Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the First Formic War trilogy, the prequel to the highly popular Ender’s Game novel, soon to be given the cinematic treatment.
“Masterful world-building and a great start to an alien invasion, but the experience still leaves something to be desired.” ~The Founding Fields
I came across Earth Unaware in Tor’s summer catalogue and the novel blurb really intrigued me. As someone who has never read any of the Enderverse novels, but having come across Card’s name before, I thought this was a great place to start. The novel is marketed as as a prequel trilogy to Ender’s Game and is also the novelisation of (part of) the Marvel comics ongoing series of the First Formic War. Taken as a whole, I think this is a great introduction to the series, as Card and Johnston have written a swift-moving, easy-going narrative that draws the reader in.
As per my own blurb above, I found the world-building by the authors to be simply great. I really got the feeling that I was living on a mining ship of the near-future when reading the scenes of the El Cavador. And I got a good idea of the cut-throat politics and practices of a large-scale mining corporation of that same near-future. Those two narratives really drove home the setting: the outer frontiers of our Solar System, specifically the Kuiper Asteroid Belt. Combine that with the highly evocative descriptions of the first contact with the hostile aliens the crew of the El Cavador call “hormigas” (ants), and I was completely drawn into the narrative proper.
The characterisation I found to be very interesting. Victor, a second-generation miner and a teenager, is our main protagonist for most of the novel, while the rest of his ship’s crew also make an appearance at regular intervals. There’s a certain whimsical quality to his scenes and when we explore his motivations and what drive this young boy to do what he does, it is as if this is not just another first contact novel. It is not easy to put into words but the narrative has a very space opera feel to it, one that evokes lost glories and momentous changes on the horizon. Victor was definitely my favourite character in the entire novel, as he was the most realistic and believable character, one that I could connect with on all levels. If anything, he grows in the telling, and by spades. Not to mention that his story arc ends on a high note, better than that of any of the other characters.
We also have Lem Jukes as a focal character. He is the son of Ukko Jukes, founder and head of Jukes Limited, the biggest mining corporation in the Solar system. Consequently, I expected to be a real cut-throat, bastard of a character. The man doesn’t disappoint in the least, although I found his certain naivete at times to be a little off-putting. However, I suppose that goes with what his character is meant to be, a son struggling to get free from the devious, manipulative clutches of his tyrannical father. In the end he was a likeable enough. He shows he can be just as deceptive and ruthless as his famous father, and yet he has a somewhat altruistic side to him, one which really shines when we get to the meat of the plot, the grand battle (of sorts) against the Formics.
There is also Wit O’Toole, the leader of an elite, world-wide remit, special ops organisation known as the Mobile Operations Police. I found O’Toole and his men to be rather lackluster, especially when compared to the Venezuelans of the El Cavador and the Jukes personnel under Lem. Part of that is because these guys barely feature in the narrative. They have zero impact on it and they appear to be very obligatory. Having never read the associated comics either, I can’t tell what part they play in the Formic War and whether or not any of them are even in Ender’s Game, this was too much of a disconnect for me. Their scenes are highly descriptive, yet they lack the punch that is in the scenes with the other two protagonists. Reading Johnston’s afterword to the novel tells me that these guys have a bigger role in the larger narrative, and their story arc conclusion in this novel bears that out as well, but I just couldn’t get into their scenes.
The pacing of the novel, except for the last quarter, is pretty spot-on. We start with a simple, whimsical scene in which the the crew of the El Cavador meet with an Italian clan to exchange supplies and some crew members, and then it steadily progresses to the discovery of a Formic ship heading towards Earth and the inevitable battle that is the great centerpiece of the novel. But then the ending is disappointing. I was expecting a much grander conclusion than what we get, especially where the El Cavador and MOPs are concerned. Victor pretty much disappearing from the last third of the narrative (until the conclusion) also didn’t work for me. In short, the writers just had too many loose ends to tie up and they couldn’t deliver satisfactorily on all of them. The entire conclusion also came across as too neat given the circumstances, which was another slight disappointment with it.
And that’s a shame, because otherwise the novel is quite decent in and of itself.
The prose throughout is engaging and descriptive. You can feel the characters’ emotions. You are put into the fanciful locations beside those characters. The scenes (almost all) live and breathe. I’d say that the novel is very much a “hard SF space opera”. Where the El Cavador is concerned, the authors have really gone to town to show how these miners live and operate and do their job, how the economy in the Kuiper Belt region works. What people’s lives are like so far from “proper” civilisation; their beliefs, their motivations, their culture.
A novel that aims to go beyond what it is on the tin and is, in most cases, successful at it too.
The action scenes with the “hormigas” are well-written. The inhuman, alien nature of the Formics comes across throughout and you really want to find out more about these sentient insects. A lot of questions are raised and few are answered, but the authors succeed in getting the reader hooked. For the sequel, I’m really hoping that we see a lot more of them and that their culture is given some serious page-time.
My last issue with the novel was that, just before we get to the battle between the Formics and the “fringe alliance” that confronts them, the characters switch from calling the aliens “hormigas” to the “Formics”. I was like, what just happened. A scene or a bit of a dialogue is missing there. I can’t go back to check as the license on my NetGalley copy of the novel has run out (regrettably) and I was more concerned with going on with the novel then checking back on this, but this really stood out. If I did miss the reference where Lem’s chief scientist gives the aliens their name rather than using “hormigas”, a term coined by the crew of the El Cavador, then I do feel foolish for having done so. The way it leaped out me though, I doubt that’s the case.
Overall, I liked the novel and I would definitely read the sequel to it. However, I’ll be going in with more measured expectations than withEarth Unaware, given the nature of the ending. Still, go out and get this novel, especially if you are an Enderverse fan.