Ender’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card

Tor, 1999, 379 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86860-X

Over the past few years, it has become acceptable in some Science Fiction circles to deride Orson Scott Card as, to put it bluntly, a homophobic pro-Bush religious nut who -as a side cheap shot- doesn’t write anything worth reading anymore. Look on the web (better yet, search for “Orson Scott Card” and any of these keywords) and you will find a deep and widely-shared assessment that, at the very least, Card doesn’t write novels like he used to. The glory days of Ender’s Game and Speaker of the Dead are long past, and Card’s latest work doesn’t seem to appeal to the largely left-wing secular SF constituency.

This makes 1999’s Ender’s Shadow fascinating for all sorts of reasons: Billed as a “parallax novel”, it follows more or less the events of Card’s classic Ender’s Game, but from the perspective of another character rather than Ender Wiggins himself. Cynics like me are usually quick to see the lucrative possibilities of such a novel and hindsight proves us right: the built-in name recognition automatically attracted attention and virtually ensured best-selling numbers. Ender’s Shadow even made it on the New York Times’ famed hardcover bestseller list. At a time where the only ways to sell SF books seems to be to capitalize on sequels, series, media tie-ins or celebrity names, a “parallax novel” seems like just another way to make a living.

So you can say that I came to Ender’s Shadow with low expectations. But the surprise is that, even with a number of significant annoyances, this is a novel that ends up working well, and meshes better than you may think with the existing framework of Ender’s Game.

It’s partially a triumph of emotional manipulation. Card’s success has often felt grounded in cheap deliberate stunts that leave little room for interpretation: By touching upon taboos, stock situations and easy unpleasant sentiments, Card has often been able to exploit built-in prejudices in his audience. Ender’s Game itself seemed like a product deliberately designed to appeal to the Science Fiction readership: The archetype of a poor misunderstood super-genius hero who ends up saving the day despite himself is, shall we say, deeply comforting to a number of SF fans.

And if it worked once, well, it can work again: Card doesn’t seem to have any scruple in making Bean an even smarter and even punier protagonist than Ender Wiggins. This is often pushed to a ridiculous extent: Bean isn’t just a small smart kid: he’s a genetically modified ultra-genius who escapes from an eeevil lab at an age when he crawls better than he walks. Then it’s the life of a homeless kid in a hellishly socialist Europe for him, where he’s eventually saved by a nun and packed off to meet Ender Wiggins in orbit… but not before encountering yet another exceptional genius who will give him trouble later on.

From afar, Ender’s Shadow teeters on the edge of credibility. But Card hasn’t become a New York Times best-seller without some writing skills, and the biggest surprise of the book is how readable it remains even as it covers familiar events with a slightly skewed perspective. It goes without saying that Bean, being a super-genius and all, figures out the “twist” to Ender’s Game long before Ender, which scatters the cards somewhat for the readers who come into the book already knowing the outline of the story. But it works, and the characterization holds together so well that when I went back to re-read the original “Ender’s Game” novella, Bean’s role still fit perfectly well with the extra knowledge of Ender’s Shadow.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a particularly good novel. The religious rants from “Sister Carlotta” are tedious, and the smarter-than-Ender shtick wears thins. Ender’s Shadow remains a stunt for everyone who would pay again to relive Ender’s Game: Comfort fiction meant to push the same buttons than the previous experience. But as derivative products are concerned, this one is better than most. Better yet, it marks a significant notch in Card’s decline as a favourite writer of the SF crowd. In retrospect, you can see hints of the opinions he would loudly adopt during the Bush presidency; Ender’s Shadow may have been Card’s last acceptable book before his entire mental framework turned inside-out.

[January 2008: Alas, the trilogy that follows Ender’s Shadow gives further comfort to the “Card can’t write anymore” crowd: After making my way through Shadow of the Hegemon and Shadow Puppets, I’m not particularly motivated to read, much less pay any kind of money to get any further book in the series. The focus of Ender’s Shadow is gone, and what’s left is basically a game of Risk starring teenage protagonists and an increasingly sillier view of geopolitics. The bad traits of Ender’s Shadow are magnified, and there’s little to make up for it. Neither the prose nor the characters rise above the dull plotting, and the increasingly strident echoes of Card’s obsessions do much to leaden the reading experience.]

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