I’ve been so steeped in series lately. This kind of reading pattern is unusual for me – if you look through all of the book lists I’ve posted, you’ll see that I rarely read two books by the same author in the same year and that I almost always read stand-alone novels or short story collections. But lately this blog has been all about Outlander and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, with some inroads into Charlaine Harris’ and Kim Harrison’s vampire porn series, and I’ve recently accepted the fact that sooner or later I’ll be reading Game of Thrones. I read most of Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’ series in the spring of 2013, then took a break and read Speaker for the Dead in January of this year. I waited longer – eight months – to read Xenocide, even though technically this book and the final installment, Children of the Mind, have never left my ever-evolving on-deck circle.
The ‘Ender’ cycle may be the most overwrought series of all time (though it may soon be overtaken by Outlander – we’ll see). The endless belaboring that Orson Scott Card has given these characters and situations should not work – it should be awful. But the thing is – it’s not. These books are good. Xenocide is my least favorite so far, with the exceptions of the extremely cheesy A War of Gifts and First Meetings in Ender’s Universe, but I still enjoyed it a good deal, especially its second half.
For those who don’t know this series, here are the bare bones. Ender’s Game, written first as a short story and then expanded into a novel, is the story of a gifted young boy who is identified by the government as possessing certain qualities – ruthlessness, compassion, willingness to act decisively – necessary for a military commander. In this sci-fi novel set roughly two hundred years in the future, Earth is preparing to fight an alien enemy called the “buggers.” The buggers are essentially giant ants, and their social hierarchy resembles that of ants in that all intelligence is centered in a hive queen, who communicates telepathically with her worker drones, who don’t have the kind of individual identities that humans have. In the ‘Shadow’ sequels (more on these in a minute), the buggers are called the “formics,” because “buggers” is deemed politically incorrect. The ‘Shadow’ books, incidentally, are set 2-20 years after Ender’s Game; the other sequels – Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind – are set three thousand years after Ender’s Game, and the formics are called “buggers” again. A mild continuity problem – no big deal. I just wanted you to know that I was paying attention.
So Ender defeats the buggers – decisively. He kills all of them, since the buggers’ strategy was to put all of the queens on one planet, and then this planet is destroyed and all of the buggers died – because the workers can’t function without their queens. Initially Ender is hailed as a hero. The military hesitates to send him home, though, because they suspect, correctly, that Earth, which united to fight the buggers, will once again fragment into warring and competing nations and religions and that Ender will be a tart for kidnapping and exploitation. The wars that take place after Ender kills the buggers are the subject matter of the ‘Shadow’ sequels: Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, Shadow of the Giant, and Shadows in Flight (the first ‘Shadow’ book is Ender’s Shadow, which tells exactly the same story as Ender’s Game, but from the point of view of a different character – this sounds like a horrible idea that should never work, but it’s actually really compelling). While Ender is still in space, Earth is eventually united under a person called “the Hegemon,” who happens to be Ender’s borderline psychopathic brother Peter, who finally makes the decision that Ender should never be invited back to earth. So Ender is assigned to be a colonial governor and is sent on a centuries-long journey to the planet he will help to colonize (after the buggers are defeated, humans quickly learn that the buggers thrive in atmospheres and climates similar to that of earth, so they immediately start colonizing the now-empty planets that have been vacated by the Buggers.
Somewhere along the way, Ender learns that there is one hive queen that survived his annihilation of the buggers. How he finds this out is a long story, but the short version is that the Buggers communicate telepathically, and when Ender was fighting against them they studied his mind and came to understand him, and then they used some of his own memories to communicate with him. Ender promises the hive queen to find her a safe planet where she can begin to reproduce again, and she promises never to fight humans again. After being a colonial governor for a while (at the age of fifteen-ish), Ender takes advantage of the fact that high-speed space travel allows for the relativistic passage of time. On any given flight from planet to planet, Ender might age six months or a year while several hundred years pass on Earth or on other planets. Ender spends his time reading and studying and getting to know the other passengers on the ships, and over time he becomes extremely wise. He writes a book about the hive queen and about the nature of the bugger civilization, and he has it published anonymously. People who read it find it so moving that they start to vilify Ender (they don’t know that he wrote the book, only that he is the one who killed the buggers, whom people now recognize as beautiful and complex and civilized. Now Ender really can’t return to Earth, where he could be executed or lynched. So he keeps traveling and dealing with his deeply guilty conscience, suffering like Job – or worse, since at least Job eventually got to die. Once three thousand years of Earth time pass, Ender is about fifty years old and comes to rest on a planet called Lusitania.
You can read more about what happens on Lusitania in my review of Speaker for the Dead, here. The very short version of the story is that Lusitania is the only planet humans have explored on which there is a sentient species. They call this species the pequininos – or ‘piggies,’ if one wants to be extra condescending. Keep in mind that the buggers are a sentient species also, but no one except Ender knows that there is still one hive queen left, and Ender is bringing her to Lusitania. The human scientists on Lusitania have recently learned that there is a virus on that planet called the descolada, which is lethal to humans but necessary for the pequininos to survive and reproduce. At the beginning of Xenocide (which means ‘species killer’), some of the scientists are beginning to argue that the descolada is actually a sentient species in its own right, even though it appears to be only a virus.
In addition, Ender has a noncorporeal friend named Jane. Long story, but Jane was created inside Ender when the buggers were studying him telepathically. They were directing so much intensity on Ender’s mind that this new kind of life form appeared. I don’t really get it either – but Jane exists and appears to be a different kind of sentient species in her own right. She and Ender are sort of in love with each other.
So this is how Xenocide begins: every single known sentient species is gathered on this one planet: humans, the bugger hive queen, Jane, the pequininos, and the descolada. Starways Congress, the earth-based administrative body that oversees space colonization, has decided to punish the humans of Lusitania, who violated policy by intervening on pequinino behavior when they were supposed to keep themselves strictly isolated behind an electric fence. Starways Congress’ punishment method of choice is the M.D. Device, the same weapon that Ender used to annihilate the buggers. Starways Congress thinks it is a) punishing the human colonists on Lusitania, b) wiping out the pequininos, whom they see as vicious killers (they’re not, of course, but essentially the Congress is forgetting history and vilifying the pequininos the way their distant ancestors vilified the buggers), and c) preventing the spread of the descolada. They don’t know that the hive queen is there, and they don’t know about Jane.
So much for keeping the background information brief.
In Xenocide, Jane – who is connected to every computer in the universe – cuts off all communication between the ships heading to Lusitania and the rest of the known universe. She hopes this will buy some time while the many citizens of Lusitania work on various projects that they hope will allow the humans and pequininos to live side by side. Essentially, they need to figure out a way to engineer a new strain of the descolada that will enable pequinino reproduction without killing humans.
Meanwhile, on a planet called Path, a human colony based on the traditional Confucian ideals of ancient China has been tasked with figuring out how and why the Lusitania fleet “disappeared” (they didn’t disappear, of course; they just lost communication with ships and planets). This part of the novel introduces a whole new set of characters and a totally different social system – which means that yes, there will be STILL MORE plot summary in this review. On Path, some people are “godspoken,” meaning they hear the voices of the gods (they’re sort of like oracles, I guess). Except that what they call the voices of the gods, you or I would call obsessive-compulsive disorder. The godspoken are extremely intelligent, but they are all afflicted with unbearable urges to wash their hands and complete other tasks like tracing the lines in the grain of their wooden floors, which they see as the gods’ way of purifying them. Apparently when Path was first colonized, Starways Congress introduced a genetic mutation in some of its residents on purpose. For some reason I never quite grasped, Starways Congress wanted some of the people on Path to be extremely intelligent but burdened with their obsessive purification rituals so they never had time to use their intelligence to seize power. Long story short, Jane appears, enlists the help of the godspoken citizens of Path, and helps them in return by providing an antidote to their OCD.
For the first half of this novel, I was relatively annoyed by all of this Path business. I wanted the plot to get back to Ender and the Lusitanians, all of whom I felt invested in from Speaker for the Dead. I didn’t care much about the godspoken of Path, although I was pleased for them when their OCD was cured. I don’t care very much about Jane either, to be honest. I do care about the pequininos and the hive queen and Ender’s longstanding struggle to find a way for them all to live in peace.
At some point before I read Xenocide, I remember reading somewhere that this novel is the most philosophical installment in the Ender series, and this is most certainly true. One of the things Orson Scott Card is really good at is giving his novels a clear and complex worldview. This can be annoying, as in the many anti-gay-marriage rants in the ‘Shadow’ series, but overall the philosophical contents of Card’s novels are very appealing. Card’s attitude toward the human race is affectionately cynical. He knows that we never change, and he likes us anyway.
I’m going to hold off on giving away the ending of Xenocide, which is both satisfying and totally ridiculous. I’ll just give you one quick teaser: Peter Wiggin – Ender’s brother, the borderline-psychopath who becomes Hegemon of Earth in the ‘Shadow’ novels – comes back! He’s not exactly ‘reborn,’ but he’s not exactly not reborn either. Long story – but suffice it to say that this development redeemed this sometimes-slow novel in my eyes and made me really excited to read Children of the Mind. And I do recommend this series – occasional inanities and all – to all of our readers, especially if sci-fi usually isn’t your thing.