Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Orson Scott Card: The Memory of Earth

In my opinion, Orson Scott Card is one of the best storytellers of modern times. He conveys the motivations of characters, even villains, in such a convincing way that readers are able to immerse themselves fully in the dynamics of the narrative. He is also a singularly impressive world-builder, drawing us in to new worlds and universes through his story-telling. This was the case with Ender's Game, with Seventh Son, with Pathfinder and The Lost Gate. It was also the case with The Memory of Earth, which introduces the Homecoming series.

I read all five of the Homecoming books and enjoyed every one of them. Afterwards, when I went to prepare these reviews through a bit of research, I was stunned to discover that the entire series is a thinly veiled adaptation of the Book of Mormon: a family called by God to travel from Jerusalem to the "promised land" of America. Joseph Smith may have been a false prophet extraordinaire, but he was evidently a singularly impressive story-teller (that or he simply benefited from the proximity to Card's genius). While the original setting of Homecoming, the city of Basilica on the world of Harmony, is officially a Slavic matriarchy, the feel of the place remains pretty clearly Aramaic in nature, so even such atmospheric details are preserved. More notably, many of the events are the same, and even the names are retained in something like their original form. Where events or names are parallel, I will insert the equivalent from the Book of Mormon in parentheses.

After a detailed prologue outlining the geography, family dynamics, and naming conventions of Basilica, The Memory of Earth introduces the main character, Nafai (Nephi) the youngest son of Rasa (Sariah) and Volemak (Lehi), the patriarch or "Wetchik." Nafai is a highly intelligent boy in the mold of Card's other heroes, such as Ender, Bean, and Alvin. His brothers are the haughty Elemak (Laman), the brutish Mebbekew (Lemuel), and the kindly cripple Issib (Sam). Then one day their father witnesses a vision of Basilica on fire (1 Nephi 1:6) which had been sent from the Oversoul to warn him of Harmony's coming destruction, and to draw him and his family on a quest.

The Oversoul here is an artificial intelligence set up by the founders of Harmony to psychologically manipulate the inhabitants of the planet, to ensure it does not develop the technological capacity for self-annihilation. In the millions of years since that time, however, it has grown substantially weaker, and now must be restored to full health by returning to Earth. That is why it has called Volemak out of Basilica.

Most of this first novel is preoccupied in introducing the characters: most notably the water-seer Luet, whom Nafai detests but later comes to appreciate, and the Machiavellian demagogue Gaballufix (Laban), who conspires with Elemak and Mebbekew to discredit their mother and exile their father. After a particularly bloody "prayer" (corporal mortification), Nafai is chosen by the Oversoul to lead the people after his father's death (1 Nafai 2:16). Volemak himself is forced into a desert exile after Gaballufix conspires to kill him (1 Nephi 1:20).

Before traveling further, Volemak sends his four sons back into the city to retrieve the Index (the "brass plates" of 1 Naphi 3:3). Their initial attempt to barter for it fails, due to Nafai poor negotiating skills and Gaballufix's treachery (1 Nafai 3:22-25). The brothers are forced to flee, at which point Elemak rails against Nafai's childish self-importance (1 Nafai 3:26-28). A voice emanating from Issib's chair stops the older brothers from hurting Nafa and Issib, and orders them back to the city to find the Index (1 Nafai 3:29-30). Nafai returns to the city and stumbles across Gaballufix in a drunken stupor. Acting on the orders of the Oversoul, he kills him, disguises himself as Gaballufix, and deceives the man's steward Zdorab (Zoram) to bring him the Index (1 Nafai 4:5-26). He returns to the desert where Volemak has brought the extended family, including his stepdaughters Sevet and Kokor, their husbands Vas and Obring, and Rasa's students: Shedemei, Dolya, Eiadh, Luet and her sister Hushidh.

What is remarkable about Card's writing is how well he integrates the material from the Book of Mormon into a convincing science-fiction epic. It would be comparable to a traditional Christian adapting material from the book of Judges as a gritty crime drama, or 1 Samuel as a "Lord of the Rings"-style fantasy, or 1 Maccabees as a post-apocalyptic war movie. To simultaneously create a universe and present a decent story while doing justice to the source material is a truly staggering accomplishment. That isn't even counting Card's ordinary talent of letting us in on each character's motivation through his trademark rotating-perspectives style. We understand the individuals and the interpersonal dynamics, and can empathize with a person like Elemak even as we increasingly detest them.

On the whole, The Memory of Earth is a singularly impressive accomplishment, and a worthy introduction to the Homecoming series.

To purchase this book, check out
The Memory of Earth (Homecoming: Volume 1)

This was cross-posted on A Sacramental World.

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