Mike Hankins's Reviews > The Memory of Earth

The Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card
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Dec 20, 2010

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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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Crew The apparent consensus is that this series is essentially nothing more than Mormon propoganda designed to prosltyze readers." What?!?! At what point in the book does Card or any of the characters say or imply that the reader should convert to Mormonism? Nowhere. Not in this book or any other. While it is a fictionalized retelling of some of the stories from the Book of Mormon, it is not propoganda for the Mormon church. It is simply telling a story in a different setting as a way to explore character motivation and illustrate what it may have been like for the real people the stories are based on. But again, it is not propoganda or Mormon commercials wrapped in science fiction. Now I understand that you might not want to continue a series because the plot points didn't follow what you were interested in, but to discontinue a series because you might be reading Mormon propoganda is just stupid. You seem to be far too intelligent to allow a science fiction novel to dictate your religious beliefs. But, it's just a science fiction series, and whether you read it or not is of no concern to me. I'm just replying because of the obvious prejudice you seem to have against Mormons that anything that might remotely hint at a Mormon belief must be avoided.

Mike Hankins Drew wrote: "The apparent consensus is that this series is essentially nothing more than Mormon propoganda designed to prosltyze readers." What?!?! At what point in the book does Card or any of the characters ..."

Yeah, looking back at that comment, I'm exaggerating it a bit. "designed to proselytize" isn't fair. And its only "propaganda" in the sense that something like the Chronicles of Narnia is "propaganda" for Christianity. Maybe a little bit, in the sense that it is trying to make these religious stories more accessible and understandable to those who wouldn't normally read them, perhaps. Maybe the word "propaganda" is too strong. You're right, I was probably a little harsh. I was getting those sentiments from others who had reviewed the books, and its probably overstated -- it certainly isn't true of this first one.

I think, at the time, I felt a little betrayed that what I thought was an interesting premise turned out to be not only the opposite of what that premise seemed to be about (to me) but that it had been essentially lifted from a religious text to the point where the names had barely even been changed at all. I felt betrayed not only by the story, but I felt that maybe Card was maybe being a little lazy. I mean, yes, Narnia is allegory, but at least Lewis exhibits a lot more creativity and weaves new plots and characters around his allegory. Memory of Earth is just a literal retelling (as far as I can tell), which isn't necessarily bad, it just seems not nearly up to the quality and depth of Card's normal writing.

But at the end of the day, you're right, its just a science fiction series, and even if it is lifted from a religious text that certainly doesn't mean it can't be a good story (there are plenty of cool stories that originate in biblical stories). But, because it pretty much abandons the only plot point I was really interested in, I'd rather read other things instead.

Lindsey If you're interested in a Mormon perspective...i am very familiar with Card's work, what he says about his work, his cultural background, and intimately familiar with the source material, so think I have some insight into the whys and wherefores of this series.
-It is not pure Card. It has most of his signature touches and thought patterns, of course, but being very faithful to the key elements of the Book of Mormon story, the plot is dictated by that story, and if he had been in charge of writing his own plot it would be a much different book.
-It is NOT Mormon propaganda. I can say almost with certainty that Card does not expect a single person to be converted by this work. In fact, he probably fully expects and understands your disturbed reaction to the faith-logic that is inherent to the plot. You'll know Mormon propaganda when you see it, because it will almost certainly involve one or both of two things—the name of Jesus Christ, and the importance of the family.
-Contrary to what you have seen in other reviews, it does address the issue of their trust in the Oversoul. It is almost exclusively an exploration of that issue of faith vs one's own will and reason. it has to be, because it is central to the story of "Nafai" and to the life of every Mormon believer: learning how to receive guidance from a higher power, and choosing whether to trust and act according to that guidance even though it doesn't always accord with one's own way of reasoning—or not. I realize that concept may give you the willies, so I won't dwell on it. The point is, it looks to you that he doesn't adequately address the issue, because he's coming at it with a completely different perspective —a believer's perspective. His characters probe it, wrestle it, fight each other over it, explore what it means and what it does not mean, but the conclusion they come to is directly opposed to the one you would come to. In the universe Card has created, faith is more...useful...yields a better result...than human reason, and so to understand that universe, you have to accept that basic premise. This is not typical Card. He usually builds his stories on a more science-fiction friendly premise. But in this case it was the only way to be true to the story he was exploring.
-It is probably not written with either you or with the most Molly Mormon of the Mormon community in mind. (I get the impression that they are rather scandalized by Card.) While your patronage and enjoyment are desirable and appreciated, and he perhaps hopes that you will understand the Mormon mindset a little better than you did before, the intended audience is the group most like Card himself —devout, rather self-aware Mormon science fiction readers who really do believe in the Book of Mormon's literal truth, but are not so protective of it that they are afraid of a little analysis.
-It is an homage to Card's faith and his heritage, an exploration of a story embedded in the Mormon psyche. It challenges the original text in some ways—"Nafai" wrote the record the story comes from, and therefore Card has to make a paragon of virtue and the very incarnations of Enemy to God into human brothers (which he does beautifully, not as much in the case of the "good" characters as the "bad" ones—Elemak is some of his very best characterization work)—but it is not designed to subvert or cast doubt. To Card, the story is both mythical and historical, and the book is written for people who can accept both those interpretations, which I would guess is a pretty small group, but if I am representative, a grateful one. It is not a work that can easily cross the barriers of culture or genre, but for what it was, it was well done.

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