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Literature / The Worthing Saga

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Current canonical version.
The Worthing Saga is a work of science fiction by Orson Scott Card. The book of that title, first published in 1990, collects a novel and nine related short stories.

It tells an intergalactic story on a similar scale to the Dune universe. The main plot centers around Jason Worthing, The Empire's most famous space pilot — and its most dangerous one, primarily because he has "the Swipe". His Trickster Mentor, Abner Doon, sends him out to found a new colony while he quietly causes The Empire (and thus the known universe) to collapse back into the Dark Ages. Worthing's colony eventually develops into a telepathic powerhouse who consider themselves guardian angels of the human race, removing memories of suffering and pain with their out-of-control powers. Jason makes them cut it out, which is where the events of the novel start.

A significant feature of the setting is the drug somec, which allows a form of suspended animation. A side-effect of the process is that the subject's memory is wiped, but the setting also has a technology that allows a person's memory to be recorded before they go under and downloaded back into their head when they awake — if nothing happens to the recording in the intervening period. The technology is used for practical purposes, such as long-distance space travel, but it has also become fashionable for the rich and powerful to seek a form of immortality by spending long periods in suspension.

The saga has a complicated publication history. Originally it consisted of two books: Capitol, a collection of eleven short stories, and Hot Sleep, a novel about Jason Worthing. Later, Card rewrote the novel and published the new version as The Worthing Chronicle. The 1990 volume The Worthing Saga contains the current official version: the novel The Worthing Chronicle, six stories from Capitol (with the remainder subjected to Canon Discontinuity), and three new stories set on Worthing's colony world.

The Worthing Saga contains examples of:

  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Played for Drama in "Lifeloop", when a movie star does it to a fellow actress. While the camera is rolling. After she wraps the shoot with some brilliant improv and gets her Human Popsicle vacation, she wakes up years later and finds out that he was dead serious.
  • Arcology: One story goes into some detail about the creation of modular arcoplexes designed to be expanded upon as the population grew, and link to one another if two should meet. Despite their creator's protests that "huge tracts of unspoiled land" would be set aside, after hundreds or thousands of years, eventually all of them met, creating a City Planet (and utterly destroying the natural environment, of course, making it a major subversion of this trope).
  • Blank Slate: Suspended animation has the side effect of completely erasing the memories of those who undergo it, which usually isn't a problem since the memories can be recorded beforehand and reinserted. When Jason is piloting a colony ship to another planet, a ship from a hostile faction attacks his ship and destroys the section in which the recordings were kept, so he winds up taking care of "adult infants" on the planet they come to. Some of them develop different personalities (generally for the better) as they acquire new memories and new experiences. However, parts of who they were are retained, and it's furthermore stated that giving them the memories of other people would probably have caused insanity.
  • City Planet: Capitol, a planet-wide city ("ecumenopolis"). One of the short stories details how it got to be that way. It turns out it had quite vibrant plant life, before the construction completely wiped it out.
  • Colony Ship: Jason Worthing is the captain of the Sleeper Ship variant.
  • Continuity Reboot: Many of the plots in the novel were set up in earlier short stories, but Card didn't have access to those stories when writing the novel, so details are noticeably different. He later got them again, and included the ones he liked in The Worthing Saga as a sort of Alternate Continuity (the rest are now Canon Discontinuity).
  • Cryonics Failure: Not only are some of the colonists killed, but the remainder all have their personalities, which have to be stored on hard disk prior to cryo, wiped—leaving Jason the task of singlehandedly raising 99 adult-sized kids. (Oh, and the one guy whose personality did survive? Jason's Arch-Enemy.)
  • Cult Colony: Jason establishes one by accident.
  • Healing Vat: Used in Hot Sleep when the protagonist is being healed/reconstructed after "proving he's a survivor".
  • Holding Out for a Hero: In Chronicle, an entire planet of telepaths and telekinetics has, from altruistic motives, eliminated pain on all the worlds. They heal any injuries instantly, they block grief at death (which is only from old age), etc. They finally figure out this has turned all of mankind into slaves, and commit mass suicide. Of course then when Pain returns, no one is equipped to deal with it...
  • Human Popsicle: In addition to being used for colony ships, it is also used by non-migratory citizens. In fact, it's a status symbol in the empire: the more valuable you are to it, the more you stay frozen. The series projects the decay of a society through the fact that the richest people can afford to undergo routine stasis and "live" practically forever while poorer people live regular lives that are literally a fraction as long.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: Are part of a genetic package that includes telepathy and (eventually, after copious inbreeding) various other Psychic Powers.
  • Loss of Identity:
    • Explores this trope in quite some depth as it relates to memory. Every time someone enters suspended animation, their memories are completely wiped from their brain, and must be restored from a recording. Such recordings are rather fragile, and if yours breaks, you'd best restart your life from the beginning and relearn what you've forgotten, as trying to live with someone else's memories, knowing that they made choices that your instincts tell you are wrong, tends to cause insanity.
    • The setting also has telepaths, who are subject to a lesser version of this trope. The memories of other people are just as real to them as their own, and if they happen to find a memory they'd rather not have, too bad—it's a part of them forever. The knowledge that they're still themselves tends to ward off insanity, though.
    • One story in the setting, "Lifeloop", deals with this trope from an entirely different direction: the relationship between actors and their roles. The main character acts in real-time, unscripted porn films that are filmed over the course of several days, and has learned to fit herself perfectly to her roles. The actor she's matched with for one assignment breaks the fourth wall and confesses that he loves her, not the character she's playing. She goes along, improvising with him, but completely fails to realize that he isn't acting as well.
  • Lost Colony: The Worthing Saga concerns a Lost Colony, odd due to the fact that the Colony actually (re)discovers the rest of the human race before being found themselves due to their development of Psychic Powers.
  • Memory Jar: The cold sleep used to enable starflight has the unfortunate side effect of completely wiping a person's memory. The solution, spheres which record this and replay it into the subject's brain.
  • A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read: Jason gives a long list of all the bad things he's never done, but remembers anyway because others did them.
  • Mind Probe
  • Morton's Fork: When Jason is suspected of having the Swipe, he's tested on three extremely hard astronomy problems, two of which his examiner knows the answers to and the third of which nobody has solved yet. He's really, really smart, so he solves the first two and gets partway through the third without using the Swipe at all. They try to kill him anyway, figuring he must have done something inhuman to achieve as much as he did. (One assumes that, given his previously established intelligence, if he'd done badly they would have assumed he was doing so deliberately and something was up, so there really was no way out here.)
  • Necessarily Evil: Abner Doon engineers the fall of The Empire, believing it has caused humanity to stagnate. He is compared to a gardener and humanity to a tree that must be pruned. Said pruning involves a galaxy-wide universal rebellion that almost certainly cost millions if not billions of lives, but all that happens offscreen.
  • Occult Blue Eyes: Icy Blue Eyes are part of a genetic package that includes telepathy and (after copious amounts of inbreeding) various other Psychic Powers.
  • Psychic Powers
  • Space Age Stasis: Two instances.
    • Humanity's best and brightest are "honored" with faux-immortality by being turned into Human Popsicles for years, decades, or centuries at a time. Science and culture progress proportionally more slowly as a result.
    • Jason's descendants use their powers to provide humanity with a universe where there is no pain of any kind. Without any need for modern technology humanity stagnates at pre-industrial levels of technology for centuries.
  • Space Pirates: Attack Jason's colony ship.
  • Sugar Bowl: Jason's descendants use their abilities to provide all of humanity with a universe where there is no pain of any kind. They do it for centuries, until Jason arrives and convinces them that humans are defined by their pain and can't progress without it.
  • Superpowerful Genetics
  • Transferable Memory: The cold sleep used to enable starflight has the unfortunate side effect of completely wiping a person's memory. The solution: spheres which record the subject's memory and replay it into the subject's brain.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The setting has a particularly sub-par method of "immortality"—go into a comatose state for an indefinite amount of time, and you won't be any older when you come out of it. Just about everyone who can use this does so, but outsiders tend to realize this sort of extended life doesn't allow for any more time spent doing things, and does result in your poorer friends dying significantly before you. (Also, it messes up their society: all their greatest artists and scientists spend so much time sleeping that their rate of creation slows down significantly).