Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: Shadows in Flight

Books set in Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse have begun to all sound the same.  You have your standard mix of action, philosophy, political science, and sci-fi technobabble.  You have your hyperintelligent main characters, be it intuitive (Ender) or analytical (Bean and his progeny), and your occasional glimpses of Card’s Mormon sensibility – in past books he has often taken digs at homosexuality; in this book, feminism is criticized in a few brief but scathing asides.  Card’s newest offering, Shadows in Flight, is the long-awaited (at least, for me) continuation of the final book in the Bean quadrilogy.  At the end of Shadow of the Giant, Bean and three of his children, who are all affected by his genetic disability, depart from Earth so that the relativistic effects of space travel will enable them to live long enough for Earth-based scientists to find them a cure.  For those new to this series, Bean and his progeny are afflicted by “Anton’s Key,” a genetic modification that enables supreme intelligence but also switches off the genes that control physical growth.  As a result, they are smarter than all other humans, but also have a life span of approximately twenty years because their bodies never stop growing.

In this novel, Bean is the Giant, confined to the cargo hold because of his size, unable to move or risk straining his overworked heart.  His three children were named after individuals significant in Bean’s past: Ender, Carlotta, and Sergeant.  Unbelievably, all three also demonstrate the personality traits that each character was most known for.  Ender is the smart, scientific one, with incredible empathy and a strong desire for peace.  Carlotta is the peacemaker between the other two boys, and handles the domestic needs of the spaceship.  Sergeant is the warlike one, self-prepared for battle and desperate for a strong leader to follow.  Sound familiar?  The problem is believability.  It is one thing for small children to be told stories of their namesakes, and for these children to then make the conscious decision to emulate them.  But there is no suggestion of such a decision in the text.  Instead, they magically echo these other characters.  It reads like Card took the quick, easy route and imitated his previous novels when writing these brilliant children, and never bothered to invent new personalities for them.  It would have been a more compelling story if he had even bothered to mix them up: what statements could Card have made if Sergeant was the domestic one, Ender the warlike one, and Carlotta the empathic one?

The problem of writing hyperintelligent characters is that you have to demonstrate their supreme intelligence.  In his deconstruction of the Left Behind books (, Fred Clark demonstrated how annoying it was for Lahaye and Jenkins to declare that Buck Williams was the world’s best journalist without providing any evidence of this – in fact, what excerpts readers are given of his journalistic writing are poorly written examples of hack writing.  Card faces a similar dilemma.  It’s not enough to simply declare that a character is the best at something without providing evidence in the text, if possible.  (An author writing the world’s best painter has the advantage, in this case, over an author writing a writer or a thinker.)  In the past, Card was reasonably successful.  Ender and Bean were always believable to me, in that typical suspension-of-belief-needed-for-science-fiction sort of way.  Ender’s in-text thoughts genuinely noticed things about people.  Bean’s in-text analyses of facts and situations often left me giddy.  But Card got lazy, or hasty, when writing Bean’s children.  They didn’t read as hyperintelligent, and one of the main problems with this was Card’s (apparently unintentional?) overlap with other books.  Several of the big reveals in Shadows in Flight were facts that were already disclosed in his other books.  Thus, readers are left unimpressed by a train of thought leading to a shocking fact that the readers themselves already know.

For Card, this novel was an unusually quick read.  It was short – only 237 pages in large print compared to his usual 400-500 in small print.  The apparent shortness of the book is exacerbated by the fact that not very much happens.  Bean, Ender, Carlotta, and Sergeant find an unknown spaceship and interact with what’s on it.  Not exactly the same universe-changing action found in the original Ender or Bean quadrilogies.  (This would be a good place to mention my supreme annoyance that whoever wrote the dust jacket synopsis [“And then their ship’s life support begins to fail, and Bean’s children must save themselves.”] was totally wrong.  Not only is that not the central conflict in the book, it never happens at all!)

All in all, Shadows in Flight reads like a novella setting up a new trilogy (I certainly hope so!)  In his introduction to the novel version of Ender’s Game, Card explained that he had to add a new ending to his original novella to set up the adult-Ender trilogy to follow.  This new ending was primarily concerned with a change in location and situation – Ender’s journey to the first colony, where he found the Queen’s cocoon (a story further expanded in Ender in Exile).  I think Shadows in Flight fills the same purpose, and anticipate further novels connecting subsequent generations of Bean’s children to the events taking place at the end of Children of the Mind.

I would recommend Shadows in Flight to anyone avidly following the series, but it would be a poor way to start if you’ve never read any of them.  Try Ender’s Game or Ender’s Shadow (preferably in that order), still, arguably, the very best books that Card has ever written.

Things to consider:
Is Card losing his writing touch, or was did he just write this novel(la) too quickly to make the characterization believable?
I haven’t read any sci-fi news items speculating or reporting on upcoming sequels.  If you have, am I right (or close?)

Things I’m reading:
To Serve Them All My Days, R.F. Delderfield
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
(Wives and Daughters is temporarily on hold because, knowing the library will shortly demand it back and already loving it, I’ve purchased my own copy of the Everyman edition, but it will take a week or two to arrive.)


  1. I loved Ender's Game and liked Ender's Shadow quite a lot, but I haven't been able to summon up much enthusiasm for the rest of the books. I liked Speaker for the Dead and have had vague thoughts of reading the other Ender books, but I found Shadow of the Hegemon surprisingly dull, despite Bean being my favorite character in the original book. I didn't really like the direction the character took, and it doesn't sound like the series recovered.

    1. It largely didn't recover. The Bean series kept the political intrigue tone through Shadow of the Giant. You might consider trying Xenocide. It had a new tone - I think of Speaker for the Dead as the anthropology book, and Xenocide as the philosophy book. It brings in some interesting moral questions, such as, "are the descolada sentient?" and "if so, is it ethical for us to try to kill it to defend ourselves?"

  2. I liked Ender's Game, particularly because I never guessed the big reveal. I liked the political intrigue in the Shadow series, but I found both Xenocide boring. It had too much philosophy, and metaphysics (with the whole philotic twine thing), and I found myself tempted to skip those paragraphs, especially when he was theorizing about faster than light travel. Did anyone else find that boring?

    1. I certainly did, the first time I read it! The second or third time, probably five years late, felt so insightful that it completely altered my worldview and I still think of relationships as twinings. It gave shape to the idea that love is infinite, and you can always form new relationships without giving up old ones. Now, I find that section boring again, probably because I absorbed the ideas so well that reading them again feels tedious!

  3. I almost ordered this version of the book for my Kindle and I would have been very angry with getting ripped off by Amazon, the publisher and the author. Fortunately I discovered the truth before placing the order. I don't have a problem with releasing a special edition, but the fact that it is abridged should be made very clear to potential purchasers... and it is not.

    Marlene Detierro (Zespri)

    1. As far as I know, Shadows in Flight isn't abridged, but just a shorter book than most in his Ender/Bean series. Perhaps you could try a copy from a library to see if you like it - that way, if it's too short for your taste, you haven't spent any money on it, and you can always go back and buy it later if you love it.