Homecoming

Orson Scott Card, The Memory of Earth (TOR, 1992)
Orson Scott Card, The Call of Earth (TOR, 1994)
Orson Scott Card, The Ships of Earth (TOR, 1995)
Orson Scott Card, Earthfall (TOR, 1996)
Orson Scott Card, Earthborn (TOR, 1996)

The Homecoming series is one of Orson Scott Card's more controversial works. While Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead were accepted enthusiastically by the science fiction community, the Homecoming novels have always suffered from a bad reputation that stems from accusations that the story is really a thinly veiled science fiction version of the Book of Mormon. Apparently, it even derives its characters' names from it. All the same, this did not affect my impression of the series; nor do I think it will affect the impressions of those who are as unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon as myself.

The Homecoming series opens with The Memory of Earth, a novel which accomplishes the obligatory task of setting up the main characters and background story with aplomb. The world of Harmony is home to a human civilization that has thrived for millions of years under the care of a man-made super-computer, called the Oversoul. The exact nature of the Oversoul is unknown, but it acts as Harmony's supreme being (it is treated as a religious entity by the planet's inhabitants.) Its true purpose is to prevent mankind from destroying itself, as it almost did ages ago on Earth, and it does this by telepathically interfering with the thought processes of select human individuals. One of the Oversoul's chief functions is to prevent humans from discovering potentially dangerous technology; without weapons of mass destruction, humans are less likely to annihilate their own species.

But, in a succinct prologue that sets the tone for what is to come, we discover that the Oversoul is slowly breaking down, its control over the minds of the human race weakening. Its only hope is to journey back to Earth, where a mysterious "Keeper" can repair its malfunctioning machinery. To get to Earth, however, the Oversoul needs human help. And so the Oversoul turns to a handful of humans to aid in its monumental task.

The premise is intriguing, and throughout the novel we are teased by fascinating ideas and images. Card does a wonderful job portraying Basilica, the novel's primary setting, and a technological environment that is somehow both advanced and backward at the same time. Sometimes the clash of technologies is disconcerting, but certainly innovative — for instance, there is a scene where the crippled Issib (older brother of the main character, 14-year-old Nafai) wanders through an old-fashioned market place on a pair of high-tech "floaters," which keep his body elevated above the ground.

Equally intriguing is the religious aspect of the story. Only Nafai and Issib are aware of the Oversoul's predicament, and because of their faith in the Oversoul (clearly symbolic of God) they are willing to sacrifice much in order to fulfill its intentions. But their solutions are constantly hindered by the "unfaithful," or those consumed by greed and lust. Chief among these is Ellemak, Nafai's strong-headed, strong-willed, seemingly noble yet subtly dangerous half-brother. The conflict of interests between the two characters creates the novel's strongest element of tension.

As the introductory novel to a five-book series, it is perhaps to be expected that the action is a little on the slow side. In fact, the story doesn't really seem to get started until the end, which makes it a bit lopsided in terms of pacing. Fortunately, Card's characters are interesting enough to make you want to read more. Those characters are more fully developed in The Call of Earth, the series' second installment. One might be inclined to call this one a "typical Orson Scott Card book," but this is by no means a bad thing. Card's strongest asset has always been his ability to portray the complex interactions and relationships between various complex people, and we get all that here. There is also an interesting sub-plot that effectively gives The Call of Earth its independence while linking the first and third books together.

The subplot is as follows: a ruthless warrior named Moozh has risen in the wake of the Oversoul's deterioration. Using forbidden technology to take command of an army, Moozh moves in to take the city of Basilica. In the meanwhile, various people are disturbed by similar dreams, apparently from the "Keeper" of Earth itself.

This is a faster-paced novel than the first, and it has some interesting twists near the end. One thing I should probably warn readers about is Card's tendency to delve into melodramatic situations and dialogue. With most authors, this may sound like criticism, but with Card, it's a toss-up. The Call of Earth lands on the good side for me simply because its characters are so strong. The growing love story between Nafai and Luet (characters who hated each other at the beginning of the first book) and the increasingly bitter feud between Nafai and his half-brothers Mebbekew and Ellemak (who ends up wedding Nafai's adolescent crush, Eiadh) are elements that could belong in a soap opera. In Card's hands, however, they're gold. Granted, some of the dialogue is a little too emotionally charged for credibility, and a cynic may find it a tad excessive. But I was engrossed.

The third novel, The Ships of Earth, is probably the best of the series, and no doubt the most exciting. In this installment, Card finally gives his readers the adventure they've been craving. The story follows a company of chosen individuals (established in the second novel) who must journey across a vast wilderness to the site of the Oversoul's resting place, where the first human ships landed millions of years ago. Once there, they must take a ship and embark on a voyage to Earth, where the Keeper awaits.

This is a vigorous, almost fantasy-like sci-fi novel. I say fantasy-like on the sole basis of the book's "travelling" aspect, despite the fact that the humans bear with them such technological possessions as pulses (which I have always visualized as Star-Trek-ish phasers). But unlike other travelling fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings or The Eye of the World, the war that the protagonists of this story wage is a civil one. And what a war it is. Forced to band together, the company of fifteen people is just about the most ill-fitting group of individuals you're ever likely to encounter in a novel. By the end of the first chapter, Nafai is already battling for his life. (And it is a surprisingly taut opening, given Card's usual relaxed prose.)

What is especially strong here is the culmination of underlying themes that have steadily developed over the course of the series. At its heart is a story of love, hate, pride, sacrifice and forgiveness, packaged brilliantly within a futuristic setting. Each of the fifteen characters has his or her own story to tell, and while some are more simplistic than others, they interact within a complex, believable web of relationships that is vintage Card at his best. From the book's fierce introduction all the way up to its unforgettable climax, one can almost sense the push-pull tension between the characters as well as within them.

The main characters are quite three dimensional: the heroes have flaws and the villains, if one can even call them that, have admirable traits. Many of them also undergo gradual metamorphosis — Nafai from a noble wimp into a noble leader, Ellemak from a mere jealous brother into an embittered enemy, Eiadh from a shallow girl into a woman with torn values, and Luet shedding her innocence. Of course, like most novels of such scale, it has its weaknesses. Some of Card's explanations seem a little self-obvious (and I was never a big fan of his occasional long philosophical ramblings), and the humour tends to fall on the heavy side. All in all, though, this was a great read.

My feelings are a little more mixed about the next volume, Earthfall. On the one hand, it offers a dramatic continuation of the central conflict between Nafai and Ellemak, which has now escalated to proportions that would have been unthinkable back at the beginning of The Memory of Earth. The first part of the book details the century-long space voyage from Harmony to Earth. Somewhat predictably, things go immediately wrong — Ellemak and his followers once again attempt sabotage, this time by taking hostages. But now the lethal family conflict is contained within the claustrophobic confines of a spacecraft, where there's not a lot of room to run and hide. Card lets us familiarize ourselves with a whole second generation of characters (third, actually, if you count the parents of Nafai) who are engulfed in the family struggle. This first half is dark and thrillingly executed, and Card's trademark fiery character interactions are really hot here. Although the seemingly endless feudal battle has the potential for becoming tiresome, it never does — and it never has a chance to.

It's the second half that begins falling short. When the party lands on Earth, they befriend two sentient species, one evolved from rats and one from bats. These are the creatures that dominated the Basilicans' dreams back on their planet Harmony, but none of the characters give any indication of this, as if Card had forgotten to mention the significance of this connection. The Nafari (those who support Nafai's cause ) end up siding with the "angels," and the Ellemaki with the "diggers." More conflict ensues, etc.

The last few pages are the ones that really leave a lukewarm impression. Now, Card is never one to adhere to tradition or cliché, and the ending in fact suggests an allegorical message for the everlasting destructive nature of human beings, no matter what their technological state. All the same, I think he sold out on this one. Without giving away too much, I'd just like to point out that the novel not only suspends the fate of the characters we have grown to love, but it dashes our hopes of learning more about them. Furthermore, it negates the need to read the series' fifth and final novel, since the story seems to end with this one. I respect Card's appreciation for historical fact, where the good guys don't necessarily kill the bad and the bad don't necessarily die, but by abandoning everything that made the first books flourish I think Card was unfaithful to the series itself. I guess the bottom line is that I may be too rooted to tradition to enjoy such a limp conclusion. Take that as you will.

At any rate, I did get around to reading Earthborn, which, taken on its own terms, is a decent read. As the conclusion to the Homecoming series, however ... I found myself wishing I had stopped reading at Earthfall, even despite its frustrating ending. An entirely new cast of characters is introduced, and the story is completely different, taking place on planet Earth many generations after the colonists of Harmony, led by feuding brothers Nafai and Ellemak, first landed. The number of new main characters is so large, their relationships so dense, that I won't bother describing them. I will just say that the story focuses on many social issues, in particular the racial tension that exists within a civilization consisting of humans, angels (the bat people), and diggers (the rat people).

It's an interesting novel that resolves nothing. Perhaps the biggest crime of this book is its refusal to answer any of the questions posed at the start of the series. (I say "refusal" because it was obviously an intentional move on the author's part.) What happens to the planet Harmony? What happens to the Oversoul? For that matter, what happens to the Oversoul's mission? There is a resolution of sorts at the end of the novel, but — I'm willing to bet — it's not one that most readers will be particularly satisfied with.

So what was Card trying to do? I can only guess. Given the copious amount of moralizing and religious preaching that makes up this novel, it seems he was trying to get his messages across but was too lazy (or too self-absorbed to consider what readers really enjoy) to remain faithful to the original story.

Earthborn does benefit from good insight into the characters and their development, which one can always depend on Card for. The roles are not as delineated as before — characters that begin as heroes later become villains, who then become heroes. The conflicting parties all have their own rationales and agendas, each convincing and realistic in their own way, reflecting many of the problems in our own society.

But even on its own, it has many flaws. The most obvious, to me, is that Card seems to get so tangled up in his moralizing that he winds up heading down some very dubious, even hypocritical, paths. Unlike the earlier novels, I was very unconvinced by the moral "lessons" we are supposed to accept at the end of the novel. He also lays it on pretty thick, which only makes it worse.

The last novel of Homecoming was thus a disappointment. All the same, I would still recommend the series as a whole, despite the bitter pill that is the last quarter (the end of Book Four and all of Book Five). There are simply too many good moments in the first four novels to pass it all up. Just be warned that the ending may not be what you're looking for.

[Kevin Lau]