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December 05, 2006

Empire, Elections and SF Promotional Philosophy

I was asked in e-mail if I had any thoughts about Orson Scott Card's latest book Empire, in which OSC posits a civil war between the lefties and the righties here in the US. Well, I haven't read the book other than a quick glance at portions of it posted online, so I don't have any opinion on it or its literary merits, and I have have to confess that I'm not actually in an all-fired rush to read it. OSC is one of my favorite authors, but at this point I'm working my way through a big, heaping helping of political fatigue; this last election pretty much damn near wore me out, and frankly the last thing I want to do at this moment is read a book about the left and the right collapsing themselves into a civil war.

Without having read the book, I would offer the observation that were I marketing this particular book, I would have done my best to get it out before the election. I would note that when I first caught wind of this book, well before election day, I had at least some interest in picking it up; on the other side of the vote, however, it just seems like one wafer-thin mint too many after an obscenely large, grease-filled meal. Maybe that's just me; if the book's Amazon ranking is any indication, other people don't share my queasiness. But for myself, I'll be taking some time before getting around to it. This has little to do with OSC and/or the book; honestly, it could be the best book ever and I'd still not be in a rush to pick it up, because I'm feeling burned out on thinking about the left/right thing.

Now, I expect that one of the reasons I was asked for my opinion about the book was because the book is being roundly slagged in various corners of teh IntarWeebs as OSC's John Galt Maneuver -- i.e., the book in which his characters mouth OSC's own political views, which are not notably progressive -- and any one who knows OSC's politics and mine knows that they're not exactly congruent at any number of points.

Again, as I haven't read the book to any significant extent, I can't say how Galty OSC gets. I can say I tend not to be a fan of Galtiness in general, regardless of who is doing it, since on average nothing does more to bring a story to a screeching, juddering halt than a bunch of characters who stop what they're doing to barf page after page of brain-hazing polemics. I would imagine that given the subject of Empire's story, this sort of thing would be a hazard of the landscape. It might be worth asking if any writer could pull off a story with this plot without a certain level of Galtiness, or without being accused of using it as a vehicle for his or her own politics.

Having said that, I should also note that if I had read Empire and thought it sucked, I probably wouldn't tell you, at least not here on the Whatever. This is a good a time as any to note that in the field of written science fiction and fantasy, my public focus is on promotion rather than critical observation, which is a fancy way of saying I'm more likely to tell you about stuff I think is cool than spend any amount of time telling you what to avoid and why.

The reason for this? Well, allow me an ego moment to note that this site and my AOL site get more daily visitors than all but a handful of SF-related properties, either online or in print, and my audience online is not all science fiction reading geeks; it may not even be primarily SF-reading geeks. To the extent that I have an opportunity to comment on written science fiction and introduce the field to non-natives, I'd prefer to spend that time promoting the work and writers I think should be read. Science fiction has been good to me; basically, I'd like to return the favor and pay it forward.

Mind you, this personal sense of mission truly is personal. I don't think other SF writers should limit their critical commentary in the field to only positive things, and even if I did, I don't think it's any of my business to get in the way of their karma. I also don't expect that my personal decision on this topic will keep other SF writers from commenting critically about me or my work; it hasn't to date, and if someone ever did stop themselves from making a critical comment about my work simply because they thought I was a nice guy for promoting other SF writers, my response to them would be "are you high?" Really, I can take it. This isn't about anything other than me; I don't expect what I do here to make a difference to anyone else in how they address the field of written science fiction.

But it does mean that if you're coming to the Whatever in the hope of seeing me snark on SF writers or their recent books, you're likely to be unsatisfied. I'll certainly talk about general themes in written SF and make observations on the field; look, I'm doing it now. But chances are if I'm talking about a specific book or writer here, it's because I think you should read them or the work. And anyway, God knows I'm snarky enough about everything else in the world. Your need for snark will be sated in other ways, I assure you.

Posted by john at December 5, 2006 12:46 AM

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Jacob | December 5, 2006 01:14 AM

This is so surreal, I just came here from the Empire page on Wikipedia (not linked from it, last page I was at). Zany.

I found the protrayal of the left in universities to be completely unrealistic, which is weird because Card teaches at one.

Alex S. | December 5, 2006 01:26 AM

I'm more likely to tell you about stuff I think is cool than spend any amount of time telling you what to avoid and why.

I do the same with my reviews, but with different reasoning.

I'm a firm believer in the adage 'there's no such thing as bad publicity.' If I read something that truly sucks, I don't want my badmouthing it to be the reason that people pick up that book.

Firebyrd | December 5, 2006 02:27 AM

Keep in mind that OSC teaches at SVU, which, while unaffiliated with the LDS church, wants to be the BYU of the east. Having only gone to college at the actual BYU and another university here in Utah, I have no idea as to the veracity of OSC's claims about the typical college professor (I will say some of the blogs I've encountered seem to shore up his claims, though I'm not discounting it could be a vocal minority). Whether he's right or not about the typical university faculty, however, I can guarantee that SVU is /very/ different. Some of the experiences people I've known have had there actually suggests it's more conservative than BYU, which is ultra conservative in and of itself, so the professors there are highly unlikely to be usual no matter how you look at it.

PixelFish | December 5, 2006 03:07 AM

I have read large chunks of OSC's published work, up to and including his weekly rants, articles, and even VERY old fiction works dealing with LDS themes printed in LDS magazines. (I was raised Mormon, so OSC was all over my SF radar from an early age. My bishop quoted from Speaker for the Dead once at church camp.) And I can tell you that Empire is the one book of his that so far has failed my OSC readability test. I have no desire to finish it. None. (There is always a possibility that it could turn around much much later, but I have no desire to wade through the whole novel. This is the equivilant of the co-worker who told me I'd like the I, Robot movie, if only I'd get to the final five minutes.)

Ironically, I was just re-reading his book on writing, and the chapter where he discusses those books where the author turned the story into a soapbox....and warns us neophytes away from the dangerous shoals. There be pitfalls.


All that said, I can see why you might not discuss it on those terms. That's not seemed to be the purpose of your site so far.

Tom Nixon | December 5, 2006 04:09 AM

Without regard to the writing, I am curious, since "Empire" is a Tor book as well, if you share editors.

Anthony VanWagner | December 5, 2006 04:17 AM

I really urge all of your readers to listen to Card's interview on Instapundit's most recent podcast. I think it serves to temper the more extreme conclusions about Card and the context which inspires his political expression.

grhm | December 5, 2006 04:27 AM

I've read the Empire chapters at Hatrack and really enjoyed them. I was looking forward to getting the book, but now I'll approach it with some trepidation. I wanted a thriller not a manifesto.

I've got some waiting to do though - it'll be a while till the paperback hits the UK.

Martin Wagner | December 5, 2006 04:40 AM

Well, I'm sure I'll read Empire, if a copy of it turns up from Tor in my mailbox (they may have had a gander at my Magic Street review and gone, hmm, maybe not)... I'm wondering if the publishing world is adopting Hollywood's habit of not screening certain movies for the crix?

Jim | December 5, 2006 08:36 AM

OSC is a popular writer in my house. My son owns every Ender-related book Card has written. I find that I truly enjoy some of his books and can't read others. This isn't along some science fiction vs. fantasy divide. I picked up his Enchantment not expecting to like it and found that I loved it. On the other hand, I have never been able to get more than a few chapters into any of his Alvin Maker books. (But my wife is a huge fan of those same novels.)

But I agree with Anthony VanWagner's comment (about three comments back) about the Glenn & Helen podcast interview with OSC -- OSC came across as much more even-handed than I had anticipated (based on some of his opinon columns I have read). Oh, sure, it is clear that his personal opinion favors one side, but (at least in the interview) he did point out faults on both the left and the right (in terms of both sides demonizing the opposition, etc.) and I got the impression that his new novel is more about how the process of civil society can break down into civil war rather than being a polemic for or against either side.

I have felt something of the same aversion to partisan political ranting you felt over the recent elections (actually, I think I burned out on politics from the 2004 mud festival) and figured that I'd give Empire a try when it reached paperback -- but this discussion (and Mr. VanWagner's reminder about the podcast interview) have piqued my curiosity and I think that on my next stroll through amazon.com I will toss a copy of Empire into my shopping cart.

John Scalzi | December 5, 2006 08:53 AM


"OSC came across as much more even-handed than I had anticipated (based on some of his opinion columns I have read)."

I think most people who are complete asses come across as more even-handed when speaking more or less informally than they do in print (I know I do). It's because you're reacting to other people, and the social filter kicks in. It doesn't mean your misrepresenting yourself in either case; it's just a matter of how one functions in different circumstances.

Steve Buchheit | December 5, 2006 09:35 AM

Hey John, I also share your distaste for jumping back into politics so soon. My reserves of vinegar are low, although the piss level goes up and down. Although, as I said to a friend (yes, I have them) last night, now that she's worked on some campaigns, she's been bitten and will be back, no matter how much she says she is tired of it.

I also don't like polemics in my fiction.

"Say, Bob, isn't that meteor getting kind of close."

"Sure, Dan, but first let me give you my take on free trade in world markets and the exploitation of the underclass."

Although I have to say that in my first attempt at finishing a book I'm taking a swing at something, but it's more of the setting/world the characters live in. It's just that as I thought about the story gem or bone, I saw it as a Christmas Tree that I could hang all these jokes on. And so far no character has gone up on stage and performed a "Linus" act.

KevinQ | December 5, 2006 09:36 AM

I love, love, love Ender's Game, and can barely read anything else Card has written. I worked through Speaker of the Dead, and whatever the next book was called, but they just didn't call to my soul like EG did.

I made it halfway through the second book of his Homecoming series, before I couldn't slog through his "woman's sphere/man's sphere" world-view anymore. It's a shame - the story had potential. But the characters were just gender stereotypes, and I couldn't stand it anymore.


John Scalzi | December 5, 2006 09:41 AM


"I love, love, love Ender's Game, and can barely read anything else Card has written. I worked through Speaker of the Dead, and whatever the next book was called, but they just didn't call to my soul like EG did."

I think I'm one of the relative few who liked Speaker more than Ender -- indeed I like it substantially more, although I like Ender quite a bit as well. But I notice that I seem to like a lot of second books more than first books. I liked Fall of Hyperion more than Hyperion, for example. And, uh, I kinda think Ghost Brigades is a better-written book than Old Mans War, too. Although, of course, I like that book quite a bit as well.

Jeff | December 5, 2006 09:42 AM

I try hard not to "ad hominem" authors or musicians and stick to judging them solely on their work.

But invariably I've found that if someone has a diametrically opposed viewpoint to mine, it taints my enjoyment of their work.

I also love OSC's work, but I'm hesitant to pick up any of his recent material due to his conservative activism of late.

Another example of this would be Ted Nugent. He plays a mean guitar, but he can keep his moronic viewpoint to himself.

John Scalzi | December 5, 2006 10:00 AM


"...invariably I've found that if someone has a diametrically opposed viewpoint to mine, it taints my enjoyment of their work."

I find I'm generally able to separate the two, particularly when the writing isn't directly on point with real-world politics. And of course, as someone with a rather significant number of politically conservative readers, I appreciate it when others manage it as well, although I don't hold it against people if they can't.

Speaking as a reader, I don't even really mind when writers put in their real-world political viewpoints, as long as they do it in an entertaining way. For me, the big sin for a writer is not promoting a political point of view, but being boring while they do it.

Jenny Rae Rappaport | December 5, 2006 10:02 AM

I'll just pop in briefly in defense of OSC... I attended his Literary Boot Camp workshop in 2002 and he's a lovely gentleman. I don't agree with his views on politics or religion, but he's an excellent writer and a good teacher of writing itself. I'm happy to say that I know him and got the chance to study with him.

Sam | December 5, 2006 10:24 AM

I read the first 9 chapters of Empire, I found it to be entertaining...but in the back of my mind I felt I was reading a John Ringo book, where the liberals are the reason why the world is shot to hell. Its a bit demeaning at times, Liberals are always painted as the professor wuss types who hide behind their books while the big brave redneck from Arkansas or wherever rednecks are supposed to come from, end up saving us all through the barrel of a shotgun. You would think that aliens wanting to devour mankind would bring an end to the blue/red devide (that's a shot at you Ringo). Anyway I guess I'll give this one the benefit of the doubt and finish reading it through.

Ex-Fed | December 5, 2006 11:13 AM

I'd have to say that whether or not I can separate an artist's ideology from his or her politics is based on an ideosyncratic reaction, like my reaction to the art in the first place. Some I can, some I can't, based on the ole viscera. Card, unfortunately, is one for whom I can't.

Plus, honestly, the writing in the five public chapters doesn't encourage me to slap down the money for the hardback. Maybe when it comes out in paper.

But the satirical sixth chapters appearing around the net are sometimes fun.

Sam | December 5, 2006 11:19 AM

I didn't buy it, the bookstore is across the street from where I work, one of the benefits of living in NYC. I go there for my hr lunch break, i read them first, if its good i buy if not i get a book read for free. Cards latest book seems to be meant to be a freebe.

theophylact | December 5, 2006 11:54 AM

I'm very fond of your blog, and I'm perfectly happy with your "Boost, Don't Knock" approach. But where should I go for intelligent, well-informed SF snark?

John Scalzi | December 5, 2006 12:04 PM

What an excellent question.

Adam Rakunas | December 5, 2006 12:10 PM

The excerpts I read were meh-worthy. But now I want to read these sixth chapters that Ex-Fed mentioned. Where can I find some, Ex?

Also, I committed shelf shuffle vandalism this weekend by turning three John Ringo books spine-out and putting "The Android's Dream" face-out. If anyone reading here works at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, mea culpa.

Ex-Fed | December 5, 2006 12:20 PM

Bah, I am an idiot. Obiously that should have been "separate his or her art from his or her politics," not "ideology from politics."

Adam, Sadly, No had one satirical example http://sadlyno.com/archives/4465.html.

albo | December 5, 2006 12:27 PM

Oh, it's just horrid. I'm halfway through and I'm going to finish it now just for spite.

Honestly, Card needs to be sued by the cardboard industry for his characters making them all look bad.

Eddie | December 5, 2006 02:01 PM

I read Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead and though I enjoyed both,OSC doesn't do it for me like the Geek/Fi of a Stross or a Stepenson or a Scalzi.

That's my snarky story and I'm sticking to it.

I'm reading the Atrocity Archives currently.Highly recommended.

Watchman | December 5, 2006 03:19 PM

John if you like Speaker better, you're in good company, cause Card himself said he only wrote Ender to set it up--that is the story he wanted to tell. I still like Ender better, but I think the way I view it now is more like a first crush. The memory is better than the actual event. For me it's more OSC's religion than his politics. I really struggled through Homecoming, and Alvin Maker doesn't make me want to read a bit. A little elf tells me Empire will be under the tree in a few weeks, so I'll be interested to see how it holds up, both by comparison to his other work and as a book in its own right.

Fedge | December 5, 2006 04:08 PM

Hey my name is Fedge, short time reader, first time poster.

I am a huge Card fan. I have read most everything I could get my hands on by him. I have also just finished Scalzi's Old Man's War. I have Ghost Brigades, and will most likely read it after I am done with Empire.

For the most part I agree with Cards political views. I am some what conservative in my view points. But I have never really had a problem reading work from authors I disagree with. I usually enjoy work from authors I disagree with. They make me think more than listening to an author who is just making the same arguments that I have heard before. I like being challenged. It reassures me that I believe what I believe because I think it's right, not because it is the only way I allow my self to think.

Tripp | December 5, 2006 04:23 PM

For a supreme example of the author's religion spoiling a book, check out Hubbard's Battlefield Earth.

Yeah, it is a slushy potboiler overwritten to the hilt but I could have lived with that. it was Johhny Goodboy having to have his thetans balanced every couple pages that really turned me off.

I used to be fairly good at separating artistic works from their creators but the Bush years have soured me big time. Maybe that's fair, maybe that isn't but I've got better things to do than supporting viewpoints I strongly disagree with.

I loved Ender's Game but Card can now pound sand as far as I am concerned.

PixelFish | December 5, 2006 05:23 PM

Fedge: I think it's not so much the political content of the book, but how it's wedged in, which is making me shy away from reading this one. I don't pick up books thinking, "Hey, this book is just the opposite of what I believe, and I'm gonna read it to open my mind," or conversely, "I'm not gonna read this book because it because I disagree with it." I pick up most of my fiction because I think there's gonna be a good story in there. If I can't get to the story because I'm climbing over polemic, regardless of whether I agree with it or not, I'm gonna put the book down.

Oddly, I used to be on the more conservative side of the political spectrum from OSC, if you can believe that. I had discussions with Mormon friends about whether we should read OSC when certain scenes in Treason, Wyrms, Songmaster, and the third Alvin book dealt fairly frankly with sexual situations. I remember being more than mildly itchy about Songmaster's gay characters, but eventually getting over it. So there's irony for you--OSC is one of the major factors in me getting over the homophobic attitudes I was raised with. (Actually, I've mentioned that in the Whatever comments before during a prior discussion.)

la gringa | December 5, 2006 06:07 PM

Hum hum hum de hum...

Well, I'll tell you this: when I was working at Del Rey, and we published Magic Street, Betsy Mitchell made Scott remove a thank you in the beginning of the acknowledgements, one that thanked everyone who voted for George W. Bush a second time so that he (Scott) could sleep better at night. Yeah...all of us were kind of like "UM, Betsy? This is gonna kill the book? WTF?"

Fedge | December 5, 2006 06:53 PM


I wasn't saying that I pick up titles just because I disagree or want to open my mind. I read stuff I do agree with as well. Really what I was trying to say was that I don't let the authors views get in the way of whether or not I will read a story. I read a story strictly because I want to read a great story. I am not Mormon. I don't agree with a lot of beliefs that Mormons have, but I still read Cards work despite my differences from him.

I agree with you, I think I really didn't convey what I was saying very well. I don't like being preached at in my fiction. I hate it as a matter of fact. I have been reading a certain Christian author for a while, since his first published novel. As of late his stories have left me wanting more from his work. The other thing is he stops everything to insert a moral that feels completely out of place. While I agree with the point he was trying to make, I was still upset. He ruined the story to squeeze in something that was out of place to begin with.

David Wilford | December 5, 2006 09:57 PM

Rather than being SF, Empire is a straight-up political thriller set in the hazy near future. It has far more in common with Rand than it does with Heinlein.

MWT | December 6, 2006 02:34 AM

I loved Ender's Game. It left me wanting more of the same - militaristic type sci-fi. Ender's Shadow is pretty close as well, and those of you who loved the first one would probably love the other.

I loved Speaker. But not for the same reasons as Ender's Game. It has a whole slew of separate merits not related to being a sequel to Ender's Game.

I liked the third and fourth books in the series well enough when I read them, but don't actually recall much about them anymore. They got rather philosophically abstract, which made them more work than entertaining overall.

I reasonably liked Shadow of the Hegemon and Shadow Puppets, though it gets a bit too intricate in the politics for me to follow fully.

I'm struggling through Shadow of the Giant. Normally when I read a book, I read the entire thing in as close to one sitting as possible. Giant is taking me a while - a chapter at a time, and I'm only halfway through, and have no particular motivation to pick it up at any given point in time. It reads like a plot outline, not a novel. Everything is "tell" and not "show." The characters are plot devices, not people.

I think after this is where I stop with OSC.

Meanwhile, next time I have money to buy books, I suspect it'll be spent on Scalzi's stuff. ;)

John H | December 6, 2006 09:31 AM

John, when you say that you enjoy Speaker for the Dead more than Ender's Game, are you referring to the original Ender's Game or the revised version that ties it into the sequels? I read the revised version first and liked it more than the original (which was included in a book of short stories based on the Ender storyline).

Overall, I think the moral dilemma posed in Ender is more compelling than that in Speaker, but I also think the character interactions are more realistic in Speaker.

Fedge | December 6, 2006 10:02 AM

I am also one of the ones who liked Speaker better than Ender's game. I also like Ender's Shadow more than Ender's game.

Tripp | December 6, 2006 11:25 AM

I've now read a bit of "Empire" and can see what people like and dislike about it.

Years ago I loved "Ender's Game," probably because I identified so well with the protagonist. If I recall the 'villians' were some aliens.

Fast forward to "Empire." I no longer identify with the protagonist and he has cast ME as the villian. Also the writing is much more graphic, but I suppose that just rubs salt in the wounds. The heroes graphically get off on killing the villians. Oh yeah, baby, righteous wrath is da bomb. Ain't nothin' can beat it.

Tripp | December 6, 2006 11:32 AM

Okay, now that I've got snark out of the way, I'm thinking a little more about 'Empire" and how it really is a symptom. A symptom of the fact that so many people today are looking for 'meaning' in their lives. They want to do something important. They want to 'matter.' Clearly "Empire" provides a noble meaning - saving the world from bad guys. It is similar to the meaning that Bush has given to many of our soldiers - they are 'fighting for our freedom.' They matter. They mean something.

What a horrible trick to use someone else's desire for meaning, to manipulate and deceive them for your own purposes. What happens when these soldiers discover they were deceived?

Dr. Phil | December 6, 2006 12:43 PM

Regarding reduced-snark and snark-free reviewing -- I recently commented on my blog about why I usually end up liking the movies that I watch. It's because my time/money are limited and so I don't like to waste it. Discriminating tastes are a good thing. (grin)

Regarding OSC and Empire -- haven't read it, not on my radar at the moment. If it's about a war between lefties and righties, I think the radar is being disassembled for repairs right now. (grin) Regarding OSC and Ender's Game, EG was a big influence on my reading habits, Speaker didn't grab me until the second read -- I think I wanted a "sequel" too much. Very fond of the opening sections in Xenocide about the compulsive disorders and the woodgrains...

My favorite Card novel, though, is Songmaster. There is something in the terribleness of beauty... I often joke that where I see Harry Potter going in the years after JKR finishes the series is contained in the last pages of Songmaster. (grin)

Dr. Phil

Sam | December 6, 2006 02:18 PM

I must say that there is a twist in the middle of Card's Empire book, that im not even sure John Scalzi himself as an auther would take, or maybe I'm wrong...

Fred Kiesche | December 6, 2006 09:06 PM

Hmmm...where does this put me. I happen to like Ringo's stuff (especially that written with "Doc" Taylor) as action-adventure while laughing at the politics.

But I was utterly turned off to Card in that long overblown saga to Earth series. Oh well, I'll wait for the paperback.

David Huff | December 7, 2006 02:46 PM

Pixel fish wrote, "OSC is one of the major factors in me getting over the homophobic attitudes I was raised with."

That is unusual, and rather ironic considering Card's own, widely publicized opinions on the matter ;) But hey - good on you regardless.

As for me, while I moderately enjoyed the "Ender" and "Alvin Maker" books, I just didn't feel good about financially supporting the guy once I got a handle on his socio-political views. If any of you feel differently, 's no biggie. Besides, there are authors I like alot better (/me bows to our host), and the time I have alloted to reading for pleasure limited.

Fedge | December 7, 2006 03:31 PM

If I didn't read an authors fiction because I disagreed with their views, I wouldn't have much fiction to read.

Sam | December 7, 2006 10:31 PM

U make a good point Fedge!

Fedge | December 8, 2006 12:52 PM

The being said, I now see what problems that someone could have with Empire. I am only 100 pages in, and it is a very heavy handed book for Card. I think this story, more than others, Card is trying to make a point. It kind of gets in the way a bit.

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