Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review - The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

Short review: The United States has collapsed after a nuclear attack, and the Mormons get to run things. Naturally, they are insufferably pious when doing so.

After America
The Mormon rule commences
And they are tyrants

Full review: The Folk of the Fringe is a collection of five shorter works mostly set in post-apocalyptic America and detailing the travails of Mormons struggling to survive in the face of some religious bigotry and the harsh new landscape. One thing that is interesting about the stories is that despite having suffered at the hands of intolerant non-Mormons, when they get into the majority, the Mormons in the stories are more than willing to engage in some religious bigotry of their own. Overall, four of the stories form a decent (although somewhat scary) narrative showing how a small religious group could survive the collapse of society, while the fifth seems to me to have been tacked on with little regard for continuity.

In the first story West, Mormon refugees from North Carolina head west to the promised land of Utah following the collapse of society after some sort of apocalyptic event. (It is never revealed exactly what the trigger for the collapse is, but it is hinted to be some sort of limited nuclear exchange triggered by a weak U.S. President confronted by a strong-handed Soviet dictator). This seems a little autobiographical, as Card had taken up residence in Greensboro, and makes the events the precipitate the story a little bit creepy. One wonders if Card imagines that his non-Mormon neighbors are just itching to round up the Mormon and slaughter them, although this kind of persecution paranoia seems to run through a lot of Mormon fiction. Granted, Mormons were persecuted . . . in the 19th century. I doubt anyone still cares nearly as much as Card imagines they do. Even so, this triggers the events of the story, without which there wouldn't be much in the way of a book, so it can be overlooked. Along the way, the Mormons, who demonstrate themselves to be pretty lousy at traveling in a post-apocalyptic world, meet up with a guide who helps them out, and inspired by their obvious goodness, duly converts and leads them west (hence the name of the story).

West leads more or less to Salvage, in which a minor character from the previous story becomes the central character. Even though he has been raised since early childhood in the Mormon promised land of Utah, Deaver Teague has somehow avoided becoming Mormon himself, which doesn't seem all that unusual until one begins to note just how oppressively religious the post-apocalyptic Mormon society has become - swearing has become a criminal offense, as has premarital sex and pretty much all of the other minor peccadilloes of modern society that Card usually rants about. Poor and with limited prospects (as a result of not being Mormon), Deaver cooks up a plan to make himself wealthy that, in the end, serves to demonstrate just how pious and wonderful the Mormons really are.

The Fringe is a story connected to the others in the book, but none of the characters from West, Salvage, or Pageant Wagon appear in it. Card includes a central character with cerebral palsy, an affliction that is clearly of interest to Card due to his own son having it. In this story, the necessity and virtue of living under the thumb of the local Mormon clergy is explored, with the caveat that there need to be spies to make sure the clergy is honest in their heavy handed rule over the colonies on the fringe of arable territory. The story includes some discussion about how the Mormon's have been systematically reclaiming arable land from the desert, which counts as science fiction, but the central thrust of the story is that a command economy run by pious Mormon leaders is necessary to make this system work.

Finally, Pageant Wagon sees the return of Deaver Teague, who runs into a traveling family of performers who make the rounds of the communities on the fringe providing more or less approved entertainment. While most of the stories about the Mormon enclave in post-apocalyptic America make Mormon rule seem quite heavy handed, and this story is no exception, Deaver finds the one more or less socially acceptable exception to this rule (although there are definite limits on what even the pageant wagon families are allowed to do). With respect to religion, this story seems almost thematically the opposite of West, as now that the Mormons are in charge, they are insufferable to non-Mormons. They don't treat outsiders as brutally as the non-Mormons in North Carolina treated Mormons, but when religious law and temporal law become one and the same, tyranny is not far behind, and it shows in the story.

The final story in the volume is America, which doesn't really fit the rest of the collection. It is supposedly the first chronologically, and draws heavily upon Mormon theology. In the story, a young Mormon boy sent to live in South America with the father he despises for being a lying, cheating, non pious sinner spends his time in the company with an older Native-American woman. He, of course, ends up sleeping with her, but its okay, because it is more or less divinely ordained that he should and that she will have a child who is marked for greatness. It doesn't fit the rest of the collection because the explanation it gives for the fall of the Westernized nations in the Americas is at odds with the story that is given in those stories. This story really amounts to little more than Mormon wish-fulfillment, and as anything other than a view into the strange world of Mormon theology and prophecy, it isn't very good.

If one is interested in reading a Mormon fantasy, then this set of stories would certainly fit the bill. I am unsure whether Card was parodying his own faith to a certain extent, or if he truly thinks that marrying religious and civil law together in a kind of religious police state is a good idea. If his intent was the first, then he didn't make himself clear. If it was the second, then this story is even scarier than I had originally thought. Either way, it is worth reading if for nothing else than to get a look into how a Mormon thinks Mormons would behave if left unfettered by silly impediments like secular law.

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  1. I don't know what he meant by this book either, but the Mormon religion is a patriarchy. As I learned to say when I lived in Utah...Oh my heck! Might could happen!

  2. This is one of the more disappointing Card books I have read, and I think it is because his Mormonism is so front and center, and the true combination of wackiness and authoritarianism that seems to run through Mormon thinking is so readily apparent.

    I've also been having a weird problem with Blogger. I can get to my dashboard and so long as I stay there I can make edits and control my blog, but if I go to view the blog itself, Blogger stops recognizing that I am signed in, so I can't got directly from the blog page to the editing function. Instead I have to go back to my dashboard, hunt down the post, and edit it from there. This just started happening in the last few days and I have no idea why.

  3. A bunch of blogger users are complaining of glitches. Sorry to hear it. Blogger hates me - will not let me write posts and schedule them. It absolutely hates me. That's why I went to Wordpress, which can be a pain in the ass but I have a techie friend who fixes my mistakes.