Space Ramblings

Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card review

When toward the end of Shadow of the Giant, Bean admits that he is not loved as Ender was, it is also the author, Orson Scott Card somewhat bitterly admitting the reality that although we have been repeatedly told that Bean is smarter and better than Ender, he was never really accepted by readers or gained the acclaim that the Ender books did.

Today Ender’s Game is an acclaimed classic novel to be adapted into a movie. By contrast the Bean books all too often seem like a case of an author trying to cash in on a successful franchise by drawing it out further. That is not true but the perception lingers because the Bean books are fundamentally different in nature from the Ender books. Where the Ender books, Ender’s Game, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, were really stories about space and human limitations, the Bean books read like warmed over Harry Turtledove mixed with some Timothy Zahn. They are far less about the characters and barely qualify as Science Fiction and are essentially wargaming books, a problem that became truly pronounced after Ender’s Shadow as the Bean books essentially became the narrative of the Battle School Graduates trying to conquer the world.

Ender’s Game certainly left open a great tale, the story of Peter rising to power and conquering the world. Unfortunately that is not really the story Orson Scott Card chose to tell. Peter’s conquests are a sideline to Bean who himself is a sideline to the absurd wars that are fought among the Battle School Graduates. Orson Scott Card is trying to borrow from that Timothy Zahn style of plotting out brilliant strategies that produce instant victory so devastating it brings an enemy to his knees while hardly ever firing a shot. This itself is part of the more elitist school of Golden Age Science Fiction writing that believed the abilities of the human mind could conquer any chaotic situation.

While Timothy Zahn’s writing may stretch this premise to absurdity, in the Bean books, including Shadow of The Giant, Orson Scott Card goes well beyond absurdity. In this world simple battle plans can bring down entire nations with ease. Despite the passage of nearly two centuries, the technology on both sides seems to have only marginally improved, so that even though Earth has interstellar warships, the average war is fought by groups of infantrymen and their supply trucks with occasional air power. This is the way wars may be fought today in the Asian theater where the wars in Shadow of the Giant take place but it isn’t too likely that this is how wars will be fought two centuries from now. Even today remote drones are changing the battlefield, insurgent tactics and military tactics compete in both strategy and technique and robotics is increasingly taking its place on the battlefield.

The highlight of this absurdity features Peter Wiggins waiting around while the wars slowly rage as all the nations line up to surrender their sovereignty in favor of a United Earth, without any real basis for it except for the army commanded by Bean, who has grown to a massive size. It is certainly not what readers of Ender’s Game had in mind when they pictured Peter’s rise to power. To properly comprehend the implausibility of this scenario, national governments in the FPE have no actual authority because the FPE stands for the Free People of Earth and is constituted only of the citizens. Considering the reluctance of even the European powers to give up some sovereignty to the EU, the FPE scenario as is portrayed in Shadow of the Giant is simply absurd. The conflict that supposedly propels the FPE signup takes place in Asia between Pakistan, China and India. It is unclear why so much of the rest of the world then joins up.

The result leaves Peter Wiggins a Hegemon who has lucked into power with a world it seems inconceivable that he could control for any length of time. Bean, who Card tells us is the real power behind the throne, departs… leaving Peter as an accidental boy emperor. And that is the real shadow which is cast in Shadow of the Giant, the shadow of Bean falling over Peter Wiggins.

Split between the political fallout of the wrangling between Caliph Ali and his Caliphate advisors, Han Tzu (Hot Soup) who has declared himself the Emperor of China, Virlomi, who has made herself a goddess is Bean’s search for his and Petra’s missing children, told primarily from Petra’s view. Petra was hardly the most interesting character to begin with and Orson Scott Card does what he can but despite her supposed brilliance, he instead chooses to write her as weak and vacillating, initially completely opposed to Bean’s departure into space and then giving up and acceding without any genuinely logical explanation or fight. Only Virlomi’s antics really lend anything interesting to the proceedings, her propaganda techniques and mobilization of the Indian peasantry forming a picture of a kind of violent teenage Gandhi with a goddess complex.

Shadow of the Giant in many ways brings a welcome end to the portion of the Bean books set on earth. With a spaceship and genius children at his disposal, Bean will no doubt have his adventures among the stars much as Ender did and it will be interesting to see if freed from Orson Scott Card’s weak attempts at political and military game theory, if he can bring Bean out of Ender’s shadow after all.

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