* "Fast paced and thoroughly engrossing, the 650-plus pages fly by, challenging readers to care about and grasp sophisticated, confusing, and captivating ideas." --Booklist, starred review
"Card entwines two stories in this fascinatingly complex series opener....The result is an amalgamation of adventure, politics, and time travel that invokes issues of class and the right to control one's own life. Yet despite its complexity, the book is never less than page-turning. While Card delves deeply into his story's knotted twists and turns, readers should have no trouble following the philosophical and scientific mysteries, which the characters are parsing right along with them. An epic in the best sense." --PW, starred review
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
If a Tree Falls
Saving the human race is a frantic business. Or a tedious one.
It all depends on what stage of the process you’re taking part in.
• • •
Rigg and Father usually set the traps together, because it was Rigg who had the knack of seeing the paths that the animals they wanted were still using.
Father was blind to it—he could never see the thin shimmering trails in the air that marked the passage of living creatures through the world. But to Rigg it was, and always had been, part of what his eyes could see, without any effort at all. The newer the path, the bluer the shimmer; older ones were green, yellow; the truly ancient ones tended toward red.
As a toddler, Rigg had quickly learned what the shimmering meant, because he could see everyone leaving trails behind them as they went. Besides the color, there was a sort of signature to each one, and over the years Rigg became adept at recognizing them. He could tell at a glance the difference between a human and an animal, or between the different species, and if he looked closely, he could sort out the tracks so clearly that he could follow the path of a single person or an individual beast.
Once, when Father first started taking him out trapping, Rigg had made the mistake of following a greenish trail. When they reached the end of it, there were only a few old bones scattered where animals had torn the carcass many months ago.
Father had not been angry. In fact, he seemed amused. “We need to find animals with their skins still fresh,” said Father. “And a little meat on them for us to eat. But if I had a bone collection, these would do nicely. Don’t worry, Rigg.”
Father never criticized Rigg when it came to his knack for pathfinding. He simply accepted what Rigg could do, and encouraged him to hone his skill. But whenever Rigg started to tell someone about what he could do, or even speak carelessly, so they might be able to figure out that he had some unusual ability, Father was merciless, silencing him at once.
“It’s your life,” said Father. “There are those who would kill you for this. And others who would take you away from me and make you live in a terrible place and make you follow paths for them, and it would lead to them killing the ones you found.” And, to make sure Rigg understood how serious this was, he added, “And they would not be beasts, Rigg. You would be helping them murder people.”
Maybe Father shouldn’t have told him that, because it haunted Rigg’s thoughts for months afterward—and not just by giving him nightmares. It made Rigg feel very powerful, to think that his ability might help men find criminals and outlaws.
But all that was when Rigg was still little—seven or eight years old. Now he was thirteen and his voice was finally changing, and Father kept telling him little things about how to deal with women. They like this, they hate that, they’ll never marry a boy who does this or doesn’t do that. “Washing is the most important thing,” Father said—often. “So you don’t stink. Girls don’t like it when boys stink.”
“But it’s cold,” said Rigg. “I’ll wash later, just before we get back home.”
“You’ll wash every day,” said Father. “I don’t like your stink either.”
Rigg didn’t really believe that. The pelts they took from the trapped animals stank a lot worse than Rigg ever could. In fact, the stink of the animal skins was Rigg’s main odor; it clung to his clothing and hair like burrs. But Rigg didn’t argue. There was no point in arguing.
For instance, this morning, before they separated, they were talking as they walked through the woods. Father encouraged talking. “We’re not hunters, we’re trappers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the animals run from us right now, because we’ll catch them later, when they can’t see us or hear us or even smell us.”
Thus Father used their endless walks for teaching. “You have a severe case of ignorance, boy,” he often said. “I have to do my best to cure that sickness, but it seems like the more I teach you, the more things you don’t know.”
“I know everything I need to know already,” Rigg always said. “You teach me all kinds of strange things that have nothing to do with the way we live. Why do I need to know about astronomy or banking or all these languages you make me speak? I find the paths of animals, we trap them, we sell the furs, and I know how to do every bit of it.”
To which Father always replied, “See how ignorant you are? You don’t even know why you need to know the things you don’t know yet.”
“So tell me,” said Rigg.
“I would, but you’re too ignorant to understand the reasons why your ignorance is a fatal disease. I have to educate you before you’ll understand why it was worth the bother trying to tan your brain.” That’s what he called their schooling sessions: tanning Rigg’s brain.
Today they were following the trail of an elusive pench, whose pelt was worth ten otters, because penchfur was so thick and the colors so vibrant. During a brief lull in Father’s endless teaching, during which he was presumably trying to come up with another problem for Rigg to work out in his head (“If a board fence is nine hands high and a hundred and twenty yards long, how many feet of four-inch slat will you need to buy from the lumbermill, knowing that the slats come in twenty- and fourteen-hand lengths?” Answer: “What good is a nine-hand-high slat fence? Any animal worth keeping inside it can climb it or jump over it or knock it down.” Then a knuckle on the back of his head and he had to come up with the real answer), Rigg started talking about nothing at all.
“I love autumn,” said Rigg. “I know it means winter is coming, but winter is the reason why people need our furs so I can’t feel bad about that. It’s the colors of the leaves before they fall, and the crunching of the fallen leaves underfoot. The whole world is different.”
“The whole world?” asked Father. “Don’t you know that on the southern half of the world, it isn’t even autumn?”
“Yes, I know that,” said Rigg.
“And even in our hemisphere, near the tropics it’s never autumn and leaves don’t fall, except high in the mountains, like here. And in the far north there are no trees, just tundra and ice, so leaves don’t fall. The whole world! You mean the tiny little wedge of the world that you’ve seen with your own ignorant eyes.”
“That’s all the world I’ve seen,” said Rigg. “If I’m ignorant of the rest, that’s your fault.”
“You aren’t ignorant of the rest, you just haven’t seen it. I’ve certainly told you about it.”
“Oh, yes, Father, I have all kinds of memorized lists in my head, but here’s my question: How do you know all these things about parts of the world we can never ever see because they’re outside the Wall?”
Father shrugged. “I know everything.”
“A certain teacher once told me that the only truly stupid man is the one who doesn’t know he’s ignorant.” Rigg loved this game, partly because Father eventually got impatient with it and told him to shut up, which would mean Rigg had won.
“I know that I know everything because there are no questions to which I don’t know the answer.”
“Excellent,” said Rigg. “So answer this question: Do you know the answers to the questions you haven’t thought of yet?”
“I’ve thought of all the questions,” said Father.
“That only means you’ve stopped trying to think of new ones.”
“There are no new questions.”
“Father, what will I ask you next?”
Father huffed. “All questions about the future are moot. I know all the answers that are knowable.”
“That’s what I thought. Your claim to know everything was empty brag.”
“Careful how you speak to your father and teacher.”
“I chose my words with the utmost precision,” said Rigg, echoing a phrase that Father often used. “Information only matters if it helps us make correct guesses about the future.” Rigg ran into a low-hanging branch. This happened rather often. He had to keep his gaze upward, because the pench had moved from branch to branch. “The pench crossed the stream,” he said. Then he clambered down the bank.
Vaulting over a stream did not interrupt the conversation. “Since you can’t know which information you’ll need in the future, you need to know everything about the past. Which I do,” said Father.
“You know all the kinds of weather you’ve seen,” said Rigg, “but it doesn’t mean you know what weather we’ll have next week, or if there’ll be a kind of weather you never saw before. I think you’re very nearly as ignorant as I am.”
“Shut up,” said Father.
I win, said Rigg silently.
A few minutes later, the trail of the pench went up into the air and kept going out of sight. “An eagle got him,” Rigg said sadly. “It happened before we even started following his path. It was in the past, so no doubt you knew it all along.”
Father didn’t bother to answer, but let Rigg lead them back up the bank and through the woods to where Rigg first spotted the pench’s trail. “You know how to lay the traps almost as well as I do,” said Father. “So you go do it, and then come find me.”
“I can’t find you,” said ...