Review | Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth in Stephen Olson’s series of posts on Orson Scott Card’s award winning Ender’s Game novels. You can find his other posts on the Ender’s Game series here.

Whenever I start reading the Ender’s Game series, I immediately feel a sense of dread because this means I’ve started down a road that eventually leads through the longest book in the series: Xenocide .

Xenocide picks up thirty years after Speaker for the Dead and continues the major struggles that emerged at the end of that book.  Fortunately, this creates a strong sense of continuity.  Most of the characters from Speaker for the Dead have returned.  Unfortunately, these characters and conflicts have progressed surprisingly little during the intervening thirty years.  The optimist in me feels like we should have seen more character growth.  Perhaps some of the underlying interpersonal issues could have resolved themselves.  Even one or two resolutions would have felt very satisfying.  Instead, I always feel frustrated that our superlatively clever and resourceful characters have accomplished practically nothing.

The plot moves forward in fits and starts with things moving very slowly at first.  We first meet some new characters who seem completely unrelated to anything that happened in previous books, and their subplot takes about eighty pages to join the rest of the plot.  During that time we are also reintroduced to more familiar characters currently travelling through space.  In the end, it takes a hundred pages to get back to the planet Lusitania, where the majority of Speaker for the Dead took place.  I always have great forward momentum in my reading when I get to Xenocide, and these first hundred pages just destroy that momentum.

Part of the problem in this beginning is that the core character of the series, Ender, doesn’t ever show up.  Instead, we read from the viewpoints of a father and daughter dealing with death and psychological issues, as well as a young man whose brain damage from a previous incident has left him incredibly depressed and angry at the world.  While this portion of the book sets up some important foundation for later chapters and has some interesting discussions, I tend to get very tired of the general feeling of despair that permeates each of these characters.

Once things get rolling in a more serious way, it gets much worse.  The whole first half of the book feels like a downward spiral.  For whatever reason, I’ve started to really relate to and enjoy this part of the book.  Not that I feel like my own life is such a mess as what is happening in the book, but rather because I’ve experienced enough dark nights to better sympathize with the various characters in their horrible predicaments.  While it used to bother me how poorly some of the characters respond to their situation, I’ve certainly responded poorly to negative things often enough to commiserate.  In earlier reviews, I said that the humanness of the character becomes frustrating as they make bad decisions, but in my most recent reading of Xenocide I feel like I’ve come to peace with how stupidly characters act at times.  (Of course, it also helps that I know how everything turns out in the end.)

Speaking of “the end,” Xenocide and its sequel, Children of the Mind, were originally conceived as one novel until it grew greatly in scope, and Orson Scott Card divided the story into two books.  One plotline ends at this point, while the other plots wrap up for a bit.  I’ve always disliked both how the one storyline ends and how the others wrap up.  Nothing in the ending satisfies me, especially considering the continuity issues that are created in the next book as a result.

However, despite the concerns I’ve had with the story-telling and characters, I still manage to really enjoy Xenocide.  The book is thick with philosophy and ideas, more so than any of the other books in the series.  This is not just a function of the length of the book, but also that so much of the action takes place in the minds of the characters and in their conversations.  In my most recent reading, I took note of two dozen concepts that I feel are worthy of further reflection.  Many of these are introduced in the pre-chapter conversations (my favorite pre-chapter content in the series), where two characters with very active mental lives discuss all sorts of things.

From the suggestion that people can’t truly know each other and instead must imagine who someone else is, to the idea that everyone goes through metamorphoses and changes their identities over time, the philosophical content gives me new ways to evaluate my own feelings and experiences.  A paragraph that details how a particular character cannot distinguish between predictions and reality helped me build a framework to understand a very conceptually difficult piece of academic literature in a post-graduate program.  Statements about how everyone judges other whether they intend to or not or that feeling proud of accomplishments is natural bring me a sense of peace.  I was shocked at how close my mantra of “do what must be done” comes to a character’s statement, “I’ll do what must be done, that only I can do[.]” And after feeling so smug to realize that my thoughts on the truth of stories did not come from Shadows in Flight, instead I discovered the exact same ideas articulated far more clearly in Xenocide, which I’d read  several times before first discussing those thoughts.

As a follow-up to my favorite book in the series, Xenocide still falls short in my estimation.  However, it is rich with wonderful content.  With more of the raw human emotion and thoughtful dialogue than the other books, I still find it a worthy read every time, even if I don’t always look forward to it as much as the other books.

Parent’s guide: Some language.  One notable scene of violence that is somewhat disturbing.  Many complex moral dilemmas.

Stephen Olson teaches math at North Layton Junior High.  When not teaching math, he polices the halls and library of his school, ensuring that students partake of only the best reading material.  On the rare occasions he finds himself away from school, Stephen reads, writes, and writes about reading. You can follow him on Twitter @MathTeacherGuy or email him at mathteacherguyATgmailDOTcom.

Does Xenocide, or another book we’ve mentioned on Attack of the Books! sound interesting? Do authors a favor and pick up a copy of one of their books from Amazon. It puts bread on their table and helps them keep writing good fiction.



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