Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card

The Worthing stories were among the first that Card ever wrote, and this volume bring together all of them: a novel, The Worthing Chronicle, and a collection of short stories set in the same universe. This is set in the far future, when humanity has spread unchallenged across many worlds. On one remote, medieval and insignificant world, a small isolated village lives peaceably as it has done for countless generations, until tragedy strikes: suddenly, they start suffering accidents and experiencing pain, something previously unknown. At the same time a couple of strangers enter the village, an old man and a young woman, who communicate only by telepathy. They stay at the inn and ask the innkeeper's son to write down their story, which they relay to him at night in vivid dreams. The book alternates between telling the story of events in the village, and of those in his dreams.

Long before, some people had developed the ability to read minds but were almost entirely wiped out in a fierce reaction against them; the survivors were all members of the Worthing family, and kept their ability (known as the Swipe) hidden. Human civilisation was highly sophisticated, with the more prominent citizens living for hundreds of years by the expedient of spending most of it asleep via the drug somec, only waking occasionally. The story being told in the dreams in that of the old man, Jason Worthing, who had spent thousands of years asleep. As the book progresses, the circumstances which led to Jason's arrival and the return of pain are gradually revealed.

The other stories in The Worthing Saga are divided into two groups, Tales of Capitol and Tales from the Forest of Waters. In both cases, they describe the same events with the same characters as are covered in the novel, but in more detail and from different perspectives. Tales of Capitol are set in the former capital planet of the human empire, entirely covered by one continuous building and nominally ruled for millennia by Mother, who wakes for one day every five years to check on progress. Tales from the Forest of Waters is set on a remote planet in which the Worthing family develop their psychic abilities.

The Tales of Capitol contain a story which made me smile wryly, about a woman who becomes famous simply by continuously recording every aspect of her life for sale to her fans. She eventually loses the ability to distinguish reality from the show she puts on for the recordings, including in her personal relationships. Judging by the publicity gained today by some "celebrities" who are famous for constantly parading their private lives in public, it seems that life is imitating fiction once again.

Overall, an interesting collection with an unusual setting. Relatively slow-paced but well told, focusing on what it is to be human. One key aspect of the Worthing universe leaves me puzzled, though – the attractions of somec. In Capitol society, the higher the ratio of sleep time to waking time, the higher the status. But people don't actually live any longer in subjective time, and in only waking occasionally for relatively brief periods they become separated from friends and family, and detached from society; surely increasingly lost and alienated as time goes by. Perhaps I'm missing something…

4 comments:

Fred said...

When was _The Worthing Saga_ volume published? I know I read a number of the stories years ago, and I'm fairly certain that I read _The Worthing Chronicle_ also. But I'm not so sure about a one volume edition called _The Saga_.

I have a vague recollection that there may also have been an earlier version of the _Chronicle_ that was revised and a new edition was published.

I think I read some of the short stories in an edition titled _Capitol_, if I'm not mistaken. The association of the length of time sleeping and prestige seems familiar.

I don't think the long time sleepers stayed awake long enough to become dissociated and detached. The society struck me as being quite stagnant, except for such ephemeral elements such as clothing and fashion. These people struck me more as dilettantes rather than as one being actively involved in the current social/cultural/political scene.

I thought those that I had read were examples of Card's best work.

Anthony G Williams said...

Fred, the book I read was published by Tor in 1990.

Fred said...

In 1990? Hmmm....Could be. I shall have to check around and see what I can come up with around here.

It would be interesting to read all of them together, especially if Card had something to do with setting up the order of the stories.

Thanks for reminding me of this one.

Anton Gully said...

I have Capitol (somewhere...) and I think it had Worthing chronicle stories in it. Something about a game being played over many years?

I mainly remember the Sorayama (or very similar in style) covers that OSC's books had in the UK.