[2013 addendum/disclaimer: Please see my review of Ender's Game for an important message regarding controversy surrounding this author. Thank you.]
Orson Scott Card originally intended Xenocide and Children of the Mind to be one novel. I'm glad he was dissuaded from that plan. Not only would Xenocide have been an interminable monster of a tome to read, but what works well in Children might not have been sufficiently well developed, and what doesn't might have dragged Xenocide's often fine qualities down. The fourth — and at the time final, as it does bring closure to the saga up to that point — Ender novel sadly runs right into every narrative pothole Xenocide handily swerved to avoid, before finally finding smooth traction in its final third. And what the holy hell has happened to these characters? Oy.
In my Xenocide review, I did my best to avoid spoiling the event that occurred at that book's climax, which I thought stretched suspension of disbelief. Not to the breaking point, mind you. But it was a heaping helping of that "indistinguishable from magic" business that allows SF writers to pull rabbits out of their plot-hats when the clock is ticking and all looks lost for our heroes. Here, I have to spoil it, because the entire plot of Children rests upon it. Even the book's title is a double entendre, referring both to the results of the event itself and the religious sect to which Novinha, Ender's alienated wife, exiled herself in Xenocide. So here goes.
Philotes are the quantumy connections Card has invented for the Ender universe that have enabled instantaneous ansible communication across light years. In Xenocide, the discovery of aiúas, intelligent philotes that connect sentient life, was also made.
In seeking a way to recombine the fatal descolada virus that infests the entire ecosystem of the colony world Lusitania — thus keeping a fleet of attack ships from committing another xenocide by sterilizing the planet with the same weapon Ender was tricked into using against the Buggers — Jane, the AI that lives within the philotic web, has found a way to transmit matter. This allows, not merely FTL, but actual instantaneous travel anywhere, presumably, in the universe. It is achieved by piggybacking the philotes outside of the universe (into an ineffable space merely called Outside) at one point, and popping back in at another point.
But to do so requires Jane to tap into practically the entire galaxywide ansible web for the necessary processing power. And as the Starways Congress is busy shutting down the web at the behest of the mad child Han Qing-Jao in order to purge Jane completely, time is running out before she'll not only lose the ability to instapop spacecraft everywhere, but quite possibly die.
The most surprising property of Outside is that it enables actual creation from thought. On the first test run, Ender's crippled brother Miro came back in a healthy body, and Ender himself unwittingly projected his id into two newly created humans, both resembling his siblings Peter and Valentine. They aren't really Peter and Valentine, of course. For one thing, Valentine is still alive, and this new Val resembles her at a much younger age. The young Val embodies Ender's idealized image of her, while the new Peter embodies Ender's anger and guilt, his negativity towards both himself and his memory of his brother's ruthlessness. But both of them are, for all intents and purposes, real people. They're just both Ender, to differing extremes of attitude and behavior.
This was where Xenocide left us, and I admit to thinking it was a bit much. After all, if something is this indistinguishable from magic, then it's magic. But it so happens that Children of the Mind — now is the title's intent clear? — features these simulacra as its principal characters. Thus I found myself more and more accepting of what at first felt like an over-the-top plot contrivance. As Card expands upon the concept, he uses Val and Peter to represent his themes of redemption and the value of life and, most importantly, as physical embodiments of the alien hierarchy invented by Valentine in her subversive writings as Demosthenes. The concept of ramen (those with whom we can get along) and varelse (those we can't, period, and against whom all-out war is justified) not only apply to any alien lifeforms we may encounter. They both exist within ourselves. Our survival depends on how we can find a happy medium between the two.
It all sounds like good heady stuff, entirely in keeping with the moral and intellectual pursuits of the series so far. The trouble is that, in executing the story, Card, who so handily skirted excessive sentiment in Xenocide's more emotional scenes, here takes an enthusiastic swan dive into the deep end of the bathos. Virtually all of the characters — even Jane — spend the book's first half absorbed in self-pity, bitterness and angst, screaming at each other and generally acting like pissed off teenagers who've been denied the carkeys. Yes, I understand these characters have been through a lot. But to have everyone going off at once in aggravating bursts of petulance, selfish rage, and petty vindictiveness just makes you want to say fuck these people. One scene after another of headache-inducing arguments does not exactly endear you to the cast, and makes for deadly repetitive drama (not to mention extremely unmellow melodrama) to boot. And boy, does it go on.
Sucks, really, because the story had potential for shattering suspense. In trying to stop the fleet as well as the shutdown of the ansible network that will lobotomize Jane, the new Val and Peter split up. While she still can, Jane transports Peter and Wang-Mu, the former servant of Qing-Jao, to one colony world after another in the hopes of finding the right people to exercise their political influence to stop Starways. Val and Miro, meanwhile, are tracking down the world where the descolada — which they are now sure was deliberately engineered — originated.
The final third of the book finally finds the story picking up, once Card dials down most of his characters' histrionics and gets down to the nitty gritty: saving Jane's life, saving Lusitania. The sacrifice Ender has made in bringing Val and Peter to life comes full circle, and the resolution here is satisfying, its emotional responses well-earned, unlike that in so many of the book's other scenes. For an example of the latter, Card prematurely tries to kick off a love interest between Peter and Wang-Mu. It isn't initially convincing, mainly as Peter hasn't gotten to the right stage of his character arc for it, but also because of Card's barfatronically sentimental writing. When Wang-Mu asks herself "Have I lost my mind? Or have I, finally, found my heart?" I quite honestly worried I might contract type-II diabetes on the spot. (Then again, those lines could be turned into an awesomely snarky Valentine's Day card.)
Yes, Children of the Mind is full of little internal dialogues like this, and they're all exactly that on-the-nose. It's a pity, because there are some fascinating sociopolitical themes Card also explores, like the notion of "edge" versus "center" nations and their cultures, that help elevate the story intellectually.
I think what happened with Children of the Mind is that Card tried just a little too hard to wrap this series up with a career-defining masterpiece. (He already had one of those in Ender's Game, so it isn't like he had something to prove.) It's a common trap to fall into when a writer's creation garners enormous success and popularity, which, in turn, comes with the downside of often too-inflated expectations from fans. Even the finest talents can get self-conscious when under such microscopic scrutiny. The work suffers, not to due indifference or incompetence in the execution, but to overweening sincerity in reaching as high as possible. Yes, once Children of the Mind reached its moving final chapter, I felt at home once again, and that Card had gotten over the need to offer too much plot, too much emotion, too much of everything. But that's the problem with children: they're so much in your mind — and heart — that no parent can really step away long enough to see where they've gone astray.
Followed by Ender's Shadow.