I first became familiar with Orson Scott Card, as most people did, through “Ender’s Game” during the 1980’s. I was an instant–but not solid–fan. I found very quickly that my appreciation for Card was not unconditional. He is a very thoughtful, imaginative storyteller–the title he choses for himself–but I can’t say I like all of his stories. Some of his books, like “Speaker for the Dead”, have moved me deeply. Others, like “Songmaster”, I found somewhat repulsive. Still others, such as his “Earth” series, I found I already knew the story and didn’t find his re-telling of it engaging enough to see it through.
But I’ve never been disappointed (thus far) with anything set in the “Ender-verse”. So when I found “Ender in Exile” at the library I jumped on it–and then promptly set it aside for William Gibson’s “Zero History“. But only temporarily. The order of the two books made for a sharp contrast, not the least of which being how easy to read they were. Gibson’s prose is evocative, bordering on poetic, but it doesn’t flow well, and takes effort to read. Card’s prose serves the story, if mainly be getting out of its way. I loved both books, but for very different reasons.
Card is very character driven. The interactions and dialogues don’t just drive the plot. In many ways they are the plot. Such is certainly the case with “Ender in Exile”. While the book serves one purpose as being the “gap filler” that connects and clarifies several “Ender-verse” threads, the main unifying theme is the character development taking Ender Wiggin from the unwitting weapon of mass destruction to the Speaker for the Dead. He struggles with survivor’s guilt, with the responsibility of being both savior and satan for the same act, and with the realization that being an unknowning pawn doesn’t alleviate the cost of his mistakes. Somewhere along the road he has to learn to either lay it down, or gain stronger shoulders to carry the load.
The book centers around his learning to do both, so that by the time he reappears as the Speaker for the Dead he will be carrying, for the most part, the load that is rightfully his.
The book also ties up many loose ends from other Ender-verse stories so that Ender can push forward into his future leaving the bulk of it all neatly bundled in the past.
It’s a lot more fun than it sounds. Really. Card, in my opinion, is at his best when putting his characters under the microscope in order to further study the human condition–what makes people tick. Ender especially has the gift of understanding people and, most of the time, using that to their mutual advantages. He defeats one rival so soundly and kindly that the rival leaves a much better person for the experience.
Card makes us believe that complicated human beings can really be understood so easily and completely. He regulary presents complex characters, has his protagonists (and some times villains) analyze them down to their essence in front of you, tweak them, and then send them on their way without your questioning what just happened. What’s more he does it in a way that makes a convincing case for the protagonist’s genius (nearly all of his Ender-verse protagonists are super-intelligent) while making their thought processes comprehendable to us mere mortals.
In short, Card has a knack for taking complex systems, be it ecospheres, societies, scientific theory, or personalities, and simplifying them all just enough to where you think you really can understand it while not oversimplifying to the point of absurdity (though I have a friend who might argue with me on the latter point). When he later makes those complexities work with or against one another to produce an outcome it makes sense. There are no deus et machina moments, only logical conclusions that you often feel you should have seen coming–and sometimes do.
“Ender in Exile” is just such a book. Though the plot here is a very loose one, driving primarily through a series of more interesting sub-plots, the outcome is an extension of Card’s thinking: See, I broke down Ender for you as well, and showed you how he gets from point A to point B so that you have a smooth transition. That’s the only book that was possible here, really. It’s not like he can convincingly put Ender’s life in peril. You have at least three other books as proof that he lives.
Not that Card doesn’t engage in some retroactive continuity changes–he does, and he admits it. For example, “Ender’s Game” there is little to suggest that Ender, Peter and Valentine’s parents are not ordinary, well-meaning, but largely clueless people. This is tossed out in the “Shadow” series, where they are shown to be quite brilliant in their own right and not nearly so clueless as we were led to believe.
I know this bothers some readers. I personally don’t care. In most cases, and especially the example above, it makes the story better. I mean really, how could three super-genius children come from dumb-as-a-rock parents? One might be believable, but three? That would be an amazing case of biological luck. It makes more sense to me that they’ve been playing dumb all this time while subtly guiding their children along. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part now that I’m a parent, but it still makes for a much more interesting story.
By itself “Ender in Exile” is unremarkable. If this is the first “Ender-verse” book you read, stop. Don’t do it. Go find just about any other book to start with first. It would still be somewhat enjoyable, but you won’t appreciate what happens nearly as much until you have the proper context to start from.
The “Ender-verse” books are, to me, Card at his best. And Card does have a worst. As I’ve said, there are books of his I just don’t like. I find that interesting, because Card also writes a review column, which I have come to accept as gospel truth. In nearly every case, if Card likes a movie or book, I do to, though not always for the same reasons. I think this just means that he and I agree on what makes a good story, even if we have different preferences in subject matter. Just as I know some of the movies he likes I won’t want to see, he sometimes will tell stories I won’t care to read. So far neither of us seem to be suffering from this arrangement.