Book Review: Empire, by Orson Scott Card

Does the idea of a book about a near future American civil war between conservatives and liberals sound interesting to you? Complete, of course, with a George Soros-clone turned militant leader, and mechanical robots policing New York and EMP laser weapons taking down F-16s?

Before I get into reviewing this book, let me just say that I’ve been an Orson Scott Card fan since I was 12. I’ve read almost every book he has published, even the way-far-out-there LDS material. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books of all time.

This book, unfortunately, left a bad taste in my mouth, the same way that all of Michael Crighton’s books have since somewhere around Disclosure. It’s blunt, predictable, and seems written more for screenplay or a video game than as a full fledged novel.

There have been a lot of flame wars about this novel online, mostly from people who haven’t read the full book. Orson Scott Card has, for the past decade, developed a habit of sharing early chapters of books, for free, online, to solicit opinion and feedback from his fans. I think it’s safe to say that most science fiction fans, who skew to the left, didn’t take to kindly to a world where a “Progressive Restoration” raised its own army to “liberate” New York from the false US Government in power since 2000.

You can check out the fun at, in their book reviews. Liberal blogs like Lean Left skewer Card for his conservative mentality, although it turns out he’s a registered Democrat (My favorite part of that one is the fact that the author had not actually read the book. Sigh.) Here is a Podcast of an interview with Orson Scott Card. More interesting, here is an interview with Card about the state of video games on Wired.

Back to the book.

There are some redeeming elements worth noting.

First, maybe I’m just in a “Rome” state of mind these days, thanks to the HBO series, but I liked the idea that the United States of America is not currently comparable to the end days of the Roman Empire. Instead, the book posits that America today is like the last days of the Roman republic, in the immediate years before Octavian rose to power, quelled civil discontent, and established an Imperial line as Augustus Caeser.

Second, most critics haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s afterward to the novel, which really seems to make a heartfelt entreaty to move past the currrently hyper-partisan atmosphere. There is no doubt that Card skews conservative, but he states that there are dangerous extremists on both the left and the right, and that too many issues have been arbitrarily grouped together (abortion & global warming?) in order to villify and divide people as “red” or “blue”. This book is a clumsy expression of these sentiments, meant to highlight the dangers of such radical polarization, but it seems earnest.

As a side note, Card begins each chapter with quotes from one of his characters, a historian turned proto-dictator. Some of them are pretty neat:

If you always behave rationally, then reason becomes the leash by which your enemy pulls you. Yet if you knowingly make irrational decisions, have you not betrayed your own ability?

It is possible to be too much smarter than your opponent. If you give him credit for more subtlety than he has, he can achieve tactical surprise by doing the obvious.

In war planning, you must anticipate the actions of the enemy. Be careful lest your preventative measures teach the enemy which of his possible actions you most fear.

My prediction? Card uses these to write the next great trendy business leadership book, based on these pseudo-Sun-Tzu dictates… 🙂

In all seriousness, Orson Scott Card’s novels have become caricatures of his original style. Maybe it’s the price of success and insolation, maybe it’s just lowest common denominator publishing. I don’t know. I’m not unhappy that I read this book, but it felt about as deep and impactful as a reality show… within weeks I expect that I’ll have forgotten most of it.

Summary: If you like Orson Scott Card, reading this book isn’t worse than reading any of his other most recent novels. But you’d probably be better off going back and re-reading Ender’s Game again.

The Robots Have Spoken: Humans Taste Like Pigs

A slightly unnerving article on Good Morning Silicon Valley tonight:

Doesn’t this violate one of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?

The news comes from Japan, where a robot built to detect smell and taste also evaluated the taste of the reporters covering the story.  Apparently the writer “tasted” like prosciutto and the cameraman like bacon.

It is going to be very interesting over the next twenty years as we learn to view humanity through the eyes of our non-human creations.  Despite Asimov’s best intention, they will likely not be bound by our explicit or implicit moral codes or societal norms.  At least, not completely.  We are are immensely biased and subjective when evaluating ourselves – it will likely be quite illuminating to start learning about ourselves from non-human sources.

Then again, maybe it’s just because I saw this news on Friday, the night Battlestar Galactica airs, and I’m a little sensitive to the idea that machines might decide that they like the taste of bacon.  BTW If you are not watching Battlestar Galactica, you are missing one of the best shows on television.

Why Psychohistory?

The first question that people ask me about my blog is:
“Why is it called Psychohistory?”

This is, of course, a great question, and I think it ties closely to the first question that I had to ask myself when I decided to start blogging again: “What am I going to blog about?”

I’ve been fortunate enough in my academic and professional careers to have had exposure to a wide variety of subjects and businesses. However, I’ve realized in the past decade that my primary interest has always been the intersection of the rational (technology & economics) with the irrational (people).

As a software engineer, my primary interest was in human-computer interaction and the recognition that technology is useless without significant thought given to how people perceive and interact with it. As my interests shifted to the study of economics, I developed a deep fascination with the study of behavioral finance and the recognition that classic economic models fail to predict activity in many cases because people are often not rational actors.

These insights are fascinating to me because I firmly believe that in fact, there is a method to the madness. People are irrational in many situations, but in many cases predictably so. In my recent professional roles in early stage venture capital and product management, I have been repeatedly astounded with the level of value generated from insights into human behavior with technology and economics.

When I was in junior high school, I voraciously read the works of Isaac Asimov, and to this date I remain a fan of his intellect and insight. In his “Foundation” series, he introduced a fictional science called Psychohistory, which was based on the idea that even though individual humans were not statistically predictable, large groups of humans were. This was a direct analogy to the growing awareness of the impacts and contradictions inherent in quantum mechanics: there is uncertainty when evaluating the velocity and position of a single particle, but yet we can still accurately predict where a large mass of them (a baseball) will go when dropped.

When I think about the topics I will blog about here, I know since it’s a personal blog that there will be a fair share of “books I’ve read” and “baby/puppy/family” posts. But in the end, my guess is that the relatively unique theme to most of what I share here will lie somewhere in the intersection of my passions for technology and economics and my fascination with people and their motivations. This means common topics will likely include:

  • Personal finance
  • Economics
  • Venture Capital
  • Product Design & Product Management
  • Silicon Valley
  • Software
  • Science Fiction & Future Technology
  • Video Games

As a result, I decided that Isaac Asimov’s simplistic vision was probably the best title to capture the essence of my personal blog.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ll be experimenting with a new post to this blog every day for the next 30 days. We’ll see how close my guesswork here comes to the actual topics I post to this blog.

Thanks for reading.

BTW I do realize that there is now an actual field of study called psychohistory which is defined as the study of the psychological motivations of historical events. Obviously, I think that this is unfortunate nomenclature, and I’m siding with Asimov on this one.