Orson Scott Card’s Empire and Hidden Empire

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Orson Scott Card is a very good writer and also sees things clearly. His two-book series Empire and Hidden Empire have a lot of interesting points to them. One is his take on contemporary politics, which has been roughly the same for a long time. The other is his take on religion.

He’s a Mormon and a religious man. His characters in these books aren’t Mormons, but they are devout Christians, and that’s a big part of the story. His hero is a soldier, and a better than average one who is in Special Ops and is a great leader. He’s also a father of five with a very competent wife who is also quite religious. He’s an old-fashioned conservative, while she’s an old-fashioned liberal, and to top it off, he’s a Serb and she’s a Croat. A relationship that shouldn’t work but does.

After service in Iraq he’s assigned to get an advanced degree at Princeton, and encounters a professor who picks on him. He doesn’t think that much of it at first because Princeton, like many elite universities, is very politically correct, but the professor goads him into saying what he really thinks during his course, then at the end congratulates him, at which the hero, named Reuben Malich, is taken aback. The professor says that Malich is the best student he’s had in years, and that he THINKS, which most people don’t do. He then asks Malich what he would do if he found out a civil war was brewing. Would he help a group of people the professor knows who are trying to head one off? Malich says he would do nothing to advance a civil war and everything he could to stop it. The professor says that if anyone contacts him using the professor’s name they will do nothing to encourage him to break the oaths he’s taken as a soldier. It’s an odd encouter, and Malich is bothered by it.

Perhaps a year or so later Malich has been assigned to the Pentagon to come up with ways to assassinate the president of the USA so that he can be protected against any kind of plot, a sort of war-gaming. But he just happens to be in the vicinity when terrorists using the plan he’d developed swim underwater up the Potomac, bring rockets ashore, and blow up the wing of the White House where the  President, Vice-president, Joint Chiefs of Staff and others are meeting, killing all of them. Shortly after that New York City is invaded by kind of movie-monster robots. Some group in the country seems to be in rebellion.

Initially it’s all confusing, but eventually it turns out to be an extreme Leftist group that has mounted the rebellion, which is pretty quickly quelled. The aftermath of that is that the professor Malich had met at Princeton, who has subsequently been working at the NSA becomes President, nominated by BOTH parties. That sounds impossible, but Card makes it logical. In the midst of the action, Malich is murdered, so the story becomes about his friends, who are also superior military men, and instrumental in stopping the rebellion.

Card explains in an afterword that he’s writing (the novel was published in 2006) about the political division in this country, that to him it seems that BOTH sides have become extremists, expecting anyone who agrees with any of their views to agree with all of them. Each side can see the craziness of the other, but not their own craziness. Not much has changed in seven years.

I have to confess that I’m one of those people who, because of my bias to the Left, can see the foolishness of the Right much more easily than the foolishness of the Left. But my brother, who recently visited, straightened me out a bit. Conservatives, he said, remain angry because for a long while the media were extremely condescending and disrespectful to conservatives. I wasn’t paying much attention to politics back in the 70’s, so I didn’t really remember. As my brother pointed out, we didn’t notice because we agreed with the media.

Now conservatives have their own media, so their voice gets heard a lot louder. The playing field has been balanced somewhat, but now there’s cynicism on both sides about the motives of each other, some of it eminently deserved. Nobody wants to compromise, and that’s not good for democracy.

Early in the novel, the professor who becomes president, talks about how the USA is often compared to the Roman Empire. The professor argues that America is NOT YET an empire, and compares this country rather to the point in history when the Roman Republic became an empire. This happened first because of Julius Caesar, a wildly ambitious and able man, who was an able politician and a supremely gifted military man. He was eventually assassinated because some Romans (including some of his friends) thought he was going to make himself emperor. His assassination set off a huge civil war, right after there had already been one, and Caesar’s heir, Octavian eventually won the war and became emperor, though he never allowed himself to be called that. As an empire Rome entered a very stable period, in spite of most of Augustus’s immediate successors being either corrupt, incompetent, or madmen. Rome was able to survive them and entered a very stable period with a succession of good emperors. Card and his professor character suggest that what weakened the empire was that the plague hit Rome twice within about 50 years, and lowered the population so they couldn’t defend themselves against the barbarians.

The plague did something else too, Card points out. Christians living through it didn’t run away, as most of the pagans did, but took care of each other, and also a number of pagans. They weren’t able to stop the plague, but people who had a reasonable amount of care survived more often than people who didn’t, and that favorably impressed a lot of people who hadn’t liked Christians in the past. Card cites a historian who believes that this predisposed Romans to accept Christianity as the state religion in the next century.

The second novel is about a modern plague that comes out of Africa, and has a high death rate. It destabilizes an already unstable region, and the US President imposes a quarantine on the whole continent. Various Christian groups protest this, and volunteer to go to Africa to help the plague victims, though they can’t return to America unless they’ve caught the plague themselves and recovered, at which point they’re immune.

Considering the world’s overpopulation, there are probably a good many people who would welcome such a plague, and especially in Africa, since they don’t consider Africans worthy of any respect. One of the main characters of the second novel is a Nigerian who survives the plague while most of his family dies of it, only to see the survivors mowed down by Nigerian soldiers. He’s just been given a digital camera and takes pictures of the atrocity from the tree he’s in. Once the soldiers are gone he manages to get into town and a doctor there uploads the pictures onto the internet–and then succumbs to the plague himself. The African boy is taken to the USA, and begins lving with Reuben Malich’s family. Malich is gone, but his wife is highly respected, to the point of being a Presidential advisor, and the most influential of them. The boy obviously has adjustments to make, but he’s in a good environment, and becomes close to the family.

Malich’s military friends are sent to Africa to stop the violence against plague victims, and are there when Malich’s oldest son, only 13, decides he has to go and do what he can. His mother is appalled, but can’t argue with him, because he’s doing what she’s told him a Christian is supposed to do. So she leaves the other children with a relative and goes with him and the African boy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Christians got more publicity when they do things like that? Some do, but the best of them keep a low profile. The ones who hunger for publicity often have ulterior motives. Not all people who claim to be Chrisitian are good, any more than all military people are good. Nobody should either worship or demonize either group, but recognize them to be as human as the rest of us, and just as liable to heroism and fallibility. The Christians in this book are good, and so are the military men, but that doesn’t stop them from making mistakes.

I recently wrote about Cordwainer Smith’s story, The Dead Lady of Clown Town. In that story Smith portrays such a radical form of love that it verges on the supernatural: People actively seeking death by loving their enemies is something outside most of our ordinary experience. Card’s Christians aren’t supernatural people, though many of them are very intelligent and highly trained. George Gurdjieff, the spiritual teacher who has fascinated me for years, defined a Christian as one who keeps all of Christ’s commandments. He says that to do this one must first be ABLE to keep them, and this is simply impossible for the ordinary person. A true Christian, by his definition, has stepped outside of ordinary life into what we would call the supernatural.

On the other hand, people at least TRYING to behave as Christians in the best sense are certainly better than those of us who DON’T try. People who have gone beyond ordinary humanity, as many testify that Gurdjieff did, are also able to make mistakes. In fact, says one writer, they are subject to temptations that ordinary people can’t even imagine. So to be a Christian (and Gurdjieff interpreted this broadly, saying that all the religions that weren’t simply made up could be regarded as Christian, because they all began with the same ideals) is not an easy road to take. There are always temptations, though the nature of these may change.

One of the climactic events of the story is when a Sudanese army comes to Nigeria, knowing that the American soldiers all have the plague, and are unable to fight. Their base is in a university, and the students fight soldiers who have  machine gun,  while the studnts only have clubs. The military men try to protect the Nigerian and American plague victims, but are sick themselves, and too weak to do so. Most of the Sudanese soliders get killed before reaching the victims, but two arrive, and Malisch’s son is killed after having killed one of them. The African boy kills the other.

Malisch’s wife is shattered emotionally just as she’s coming down with the plague herself. She wants to die, and almost does. One variant of the disease causes bleeding similar to the Ebola virus, and she bleeds, but survives anyway. She believes that her husband told her she couldn’t die yet.

The second novel isn’t quite over, though. Most of Malish’s soldier friends believe that the President has set them up, being complicit in the short civil war in the previous novel, and having notified the Sudanese that the American soldiers in Nigeria were unable to defend themselves. The six of them decide to assisinate this President. Only one of the group, who had only known Malich for three days before he was murdered, is against their plot, which they keep from him, but which he suspects. He arrives at the White House just in time to kill the would-be assassins, who had been friends, even though they’d excluded him from some things. He discovers that the President had in fact foreseen how things were going, and had taken advantage of situations that offered him the power to change the world.

Usually such a person is bad news for the world. Consider Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. But against them place Octavian, who became Augustus, and made Rome such a stable government that at least part of it lasted for another 1400 years. Card also points out that most politicians, while they accomplish very little, are also not really dangerous, because they don’t want to take responsitility for anything. The fanatics who want to really accomplish something usually accomplish misery for most people they come in contact with, but not always. In this novel Africa is realigned along tribal borders, and the erstwhile heads of government aren’t allowed to escape to Europe or eslewhere. He also begins phasing out the combustion engine to save oil for things it’s really necessary for. In some ways he’s not a nice person. People seeking power have to be ruthless, but he’s not in love with ruthlessness. He’s sorry when people he cares about get hurt, and doesn’t kill for the fun of it. In human life there are no guarantees. Too much power is often bad, but so is too little, and both can be corrupting influences. But this character has used his power to do what appear to be good things. Probably not everyone will agree, and I don’t agree with all Card’s  opinions either (as he wouldn’t agree with all of mine), but his arguments are more logical than a lot of things I read.

He says very clearly that our current political situation is bad for democracy, that without noticing it we’ve all become fanatical, saying that he’s experienced people on both Left and Right who have disagreed so violently with him that they wanted to keep anyone from buying his books. He’s survived anyway, but with that sort of experience one can see him being disenchanted with both sides equally. He says this is the worst political climate we’ve had since the Civil War, and I agree. That war was an irrational outburst, and we don’t seem to be any more rational now. We don’t HAVE to have a civil war, like him, I certainly hope we can avoid it, but I’d say the ground has been thoroughly prepared.

I could play the blame game, and have in the past, but that’s the sort of thing most likely to start a war. If we continue excluding our fellow Americans, we’re just playing the dehumanizing game. If no one’s willing to compromise how will we end but in violence? There are severe problems that would perhaps be better addressed if we were a united people. But maybe it’s going to take catastrophe, manmade or otherwise, to make us come to our senses.

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