Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review - The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card

Short review: Humanity has stagnated because of Worthing's descendants, and the Day of Pain is necessary to change this. Also, several short stories about Capitol and the insidious danger of Somec are included.

Human stagnation
By drug or by mind control
Jason must prevent

Full review: The Worthing Saga is a fix-up explicitly linking the various Capitol stories to the Worthing Inn stories and the Jason Worthing stories. The book also contains a couple of themes that recur in Card's work: (1) characters who extend their lives in a way that divorces them from the flow of time, but doesn't actually extend the amount of time they are alive which shows up in the Ender books and Treason (read review), and (2) magical fantasy dressed up as science fiction (Songmaster, Treason, and the latter half of the Ender series). In the introduction, Card protests that The Worthing Saga is actually science fiction, and he is correct that psionic abilities have a strong science fiction pedigree, but the descendants of Jason Worthing go enormously further than that, to the point where a single individual is capable of controlling the activity on an entire planet, keeping all of its inhabitants safe from harm or sorrow. This steps beyond science fiction into the realm of pure fantasy.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the story of Jason Worthing, how he came to understand his power as a "swipe" or mind-reader, deal with the anti-swipe sentiment of human civilization, and his efforts to establish a colony world under difficult circumstances. This portion of the book is told using a framing story as Worthing and one of his descendants approach a technologically backward village following the "Day of Pain". Apparently, prior to the Day of Pain, no one in the village (or anywhere else) ever suffered injury or sorrow. Shortly after the Day this changed and Jason and Justice show up in the village and recruit the youth Lared to write Jason's story. The story is imparted to Lared by means of dreams Justice gives him.

Using this connecting story, the book assembles the various short stories Card had written about Worthing and his descendants into a single narrative. Card introduces Worthing into the world of Capitol, with its citizen's reliance on Somec, a drug that allows one to age more slowly, but only while sleeping. Originally designed for starship traveler moving about at relativistic speeds, Somec is used by wealthy members of Capitol's society to extend their life spans, although they spend their additional years sleeping. Why this would be so attractive to so many people is never explained, it is simply assumed that everyone would understand why drifting through life in this way would be a universal obsession. However, this is an idea that runs through several of Card's, so I can only surmise that it has some symbolism that escapes me. In any event, Worthing is a "swipe" who can read minds, and encounters prejudice against swipes. He is aided by a powerful politician named Abner Doon, who believes that the Somec-driven culture of Capitol has caused humanity to stagnate, and seeks Worthing's aid to destroy it. The stagnation of human culture is also an idea that runs through much of Card's work, and these stories are among the earliest of his stories in which this theme shows up.

Eventually, Worthing is forced off-world with a group of political dissidents. The method of space travel in the book requires the use of Somec, but also requires that the individual's memories be placed in a computer file and stored separately from the body. Unfortunately, those opposed to Jason and Abner try to destroy Jason's ship, and destroy most of the memory modules, leaving Jason with a shipload of adult bodies with the minds of infants. Worthing undertakes the difficult task of establishing a colony, bringing a few individuals out of Somec-sleep at a time, teaching them to take care of themselves, and then starting the process again. Eventually, after the colony has been established, Jason begins taking Somec and going on hiatus for years at a time, checking back with the colony once in a while. This is obviously a symbolic fresh start for humanity, with the new colony serving as a sort of Garden of Eden replacement, with Worthing eventually being deified by the descendants of the original colony inhabitants..

This being a Card book, there has to be a serpent to disturb Eden, and it takes two forms. The first is the one individual whose memories were not destroyed, and who happens to be a serious political agitator. Worthing agonizes over whether to revive him, but eventually does, with more or less predictably bad results. The other is Worthing himself, when he sets off to build himself a secret place to have his own family, Worthing Farm. Having established his bloodline, Worthing placed himself in Somec induced sleep at the bottom of the ocean, reasoning that until his descendants can revive him he should stay out of the way. The tales of Worthing Farm show how the "swipe" gene is reinforced until it gives rise to a variety of magical powers - the ability to communicate with animals, heal injuries, control other's minds, and so on. Eventually, Worthing's more unscrupulous descendants go out into the world bent on domination, and things go completely awry.

Eventually, Worthing is revived and finds that his descendants have stolen free will away from the rest of humanity by watching over them. The Somec culture that was in danger of stagnating humanity is now replaced by a pain free culture that is similarly stagnant. Of course, Worthing, with the aid of Justice, one of his descendants, sets about changing this. Which brings the narrative back to the beginning of the book. The whole set of stories about Worthing and his descendants seem like a strained allegory for God: Worthing, in the God role, raises his charges from infancy, makes sure they are able to take care of themselves, performs a few acts his charges interpret as miracles, and then goes away until he is brought back in a sort of second coming. The stories, insofar as Justice is concerned, highlight the danger of a benevolent overseer, which robs the humans they watch over of their free will.

The main part of the story ends at this point with Worthing and Justice leaving Lared with his manuscript. The book also contains several stories about Capitol unrelated to Jason Worthing, and a handful of Worthing Inn stories that feature Worthing's descendants that had been alluded to in the main narrative but not fully told. The Capitol stories all revolve around Somec and its effects, but do not explain the attraction of Somec, or why it would become so pervasive that everyone would be desperate to use it. In fact, when reading the stories, I became convinced that anyone who did not take Somec could dominate whatever field of endeavor they chose to enter as they would be able to act more quickly than their competitors, who could only act through intermediaries and proxies for much of their lives.

The Worthing Inn stories are basically pure fantasy. In fact, as Card points out, when he submitted them to Ben Bova at Analog, they were rejected for that reason. Card maintains that they are science fiction, pointing to the entire Worthing back story to support his case, but I don't think that saves them. The powers attributed to the Worthing clan are so supernatural in nature – healing, mind control, the ability to meld into rock, and control the flow of time (all abilities markedly similar to those Lanik Mueller learns in Treason) - that it is hard to swallow the idea that they would have evolved from the ability to read minds, even with substantial inbreeding. (Oddly, the inbreeding seems to have little negative effects on the Worthing clan). They are interesting stories nonetheless, but remain fantasy. Most of these stories, like many of the stories in the main sequence are about forgiveness and the power of virtue, but also about the dangers of jealousy and fear.

Overall, The Worthing Saga is a fairly workmanlike attempt to explore a number of religious and moral ideas using science fiction and fantasy as a vehicle. Card attempts to include too much in a single story, and the connection between the Somec-driven Capitol stories and the swipe oriented Worthing Inn stories is so thin as to make the narrative seem like two unrelated stories mashed together without much cause. While the characters in the framing story are by and large interesting and well-written, the characters in the Capitol stories seem very simplistic, being more or less drawn merely to illustrate a point, and the characters in the colonization and Worthing Inn stories are too idealized (as I suspect they were probably inspired by characters from the Book of Mormon, I haven't read that work though, so I can't be sure). I believe this is because the framing story was written later to connect the various short stories that are linked by this volume, and the better character development in the framing story reflects Card's maturation as a writer. The various stories are a good example of Card's early work, but the book overall is clearly not up to his highest standard, being only slightly above average in quality.

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