Mike Hankins's Reviews > The Memory of Earth

The Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card
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Dec 20, 10

Read in December, 2010

This is a difficult review for me to write, as it raises the question of what my book reviews need to be. On the one hand, I found this book to be very well-written, yet the themes, implications and general message I profoundly disagreed with and found a little disturbing. To deal with this, I've decided to score this one based on it's craft, not counting "against" it because I happen to disagree with it's message, although it will be impossible for me to make a full review without commenting on it.

If there's one thing Orson Scott Card does well more than anything else, it's character creation. His characters almost always have a depth and pathos that is often lacking in pop sci-fi stories of this type. That tendency is certainly true in the main characters of The Memory of Earth. We follow a group of brothers (and half brothers, begotten through a complex web of regularly shifting marriages) and their sibling rivalries in the midst of a strange society that is simultaneously very primitive, and highly advanced. The world is controlled by The Oversoul, a powerful machine that can influence the minds of humans, essentially, to prevent them from developing technologies that could lead to destruction, such as fast land vehicles, flight, atomic power, etc. Thus, certian technologies such as complex electomagnetic manipulation and powerful computers are common, yet things like cars and explosives are unheard of mysteries. This creates a setting that looks in many ways, like ancient rome, the renaissance, or perhaps the Old Testament, but allows for science fictional high-technology elements as well. It's an interesting mash-up that has a lot of promise.

Card also spends a lot of time developing a matriarchal society with complex family relationships, and a very ordered religious system that is based on worship of The Oversoul. It's an interesting culture, to say the least. Women have more power and prestige than men, often having many husbands, although never simultaneously. Only women are allowed to perform higher religious ceremonies, and have more say in government and politics.

But the intricacies of the unique setting and cultural background is not what the book is about. The main plot concerns the Oversoul becoming weak, losing it's influence over humanity, allowing people to think of once forbidden technologies and begin to implement them. But even this plot is not what the story is really about. Most of the plot concerns the main characters--a group of four brothers--and their sibling rivalries. Card gets into the heads of all four, and allows us to see things from their perspective at all times, which is nice. Each character comes across as understandable, and while the one main character is clearly presented as the hero, I felt that I could just as easily "root for" any of the others. This is not true of the book's villian, who is the only character I've ever seen Card present as a completely one dimensional caricature. The villian serves just to create a situation for the protagonists to react to, and while his motivations and actions make sense from a plot perspective, little thought is given to him other than, "he's the bad guy."

And now we come to the real problem of the book. Ultimately, the story is about faith triumphing over reason. This bothers me on a fundamental level. I believe in reason. I believe in rationality. I believe that logic and reasoning should be the largest factor in decision-making. This book features characters who ignore logic and reason, acting irrationally because of their faith in something they have no direct evidence for. Some people may find that uplifting, but I do not. However, I was still interested, because, in this universe Card had created, we weren't talking about mystical gods, paranormal weirdness, or cosmic forces. The "God" of this book is a computer, a literal Deus ex Machina that was created by humans. From the persepctive of the characters it might look like faith, but I was curious about the implications that the object of their faith was a man-made machine. These implications were not explored, but this is only the first book in a series, so I had hope that this line of reasoning would be developed.

So, I did something that I often do when I read the first book in a series and find myself intrigued, but also filled with trepaidation. I've been burned by enough seemingly interesting books whose sequels ended up being absolutely awful. So I went online and looked at spoilers. And boy was I surprised.

I had obviously noticed all the Old Testament references in the book. Many plot points seemed to be mash-ups of Old Testament stories, a little bit of Joseph here, and little bit of Abraham there, etc. But that's only because I am unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon. Apparently, this story is an exact retelling of the Book of Mormon, to the point where some character's names are only a few letters off. Not having read Mormon literature, I can't say this for sure, but it appears to be the consensus of readers. And apparently, the subsequent works in this series only continue to exploit this connection. The implications of the culture Card creates, the unique setting, and the consequences of having faith in a man-made machine are, according to plot summaries of the works, not explored at all. The apparent consensus is that this series is essentially nothing more than Mormon propoganda designed to prosltyze readers.

Some fans might think that harsh, and, while I can't say for absolute certian that this is the case since I haven't actually read them all, the consensus is so strong that I have absolutely no interest in reading the rest of these. The only elements I was interested in are ignored, and the points that I had misgivings about are amplified. So I won't be continuing this series. I have far too many better books on my "to-read" shelf to spend time reading Mormon commercials wrapped in science fiction trappings.
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