Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review - Treason by Orson Scott Card

Short review: The inhabitants of Treason have been exiled on an iron poor planet for three thousand years, trading whatever they can for iron from off-world. Lanik Mueller is exiled from his country, travels the world, finds a terrible conspiracy, and ends the off-world iron monopoly.

Muellers trade their limbs
For iron from off-planet
Then, magic powers!

Full review: Treason is a rewrite of Orson Scott Card's first novel A Planet Called Treason. In the forward to my edition, Card says that when he set about doing the rewrite, he attempted to do it in a manner that would be reflective of the style of writer he had been when A Planet Called Treason was originally published, merely expanding the narrative and clarifying some points, rather than changing to novel to reflect his changed (and presumably improved) abilities. This seems to me like an odd choice, as it means that the final product is something that Card is declaring up front to be work that isn't his best. It also seems like this has left a large number of questions raised by the narrative unanswered, which weakens the story.

The plot of the story revolves around Lanik Mueller, of the Mueller kingdom on the planet Treason. The inhabitants of Treason are the descendants of exiles who had led a rebellion attempting to put into place a government by the intellectual elite (with themselves at the head of course). Treason is metal poor, and the inhabitants must rely upon matter transmission devices known as "Ambassadors" to trade with the outside galaxy for metal. Trading is simple: the inhabitants place an offering on their local Ambassador (there is apparently one in each "country") and if the galactic government likes it, they will send back some amount of metal, usually iron. There is no communication other than this blind trading scheme. Lanik explains that each nation is trying to trade for enough metal to build a starship and escape the planet, although in practice it seems that the various nations use their iron to make weapons and try to conquer their neighbors. This plot element involving the diversion of metal to warfare is not expanded upon, or even noted, which I think is one of the weaknesses of the book.

The various "countries" on Treason are named after the original conspirators who led the rebellion 3,000 years previous and are populated by the descendants of the conspirator and whoever followers accompanied them into exile. Most of the various countries compete against one another to give gifts to their Ambassadors and acquire iron and conquer one another. Why the original conspirators in the rebellion apparently immediately fell to fighting one another is another unexplained plot element.

Each country bears the imprint of its founder, and Mueller is no exception. Mueller had apparently been a geneticist, and the ruling Mueller elite have all been genetically modified to regenerate wounds quickly, even regrowing lost limbs. This gives the Muellers something of a military advantage, and also gives them their trading goods. A certain portion of Muellers known as "radicals" are born with uncontrollable regeneration that causes their bodies to continue to grow additional limbs, extra sex organs, and other extra body material that is "harvested" and traded for iron. Lanik Mueller, the protagonist of the story, is the heir to Mueller throne and (unfortunately for him) a radical regenerative. This means that his father must exile him to avoid sending him to the "pits" to be harvested.

Lanik is sent to the rival nation of Nukumai, which has apparently found a commodity to trade for iron and is in the process of conquering its neighbors. Lanik, having grown breasts (and avoided an assassination attempt by his own younger brother), impersonates a woman from the matriarchal (and distant) country of Bird, and presents herself as an emissary from that nation. Lanik eventually figures out that Nukumai is trading knowledge - discoveries made by Nukumai scientists - but not before he is found out and has to flee the country (in the process he is gutted and his body grows an entire duplicate, which he attempts to kill and leave behind). And then Lanik's real adventures begin.

Lanik is captured by pirates, and eventually marooned in the land of Schwartz, where the story veers from science fiction and directly into a fantasy tale. Schwartz had been a geologist, and his descendants are able to control rock with their minds and live entirely off of sunlight. They are also able to control almost all matter, and they "cure" Lanik of his radical regenerative nature, and then they teach him how to replicate their powers. Oddly, they are pacifists because the Earth doesn't like violence (an anthropomorphization that only serves to cement the story further into the realm of fantasy). Lanik then tries to return home, only to find that his double (the one he tried to kill earlier) has been fighting on the side of the Nukumai, destroying his reputation in the process, forcing him (and his father and lover) to flee into the land of the Ku Kuei, where they discover the inhabitants there can control the flow of time, another magical skill which Lanik eventually learns.

Having obtained magical powers of time and matter, Lanik needs a magical enemy, which he gets in the form of the inhabitants of Anderson, who can create illusions to deceive the senses (Anderson having been a politician and the leader of the rebellion, apparently that allows one to create illusions). Lanik, with his ability to control time, is immune to their powers, and sets about killing every Anderson "illuder", and then decides that the real problem is the off-world influence on the local nations.

In the end, Lanik and his true love use their time bending powers to slow down their personal time until everyone they know has died and they have passed into legend. This is a common motif in Card's work, showing up in The Worthing Saga (read review) and the various Ender books as well, divorcing the hero from his own time, but in a manner that doesn't actually increase the life span of the hero himself. Calling a book science fiction that actually turns into an out and out fantasy is also fairly typical of Card's works: Children of the Mind, Songmaster, and The Worthing Saga all share this characteristic as well.

On a side note, one has to wonder about the cover artwork. I know that the author usually has no input into the cover artwork of his books, but the picture, a space suited man approaching what appears to be a spaceship, has absolutely nothing to do with anything that actually happens in the book.

Overall, Treason is a fairly weak book. The narrative is extremely linear, following Lanik about as he acquires his powers. The various groups that have obtained magical powers seem to have done so with little or no explanation as to how, they are merely described as having become very familiar with the subject matter of their ancestor and thus generating supernatural effects (except the Muellers themselves, who gained their regenerative powers through gene manipulation). Many of the questions raised by the story are glossed over, or simply ignored, resulting in a fairly unsatisfying reading experience. As a first effort, this is a workmanlike book, but as a rewrite it seems fairly mediocre at best. For a Card fan, it might be worthwhile to read, but for anyone looking to introduce themselves to his work, there are much better options.

1980 Locus Award Nominees

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  1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: As I work through Card's oeuvre I find myself coming more and more to the conclusion that he's a weak writer who had a very brief moment of clarity that allowed him to write Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.