Wednesday, 11 July 2001

Orson Scott Card: Children of the Mind (1996)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 868

The story of Ender Wiggin, one of the most famous in modern science fiction, is brought to a close in this novel, originally intended to be part of Xenocide, from which it follows on immediately. The planet of Lusitania, home of the hive queen saved by Ender and of the third sentient species known to mankind, the pequeninos, is threatened with destruction by a fleet sent by the Starways Congress, because it is infected by the devastating descolada virus.

The virus has been genetically modified to make it harmless, but the fleet heading to Lusitania does not know this. This is because the instantaneous communication device, the ansible, is being turned off because a computer program has been detected using it to gain unauthorised access to computers across the galaxy (you would have thought that the people designing the network would have learned some of the security lessons of the twentieth century Internet). This program, known as Jane, is the last hope of Lusitania, as she is able to make use of the vast amount of computing power to move ships instantaneously - but as she loses access to machines she as rapidly losing the power to do so.

The plot of the novel is quite simple, being basically an unravelling of the strands in the situation inherited from Xenocide. The main interest is actually theological, something extremely unusual in genre fiction. Card has conceived of the soul as an immortal entity, normally inhabiting the Outside, a region beyond normal space and time used for the faster than light travel, but sometimes taking up residence in a sentient being. This is not a new idea, but Card looks at it in a new way. For example, the soul of Ender - Card calls them aiuas, probably to avoid the religious connotations of the word soul - is split between three bodies during his first trip Outside, one his own, and the others created from nothing in the images of his early siblings as they were in early adulthood, Valentine being that part of his personality he most admires and Peter that which he fears. The nature of the two of them is really the central theme of the novel, and is its biggest problem.

The plot is rather neatly worked out, and the writing gives something of the impression that once he'd planned it, Card lost interest, and that the Peter and Valentine characters are too one dimensional (being just aspects of another personality) for him to be interested in them. Things rather suddenly improve about two thirds of the way through, when the character of Ender looks as though he might die; this is something that the author can care about.

The aiua idea is interesting, but a bit problematic in a fictional setting because it is very tempting to use it as though it were a magic wand. It isn't too well defined, and so there are no rules that Card imposes on himself. As a result, Children of the Mind springs no surprises and has nothing to say. The relation between the material universe and the Outside is one of the areas left undefined; it would be interesting to have some issues in the novel which are more to do with how the physical and non-physical affect each other, as this is really at the heart of how Card's model could work.

The novel has smaller problems as well (the treatment of Japanese and Samoan culture, for example, feels perfunctory and stereotyped) and so is not among Card's best; it is a sad end to a wonderful series.

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