Friday, March 02, 2007

Magic Card

Orson Scott Card is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. I say that after meeting him just once, years ago. In the late 80s I took my teenage brother-in-law to a local science fiction convention where Card was one of the guests of honor. For a small regional convention it had a surprisingly heavy hitting guest list. Also there were Frederick Pohl, Piers Anthony, and Lawrence Watt-Evans.

Like most conventions, I went to a lot of the seminars that featured anyone I had ever read so I could ask erudite questions for the panel to ignore. At lunch I caught up with my brother-in-law and was treating him to some burgers in the hotel restaurant when Orson Scott Card wandered in with two or three of his little ones in tow (Mormons are a rather fecund bunch) and sat at the table next to me. I played it cool and tried not to bother a guy trying to feed antsy kids, but he recognized me from the seminar.

We chit-chatted about the panel discussion a little and he signed my paperback copies of both Ender’s Game and Speaker For The Dead. I was really thrilled with how friendly and personable he was. Since that moment, I have had to read nearly anything he writes and I buy many of his books in hardback as soon as they come out. He’s that good.

If any book merits the oxymoron "instant classic", it’s Enders Game. This complex coming of age story is more complicated and deeper than its alien invaders plotline suggests. The book is part Starship Troopers, but more Lord of the Flies. While its original cover did it no shelf-appeal favors, the current cover is much worse, implying it is just another tweener-aimed yarn. I fear its darker themes are being sugarcoated to sell it to the Harry Potter crowd.

The book does serve as a great bridge for young readers to “adult” science fiction. My son’s epiphany that led him out of the middle school book club was when the moderator (rightly in my mind) rejected Ender's Game as being too mature for the younger club members.

Which brings us to Card’s most recent book, Magic Street. A mystical changeling is abandoned in a minority Los Angeles neighborhood and he soon realizes he is not like the other kids. He eventually learns that he is just a pawn in a bigger game where the players cross between this world and that of the fairies.

I can unequivocally state that this is the finest urban fantasy novel featuring middle-class African Americans ever written by a Mormon. While some may take this as faint praise, I would prefer to regard that statement as a high honor. In his afterword, he mentions that some of his best friends are Black, and they helped him with the dialect and culture. He can throw all the slang in there he wants, but nobody is ever going to mistake the white-bread style of Card for Toni Morrison, or even Bebe Moore Campbell, in a blind taste test.

There is such a can-do optimism that suffuses all his work, that it doesn’t matter whether his books are set on an outer space Brazilian Catholic colony or in Dark Ages Brothers Grimm Eastern Europe. All his heroes have such a gee-whiz fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness, you can’t help but root for them. And while the black middle-class is under-recognized in pop culture, this book is not about to bridge any racial divides. As the Whitest Blogger Alive, I read it with a nagging feeling that Card is trying straddle a fine line between being patronizing and not being gangsta-tastic. I can’t vouch for the authenticity, but the feel is flat. The story is a fantasy epic but both the real world setting and the fairy mirrorverse come off underdeveloped.

At its soul, Magic Street is a variation on the Ender Myth. A preternaturally gifted and good child has a destiny to fulfill which includes a quest to a magical land where he must defeat a superior power which has far-reaching consequences. As a story arc, it is a tried and true favorite. Why Card chose to retell it in this milieu baffles me, unless it just to stretch his story-telling wings. Card is one of the few writers that bridges fantasy and six moh hard science fiction effortlessly.

Card does have a habit of writing himself into a corner. Way too many of his books devolve into characters spinning philosophy at each other. Children Of The Mind is nearly unreadable. His restart of the Enderverse with the Shadow series are much more fitting sequels to the original, but they go in the opposite direction, emphasizing action and soap opera relationships over any deep metaphysical exploration.

It’s been several years since he wrote the penultimate book in the Alvin Maker series. These books have also been biting off more then they can chew as the canvas of the story widens and the number of characters has promulgated promiscuously. I eagerly look forward to the conclusion of this very intriguing saga and hope Card can pull off wrapping up all the loose threads he has scattered around.

The great thing about an Orson Scott Card book is that even when you know how the tricks are done, it’s fun watching a master craftsman perform the magic.


Elizabeth said...

I'm not into science fiction, but I've read his "Women of Genesis" series. They're wonderful!

Anonymous said...

I know a lady who would not consider marrying a man - even the most Wonderful Man in the World - unless he'd read "Ender" and thought it was great.

It's a great book, as are "Speaker for the Dead" and those Alvin Maker books, but overall OSC does not keep my interest. Even the Ender's Shadow stuff - thanks, but no thanks.


Anonymous said...

I should have added: I think I was at that same convention.

Scary, huh?


yellojkt said...

His Saints is a very warts and all fictionalization of the founding of the Mormon church.

Guaranteed that not all OSC will be for everybody. He writes too much to appeal to all.

Anonymous said...

My daughters, 23 and 21, bought Ender's Game in paperback at used places etc (those stores are disappearing on Rt One! these days) giving them to friends and enemies.

The also read PA, NG, and Terry Pratchett.

My son, is not such a reader. He associates reading with being sick. He prefers to read real stuff. He enjoyed some of the jaunty-science topics in an old JA books.

I don't read much science fiction fantasy but I adored _Little Big_ by, oops, John somebody. Angela Carter's short stories are creepy but sciencey.

flasshe said...

Ender's Game is indeed a classic, as is Speaker For The Dead. (And has there even been a sequel that is more different from the first book?) I still like Card and read him when I can, but I do get tired of his whole "superchild" shtick. You're right, those later Ender's books (not the Shadow ones) are nearly unreadable. When you have a universe where people can do anything, there is no real drama or tension. Just a lot of yakking back and forth about the nature of things.

I bought EG for my nephew, and I hope he likes it as much as I did.

zanktr! zanktr!

trusty getto said...

This is the third time in a week that someone has raised "Ender's Game" in a conversation. Coincidence? I don't think so.

I guess I'll have to read it, then.

Anonymous said...

I loved Ender's Game, have dabbled with all the rest of OSC's stuff - it's a very mixed bag, as you point out. What did you think of Lost Boys? Is that some mixed up stuff or what?

You don't mention the whole underground controversy about his work - is he or isn't he? Gay, that is. I mean, obviously he's not a practicing gay man. He has an essay somewhere floating around which basically says "One can't be a practicing gay and still marry, have children and be in my church. In other words, you can't be a grownup person if you don't decide to be straight. One makes a choice." And I think he did. But in most of the books there is such a clear adoration of the beauty of the male child - it just about sings. Which since I know he's a principled guy, and not molesting children, is both beautiful and just a tiny little bit creepy.

yellojkt said...

I did notice the homoerotic undertones in Songmaster and like Magic Street some of it is OSC writing characters different from his background. It is an interesting observation.