(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Orson Scott Card is most often praised as an absorbing storyteller. He creates characters of great depth and places them in morally complex situations. The result is fiction that grips and entertains the reader in the ways expected in popular fiction, while provoking thought about his major themes: a religious view of humanity and the cosmos, the exploration of ideal conceptions of human community and the struggles of individuals to realize such communities, examination of the forms of spiritual poverty that repeatedly threaten individual fulfillment, and the realization of living communities. In interviews, Card made clear his commitment to Mormonism, and his reviewers noted how Card’s religious beliefs permeate his work. Michael R. Collings compares Card’s work to that of an important influence on Card, C. S. Lewis in his seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia series, showing that both writers produce stories that are enriched by their religious beliefs without being explicitly didactic.

Card’s short fiction includes a variety of kinds, though most stories fall within popular genres. He divides Maps in a Mirror into groups of horror stories, speculative fiction, fables and fantasies, religious tales, and a miscellaneous group that includes stories and a poem that have grown into novels as well as several exemplary stories for religious, family readers. The stories in The Worthing Saga are closer to traditional science fiction, while those in The Folk of the Fringe speculate about a postnuclear holocaust world in the Mormon West. While nearly all these stories have been well received, the most interesting and moving of them tend to be the fantasies and speculative fiction that explore themes of human spirituality.


“Kingsmeat” was first published in 1978 and later collected in Maps in a Mirror. Though it is a story of the liberation of a conquered human colony on another planet, these events are not the central interest of the story. The story of the conquest and release is revealed at the human shepherd’s trial for collaboration with the alien king and queen. The king and queen are multilimbed alien life-forms with an advanced technology that allows them to dominate human colonists. Their usual procedure is to conquer a colony and then feed off it, eating the humans until they are gone, then moving to another colony. At some point, they reproduce a large number of new pairs to spread the species. The shepherd discovers a way to save the human colony from this fate. He succeeds in communicating with the king and queen and then persuades them to accept a procedure by which he will provide them an endless supply of human flesh. He thereby preserves the colony until its rescue by cutting off body parts of the colonists, using tools provided by the king and queen that allow painless surgery, and saving the colonists’ lives at the cost of their physical wholeness.

On the day the king and queen are defeated, the shepherd supplies their order of breast-in-butter by cutting off the breasts of a fifteen-year-old mother of a newborn, then overseeing the cooking and serving of this delicacy. After a rescue party destroys the king and queen, there is a trial of the collaborators, mainly the shepherd, whom the colonists have hated and feared for years. The trial supplies the reader with the background of the conquest and with a detailed account of how the shepherd came to occupy his position. The trial is conducted by telepathic means, there being a machine for this purpose. As a result, the entire colony as well as the accused participate, and every participant feels what the witnesses and the accused feel as they remember these events. The court is moved to compassion by the shepherd’s story. While it is true he has committed atrocities, his doing so has saved all the lives that could have been saved, for the shepherd never took a life. The court decides that for his sacrifice, the shepherd is to be preserved, cared for, and honored annually by the colonists.

The story ends, however, with what proves to be its most horrific image. The colonists cannot forgive the shepherd for having remained whole while he dismembered them. Therefore, they remove all of his limbs and his genitals. They carry out the court’s order to the letter, caring for him, preserving his life as long as possible, and honoring him annually with visits and gifts. They leave him his tongue because he never speaks and his eyes because they want him to see them smile as he once smiled when he was their shepherd.

“Kingsmeat” is a powerful tale that suggests meanings on several levels. The testimony in the trial can hardly fail to evoke images of the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, specifically the problem of collaborating with evil to mitigate it. The narrative voice of the story is always sympathetic to the shepherd, emphasizing how much he tries to be kind to his flock even as he makes them into food, how he endures their hatred and fear in order to save them. His final fate suggests a living crucifixion, the figure of a savior who cannot be forgiven for his necessary actions. Card says that as he developed this story, he found himself focusing on “an area of unbearable ambiguity. [T]he one who suffered and died to save others is depicted as one who also inflicts suffering; it is a way to explicitly make the Christ figure take upon himself, in all innocence, the darkest sins of the world.”

The final image is so horrifying because those he saved prove unable to show him the same mercy he won for them. In the end, they prove more vicious than the king and the queen, whose morality did not require that they value humans any more than humans value the animals they use and eat. By obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the law, his tormentors fail to understand their human condition, revealing that they need but do not deserve the mercy they deny the shepherd.

Card said in the extensive commentary included in Maps in a Mirror that he considered science fiction the ideal genre for dealing with the...

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