[2013 addendum/disclaimer: Please see my review ofEnder's Gamefor an important message regarding controversy surrounding this author. Thank you.]
Contrary, if not to popular opinion, at least to what I've been told by a great many readers, Xenocide does not mark the onset of Orson Scott Card's Great Decline. I can see, however, how it would have sparked some vocal opposition upon its release, when it could have truthfully been called the most anticipated SF novel of its year. Xenocide is long and meditative, obsessed not only with the themes of duty and absolution that defined Speaker for the Dead, but with the very nature of life itself. It embraces the metaphysical like a penitent on a pilgrimage. Card, always a writer driven to explore moral uncertainties and dilemmas, pours it all on thick. This is one tortured cast of characters here, in a future, 3000 years on from the time Ender Wiggin unwittingly destroyed the Buggers (but for one surviving Hive Queen), still plagued by fear of "the other" and too reliant upon blind authority to do all the moral heavy lifting.
On the Catholic colony world of Lusitania, a kind of harmony exists between the human colonists and the porcine indigenes known as the pequeninos. But this harmony is threatened by fear of the descolada, a virus absolutely necessary to the three-stage life cycle of the pequeninos, but just as fatal to human beings. (The human colonists must eat food spiked with inhibitors.) The Starways Congress, fearing the spread of the virus to other worlds, has rather drastically dispatched a fleet to sterilize the planet with the Molecular Disruption Device. Having once used the M.D. Device himself against the Buggers, Ender is not about to tolerate yet another xenocide. He and his family feverishly undertake research in the hopes of finding a way to neutralize the descolada's deadly components without obliterating the virus (and thus the "piggies") altogether.
But the ultimate fate of Lusitania may lie in the least expected of places: the Chinese Taoist colony world of Path, loyal to a fault to the Starways Congress. Their spiritual leader, Han Fei-Tzu, and his daughter Qing-Jao belong to the highest of Path's castes: they are "godspoken," in direct contact, they believe, with their pantheon of ancestral deities and thus divinely ordained to rule. It's immediately apparent to us that what's going on here — especially when these godspoken compulsively undertake increasingly self-abusive forms of penance every time they think they're unworthy (which is often) — is some particularly nefarious form of brainwashing. What makes this part of the novel so compelling is how Card, himself a devoutly religious man, is as unafraid as he is of exploring the way religion is so often used as a fiendish tool of control, and how thin the line is between devotion and madness. (Even if he's not willing to hold his own Mormonism up to the same scrutiny.)
Family dynamics are the most important kind of social interaction in Card's stories. Arguably, they are in real life. In Xenocide, two families will be split apart in the fight to either save or destroy Lusitania. On Path, Han Fei-Tzu will lose his daughter — in scenes that are some of the most emotionally wrenching Card has ever produced — to insanity, as she becomes more and more convinced of her father's betrayal and her own role as her gods' chosen instrument. His paternal affections will turn to Wang-Mu, Qing-Jao's personal maid, whose own precocious intelligence is not to be underestimated. On Lusitania, Ender's own family will crumble under the combined anguish and guilt when a tragic and unnecessary death leads to mob violence and the near destruction of everything the colony has built in order to achieve stability and friendship with the pequeninos.
But Card devotes the bulk to Xenocide to its metaphysical play, and I can see how this sort of thing might chafe the hard SF crowd especially. I'm the first to sneer at wide-eyed religion-flogging. This book, despite its heavy religious content, doesn't go for proselytizing. Yes, religion is a key element in both the cultures of Path and Lusitania; the former using it to keep the populace servile, and the latter as a kind of Ace bandage to bind the fragile human society together with both comfort and the stern hand of authority. But whatever concepts of god-ness Card introduces here are decidedly not the sort of thing to go down well at your local megachurch.
Basically, they involve subatomic structures Card has invented called philotes, which appear to be an inspired mashup of string theory and the popular "silver thread" (that links your soul to the hereafter) idea from mythology. Philotes connect absolutely everything, and are already used in the Ender universe for faster-than-light ansible communications. Yet they have also given rise to their very own form of life. Jane is an evolved AI with whom Ender and others are in communication, who lives (if that's the word, and it's definitely a major thematic question in the book) within the philotic connections between all inhabited worlds. Eventually the question arises: if the philotes enable instantaneous communication, can they be piggybacked — no pun intended — to achieve something more ambitious, like FTL travel?
Most imporantly, is Jane alive? And what to do if her life is threatened? And how to resolve the "us or them" dilemma facing the colonists vis-a-vis the Piggies? (One character even insists the descolada may be sentient, thus raising questions of the morality of its destruction.) Do the philotes create life in the first place?
How Ender and the other characters pursue this line of inquiry, and the discoveries they make along the way, are things I'll leave you to discover. It's true that the book's contemplative tone kills the pacing. The second half lays on the exposition too heavily. For the most part, I remained absorbed by the story, which had ample opportunities to tip ass over spout into sanctimony and never does. But Card does run into his biggest trouble with the way he ultimately uses the philotes and their "indistinguishable from magic" properties to have the characters work some magic of their own, and pull off some quick solutions to insoluble problems in a manner that strains suspension of disbelief.
Yet in the end, whatever the book's SFnal shortcomings, its emotional involvement is strong. Xenocide's greatest battles are fought, as they are in all Card's most affecting work, within the heart. While often too stodgy and serious to be as fine as its award-winning prequels, Xenocide is still a provocative entry in the canon of an SF writer who — for better or worse — always writes from deep within his own.