Though I am usually a rational sort of person (in a fluffy, out of touch with reality sort of way) I am also sometimes a bit of a sucker. One of the ways I’m sometimes a sucker is my habit of being loyal to authors and stories that have been good to me in the past even when they don’t necessarily deserve it any more. Thus I have a shelf full of post-1990 Robert Asprin, and thus I read something like Ender in Exile. Orson Scott Card is responsible for both my favorite standalone book (The Abyss) and two of the best sci-fi novels of the last quarter-century (Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead). More recently though, he is also responsible for the later, weaker books in the Alvin Maker series and the almost unreadable Shadow Puppets. Ender in Exile falls somewhere in between, good enough to read even if you are not the pathological completist that I am but not so great that the Ender universe would suffer if it were skipped.
Ender in Exile is a midquel that takes place between chapters 14 and 15 of the original Ender’s Game. Having played his game to its conclusion, Ender Wiggin now finds that he must deal with the consequences of his actions–both intentional and otherwise. The political and military powers that no longer need him view him only as a potential threat and rival, so Ender accepts a position as governor of an exocolony where time and distance will insulate him from Earth, and vice versa. Despite using the governorship as an excuse to leave the system Ender’s true interest is in trying to understand the Formicans, the race he previously called the Buggers and has spent his entire life being trained to fight.
But Ender’s drive to succeed means that even a job taken as an excuse has to be done right. So instead of taking the easy path and allowing the incompetent Admiral commanding his colony ship to usurp his role as governor, Ender engages in a different sort of war to protect his position and the colonists under his care. In doing so he meets the Toscanos, a pair of colonists fleeing their lives on Earth who are determined to insert themselves into the political process on Ender’s new home. But even if Ender can navigate all of the problems of being a stellar governor, they are still only distractions from his larger goal of getting through the aftermath of his war with the Formicans.
If that plot summary seems a bit confused, it is with good reason: Ender in Exile is a book that seems very confused about itself. The first half of the novel is the story of Ender’s trip on the colony ship and his fight with Admiral Morgan for control of the new colony. The next third is about Ender’s life on the colony, and a final segment briefly and off-handedly describes one of the most significant events in Ender’s multiple millennium-long personal narrative. If this seems somewhat unbalanced, that’s only because it is.
So, what is so important that it forces Card to deal with a critical topic in roughly fifty pages? The story of the Toscanos, a caricature of a mother and daughter who are into social climbing and internecine feuding. They almost feel like they were included as comic relief from Ender’s interminable brooding and introspection, but they never reach the point of actually being entertaining. Instead the pair just comes off as a convenient plot device that allows Ender to explore his feelings of guilt and anger about being used in Ender’s Game. Even worse, they are also exploited as a convenient device for Card to hammer on his favorite topic, the importance of the parent-child relationship. Though, based on how often Card’s characters tell us how important it is to have as many kids as possible, presumably bad parent-child relationships fall into the “we’ll make it up in volume” category.
Ender in Exile also continues Card’s repudiation of the original Ender’s Game that he started with the Shadow series. In Ender’s Shadow Card goes out of his way to make sure that his original premise–a special individual can be a great person, while children have all the potential of adults and should be given the same respect–is subverted by the idea that the really important child was not normal in any sense of the term and was only capable due to genetic engineering. Exile continues this pattern by letting us in on the secret that the other exceptional Wiggin children, Peter and Valentine, were only great because they were being subtly manipulated by their parents. Even Ender himself is infantilized to a degree that seems incompatible with his character in Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, or Xenocide. Card seems to be trying to add depth to the children, now teens, but instead only ends up damaging the work he created more than twenty years ago.
Despite all of these flaws, Exile is still a good book. Card retains his ability as a storyteller, and his voice kept me wanting to read on a page-by-page level even when the larger story seemed to wander–or, occasionally, was completely rudderless. Relationships have always been Card’s strong point, and the interaction between characters remains a reason to read. The only exception to this is when he tries to force his everybody-have-kids message into the picture, at which point things begin to get stilted. But I have come to accept this as part of the price of reading a Card story, much like reading Spider Robinson means accepting his evangelism of hippie culture. The story would usually be better off without it, but it is more rewarding to work around the problem than to get hung up on it.
Ender in Exile is not a strong addition to the Ender universe, but it does fill in some gaps in the timeline and Card’s ability to weave an engrossing tale makes it a rewarding, if occasionally annoying, read. 6.5/10