Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Empire by Orson Scott Card

I just finished reading Empire by Orson Scott Card. This is a science fiction book by a science fiction writer. Despite this, I think it is worthy of commenting upon do to a historical analogy between American and Roman history.

Here is a description of the book from Booklist, "Its heroes are two special-ops army officers who keep their oaths to defend the U.S. against all enemies when far too many of their ostensible colleagues have decided to abandon theirs. A rocket hits the west wing of the White House, killing the president, vice-president, and secretary of defense. While those directly responsible are Arabs, the next day, 14-foot-tall, bulletproof, armed globes on mechanical legs, backed by shooters on individual hovercraft, seize New York City by killing anyone in uniform. None of the new attackers looks anything other than American. A "Progressive Restoration" administration is established in the city, and it encourages other cities and states to join it to restore government as it should have been but for the stolen elections of 2000 and 2004. Intriguing plot wrinkles come fore and aft of those basic developments, there are many deftly shaped supporting players, and major shocks explode in a split second (no Stephen King slo-mo for Card!). Moreover, all the action doesn't obscure the author's message about the dangers of extreme political polarization and the need to reassert moderation and mutual citizenship; indeed, it drives it home."

The book itself is not that great. I found it slow to develop the plot, long on conversation, and somewhat silly. I am sorry but when the leftist rebels appeared in New York using War of the Worlds like walking machines and hovercraft motorcycles, all sense that this book might be describing a "a disturbing look at a possible future" (as the cover claims) went out the window. I have liked previous works by Card but I did not enjoy this all that much.

What I did like was his exploration that America may be in the last phases of our Republican period. It is advocated in the plot that the democratic tradition has begun to fail in the USA. This happened to Rome in the last days of the Roman Republic. Rather than falling, Rome shifted to an empire and dominated the world for centuries to come. Further, the Roman cultural legacy is still with us. The strong Roman references in the book (and the arguments in the book of the man who ultimately becomes president) is that perhaps the USA can avoid falling by shifting to an Empire. People like Caesar and Augustus could unify the nation, assure long-term American dominance (culturally, militarily, economically), and make the world a better place. And the appearance of democracy could continue indefinitely just like it did in Rome after the republic ended.

One of the main characters in this book is a Princeton history professor who moves into National Security, the Vice-Presidency, and the Presidency. It strongly hints that he may have directly or indirectly been behind the failed leftist rebellion and may have played everyone to get himself elected president unopposed. The book ends there so it is left to the reader to decide if this is the case. I see a few parallels with Augustus here but the strongest is with Senator Palpatine from the Star Wars saga. Palpatine contrived the Clone Wars to destabilize the Republic, assume power, and then move the Republic into an Empire with himself as Emperor. Many writers have commented on Star Wars and its parallels to Roman history. It also seems to have inspired this book.

I also have trouble believing that the blue state vs. red state divide could lead to civil war in the United States. There have always been cultural wars in the USA and only once has it lead to civil war in the nation. One thing that Card gets right is that the leftists lose the war rather quickly. Who do you think would be better able to win a civil war, the left or the right? Which side has guns, military experience, and controls the vast majority of the national territory? And knowing this, would the leftist ever be crazy enough to launch a war? (I know, this may be famous last words as history has shown anything can happen...)

This is not a well written book but it has intriguing ideas and is thought provoking. If you feel like reflecting on American history and comparing it to Rome, and do not mind a little science fiction, give this book a look.

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