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Empire by Orson Scott Card - Input Junkie
September 15th, 2008
01:15 pm

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Empire by Orson Scott Card
dcseain had been recommending Empire to me for a while, so when a $2 copy crossed my path, I picked it up.

The good news is that Card has placed himself firmly on the side of lawful good, changing his previous alignment of lawful evil. There's no creepy character torture. There are a number of good action sequences (unfortunately, all of them are in the first half of the book). There's a fine "Oh, my God!" moment-- something I think is absolutely required of real world political thrillers.

It may be a surprise to those who read Card's editorials that gay marriage is presented as probably a bad idea, but those who get worked up against it are presented as loons.

I'm announcing Lebovitz's Limit: a test for fiction-- do the good guys commit torture? Empire almost passes. Details and other spoilers are under the cut.

However, the book is set in Bizarro America......

In particular, military robots are used to conquer Manhatten. (The appearance of the first robot is the "Oh my God!" moment mentioned above. While the conquest is easier than it should have been-- if it's obvious that the robots are targetting people in uniform, the police would have gotten into street clothes. This doesn't seem to occur to anyone. Also, I think some interesting things could have been done to the robots with construction equipment, not to mention dropping heavy objects from high places.

In any case, the story has it that the government of New York and various other cities and some blue states reach an immediate accommodation with the Progressive Restoration. This is insanely implausible.

The presentation of Princeton as far-left only seemed surreal, especially the notion that there's only one isolated soldier/conservative in the classes.

The torture issue: the good guys do *not* use torture for interrogation. This is something of a relief in an action-adventure novel. However, both of a man's arms are broken in order to restrain him. This seemed more like red meat for the reader than a practical necessity. (He was given morphine, but not enough to really control the pain.)

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From:nancylebov
Date:September 15th, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC)
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Thanks. I'm glad you like it. Please pass it on.

Edited at 2008-09-15 06:03 pm (UTC)
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From:xiphias
Date:September 15th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
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That's my test for real life . . .
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From:gildedacorn
Date:September 15th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
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>The presentation of Princeton as far-left only seemed surreal, especially the notion that there's only one isolated soldier/conservative in the classes.

Left, yes. Far left, mostly no. (In my opinion, based on living here for close to twenty years.)




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From:agrumer
Date:September 15th, 2008 06:52 pm (UTC)
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I've known ever since I saw the first chapter excerpted on Card's website that I couldn't read this. The soldier porn was just too obvious:

For these American soldiers had also been trained to kill -- silently or noisily, close at hand or from a distance, individually or in groups, with weapons or without.

They had killed no one in front of these villagers, and in fact they had killed no one, ever, anywhere. Yet there was something about them, their alertness, the way they moved, that gave warning, the way a tiger gives warning simply by the fluidity of its movement and the alertness of its eyes.

That's the writing of someone who doesn't really think of soldiers as people, but as incarnations of some idealized principle of lethal effectiveness.

And generally, it's been well over a decade since I've been able to read Card's prose at length without either wincing or laughing.

From:nancylebov
Date:September 15th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC)
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Agreed on the soldier porn. I was able to suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy a good bit of the book, but no one else is obligated to to so.

It was amusing that the left is blamed for not cutting US soldiers slack for collateral damage, but the bad guys get blamed their modest level of collateral damage.
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From:rysmiel
Date:September 15th, 2008 08:12 pm (UTC)
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That's the writing of someone who doesn't really think of soldiers as people, but as incarnations of some idealized principle of lethal effectiveness.

Or, to be fair, of a POV character who thinks that. Though on the other hand, I think OSC has at this point gone beyond getting that particular value of fairness from me.
From:nancylebov
Date:September 15th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC)
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The book's written in third person, and there's no countervailing evidence against the soldier worship.
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From:dichroic
Date:September 16th, 2008 01:47 am (UTC)
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That's been bothering me as I listen to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books (they're excellent as workout distraction, and available for free on Librivox). John Carter, being a moral sort of guy, avoids unnecessary killing ... unless he's really in a hurry to the bad guy (often just a hired guard) is between him and something he really wants.

I'm not giving anyone more recent than Burroughs a pass on this.
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From:rysmiel
Date:September 15th, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
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Lebovitz's Limit: a test for fiction-- do the good guys commit torture?

It occurs to me to wonder whether this well distinguishes "these are the good guys so it's OK for them to commit torture" from "this character is committing torture so maybe they might not be a good guy after all" as intended reader reaction, as they seem to me to be quite different writerly intents.
From:nancylebov
Date:September 15th, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC)
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I see a lot of cases of the former. I don't think I've ever seen the latter. Examples?
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From:rysmiel
Date:September 15th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC)
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The shining one I had in mind when I wrote that comment has of course completely fallen out of my head now that I am called on it. I will tryo to remember and come back with it.
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From:darius
Date:September 15th, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC)
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I just read such a case, perhaps, last night, in Neal Stephenson's Anathem. The protagonist gets rescued from a mob by kung-fu monks who grab someone out of the mob to torture as a distraction. After it's over one of the monks says there was no damage, 'just' a lot of pain, and our hero reflects that these rescuers are not nice guys. (I haven't finished the book yet.)

Another case I'm not sure is an example: at the end of one of the Anita Blake books she tortures someone for information. She'd been becoming more and more one of the monsters through all of the series, and that was where I hit Lebovitz's Limit and gave up on it. I don't know if she's meant to be a "good guy" from there on, but the books do continue.
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From:gildedacorn
Date:September 15th, 2008 09:54 pm (UTC)

Caution: Harry Potter spoilers

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Yes. "Moody" in "Goblet of Fire." His bouncing Malfoy off the sidewalk was clearly intended to make the readers suspicious, although it utterly failed with me, since I, along with most of the observers, thought he had it coming.

From:nancylebov
Date:September 16th, 2008 01:19 am (UTC)

Re: Caution: Harry Potter spoilers

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That's the usual thing with torture by good guys-- the situation is set up so that the person being tortured is someone you don't like.
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From:mmcirvin
Date:September 16th, 2008 01:49 am (UTC)
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It's not clear which side of the line V for Vendetta falls on (I've only seen the relevant part of the movie).
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From:tomscud
Date:September 16th, 2008 03:13 am (UTC)
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And in Watchmen, Rorschach is clearly supposed to be over the line.
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From:agrumer
Date:September 16th, 2008 03:27 am (UTC)
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In the book of V for Vendetta, it's unclear whether V is a good guy.
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From:theweaselking
Date:September 16th, 2008 04:37 pm (UTC)
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George RR Martin's "A Song Of Ice And Fire" has a couple that come to mind. And yes, in each case they're a bad person who may or may not have *appeared* to be a good person before.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 16th, 2008 02:32 pm (UTC)

Torture

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This raises an interesting question in my mind. What is torture, exactly? I am thinking of the 'test for humanness' (or whatever it was called) given by the Bene Gesserit in Dune to Paul Atriedes.

David Bellamy
From:nancylebov
Date:September 16th, 2008 02:59 pm (UTC)

Re: Torture

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Good question. That one's a little hard to classify in terms of the usual fictional patterns of interrogation or punishment, though it would count as torture by normal standards. It never occurred to me before, but that might be a lot of why Paul wouldn't cooperate with the Bene Gesserit.

Are the Bene Gesserit supposed to be exactly be good guys? They aren't as bad as the Harkonnens, but that isn't the same as being good.
From:henrytroup
Date:September 17th, 2008 02:11 am (UTC)

Re: Torture

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It's a hard call; and the other order, the Bene Tleilax are equally not easily pigeonholed. The Wikipedia article on the Bene Gesserit suggests they each are loyal only to themselves, a position that very easily shades into "bad guys".
From:nancylebov
Date:September 17th, 2008 11:25 am (UTC)

Re: Torture

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Interesting point. I can't remember why the Bene Gesserit thought it was important to create a man who wouldn't be freaked by ultimate metaphysical femaleness. (Am I remembering that bit correctly?)
From:henrytroup
Date:September 17th, 2008 11:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Torture

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I'd say that's pretty close. I may need to reread the original novel again.
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From:nancylebov
Date:September 16th, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC)
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Thanks. Do you know if it predates his earliest ranting on the subject?
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