Monday, January 13, 2014

Tying up Loose Ends: A Review of Shadows in Flight

There is a lot not to like about Shadows in Flight, a recent installment in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game universe. As I turned pages, I frequently found myself thinking “eh, could be better.” Yet, I came away pleased with the resolution of the book—not necessarily on its own merits, but for how it resolved some of my broader frustrations with the series.

Firstly, some backstory (spoilers for the premise of Shadows in Flight itself):

Card's famous Ender's Game describes how child soldiers are recruited and trained to defeat an alien species that has already invaded the solar system and could yet pose another risk to the future of humanity. Thanks to the skill of the eponymous “Ender” Wiggin—spoiler alert—humans win. Ender is aided by many other children, including the small but brilliant tactician nicknamed “Bean.”

Years later, Card would return to Bean's story in Ender's Shadow. One potential plotline would be, “now that the aliens have been defeated, now what?” And indeed, future Bean novels would detail his entanglement in political maneuvering on Earth. But the first Bean book traces his life in parallel with the events of Ender's Game, from his youth on the streets to his arrival in Battle School. Assuming that curious readers have already read Ender's Game, the plot really shouldn't be “humans train children to fight aliens that have already invaded the solar system; will they win?” We need a different angle to keep us hooked.

Card solved this problem in a twofold way, which—in my view—just led to more narrative problems. One was to “reveal” that Bean had been controlling matters from behind the scenes all along, such as actually picking out the group of students who'll respond best to Ender's command as a student. But the other is to introduce new questions related to Bean's identity—it turns out that he was actually the result of a genetic experiment that gave him superhuman intellect, but among other consequences, kept his body size as a child unusually small. This kept readers hooked for the volume, but to me seemed a cop-out. If this was a war for the future of the human species, and our last best hope turned out to have been guided by a superhuman mind...well, we can't really take much credit, can we?

Amid the politicking of the future volumes, we learned that Bean's genetic condition would actually cause him to begin growing to an unusually large size as he matured to young adulthood, and potentially kill him as well as any children he passed the mutation onto, by his early twenties. This sets up Shadows in Flight; together with three of his mutated children, Bean is on a time-dilated starship, hoping that scientists on Earth (with the benefit of centuries of time to research) will be able to discover a cure before they all die.

So a lot of the book is spent just talking about the details of the ship (and another mysterious spaceship that Bean and his children run across), and the technical specifications seemed to drag. I prefer Card's dialogue, but in this case, much of that came among the three siblings: Cincinnaticus, Carlotta, and Ender. The latter is, of course, named in honor of Bean's friend Ender. Which wouldn't have been so strange except that Bean actually named a different child Andrew, in honor of Ender's given name; one feels some creativity wearing thin. With this Ender constantly deliberating back and forth with his brother and sister, the parallels to the original Ender's Game felt a little forced. And digressions about gender roles and evolutionary psychology, while potentially fascinating given the children's “superhuman” abilities, seemed awkward in light of Card's more divisive social pronouncements outside the pages of fiction.

As I said, hardly the most engaging reading. So why did it satisfy me so much? Well, Bean eventually reveals that he intends for his children to find and colonize a new world, somewhere in the cosmos. Yes, all three of the siblings, by themselves, which is as bizarre in a genetic-diversity sense as off-putting to our contemporary sensibilities. But granting that suspension of disbelief, the establishment of the “leguminotes” (bean-like ones!) as an independent culture felt to me a fitting conclusion to Bean's narrative. He is no longer the single genetic experiment, but rather the forefather of his people. Had the Formic aliens destroyed Earth, the leguminotes would have been destroyed before they could even begin. Instead, humanity's survival is the leguminotes' as well—and since the new subspecies owes its existence to humankind as we know it, well, looking back on the other books? It's only pulling their weight for them to share in the victory.

This, in turn, makes some of the social themes of the Shadow books clearer to me. At one point, Bean deliberates about whether he should have children at all, given his life expectancy and the likelihood he'd pass it onto his children. A geneticist encourages him to do so anyway, with the argument, “I didn't expect to be a (step-)parent either, but it turned out to be an important and meaningful choice for me; it could be the same for you.” I took this at face value when I read it—sure enough, yeah, Bean did go onto have children. For him, that also might have been a good choice. But we don't learn much from a sample size of two.

I later read online that that character might have been intended to be portrayed as a gay man, who finds importance in his stepchildren, even though his relationship with his wife isn't based in sexual desire. This would parallel another character in a different series by Card, a (more clearly) gay man who also helps populate a small and potentially inbred colony on another planet than his homeworld. For Card, this might be a deliberate attempt at conveying a conservative message: “Parenthood is important! For everyone! Whether you think you're cut out for the job or not!”

In the grander scheme of his writing against gay marriage, and so forth, this could be more than a little grating. The thing is, I just don't see the argument coming through. Do I think parenthood is for me? At this point in my life, probably not. If I had the chance to substantially increase the genetic diversity of a human society in another homeworld, would I reconsider? Probably yes! But until I'm in a narrative with as dramatic a scope as he portrays, I'm more than happy to sit back, relax, and watch the loose ends tie together.

By Madeline Barnicle