The Long View: Empire by Orson Scott Card

I listened to Orson Scott Card’s Empire [Amazon affiliate link] as an audiobook when it came out. I remember how devilishly hard it was to find audiobooks back in 2006. Now, there is a surfeit of riches when it comes to popular books done well.

I remember being a bit disappointed in Card’s book then. I am more inclined now than I was in 2006 to credit John J. Reilly’s explanation that Card was too influenced by television and videogames, because I have seen that happen in other places too. The scale, in time, and in field of view, is too short and too narrow respectively for the story Card tried to tell here.

The time is too short, because as John noted, the process of turning the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire took about three generations. It is not something you live with, it is something your grandchildren will live with, if you have any. This is hard to do over the course of a season of television, or even several seasons. Books, however, can actually do this kind of thing well.

A more modern analogy for what John said here about point of view would be that Card tried to present the action in the book like a cutscene in a Call of Duty game. This is likely because the Empire series by Card was supposed to be the beginning of a multimedia franchise by ChAIR entertainment. That never really panned out, but ChAIR did manage something like the original plan with Brandon Sanderson, another LDS author.


By Orson Scott Card
Tom Doherty Associates, 2006
247 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 978-0-765-31611-0

“We are waiting for Fort Sumter.”

So says Orson Scott Card in the Afterword to this novel about the outbreak and course of a brief American civil war. That is an extreme but not wholly implausible premise, at least to anyone who watches cable news or trolls the political websites. Card, best known as the author of Ender’s Game [Amazon affiliate link], is also a proponent of a non-doctrinaire form of libertarian social conservatism, so no doubt he does monitor those media. However, as he also explains, the premise was not precisely his idea, but came from Donald Mustard of Chair Entertainment. This book is part of a media package that should eventually include a videogame, a comic book, and a feature motion-picture. It shows. This review will first discuss the intriguing historical perspective that Card brings to the premise, then consider the baleful effects that videogames and television espionage procedurals have had on this book as a novel.

We begin the story with an Army intelligence officer, who happens to be a Serbian-American, and who happens to be married to a Croatian-American. They and their large family all get along splendidly, but little time is wasted before the attention of the reader is drawn to the possible parallels between the Red and Blue states in America and the Serb and Croat divisions in the late Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Everybody was getting along splendidly there, too, until suddenly they weren’t. However, what interests Card is not the end of American history, but a change of phase. Our Serb encounters disturbing ideas from a superstar historian at a seminar given at Princeton:

[W]hat Torrent was saying about America and empire made perverse sense. While the other students sidetracked themselves into a discussion about whether Torrent’s statements were “conservative” or “liberal,” “reactionary” or “politically correct,” Reuben could not shake off Torrent’s premise—that America was not in the place Rome was in before it fell, but rather in the place where Rome was before civil war destroyed the Republic and led to the dictatorship of the Caesars.

This is a version of the analogy of the Hellenistic Period to Western Modernity, an interpretive model much favored by historians from the late 19th century through the fashion for Toynbee in the middle of the 20th. In more recent years, the model has often been assumed, but rarely is it defended. That silence has less to do with the idea’s merits than the fact that the Hellenistic Analogy was part of one or more philosophies of history. Since history and philosophy have long since parted ways as academic disciplines, no one is being paid to think things like this: unless, of course, they are writing science fiction.

One of the other nice things about writing science fiction is that your villainous characters provide plausible deniability for your own darker reflections. That may be the case with this outburst from a coup-minded general:

“America has been preadapted to live under a dictatorship because we already do. All we’ll be doing is trading in politically correct judges for dedicated soldiers.”

For the most part, though, the author is at pains to emphasize that the rhetoric on both political extremes is equally ridiculous. He has a lively sense that “Left” and “Right” have come to mean two bundles of logically unrelated issues from which tiny, vociferous minorities will not accept the least deviation on the part of those who seek their favor. They will ascribe complete adherence to the enemy’s package by anyone who expresses sympathy for just one item in it (if you oppose abortion, then you must be in favor of unrestricted access to assault rifles). Such people also have enough power as gatekeepers in academia and the media to impede or ruin careers. For the most part, their antics are nothing more than the stuff of talkshow chatter. At any rate, that’s all it is until dramatic events seem to call for a dramatic response. The intelligence officer and a colleague have this conversation in Lower Manhattan on a Sunday morning that happens to be the day when the Progressive Restoration seizes the island.

“Exactly,” said Rubin. “I think we have to look at this in the context of the run-up to a civil war. There are two sides that see the world so radically differently that they truly believe that anyone who disagrees with them is evil or stupid or both. In that context, you really do find people who are willing to kill. Or help those who want to kill.”

The action just after this speech is one of the stretches in which the book stops looking like a novel and reads instead like the transcript of a videogame.

There’s no point in describing the plot, though it’s easy enough to follow. By the time our heroes reach New York, there have been a presidential assassination and threats of a military coup that may be just a feint to justify an anti-military coup, or possibly the Progressive coup is just an excuse for the real coup. The story unfolds with as many twists and detonations as an episode of the television series 24. We know this because Card explains in the Acknowledgements that he used that series as a model. He also explains the debt he owes to Google Earth and Google Maps for his topographical research. In the case of the escape from Manhattan, the most charitable explanation is that these resources failed him.

If you really must sneak from Manhattan’s China Town to New Jersey using the tunnels of the immobilized subways, you can stay underground all the way by transferring at the temporary World Trade Center station from the city’s subway tunnels to the Port Authority trains that go under the Hudson River. Our heroes do no such thing, however. They take the vehicular Holland Tunnel, apparently for no better reason than that it is big enough for them and the bleeding remnant of New York’s Finest (a.k.a. the police) to be pursued by the armed and armored bipedal personnel carriers that the insurgency has deployed to establish control of the island. We are also repeated reminded that the insurgency has “hover bikes,” but they play small part in this book. No doubt they will be more in evidence in the videogame.

I for one regret not having seen more of liberated Manhattan. We are told that the mayor and city council endorse the Restoration, and that hostile nations recognize the city government as the provisional government of the United States. (They appoint their UN representatives as ambassadors.) We are also told, though, that neither the Progressive Restoration nor the federal government try to blockade the city. Life goes on as usual, including even at the Fox News offices in Midtown. Would it have been so hard to show us a few of their screen banners?

The literary standard for political thrillers is not unattainably high. Among novels involving attempted or successful coups, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) comes to mind, though perhaps the best-known is Seven Days in May (1962), by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey. (Regarding the latter example, the standard that will be difficult to meet will be not so much the book as the notable film version that appeared in 1964.) Empire does much of what such stories are supposed to do. Characters get to stand up on soap boxes and declaim against the evils of the day, or manifest those evils in their persons. There are plenty of characters who look like real political and media personalities. Indeed, many of them are named openly, particularly if they work for Fox. Still, one cannot help but notice that the first-person-shooter perspective of most of the book is simply not on the same scale as the author’s premise.

The Roman Revolution, during which the Roman Republic turned into what later historians called the Empire, took about 80 years. It was chockfull of conspiracies and layered crises, though none, perhaps, with quite the Escher-like recursivity of the machinations we meet in this book. Be that as it may, the Revolution necessarily took a long time because it was a generational process: each major step became permanent not when its opponents had been persuaded, intimidated, or killed, but when they had passed from active life. We get a hint now and then in Empire that the author understands he is describing just a phase of what would have to be a very long-term process: one character remarks that the American idea went out with Social Security, for instance. Nonetheless, one cannot avoid the impression that the author is trying to compress three generations of history into the action of a single television season. The impression is deepened by the fact that one character articulates the metahistorical theory and seems to contemplate a resolution within his own lifetime.

The book ends on an indecisive note, so no doubt we have another book series in the making. If it becomes a tale of several generations, it will match the scale of its subject. For that to happen, though, we need more social history and fewer killer robots.

Other books on this site entitled Empire include:

Empire by Hardt & Negri and Empire by Niall Ferguson.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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