by Orson Scott Card
Reviewed date: 2008 May 6
Rating: 2
355 pages
cover art

What will spark the next American civil war? That was the question posed to science fiction writer Orson Scott Card by Donald Mustard of Chair Entertainment. Chair wanted to develop a game based around an American civil war, and asked Card to figure out how that war might happen. Card gave it a shot. The result was Empire, a thriller novel published in 2006.

The Blue and the Red
Card looked at America. He found no divisions that have "the geographic clarity of the Mason-Dixon line." But civil wars need no boundaries. The greatest division in America today is liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, blue states vs. red states. That's the conflict that flares into a shooting war in Empire.

But, as Card knows, blue states aren't really blue and red states aren't really red. The divide only grows distinct when we compare urban centers to the rural areas. Urban blue, rural red. With this kind of geographical dispersal throughout the United States, a shooting war isn't likely to happen spontaneously. No, it requires a conspiracy.

The main characters of Empire are Major Reuben Malich and Captain Bartholomew Coleman. They're both Special Ops military men. We see the action through their eyes. Card reveals only as much of the conspiracy as they discover, so it takes a while to figure out what's going on.

The action begins when unknown terrorists carry out a rocket attack on the White House, killing the President. Simultaneously, the Vice President is killed in a car accident. LaMonte Nielson, An obscure Congressman from Idaho who has just been elected Speaker of the House, is thrust into the Presidency.

As the nation is reeling and President Nielson is trying to form a government, a well-armed Leftist group calling itself the Progressive Restoration attacks and occupies New York City. The Progressive Restoration declares the Nielson administration illegitimate and declares itself the true government of America. In short order, some of the more liberal cities and states vote to recognize Progressive Restoration as the legitimate government. Malich and Coleman work closely with President Nielson to figure out who is behind Progressive Restoration and to cut them off from their secret base somewhere hidden in the United States.

The culprits
Progressive Restoration turns out to be financed by Aldo Verus, a billionaire liberal who is a caricature of George Soros. With Verus's billions, Progressive Restoration secretly recruited an underground army to overthrow the US government. The rebels are armed with fancy new weapons including speeder bikes (hovercycles) and chicken walkers (mechs) straight out of Star Wars. The ultimate weapon is an EMP gun that knocks fighter jets out of the sky, neutralizing the US military's air superiority. They are operating from a base hidden under a man-made lake in Washington state. How all that weaponry was invented and manufactured in secret is anybody's guess.

The characters
The worst thing about Empire is the cardboard characters. All the liberals are evil, all the conservatives are good patriots. The token good liberal is Malich's wife Cessy, who despite being a lifelong Democrat has spent her life working for LaMonte Nielson, a staunch Republican. Cessy isn't anything like a real liberal. She represents Orson Scott Card himself. Card is a Democrat who is out of step with his party: he supports the War on Terror, he thinks President Bush is a great American hero, he mocks global warming activists and environmentalist nuts, and he holds moral values (on abortion, gay marriage, and so forth) that the Democratic party is doggedly against. Basically, Card (and Cessy) is a Republican who can't bring himself to become a Republican because of the party's history of supporting segregation and racism, and because he likes a little bit more wealth redistribution than the Republicans are willing to promote.

A realistic civil war scenario?
If this is the best, most realistic civil war scenario that Card can conjure up, then America is doing pretty well. The whole thing is ridiculous. It's not really a civil war at all. Card shows us a mockery, a vast puppet show put on by an evil billionaire whose fancy weapons and private army are not able to start a real civil war. There is very little shooting, and most of the nation--even the parts that ostensibly declare allegiance to Progressive Restoration--is biding its time, waiting for the Nielson administration to squelch the rebellion so that life can get back to normal.

The scariest part
The scariest part of Empire is that it's set up for a sequel. Card drops mega-hints that the whole civil war--both sides--was orchestrated by one man: Averell Torrent. Torrent used the crisis to rise to prominence in Nielson's administration. Then he refused to run for President unless he was nominated by both parties. Both parties acceded to his request (much to the chagrin of Hillary Clinton, whose majority of delegates defected and voted for Torrent), thrusting him into the White House. The book closes as Torrent begins his rule, ushering in a new era of Imperial America.

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