Reviewing a book like Empire is harder than you might think. When evaluating a politically charged novel, you have to take care not to focus too strongly on its politics to the extent that you ignore the storytelling. Then again, you can't just critique the storytelling and ignore the political themes either, any more than you can ignore any other theme a novel advances. But a reviewer who slags a novel simply because the author's politics are not his own is just being lazy. A political novel can be completely full of shit — and oh, does the musky aroma of fertilizer ever emanate from Empire's pages — but if the author presents ideas in an intelligent way, argues well, and weaves everything into servicable entertainment, then an honest reviewer will at least give props for that.
In Empire, which speculates on a possible new American civil war divided along right-wing and left-wing battle lines, Orson Scott Card wants you to know, above all else, that he's a moderate. He's a centrist through and through, who holds no truck with the "ridiculous" and "inconsistent ideologies" put forth by extremists on both sides. "Instead of having an ever-adapting civilization-wide consensus reality," Card writes, in an afterword that manages to sound both sincere and sanctimonious, "we have become a nation of insane people able to see the madness only in the other side."
So why am I not buying it? Maybe it's something to do with the fact that until now, Card has never been shy about espousing conservative views. Maybe it's to do with the fact that the baddies in Empire are all left-wingers. Maybe it's because Fox News host Bill O'Reilly makes two appearances in Empire, and Keith Olbermann or Jon Stewart none. Maybe it's because his heroes have so much dialogue in which they simply parrot right-wing talking points. Maybe it's to do with the comment Card made in the afterword to 2005's Magic Street, thanking everyone who voted to re-elect George W. Bush to a second term, "allowing me to sleep at night...." I understand Bush sleeps pretty well himself. I hope they're sleeping at least as well as the families of our 4,000 dead soldiers.
Whoops, there I go, getting political. How dare I? Because anything in a book is fair game for a critique, that's why, and both Card's story and afterword bring his politics to the fore. I'm at least honest enough to fess up to having biases. I doubt anyone doesn't. What annoys me is not that Card has his, but that he smugly pretends to be above it all. Yes, it's true our nation is ideologically divided, and the ones making the most noise are the extremists. But for Card to pretend that he hasn't got a horse in the race is far more dishonest and worthy of critical rebuke than any of the gross distortions he makes of liberal views. (Newsflash to Scott: Nazi Germany was not an atheist state.) And no, I don't think Card's distorting right-wing views in the same way, as I know he has right-wing biases as much as he chooses to deny it. If Card had simply owned up to his own biases, I needn't have written these last two paragraphs.
On to the story. Is it, at least, good entertainment? Well, Card was — at one point in his career, anyway — one of the genre's greatest storytellers, and he hasn't lost the knack of putting together an action-packed and gripping yarn. Your own perceptions of how well Empire stacks up to Card's best work of the past will depend entirely on your ability to suspend your disbelief for the following:
Averell Torrent, a charismatic, hubristic Princeton professor who wants to unite America under his own imperial rule, healing all of its political rifts by becoming our very own Augustus, manipulates billionaire left-wing philanthropist Aldo Verus into launching an armed rebellion through a group called the Progressive Restoration. Another Torrent manipulatee, the Christ-like (no, I'm not being snarky there, honestly) Army major Reuben Malich, is duped into drafting, in the interests of homeland security, the most effective plan to kill the president (whom Card never actually identifies in the story as Bush, though there's no one else he could really be). These plans are promptly funneled to terrorists, who follow through on them most effectively, blowing up the whole west wing in a surprise attack. With both the president and vice president dead, Malich knows it was his plans that were used and that he's intended as a fall guy. He immediately sets out to find the truth. Like Richard Marcinko the Rogue Warrior™, he has his own private army of badasses who come to his aid, as well as a loyal friend, Captain Bart Coleman. Meanwhile, Verus's Progressive Restoration (you have no idea how far back into my head my eyeballs roll every time I write that) invades Manhattan with spiffy new high-tech walking mechs straight out of a PC game. Which is, incidentally, where Empire has its origins.
Can this get any goofier? Sure it can. First off, however anyone might feel about the political left, I think it's a matter of historical record that the left traditionally tends to be dovish, the right hawkish. So the idea that the anti-war side of the fence would be the ones to initiate a shooting war within America's own borders against other Americans is absurd on its face. Just as it's absurd to think a right-wing two-star Army general would agree to assist the process by announcing that a nonexistent military coup was in the offing, thus provoking citizens into thinking of the rebels as liberators.
And what about this Verus chappie? First off, it's neon-sign obvious the character is a thinly veiled smear against George Soros, the real-life billionaire liberal philanthropist that the ever-so-level-headed Bill O'Reilly has chosen to dub "Public Enemy #1", for reasons I find entirely opaque. So if I'm right about that, the character is not only a narrative cheap shot, but as a villain, he's one of these incongruously developed bad guys who's immensely brilliant until the point where the story requires him to be an idiot. Verus has the money, vision, and R&D tech to, quite literally, invent new weapons of war — robot controlled walking mechs and flying hovercycles. But he's too stupid to train his own men in their proper use, or even in how to engage in close quarters combat, or hell, even point and fire a rifle properly. He's brilliant enough to build an elaborate, Blofeld-like underground/underwater secret base in rural Washington, which the good guys then infiltrate with almost embarrassing ease.
When all is said and done, Torrent, who has been very visible in the president-pro-tem's cabinet working to defeat the rebels, is greeted as a kind of conquering hero, facing absolutely zero opposition as he is elected to the presidency by being nominated by both parties. By the time you get to this point in the story, it's all gone so overboard into silliness that you're just reading it for the chuckles.
I believe Card is sincere when he expresses concern about the way our nation has been divided. "We live in a time when lies are preferred to the truth and truths are called lies," he writes, which, considering Card's support for the Bush administration, is either the most ironic sentence to see print all year or a noble expression of a change of heart in the face of discomfiting revelations about the administration's ineptness. (It's a testament to how badly the Bush White House has made a pig's ear of the "war on terror" that the execution of Saddam Hussein made him look sympathetic.) These may very well be my own biases showing, but I don't agree with Card's remark that both the right and left have been "equally insane." It's been a right-wing presidency, abetted by a compliant bipartisan congress and worshipful news networks (so much for the old "liberal media" canard, yet again), who lied us into a disastrous war that has destabilized the least stable part of the world to begin with, and done nothing at all to make us safer from terror. And it's been right-wing ideologues who have preferred lies to truth in the matter of science, in their denials of evolution and global warming, opposition to stem cell research, and support for abstinence-only sex education. And it's the right who've been quick to smear any court that doesn't decide along party lines as "activist judges."
Oh, hell yes, there are troublemakers on the left. Organizations like PETA and Earth First show how easily good intentions can slide the slippery slope into fanatical, intractible self-righteousness. But at least during the Bush years, and with the media's catering to the hate speech of right-wing pundits like Coulter, Savage, and Malkin, I just don't think it can be said that the "insanity" of the left and right are on any kind of even keel. And the public would seem to agree, with progressives taking back the House and Senate in the 2006 mid-term elections, not with spiffy robot-controlled mechs, thank you very much, but the old-fashioned way — by votes. Maybe someday we'll get an extremist left-wing president who's every bit as bad as Bush has been, and the tables will turn. But that isn't where we are now, at this time of our society's greatest ideological divisiveness, a time that inspired a work like Empire. Right now, I'm glad there are enough people on both the right and left who disdain the noise machine, and who are more eager to go to the polling place rather than take up arms to achieve their goals. Whether we love or hate each other, Americans know what America means in the end.