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Why Pathfinder lost its way – book review
★★ Orson Scott Card’s books vary enormously in quality- when he’s good he’s genius; tying intricate plotting with fascinating inner monologues, cumulative story development, and a real sense of threat (a la Pastwatch, early Alvin Maker, early Ender and Bean), but when he’s bad he’s atrocious; padding his ‘stories’ with bantery filler, gross over-explanation, and a distasteful kind of sexualized potty humour. Ugh.
His latest fantasy/sf novel ‘Pathfinder‘ falls into both camps, though not in equal measure. In short, it was disappointing.
Pathfinder tells the story of Rigg, a boy with the ability to see the paths of all living things backwards through time, kind of like the silver slug trails in Donnie Darko. This premise is certainly the most interesting part of the book. Everything afterwards is basically a by-the-numbers quest shot through with that funky premise as dustings of spice.
The quest is a hunt for Rig’s real parents. His father dies early (after hanging around long enough to show the annoying one-upmanship relationship he has with Rigg where they’re both constantly arguing over the teeniest of logical mistakes, trying to catch the other out) and gives him some cryptic ‘carroty’ spiel about hunting down his real family. For an unconnected reason (whomping great plot-’stick’) at the same time Rigg gets kicked out of his village. He hits the road with some doofus friend in tow- who just so happens to have the ability to slow time. Put his skill with Rigg’s, and hey presto, Rigg can travel in time. This is either fascinating to you, or you’re already groaning with the inevitable Back To The Future 2 time-travel logic retreads that are coming.
And yes, they come. Thick and fast and thick, Card explains his mechanics of time travel. If I go back in time and steal money from myself, do I have it now, or does future me have it, or does it just disappear? And who cares? a
Rigg uses this new-found skill to go steal some ancient merchant’s dagger. Big whoop. Then he doesn’t use it again for anything useful for basically the rest of the book.
So now I’ll get critical. In fact, I’ll get medieval. Because once you’ve given a hero this kind of superpower, there’s no story left to tell unless you come up with a super-villain with an equal or greater power, and the wit to use it. Which Card does not do. Rather, he has Rigg bumble along like a bit of a fortuitous prick- early on stumbling into some swarthy dude who basically adopts him for the book’s duration and acts as a personal bodyguard and stand-in father.
So let’s recount the stakes and the motivation here. Rigg is curious about his mom and sister- this is the whole of his motivation. Nothing is at risk, nothing at stake, his desire to see them is not even that burning because he’s never seen them before. The only fire at his butt is that he can’t go back to his father’s village, but let’s be honest- who wants to go back to that hole in the ground anyway. So he’s basically on gentle cruise control. Add to that his mega-superpower, and the stand-in father along to protect him, and the fact that his real father had previously trained him to speak in 50 different accents and to know the ways of the world better than everyone, and I was left floundering. What was I supposed to care about? I saw no one remotely capable of hurting Rigg. He was like Peter in the (godawful) TV show Heroes, that skinny drawl-mouthed punk with the power to absorb all powers. The only way he could get hurt is if he did something utterly stupid and ridiculous to let himself be hurt.
Which Rigg does. Numerous times.
This was the novel’s major flaw. Underneath all the fancy time travel, underneath the helixing companion tale (told briefly at the start of every chapter – more in a minute), Rigg is at once too damn good and also too damn stupid. The lute in Scott Card’s hands is hopelessly out of tune, some strings too tight and others too slack, but still he keeps on strumming it anyway- though the sound that comes out is a discordant bloody mess.
Argh. Yes, this is exactly it. The very frame of the story is off. The world is supposed to be terrifying and scary, but in the first tavern Rigg and his doofus friend find themselves, the big dude sweeps in to rescue them. I would have MUCH preferred it if he’d robbed them. If Rigg and doofus had to escape with barely their lives and figure things out for themselves, that would have raised the stakes hugely and put real limits on their power. Instead, the addition of this guy makes everything easy.
So with this troupe Rigg goes to the city. He is nominally held prisoner by his scheming mom, and meets his sister who has another weird skill- but rapidly he uses his powers to escape in and out of house arrest, without detection. He just wanders in and out of the ‘villain’s’ clutches like he was popping out for pizza. He’s ridiculously over-powered, there is no sense of tension or threat, but Card keeps on banging away at that lute.
And then the denouement. Escape, with all his buddies to an impossible wall surrounding the world he knows, which in fact is just one of 13 partitions dividing the world. But they are being chased! Oh nos! Regular humans on regular horses are chasing time-travelling Rigg, what on earth will he do?
He doesn’t time travel. This is the most ridiculous part, and where Card just pissed me off. Lazy! If he time-traveled back a week, where would the pursuit go? It would be gone! It would still be watching over him in his house-arrest ‘prison’! Card makes some long-winded attempt to explain why this ‘wouldn’t work’, but it’s an utter BS attempt to keep us engaged in the tension, which results in every bit of that ‘tension’ being totally false. Like the end of (the godawful) Heroes where ALL the good guys PLUS Peter fight Sylar. What worry did any of us have that they were going to lose? Or even get hurt?
So with Pathfinder. I was never scared for Rigg, never even concerned, because at all times he had a batch of magic bullets in his pocket. It was easy, but still he had to keep stuffing it up- in order for there to be a story.
Other reviewers have compared this kid to Ender. Well, yeah there’s that. But Ender would never have squandered his skill the way this kid does. He would have kicked ass and been done with it.
There are other elements at play here- most notably the sf back-story to explain the world-partitions and Rigg’s funky skill- which is pretty good- with cool ideas on evolution and dimension-jumping skillz. But the book as a whole doesn’t stand up. It’s all out of whack, out of alignment, and it plays like a de-tuned radio.
I want to yell- “Put on your man pants, Card!” Give us some damn stakes, give the hero a challenge, and stop expecting us to fall over ourselves for precocious kids. Raise the stakes, make life truly impossible for them, then have them rise to the occasion- like you did with early Ender and Alvin. Let’s get back to that.
To read more and how to fix it (ahtfi) story articles- go here.