I suppose it's because my expectations were so low — practically subterranean, to be honest — going into A War of Gifts that I was pleasantly surprised to find this little book not nearly so godawful as I was fearing. Card's politics have never exactly lined up with mine much, though, in the 80's, one could say I was a left-leaning moderate while Card was a right-leaning moderate. After all, anyone who proudly trumpeted his religious faith while at the same time hitting the convention circuit with his now-legendary "Secular Humanist Revivals," inveighing against the depredations of the religious right and cautioning his audiences to respect good science and cultural diversity, was a man I could respect, wherever we might part ways on the details.
But in recent years, Card himself has swung so far to the right that, with A War of Gifts, I was expecting nothing less than a neocon diatribe against all those evil "secularists" who, in the minds of guys like Bill O'Reilly and Donald Wildmon, have declared a "war on Christmas" and will not rest until all mention of the assimilated ex-pagan yuletide festival has been eradicated from western civilization. (Speaking for my own godless heathen self, about as far as I'm willing to go with a war on Christmas is to curl up with a good book and let all the other idiots deal with traffic jams and airports and overcrowded malls if they want to.)
Imagine, then, my surprise to find A War of Gifts (at only 126 pages in large type, barely a novella) nothing less than a plea for moderation and tolerance of cultural diversity. Its more even-tempered narrative does not, mind you, make it an especially good story. But it's nice to see it isn't quite the work of the same partisan ideologue who gave us Empire.
The premise isn't bad. Zeck Morgan is the young son of a firebrand Puritan evangelist who is chosen by the International Fleet to enter Battle School. He refuses to participate in combat training based upon his pacifist religious beliefs, even though Battle School prohibits overt religious practice. Or rather, he participates, but at a bare minimum level designed to fail. When the Sinterklaas holiday approaches, one of the cadets lays his shoes out by his bunk in a gesture of homesickness. Another cadet from the same country on Earth notices this, and, following the stocking-like tradition of Sinterklaas, decides to leave a little note in one of the shoes. Zeck observes all of this, and promptly raises holy hell about how persecuted he is, not being allowed his own religious traditions while these two kids are openly practicing theirs. That the kids themselves weren't intentionally doing anything of a religious nature at all gets lost in the ensuing confrontation, which explodes into openly rebellious religious activity on the part of many other students of different faiths. Zeck finds himself increasingly isolated and ostracized once his fellow students realize he's the cause of all this mess, and it's up to Ender to get Zeck to face up to the real problems underlying his behaviors and grow as a person.
There. I just saved you 90 minutes of your life. As I said, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the premise. But the story handles the moral quandaries it seeks to explore in a fairly superficial fashion, and throws unidimensional stereotypes into the cast from the first chapter. Habit Morgan, Zeck's father, is your de rigeur wild-eyed, strident, Bible-thumping, intolerant religious fanatic. For the other side of the ideological fence, Card never gives us any sound reason why no student is allowed religious practices in Battle School. Reports are surfacing about intensely aggressive religious proselytizing within the US military, which would have made a strong basis for this story choice as a form of commentary on the dangers of religion running amok in a military setting. But there's no indication Card is aware of this and no reason to assume this was his thematic intent. Rather, I just think he wants some simplistic atheist stereotypes to balance his simplistic religionist stereotypes. When the officer who comes to fetch Zeck rudely spouts that "children have no religion," it's an obvious swipe at Dawkins (and one that misses Dawkins' point, I might add).
As for the story's themes of fighting for one's individuality in an oppressive scholastic environment that promotes mindless adherence to authoritarian rule and conformity, frankly I'd have to say Robert Cormier did it a jillion times more effectively in The Chocolate War. A War of Gifts doesn't really examine the issues it raises with much sophistication. Moreover, as an entry in the series, it's a distraction that doesn't fit in comfortably to the known plot continuity of Ender's Game. And since the book's overall message can be summed up as "mind your own business and don't be an asshole," well, my pal Selina Rosen, the hilariously brash publisher of Yard Dog Press, sells a "D.B.A.A." button you can wear that makes the point far more succinctly.
It's hard to imagine the audience to whom Card thinks A War of Gifts will appeal. It's thematically banal, and its narrative is simply too featherweight to engage thoughtful adult readers. It's written at the level of a not-especially-demanding Young Adult. But there are just enough profanities in the dialogue to make some parents likely to consider the book unsuitable for the very young. It's a book that exists in a marketing grey area, with only Card's name and the still-strong Ender brand as selling points. Perhaps it just should have appeared as the cover story of the Christmas issue of Asimov's, rather than as a $12.95 mini-hardcover. That's a bit steep for an hour of reading, especially if it just tells you things you already know.