The long-awaited film version of Ender's Game debuts on November 1, and my readers may have heard that there is some controversy regarding the author of the novel, Orson Scott Card. In his youth Card was a talented writer whose evocative prose graced several best-selling SF novels, two of which, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, won back-to-back Hugo and Nebula Awards in the mid-1980s. In later years Card turned into more of a hack, allowing his native gifts to wither, and used his online columns and even some of his novels as venues for his increasingly virulent cultural conservatism. In a notorious 2004 editorial he denounced gay marriage as a grave insult to "real" marriage, the function of which, he argued, was not to promote love and enable mutual support between life-partners, but to "civilize" men and women and teach conventional sex roles to children. In his 2006 novel Empire, Card indulged several modern conservative fantasies, defending torture, demonizing liberals as pawns of wicked billionaires (I'm pretty sure one of his villains is George Soros in disguise), and devoting an entire chapter, "Fair and Balanced," to a giving Bill O'Reilly a giant reach-around. Most recently, he opined that President Obama might be planning to create a Secret Kenyan Muslim dictatorship in America with the help of his own force of Brown Shirts and the fascist mainstream media.
It's always dispiriting to see a once-talented writer descend into hack-work and crackpot politics, especially if the larger community continues to give them honors. Surely, though, Card's earlier writing is free of his right-wing politics and homophobia? Several online commentators have said as much about the novel Ender's Game, apropos of whether or not one should boycott the movie. As it happens I have no opinions about the film because I haven't seen it; it might be terrible, it might be slavishly faithful to the original, or it might subvert the novel, as the 1997 film version of Starship Troopers did Heinlein's book. In the latter case it might be worth putting money into the pockets of the producers (who include Mr. Card) to support a film that sticks its thumb in the author's eye. Readers should wait for the reviews before deciding. I can however, give some advice regarding the book: skip it.
This isn't an easy recommendation to make. I loved Ender's Game when I read it in high school: Card's prose was alluring, and his plot, while derivative, borrowed only from the best science fiction of the day: Dick's Time Out of Joint, Haldeman's Forever War, Sturgeon's More Than Human, a bit of Ursula LeGuin's Hainish novels. At the heart of the book and of its sequel, however, is a moral conceit that, once I finally read John Kessel's 2004 explication of it (which you should read as well), explains why I found Ender's Game so appealing as a teenager and troubling as a young adult. Intentions, Card repeatedly argues, are more important that deeds. If you mean well and your heart is pure, the consequences of your actions are irrelevant, even if you kick children to death or slaughter an alien species. Ender Wiggin was tormented by bullies during his childhood and systematically abused during his battle-school education. His assailants had no motives beyond self-gratification and anger, the adults who might have protected Ender were either unaware of the bullying or refused to intervene, and in the end he had no choice but to react with cold-blooded and overwhelming violence. Kessel notes that this not only builds reader sympathy for Ender, it also provides a moral justification for his savage violence. "Ender Wiggin isn't a killer," his teachers at the battle school assure us, because killers have to have hearts full of malice (unlike Ender, who merely wants to "win") and because they feel no remorse afterwards (as Ender supposedly does). "The rightness or wrongness of an act," Kessel writes in summarizing Card's message, "inheres in the actor’s motives, not in the act itself, or in its results."
Who, though, shall make the determination of whether an actor's motives are good enough to justify murderous results? Anglo-American law leaves such a determination to the courts, with a sliding scale of punishments depending on whether one has killed in self-defense, or accidentally, or intentionally, or with premeditation. In a war, like the one Ender is fighting, such decisions often depend on whether one is on the winning or losing side, though sometimes the victors can show magnanimity and try to rectify their mistakes. (E.g. the United States, some decades after World War Two, paying reparations to Japanese-American victims of its internment policy.) In Card's moral universe, the ultimate judge of one's intentions is the author, which is to say God. And there is a much deeper problem with that moral universe, which is that goodness may in fact be an immutable characteristic rather than a product of one's upbringing or a reflection of one's actions.* Ender's actions, Card tells us, are morally correct because Ender has a great soul – "there's greatness in him, a magnitude of spirit" – and he can therefore commit murder and abuse his friends and still remain great-souled. (Conversely, some people are inherently bad and cannot redeem themselves through good actions; they will in fact do a lot of damage if they try to behave well, a point Card made in a chilling Locus interview that Kessel cites.) Ender's great soul is in fact greatly enlarged by the wrong he has done to others, for in Card's view Ender suffered so much from the evil consequences of his actions that he became a kind of martyr.
Both this Christ-like martyrdom and Ender's intrinsic moral excellence make him the ideal candidate, in Card's mind, to establish a new religion after the end of the war, a faith whose central precept is "the morality of intention." Elaine Radford, in a 1987 essay on "Ender and Hitler," notes that the central rite of this faith involves "heal[ing] the community" by defending the evil actions of the powerful. One character in Speaker for the Dead justifies Ender's act of racial genocide by saying that Ender simply didn't understand, at the time, that the Buggers were anything other than varelse (alien). Another character beats his wife, but Speaker Ender justifies this by saying it's really his wife's fault. (Radford notes that Card displays considerable "contempt for women" in the two novels, which in my view may help explain why he later insisted that marriage was a social obligation rather than an expression of genuine love.)
Kessel observes that Ender is an ideal fantasy character for bright and disaffected teenagers, which explains why my friends and I used to enjoy his story so much and why it continues to sell up to 200,000 copies a year. "Ender never loses a single battle," Kessel notes, "even when every circumstance is stacked against him. And in the end, as he wanders the lonely universe dispensing compassion for the undeserving who think him evil, he can feel sorry for himself at the same time he knows he is twice over a savior of the entire human race. God, how I would have loved this book in seventh grade!" One of the hard lessons of adulthood, however, is that suffering does not make one special – it merely makes one's tormenters assholes. It certainly does not grant anyone a license to kill. And being thought evil because you are in fact a sociopathic mass murderer, when you know in your heart that you are good, does not constitute martyrdom, or grant one the wisdom to found an interstellar religion.
To sum up: the later, crankish Orson Scott Card is a homophobic right-wing conspiracy nut, while the earlier Orson Scott Card is merely an apologist for murder and genocide, and a proponent of the idea that some people are intrinsically evil and some people are inherently good, no matter what they may do in life. I leave it to my readers to decide which Orson Scott Card is worse, though I rather suspect they are and always have been the same person.
The author thanks Robert Bricken for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
The author thanks Robert Bricken for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
* I hesitate to say a "racial characteristic," but Elaine Radford points out that Card claims Ender's intelligence is entirely innate – the product of "breeding, not training" – and that this is a characteristic of twentieth-century eugenic theory.