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Empire by Orson Scott Card
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0765316110
Date: 28 November, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Reuben Malich is a front line soldier in today's, or perhaps the day after today's war overseas. Brave, smart, serious, he's a team leader that understands the realities of war, and uses what he learns to get results, whether in the foothills of a nameless country in the middle east, or the hallowed halls of Princeton, studying a different, but no less deadly sort of enemy -- Clueless Liberals. But even more dangerous than the brainless grad students who haven't a clue as to the cost of freedom is the one man who does. A charismatic college professor who knows that the world is wrong when it sees America as Empire...and wants to correct that impression by making them right. It's up to Malich and America's armed forces to keep him from turning the country into a high tech battlefield where red and blue tear the union apart.

Empire starts out in a remote village where Reuben Malich, a special forces soldier is leading a team against a terrorist cell. Acting on what he knows is probably bad information, he leads his team out of the village they've set up base in to draw the terrorists out when they move in to prepare an ambush. Reuben is the terrorist's worst nightmare, a thinking soldier at the top of his game, and his squad manages to take out the insurgents with only one casualty.

"And when you grieved over the body of the village headman?"
"Sir, I had to show him honor in a way they would understand, so that his heroic death became an asset to us instead of a liability."
"It was all acting?"
"None of it was acting...All I did was permit it to be seen."
From there he's sent to study military history at Princeton, which he regards as being embedded with Liberals so that he can understand them and effectively counter them in political situations. There he encounters Averell Torrent, a brilliant historian and political analyst and we're treated to some of the best political discussion in SF since Heinlein's lectures on citizenship in Starship Troopers. America, Torrent maintains, is at the end of its period of Republic, and only a strong leader can move it into the phase of empire that it needs to endure.

Now if you're outside the military, that may sound like just what a career soldier wants to hear, but Card's portrayal of Malich was impressively close to what I actually know of these folks from personal, if limited, exposure. I think that Jefferson would be proud of today's citizen-soldier, and his dedication to democracy...and Card has pretty well nailed it.

Malich goes on from Princeton to the Pentagon, where he's assigned to act as a "red cell". coming up with plans for a terrorist attack on a high value political target, supposedly so that they can be blocked against. But when Malich sees one of his scenarios unfold before him, he realizes that the military itself has been compromised. That turns out to be a mere prelude for the secession of liberal urban America from the union, as advanced high tech weaponry takes the battlefield away from conventional forces and foreign powers rush to recognize the new blue order. In the aftermath, it's up to Malich's ops team to find the heart of the revolution and return America to its elected government.

I didn't realize at first that Empire was written to create the backstory for a video game, which turns out to weaken the story considerably. It's a multimedia project, complete with plans for a feature film, as well as a computer game, and while that's cool, the constraints of a playable plot line bring what could have been a stellar piece of action/adventure down a notch. Empire should have been a trilogy that explores the red state/blue state division in our country over a prolonged conflict. Certainly there's enough tension to go around, and legitimate grievances on both sides. But although it starts out strong it quickly devolves into a series of video game chases with robot walkers and hovercrafts, secret bases to invade and a boss villain to capture.

Even at that it's an engaging piece of mil-fic written by a smart and talented author, but it could have been much, much more. There is one positive note though, as the book ends on a watchful note and room is left for further books to engage with the real villain of the piece, the man behind the curtain as it were...professor Torrent.

By the way, if you want to read up on America as empire, you should pick up a copy of Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan, who embedded himself with special forces to research the role of the American military around the world.

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