Orson Scott Card

 

Pathfinder

 

About halfway though this book I was enjoying myself, OSC doing several of the things he does well, without some of the annoyances. Yeah, yeah, again with the messianic protagonist, but I really appreciate it when Card doesn’t just say, like so many other writers, “Oh, this character is really shrewd/ruthless/clever,” but actually gives them clever lines and shrewd behaviours. I thought the ‘Father’ character well portrayed, and he even fitted well with later revelations. Initially I liked the lines and choices Rigg goes with in tumbling with his roller-coaster circumstances. The composed/intelligent characters were too similar (e.g. Father, Ram, Rigg, General Citizen, Expendables), but they were well written, and contrasted enough with some other characters. Mother was a triumph.

 

But by about two thirds of the way he’d pretty much lost me.

 

Spoilers.

 

I get the impression that Card listens very carefully to criticism and feedback (not necessarily of everyone, but of some chosen key readers), and some of his books feel like reactions. Or, rather, overreactions. Like I suspect he must have taken on criticism of ‘Ender’s Game’ that some of his characters were throwaways – so in ‘Speaker for the Dead’ we have way too much potency trying to be squeezed in to make every character (contradictorily) crucial. There’s a bit of that here too (gets a bit ‘Belgariad’ with every 2nd person casually having epoch shaking powers – oh, that and the group hugs, and the way that the teasing dialogue after a while means that the same line could be given to just about any character), although not quite as ludicrous as ‘speaker’. But here I think he went way overboard in running his difficulties/contradictions/issues of time travel past his review committee/mates/forum whatever. I mean, sure, time-travel is so easy to get wrong, and usually … is. But such a perennial. How can Dr Who ever have suspense and tension (or ever be rushing?!) when he can just pop back 10 minutes/hours/years/centuries/millennia/epochs and run the situation successfully? I think as close as I’ve come to someone pulling it off was John Wyndham in Consider Her Ways and Other Stories, where he doesn’t labour or overanalyse it, but plays with a single twist here and there. But Card. Sheesh. At the start, sure, it was refreshing when some time travel thing happens and you think of an obvious objection – and a paragraph later you’ve got two characters in the story intelligently discussing the same objection. But this started to take over and eventually swamped the book. Seriously, something like a third of the text must be, essentially, summaries or even transcriptions of discussions Card had with his first readers to try to hash out some of the tensions and contradictions. Sure, have the conversations, but then move to some conclusions (“Nice idea but I can’t make it work, I’ll have to lose it,” or “Not this, this, this or this … but *this*”), and then get back to writing a book. Don’t put the conversations in the book! Distil, then incorporate them invisibly in a *story* (a different context to a brainstorming session). The places they even have these conversations get sillier and sillier. There was some room for it at the start when Rigg and Umbo are relatively safe and just exploring ideas. But later we get that Card is leaning back from his computer and, I dunno, phoning someone up to throw around some issues that have come up – but to then put this conversation into the mouths of our main characters who are fleeing immanent death or something – is just dodgy. And it’s not some clever Italo Calvino nod to the reader (“Hey, we both know we’re reading and writing this action scene in comfy chairs by our air-conditioners”). This is not the time they’ll jokingly throw around a few entertaining suggestions. Nor does it work at all with the pacing and genre. The joking got particularly jarring: felt really juvenile, voices  could be interchanged, and Card committed that sin he normally so virtuously avoids – telling us rather than showing us. When he starts telling us something was ironically humourous, he’s really jumped the shark (and I think he got irony wrong in that moment too).

 

And despite this constant kicking around of potential contradictions, it’s still, ultimately, a bit of a dog’s breakfast. There are just too many – or too godlike - superpowers at work here, they needed to be more contained. “I’ll push back a week. Ah a month. Ah, now – EXACTLY – 11192 years (or whatever).” Rules and difficulties suddenly aren’t rules and difficulties any more. And Umbo *does* end up all Dr Who: why *are* you rushing or stressed when you can snap your fingers and be instantly in another time? Sometimes they even raise that, “Why don’t you just go back another day?” and give some half-arsed, lame answer … and then just do it anyway later when it suits. Olivenko’s sudden conversion and utter loyalty isn’t credible, and it is just another of those annoying, jarring inserted conversations when the characters mouth whatever must have passed between Card and whoever pointed this out. That ludicrous ‘just in the nick of time’ climax at the end – when Card in his epilogue says he’d embraced paradox anyway – where we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats because the baddies arrived just a couple of minutes too early – when there is NO REASON for our time travellers not to just hand themselves another hour before they HAND THEMSELVES A FEW MILLENNIA! And they do hand themselves an extra week or two – then zip forward – anyway! Sorry about the shouting, but it felt dumb at the time, but felt really dumb saying it out loud like that.

 

Bizarrely I think that this could have been a really good book if Card had have taken some more advice. Just not put the process of all that advice into his text. And the biggest bit of advice would have been to lower his scope – give Umbo particularly less power. Doesn’t even have to make lots of sense, just restrict it (I don’t know – he can only go back a week/to where he’s left something he owns/if he loses his knowledge of what is coming up – something), and stick to that so it makes sense within its own parameters. Magic (this essentially is magic) defies reason, but doesn’t have to be so utterly senseless. Card is such a talented guy, but this one went off the rails.

 

October 2013