EMPIRE: an Idiosyncratic Review

August 7, 2007 | 25 comments

Orson Scott Card has written Empire, a near-future thriller about coups, plots, and civil war in America. What follows is a short but idiosyncratic review with spoilers.

I knew before I read the book that it was a book based on a video game, so I didn’t mind the laser hovercraft, the mechs, and the draining lake of awesome.

Here’s what I did mind.

At the beginning of the book the soldier-hero verbally spars with a brilliant history professor who argues that modern America’s collapse into Empire is inevitable. The political system is disfunctional, he says, the populace is increasingly indifferent to the old ideals, political figures increasingly manipulate those ideals cynically in the quest for power and so on. America is effectively Rome in the late Republic. It will have its coups, its plots, its civil war, and then, inevitably, its Empire. The hero finds it hard to rebut these arguments–which as the book develops appear to be largely accurate–but is determined to resist by any means.

I was hooked. I saw how the book was going to go and it was going to be grand and tragic. A myth even. The hero was going to try to do everything he could to revive his ideal of America, to suppress the plotting and the coups, to counteract the moral corruption of the politicians, to bank the fires of civil war, and inexorably he was going to draw immense power to himself. Much against his will he was going to become a heroic version of Augustus, who scrupulously observed the old Republican forms and even tried to revive their content, but who failed because no one wanted to go back. The hero was going to create the Empire by fighting against it.

But the book didn’t go that way. It wasn’t history or destiny that our hero was up against. It was a video-game villain, with an improbably complex and successful plan.

If you like that sort of thing, read it. If not, not.


25 Responses to EMPIRE: an Idiosyncratic Review

  1. Ivan Wolfe on August 7, 2007 at 1:57 am

    That was a very idiosyncratic review. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on it, please. It would be nice to read a real review from someone other than the constant refrains of how evil Card is because this is a neocon book or some such.

    I read the first chapters online (on Card’s official website – it was legit) and my problem was that, while characters are not always representative of the author’s views, the main character’s political opinions were basically cut and paste from Card’s own political essays at ornery.org.

  2. Dan on August 7, 2007 at 6:43 am

    Hasn’t America been an empire these past few years already? I mean, what kind of a nation goes off and attacks a nation that was not a threat to it and builds with slave labor the largest embassy in the world? That just don’t make no sense, yo, unless, we’re an empire already.

  3. Ugly Mahana on August 7, 2007 at 6:59 am

    I am very proud to say that I have not read this book.

    There. Now I have secured personal satisfaction for today.

    That was easy.

  4. Adam Greenwood on August 7, 2007 at 8:41 am

    You’re a troll, Dan. Shaddup or get deleted.

  5. Adam Greenwood on August 7, 2007 at 8:49 am

    Ivan Wolfe,

    It’s been a while since I read the book, but if I recall the main characters’ political views do seem to march in tandem with Card’s. The problem from my standpoint is that Card’s political views are deep enough for making intelligent decisions about voting and things but not deep enough to write a book about the collapse of political systems (this is a big reason, in my view, why the sequels to Shadow Puppet are such a big disappointment). Further, if I recall, some of the overt political statements the characters make, but especially the ones that Card makes in his afterword, don’t seem to fit with what actually happens in the book very well. Overall I’d call it an interesting failure.

  6. Dan on August 7, 2007 at 9:16 am


    I am not a troll. I am speaking on the subject of this thread. Orson Scott Card claims to criticize empire building with this book, but he’s all for the empire building America is participating in. This criticism is perfectly valid in a thread like this. But please, go and censor away. We can’t possibly have a real debate here. All must heed to the words of Mr. Greewood.

  7. Jonathan Green on August 7, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Dan, I don’t think you’re a troll. However, you’re jumping pretty early into the discussion to introduce a topic that Adam is really not talking about in his review. He’s talking about literary structure while explicitly bracketing out politics, but you want to talk about Iraq. Undoubtedly there’s a connection, but it would be polite to give a little more time to comments more closely related to Adam’s point, and it would be nice to look for a tone that was a little less accusatory and defensive. Try it, you might like it.

  8. Adam Greenwood on August 7, 2007 at 10:07 am


    I’m going to let # 6 pass, but no more.

    Ugly Mahana,

    Yes, but you did read a review about it. Shame.

  9. Anita on August 7, 2007 at 10:12 am

    I actually enjoyed the book. Card is such a great storyteller. I didn’t know about the video game connection until I read his author’s note, but I always think it’s interesting to read his future scenarios.

  10. Dan on August 7, 2007 at 10:48 am

    My apologies. These are frustrating times and sometimes I get a bit ahead of myself. You can delete my comments if you like, Adam.

  11. Adam Greenwood on August 7, 2007 at 10:51 am

    No hay de que, Dan. I apologize for the ‘troll.’

  12. Jonathan Green on August 7, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    What computer game is Empire based on, by the way? I quite liked Card’s Futurewatch, but it helped that I had once been seriously addicted to Civilization, which that book was based on.

  13. Adam Greenwood on August 7, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Pastwatch was based on Civilization? I had no idea. I knew Civilization kept Card from finishing Pastwatch for awhile, but I didn’t know it influenced the book. Makes sense.

    I believe the video game will be called Empire and it’s not out yet. I actually don’t know, because judging by the book the game will be a first-person rpg with action elements and I’m not that interested.

  14. Seth R. on August 7, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Come on Adam, not even Medal of Honor?

    I would concur that America has been an empire in every sense of the word that matters for well over a century now. But I don’t think you need to point to the last 20 years to make that point.

  15. Jonathan Green on August 7, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Future, past, same diff. Sorry. Yeah, Card talks about Civilization in the prologue to the book (or is it the postscript? My memory is obviously shaky). Really, you haven’t lived unless you’ve witnessed your tidy little island of happy Roman cities demolished in a matter of minutes by Aztec tanks in the year 1250 A.D.

  16. Ugly Mahana on August 7, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Re: #8. Ha!

  17. Tatiana on August 7, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    I think Uncle Orson jumped the shark some time around Shadow of the Hegemon. Maybe earlier. Enchantment had strong hints of it. I love his old stuff, though. Speaker for the Dead is one of my favorite books of all time. I also love Treason, Songmaster, and Ender’s Game. He’s going the way of Heinlein, with the opinionated old white guy politics piled heavily into every tale, but he’s not as good as Heinlein, who was good even when he was bad.

    He’s a really great guy. I like him a lot as a person. But I’m not finding his recent writing to my taste. Thanks for the review. I don’t think I’ll be reading this one either.

    I did like the latest Alvin Maker book that I read. I’ll probably finish that series out.

  18. Kevinf on August 8, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    A day late on this, but all I can say is that when I read this book in January (it was a Christmas gift), I was hugely disappointed. Card can be a very compelling story teller. I rank “Speaker for the Dead”, “Ender’s Game”, and “Red Prophet” as three of his best books, with fully developed, multiple characters, real emotion, and real drama. “Speaker for the Dead” is one of my favorite reads of all time.

    Unfortunately, “Empire” represents none of those things. The characters were cardboard cutouts, basically no emotion, and a didactic story line that had little or no suspense. I knew it had been written as a back story for a video game, but this was really hack stuff. For comparison, look at Card’s novelization of the movie “Abyss”, which while not as good as “Speaker”, stands well enough on it’s own as an action tale with science fiction elements. The characters are real, the plot sprints forward (more believably than the movie, IMO), and even James Cameron said that Card’s first chapters, written while the actors were being hired, sets being built, etc, helped him and the actors understand the characters being filmed more fully. It’s a good book. Empire is not.

    For what it’s worth, my take is that Card, writing under a deadline, cranked this out in a hurry and substituted many of his political views as a substitute for character development. He’s capable of better, but his recent work is not at the same level as those earlier Hugo and Nebula award winners that we all love so much.

  19. Ray on August 8, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    Agreed, kevinf. Unfortunately, that happens to SO many authors when they become famous. John Grisham comes to mind immediately. There was a stretch where each of his books, obviously written under a deadline, simply fizzled at the end.

  20. jjohnsen on August 8, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Other than Ender’s Shadow, I haven’t enjoyed anything by Card in the last ten years. This review doesn’t make it sound like Empire is an improvement.

  21. Adam Greenwood on August 8, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Besides Ender’s Shadow, his best recent stuff is Enchantment and Crystal City. By Card’s normal standards you’d have to judge Empire a failure.

  22. Ivan Wolfe on August 8, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Which is odd, since Card has gone on record saying that EMPIRE is his best writing ever.

    But everytime I hear that from an author, it winds up being not true.

  23. jjohnsen on August 9, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Which is odd, since Card has gone on record saying that EMPIRE is his best writing ever.

    But everytime I hear that from an author, it winds up being not true.

    I have to agree. I wonder why this is?

  24. Seth R. on August 9, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Probably because the author is self-indulging and missing the public mood.

  25. jorge on August 18, 2007 at 3:04 am

    I believe in all sense of the word that what is happening now in our country is just a direct reflection of what happened to the nephite population at the end of the BOM. we should all have our eyes open and not just simply trust and follow leaders just because they profess to follow a higher being. Their actions shall truly show what is in their hearts.


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