Orson Scott Card has gained a legacy as a brilliant science fiction writer, and this collection of eleven short stories from early in his career shows the promise that would later bloom in his successful novels. The final remark of his editor Ben Bova in the introduction is strangely prophetic: "...good as these stories in this volume are, I expect you to do better in the future. And I know you will." Card's later successful novels such as "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead" have more than shown this assessment to be true. This collection runs hot and cold, and isn't always as great as Card can be. But already in this collection you will find examples of Card's brilliance, and that's more than enough to make it worth grabbing and reading.
The most outstanding stories in my mind are "Mortal Gods", "Unaccompanied Sonata" and of course "Enders Game". Card later fleshed out "Ender's Game"into the fully-fledged novel of the same name which garnered awards and for which he is most famously known. But the premise and excitement of the novel are already contained in this brilliant short story about Ender Wiggins, a young boy trained to be a military commander in a battle that will save the human race. His training consists of exciting war games in a null-gravity battleroom, and the enthralling action of these war games and their final plot twist is more than matched by Card's superb human characterization of a child genius. "Mortal Gods" introduces aliens who are the "natural end product of evolution" and have achieved immortality, and come to worship humans because they're mortal. Card uses this device to offer some profoundly religious and philosophical observations about how our world revolves around mortality and death: "we have found a race that builds for the sheer joy of building, that creates beauty, that writes books, that invents the lives of never-known people to delight others who know they are being lied to, a race that devises immortal gods to worship and celebrates its own mortality with immense pomp and glory. Death is the foundation of all that is great about humanity..." (p165-6). "Unaccompanied Sonata" is the sad story of the repression of creativity in a control-obsessed society, and the heart-wrenching pain of a Maker who can produce brilliant music but is forbidden to do so.
The other stories are good but not brilliant. The themes of "Unaccompanied Sonata" are somewhat evident in "The Monkeys Thought `Twas All in Fun", which describes a living artificial environment in space that becomes a new paradise for residents of earth. The most interesting part of this tale is the internal stories about Masses, Makers and Masters that "Hector" tells himselves. "Deep Breathing Exercises" features suspense revolving around a man who discovers that people breathing simultaneously is a sign of their impending death. Other stories show that Card has the capability of producing twisted tales with cruel themes. "Closing the TimeLid" showcases an interesting premise as people use time travel to undergo multiple deaths for pleasure, and illustrates the depth of depravity as hedonism goes wild. "Kingsmeat" is a morbid story about a society with a cannibalistic king and queen, and highlights the character of their chosen instrument of destruction, the Shepherd. "Quietus" is a rather perplexing story with a bizarre twist at the end and concerns a family that discovers a coffin (dead body included) in their home. "Epimedes in the Fourth Floor Lavatory" is a nightmarish horror story about a selfish manipulator who gets his just deserts as a child with flipper arms torments him. These and other stories have adult themes about sexuality and abuse that make them unsuitable for children. But Card's ability to produce profoundly philosophical and religious stories of horror and suspense on an adult level, are matched by his ability to produce a surprisingly child-like sci-fi story in the mould of a traditional fairy tale, as the "The Porcelain Salamander" proves. The protagonist is a girl cursed from birth until she loses the magical salamander she loves most dearly.
Probably the least likeable story in the collection is "I Put My Blue Genes On", which is humorous and light but also confusing. Recounting a visit of space travellers to earth in 2810 who discover what evolution has done to the human race after recombinant DNA, it is one of the few stories that approaches traditional science fiction. But on the whole Card's stories are not typical science fiction because they focus on human characterization. As Ben Bova astutely observes in the introduction, the majority of readers take the label of science fiction to mean "incomprehensible gibberish" and much hardcore sci-fi is "about stainless-steel heroes who conquer the world in phallus-shaped spaceships" without depth of characterization. But Card is different: "a powerful writer whose work can be understood and enjoyed by *any* reader. Your stories deal with people, living, breathing, bleeding people who love and fear and hate and laugh. Readers can weep for your characters, rejoice with them, thrill over them. This means that you have already gone far beyond the usual fare of science fiction. You are a writer for all the people, not merely the narrow spectrum of readers who want nothing more than hard-core science fiction." (p17-18) Ben Bova couldn't have said it better. I'm not a fan of sci-fi, but have much appreciation for Orson Scott Card. Card uses the trappings of science fiction to offer a fresh perspective on our own world and the humans who live in it, and so escape the imprisonment of our own worldview. In Bova's words: "More than any writer in sight today, Scott, you exemplify what is best in science fiction: bold imagination blended with realistic human characterizations. Humanism plus technology. Brains and heart." (p19) These stories may not be Card's best, but they certainly rank among science fiction's best.