Book Review: Pathfinder – by Orson Scott Card

I think of Card as a science fiction writer primarily, but he writes fantasy stories very well. Pathfinder is listed as a Young Adults book. Three of the main protagonists are kids aged 13 to 16, and the writing reminded me of Stephen King.

There are many flaws with this book, but several overarching facts made me love and savor it. First, I can’t get enough time travel books (just check my blog category for that), and Pathfinder is, above all, a story where time travel contributes to the plot in a major way. Second, I really like “ark” stories, where humans leave Earth for whatever reason in a one-way spaceship on a mission to colonize another world. Most of such stories focus on the building of the ark, the departure, and sometimes the trip itself. I have found myself yearning for an ark story that continues when the ark actually arrives at its destination, be it after a few years of travel including hyperspace jumps, or after generations of ship-bound human evolution.

Pathfinder describes the journey of the ark, albeit in an abbreviated and not well-developed format, and also focuses on what happens when a ship arrives at a target planet and colonizes it.

I will be careful not to place spoilers into my discussion here, but Card describes a human society that has developed after an interstellar trip on an alien and terra-formed world over a period of 12,000 years. Of course, the people have no memory of where they came from. There are religions and legends that developed.

Human “modern” history starts about 5,000 years ago, when writing was first developed and the first permanent monuments were built. For us on Earth, 2,000 year old events , say the Roman times, seem truly ancient history. But then, the pyramids were already 2,500 years old when the A.D. calendar started, ancient even then. 12,000 years is truly a long time for human society development and history.

We meet the main characters dealing with complications in their society after 12,000 years of isolated human society on an alien planet. Card gets us into the heads of the kids and their adult companions. The kids have “gifts” which allow them to manipulate space-time in unexpected ways. This brings the fantasy part into the story.

Card is not a strong hard science fiction writer. He does some hard science fiction here, but he does not do it convincingly. He discusses issues of terraforming a planet, but he glosses over so many details that it does not seem credible. Similarly, he describes a hyper-space jump of the ship, touching on hard science fiction concepts, but leaving them unresolved. But neither bothered me much. I just wanted the story to move on, and I suspect that’s what Card had in mind. He wanted to move along the plot, give the reader just enough background to figure out what was going on, but he wanted to focus on the time travel aspects of the plot.

That, too, is acceptable. There was just one problem: In the acknowledgement section, which read like an afterword, he actually finds a need to describe the science once more to inform the reader of what actually happened.  This tells me that Card himself realized that he didn’t do an adequate job telling the story in the first place.

Finally, the ending was a non-ending. Card just stopped writing. Clearly there is a sequel coming, because otherwise there would be too many questions unresolved. Of course, Card makes this statement about Pathfinder in his blog:

It’s the first volume of a saga about a young man, Rigg, who discovers that he and his friend Umbo have the power to fiddle with time. He also learns that he’s a member of the royal family, carried off as a baby and raised in a remote forest.

Overall, Pathfinder was a gripping work. I would not classify it as a Young Adults book. It’s classic science fiction / fantasy. It’s classic Orson Scott Card.

Rating: ***

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