The Child is Father to the Man
Capitol (Worthing Cycle, volume 1)
By Orson Scott Card
Good old Wordsworth’s poem is certainly apropos to this collection of stories, but it’s my second choice. My first choice was “Before Ender’s Game.” However, that had the drawback of being somewhat inaccurate: while Ender’s Game the Novel didn’t come out until 1985, Ender’s Game the Novelette came out in 1977, to great acclaim. (It definitely held my interest when I read it in 1977, despite the fairly notable distraction that, midway through my reading of that issue of Analog, someone inadvertently set me on fire.) Between 1977 and the 1985 founding of the great sausage factory that is the Ender’s Game Extruded MilSF Franchise, Card and his editors didn’t seem to realize Ender’s Game was where Card should be focusing his efforts. Instead, he spent a lot of time playing with the Worthing Cycle, a much less successful body of work that, if it is remembered at all, is remembered because it was done by the same guy who did Ender’s Game, the Alvin Maker series, and that ebulliently hilarious parody of right wing anxieties, Empire.
It’s not uncommon for authors to spend some time struggling before they find their voice. It’s somewhat unfortunate for Card that so much of his material from that period of his career saw print (although he did get paid, so there’s that), It’s even more unfortunate for him that I happen to still have my copy of this … ah … illuminating sample of Card juvenilia.
Preface (Capitol) • essay by Orson Scott Card
One of the things that makes Card so accessible to new readers is that he doesn’t really trust them to pick up on subtleties. He relies as much as possible on loud, clear signals. This is an odd manifestation of that tendency: this is a collection of linked stories whose causal connection should be clear even to
Brad Torgesen the slowest reader and yet Card feels the need to explain:
Capitol is not a novel and also not a short story collection. While all the stories in Capitol are completely self-contained, they are placed in the book in chronological order, to gradually unfold the biography of a world and a way of life that is born in “A Sleep and a Forgetting” and dies in “The Stars That Blink.” I urge you to read them in order
A Sleep and a Forgetting • (1979) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
Even as the inexorable might of the Soviet Union slowly crushes the Free World under its boot, one researcher devotes his life to solving a challenging research problem: what to do about the fact that somec, the drug that makes hibernation possible, erases memories? In the process he may discover scientific proof of a soul. He definitely gives the world a curious form of immortality, one that will plague the universe for centuries. Stupid scientists.
I am hard pressed to imagine how somec got from development to use on human subjects without a test that would reveal the memory issue.
This is the story that led me to keep a copy of this collection handy. It belongs to a select collection of stories I like to call “reasons why American authors should not under any circumstances try to write stories about Canada, especially Quebec.”  Apparently the news of the Parti Quebecois had filtered south of the border but the fact that many members of the PQ regard the US warmly had not . To Card, nationalist Quebecois = Dirty Filthy Commies. In his defense, he also has the US totally fumble the ball on a Soviet build-up in Dirty Filthy Commie Quebec; was he on mission to Brazil during the Cuban Missile Crisis? In fact, I am hard-pressed to come up with an example of Card portraying anyone from outside his little community in a way that has the ring of authenticity.
This is filled with dog whistles of complaint: how soft and effete America and their degenerate allies have become! There are people who think Card inexplicably slid rightward over the course of his career, but really, the signs were there right from the beginning.
I gather that Ender’s Game got rewritten to downplay the references to the Soviet Union. That’s not possible with this story: take out the Soviets and there is no story left. This may explain why it’s one of the stories in this collection that have never been reprinted, at least as far as I can tell.
A Thousand Deaths • (1978) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
The Soviets correctly surmise that most of the craven, decadent Americans now living under the Commie boot will put up with political repression as long as they are allowed keep making money while enjoying their craven, decadent American lifestyles (which the Soviets are eager to experience). There are a few exceptional Americans and the protagonist of this is one of them. The Soviets are very efficient at finding and detaining political criminals and thanks to the idiot in the previous story, they have an effective and very nasty method for breaking enemies of the state.
Almost all of them, anyway.
It turns out you don’t even need to promise people prosperity to get them to put up with Stasi-style security measures … but I still think Card is being a little hard on his fellow Americans here.
Reading this, I had to wonder if Card had ever met a Russian or read anything about how they conducted themselves in their little empire. His Russians go out of their way to emulate their American subjects. That seems … unlikely, although not as unlikely as the bit in an Ender’s Risk Game where it turned out that taking Moscow with an armed force pushing eastwards from Europe was just a matter of a few weeks and sufficient will.
Even in 1979, the idea that the Russians or anyone would have starships by the 1990s seemed a bit unlikely. The Russians also have the basic elements of a form of immortality, one which combines brain taping and clones. For some reason, the cloning element gets dropped early from the series. It may be that the idea that a clone with the same memory as the original counts as a continuation of the original was not convincing, or just that the technology wasn’t something the star colonies got.
Skipping Stones • (1979) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
Centuries in the future, on the socially stratified planet Crove (presumably one of the prison worlds settled by the enemies of the Soviets), two boys grow up together. Bergen is rich and a talented artist. Dal is Bergen’s servant and a more talented artist. Bergen’s class allows him to use somec to skip across the decades, which is a thing the ruling class does for some reason. Dal’s does not. Dal has a reasonably successful career, but from the perspective of Bergen it’s one that crumbles into dust all too soon.
Democracy seems to have been a one-off. It doesn’t say much for the champions of FREEEEEEDDDDDDDOOOOOOMMMMMMM! that once out from under Soviet control they set up a system that makes Victorian Britain look like a socialist utopia. On the other hand, conservative authors who don’t worship wealth are thin on the ground; Card really stands out in his hostility to prosperity as a marker of goodness.
Bergen’s big accomplishment is that he Trantorforms Crove (which is renamed Capitol). Card’s Capitol is much less pleasant than Asimov’s Trantor because Asimov liked cities whereas Card seems acutely uncomfortable with anything bigger than a town. Whereas the little bit of Trantor we see is interestingly detailed, Capitol is bland by design, one unit replicated over and over. It’s basically Le Corbusier’s  Trantor.
Bergen’s dad turns out to be a boy-hungry pedophile. This is my surprised face. Who could have thought that the author of Bad Touch Hamlet would have been playing with the same tropes decades earlier?
Second Chance • (1979) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
The brilliant Abner Doon is brilliant, but even he and the memory-altering technology he commands cannot save saintly Batta. Either she will be miserable because she wasted her life taking care of her parents or she will be miserable because she won’t remember doing that and will believe she failed in her duty. Either way, Doon’s not gonna end up married to her.
Most of the women in this collection are horrible people. The main exceptions are Dal’s second wife and Batta, who exists to be hurt.
Breaking the Game • (1979) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
Denied Batta, Doon turns to his other interests. Where others build, he wants to indulge in epic acts of destruction, beginning with Herman Nuber’s Italy in the International Games. A simulated Italy is, as the unfortunate Nuber will eventually discover, Only the Beginning.
International Games is basically Diplomacy the MMORPG.
Writing super geniuses can be challenging. I’ve never found Card’s efforts in this field to be convincing. Rereading this story in the current context, the idea of someone who devotes a surprising fraction of his life to breaking other people’s stuff does seem plausible.
“Lifeloop” • (1978) • short story by Orson Scott Card
Arran makes a good living recording her (carefully orchestrated) life for her adoring fans but all her experience at acting and improvisation will prove inadequate to a role that requires … sincerity.
Yeah. This could be rewritten as “The Girl With the Webcam Who Totally Didn’t Get That Her Client Was Really Really Into Her” without changing too many details.
“Burning” • (1979) • short story by Orson Scott Card
Fleeing the vengeance of the Empire, a flotilla of telepaths tries to force a minor system to allow the flotilla to refresh their supplies. The telepaths soon discover the system’s inhabitants are much more afraid of the Empire than they are of twenty telepaths armed with world-burning weapons. It doesn’t end well.
How odd, a Card story about a sympathetic figure being pushed to commit mass murder by circumstances outside his control (and a momentary lapse in comportment).
This is a fairly short story whose characters are almost entirely men and yet Card still finds room to slut-shame an off-stage woman.
A hundred thousand telepaths who are utterly unconnected to the destruction of three worlds get lynched for it anyway. Card has an interesting idea there: if only there were some modern event in which a great many people were being blamed for the sins of a small handful? For the strongest parallel, that would have to involve twenty or so people using commandeered vehicles in a counter-value strike on a population center … and what are the odds of that in real life?
And What Will We Do Tomorrow? • (1979) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
Mother rules the Empire but only one day at a time, separated by years; this is her form of immortality. Even though she is fast-forwarding through history, she finds it all a bit dull. Abner Doon may be the greatest threat to the Empire but he offers Mother something the Empire cannot: novelty!
There’s a funny bit in Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky in which Rod discovers that his older sister is marrying his teacher:
Rod did so, remembered to shake hands with the Deacon. It was all right, he guessed, but- well, how old were they? Sis must be thirtyish and the Deacon… why the Deacon was old- probably past forty. It did not seem quite decent.
But he did his best to make them feel that he approved. After he thought it over he decided that if two people, with their lives behind them, wanted company in their old age, why, it was probably a good thing.
That condescension to decrepitude is shared by the twenty-something Card. In Batta’s case, a life spent catering to her terrible parents is said to have worn her out — at thirty. Mother becomes obsessed with immortality when she is thirty, and she has enjoyed a far more pampered life than has Batta. Card’s understanding of thirty-something women leaves something to be desired.
Card can imagine a woman running an empire, even one who created it, but he does not appear to be able to conceive of a woman who might do so without the use of male intermediaries. At sixteen, Mother seduces an older man so that he could conquer the galaxy for her. Her functionaries all seem to be men.
At one point a teenaged girl who is going to be sent to talk to Mother worries that Mother might be a predatory lesbian. She isn’t, but even if she were, I doubt that any of the decadent, corrupted functionaries around her would have hesitated to send the girl into her presence. Which hints at the corrupting influence Mother has on her associates. It also brings up the trope of the predatory pedophilic homosexual. Again.
Killing Children • (1978) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
A man deals with his mommy issues by murdering his girlfriend before heading out on what amounts to a dream quest on a planet populated by degenerate, baby-sacrificing Argentinians.
Dude, whoah. Even Oedipus is giving you side-eye.
I question the judgment of a functionary who decides that the best solution for a guy demonstrably prone to homicidal fury aimed at innocent women is to blame the killer’s mother (for resenting the loss of her youth: that theme again) before buying the kid a ticket out of town. I wonder if, back in the 1890s, there was a doctor in Cornwall who decided the best thing for his miserable, woman-hating client was a nice trip to Whitechapel.
When No One Remembers His Name, Does God Retire? • (1979) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
The scion of an obscure cult is seduced away from the faith of his people by the temptations of the degenerate secular empire. In the end, he begins to see the truths hidden in the apparently nonsensical beliefs of his elders.
I feel as if there’s subtext that I am missing here.
“The Stars That Blink” • (1979) • short story by Orson Scott Card
All things end, even empires ruled by immortals, and even backwaters populated by rustics will get to play their part.
While I am not especially surprised to see predatory homosexuals turn up as the only examples of gay people this early in Card’s career, I was genuinely surprised at the recurring hostility to women. It’s not a Heinleinian “turning your back on housewifery makes you a bad person”; even the moms tend to be terrible people .
I see that as a teenager I misread some of this. I was skeptical that people would buy into the whole “living one year in five means living five times as long”. A number of characters see the flaw in the logic, but it persists because fads amongst time skippers can be very durable and it serves the interests of the people who really run the empire not to have their bosses looking over their shoulders too often. In fact, I can think of a number of major corporations that would benefit from having their executives kept on ice most of the time.
Card’s Capitol is just as doomed as Asimov’s Trantor, but where Asimov sees the fall of the Empire as bad, Card views his Empire as poisoned fruit that the galaxy is better off without. I assume this is because Asimov was the sort of urbanophile who, if you dragged him out of New York to some backwater like Greensboro, NC, would probably crumble to dust to reform somewhere near Times Square. Card, on the other hand, seems acutely hostile to cosmopolitan big cities, those dens of secular corruption and decadence. He’s much happier with worlds that are isolated and low population. It’s not surprising that the moral of this series appears to be “Civilization has got to go.”
This collection is very, very out of print and looking for some of the works in other Card collections will not do you as much good as you might hope. As far as I can tell from ISFDB, Sleep and a Forgetting, Skipping Stones, “Burning,” And What Will We Do Tomorrow?, When No One Remembers His Name, Does God Retire?, and “The Stars That Blink” are original to this volume and of those, A Sleep and a Forgetting, “Burning,” When No One Remembers His Name, Does God Retire?, and “The Stars That Blink” have never been reprinted, not even in Tor’s collection of Worthing Cycle stories, The Worthing Saga. There is an associated novel, 1979’s Hot Sleep; it too appears to have gone out of print almost immediately . I hope I do not come across as being too negative when I say “For good reason.”
1: See also Systemic Shock and Light Raid.
2: I recommend Jean-François Lisée’s Governor General Award-winning In the Eye of the Eagle to those curious about US views on Quebec, up to 1990. One of the frustrating things is that when they say “In the Spirit of 1776!” in French, it is invariably translated to American as “In the Spirit of 1861!” That is, it’s frustrating from the Quebec nationalist point of view. It’s actually pretty funny from over here in Ontario.
4: Exodus 20:12 seems to suggest that good people probably should not just walk away from toxic parents. In Capitol that seems to apply only to poor Batta, not to people like Doon or the male protagonists of Killing Children or When No One Remembers His Name, Does God Retire?
5: Or was it reissued under a new title? I seem to recall Card revised a number of his works in the 1980s, trying to get them right.