; searching Amazon for Card's books will find them, if you're really interested.

Rather than review each title exhaustively, and individually, I've gathered the most important of Card's works that are currently available in the table below. You can buy these books on-line through Powell's Books.

Ender Wiggin

Card's major work is the story in, of, and around Ender Wiggin. Although the initial book (Ender's Game) appears at first to be merely a twist on the standard military scifi adventure, it's a lot more than that, particularly when considered as a lead-in to Speaker for the Dead, one of the critical works in the speculative fiction canon.

Ender's Game Speaker for the Dead Xenocide Children of the Mind Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind

Card's purest science fiction is the tale of Ender Wiggin. Ender's Game is an interesting exploration of creating interstellar forces and winning interstellar wars. But Ender is both more than and less than the perfect soldier or commander. The rest of this series (to date) takes place farther and farther from Ender himself. Ultimately, the entire series is about xenophobia—the flip side of tolerance. The high point is Speaker for the Dead, which maintains a satisfying mix of intellectual, physical, psychological, and political action.
On the Basic Bookcase.
Aside: It appears from Card's website that he's going to do a M'Caffrey and branch out to tell prequels about peripheral characters, starting with Bean. Boo! Hiss! Hasn't anybody learned anything from Amadis of Gaul and its hideous death at the hands of Don Quixote? We shall see.

See the full review of Ender's Shadow
See the full review of Shadow of the Hegemon
Other Works

Card's other works are of highly varying themes and quality. Many of them are merely above-average

Pastwatch Pastwatch

This is an interesting revision of the Columbus legend, from both an alternate history and an alternate future perspective. The question of tolerance turns on tolerance of whole cultures, not on tolerance of particular individuals. All along, an observant reader must wonder whether the revisionism would really make a difference. Card refuses to be drawn into cheap, easy resolutions.

Maps in a Mirror Maps in a Mirror

Out of print. This is Card's short fiction up to the early 1990s, including the short story "Ender's Game." Studying this story, and comparing it to the novel, is very instructive. In a broader sense, this book is interesting in that one can really follow Card's development as a writer. His talents always seem to show better at novel length; Maps in a Mirror, though, allows one to isolate particular aspects much more neatly. The middle third (or so) of the book shows how the tolerance theme developed, although Card never states it explicitly.

Seventh Son Red Prophet Alvin Maker, in part (Seventh Son and Red Prophet)

Card's purest fantasy—although not all that pure—is the Tales of Alvin Maker. The first two books in this ongoing series set the stage in an alternate America. By the end of Red Prophet, the characters critical to the series have been firmly established. The world-building and character-building in Seventh Son and Red Prophet are really first-rate, and tie directly back into Card's central concern with tolerance. Unfortunately, the next three books have subverted this development in a most unsatisfactory fashion by mutating into allegory. There are many sound theoretical reasons that allegory died as an effective art form with the Industrial Revolution. Unless volume six somehow gets back on track, I do not recommend anything after Red Prophet.

See the full review of Enchantment
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