Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007


By Orson Scott Card

Tor, 2006
Reviewed by Rick Triplett

Once in a while, I come across a book that is not explicitly libertarian yet opens its readers’ minds to a wider appreciation of liberty and of the obstacles to its maintenance. Empire is such a book.

The concept of an empire, as in “Roman Empire” or “British Empire,” is of a state grown so centralized and so strong that it cannot be defeated. The double tragedy of such states is that their citizens suffer, first under the tyranny of the empire and later as it crumbles under its own weight. The lesson from this history is that citizens must question and usually resist every transfer of power from the individual to the state—with fiery passion. Fanning the flames of this fire is one of the goals of the Libertarian Futurist Society, and Orson Scott Card’s newest tale, brought to us by TOR Books, helps us do so.

The setting of Card’s story is the United States, just a few years into the future. After some high-level assassinations, there are rumors of a coup, and a right-wing general all but confirms the rumors. Our protagonist, Major Reuben Malich, is a career soldier, a hero by any standard, and a patriot in the best sense of the term. He is soon deep into the investigation into what is going on and in particular whether a takeover of the American government is looming.

A second character is introduced early, a man who will figure with increasing prominence in the unfolding drama of America’s brewing storm. This man is Averell Torrent, a “liberal” (with exact meaning left deliberately unclear) who taunts Malich in a university classroom:

“Oh, Soldier Boy, you poor lad,” said Torrent. “The American idea was thrown out with Social Security. We nailed the coffin shut with group rights. We don’t want individual liberty because we don’t want individual responsibility. We want somebody else to take care of us. If we had a dictator who did a better job of it than our present system, then as long as he pretended to respect Congress, we’d lick his hands like dogs.”

Though Malich endures such taunts with mostly silent resentment, his initial view that Torrent is just another leftist professor grows cloudier. The reader, who is discovering that Malich is not a conventional rightist, is also beginning to realize that Torrent is not a conventional leftist. As the novel progresses, it becomes unclear whether the assault on the government is from the right or from the left. Both views are made plausible. Lines are blurred. In the end, it is far from clear that the danger is over.

Card is a fine storyteller; if you have enjoyed his earlier books, you will certainly enjoy this one. There are many and varied conflicts, exciting scenes, publicity machinations, quite intelligent dialogs, and enough drama to keep any reader happy. But there is more: this book is astonishingly free of partisanship. The conventional political spectrum is fleshed out in all its vainglory. The dangers—yes, even the risk of civil war—inherent in partisan power struggles are drawn plainly. In his Afterword Card writes:

… And because today we have discarded the free marketplace of ideas and have polarized ourselves into two equally insane ideologies, so that each side can, with perfect accuracy, brand the other side as madmen, we are ripe for that next step, to take preventive action to keep the other side from seizing power and oppressing our side.

Card is attempting to create a cautionary tale about the path of bickering intolerance down which American politics has plunged. A libertarian might say, “This is only a start”; but it is a well-done and necessary start.

I don’t require that the books I like preach to the libertarian choir. All I want them to do is to get people to actively think about important issues. Empire makes sure they do.

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