Thursday, October 31, 2013

Which Orson Scott Card is the Bigger Gobshite?

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.

* 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.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Worldcon Memories

The first science fiction convention I attended (apart from a small Doctor Who convention in Connecticut) was also among the largest, and it is fair to say it left an impression on me.  The 1989 World Science Fiction Convention met in Boston over Labor Day weekend, and I went for all four days, staying in a crowded suite with 20 college students, sleeping on the floor, eating sporadically, and goggling at everything.  It was the first time I had seen cosplayers, quite an experience for a callow and immature 19-year-old; I decided to keep a respectful distance and not to look them directly in the eye, and consequently none of them ate me.  It was the first time I had watched anime - “Japanimation,” as we called it then – with more than one or two other people, though the fifty or so people with whom I watched Megazone 23 late one night represented less than one percent of the con-goers, and they were about all of the anime fans there.  It was the first time I had been in a convention dealers' room, a great flea market of nerdly swag, and while I was a poor student I still was able to buy a dozen or so home-made buttons with geeky slogans (e.g. “He's dim, Jed!”) two paperbacks I'd been hunting for some time, Cory Panshin's Rite of Passage and Philip Dick's A Scanner Darkly (the latter out of print, believe it or not), and a graphic novel or two.  It was also the first time I'd seen science fiction writers in the flesh, and it was not entirely a deflating experience.  I remember seeing Isaac Asimov bustling through the convention center halls while I ate breakfast one morning, attending a panel on world-building where Larry Niven sat like a bump on a log, and attending another panel on Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, where David Brin denounced Bloom and his boyfriend Hegel while Hal Clement crankily defended traditional education.  Rounding out my fanboy inauguration, I participated in a playtest of a new diceless role-playing game called Amber, and an impromptu round of the old card game Illuminati (I played to lose, and played weird); had a rambling conversation with my roommates about Immanuel Kant and asteroid mining; talked with an earnest old nerd about “Lojban,” the Logical Language of The Future; paid a wandering poet five bucks for a poem he imposed on me around 2 o'clock one morning; and slipped out to see the movie Batman (the Tim Burton one), which was still playing in local theaters.

Worldcon wasn't the happiest or most pleasant episode in my life, but it was certainly exciting, and I've been chasing that particular high ever since, through one Star Trek convention, four general SF cons, and about 15 gaming conventions.  This year I thought about attending the World Science Fiction convention in San Antonio to see how it compared to my memories of Noreascon.  I didn't go, but I've read several accounts by fans who did attend, and preliminary reports suggest that I would have blended right in, insofar as the convention's prime demographic was white, male, and aging.  It also sounds like it was a pretty conservative crowd, full of climate-change deniers, homophobes, and mil-SF types who want Heinlein taught in the schools (presumably not the books with incest and rape-oriented plotlines, but who knows?).  I suspect this was the case at the '89 convention too, but that was a quarter-century ago.  It is depressing to realize that the same people who went to Noreascon 3, or very nearly, are the principal attendees of the modern Worldcon, and that their interests and politics haven't changed at all – indeed, they may be narrower and more regressive than they were in the Reagan era.

Not that Worldcon is in any institutional danger.  Tobias Buckell notes that the convention has been at the same size (4,000-6,000 people) since the early 1980s, and Cheryl Morgan observes that Worldcon is a fan-run, print-centered convention, and therefore can't expect to compete with corporate media conventions like DragonCon or SDCC.  Fair enough.  But the reports I've read suggest that even within these limits, Worldcon's attendees don't want to reach out to young people, and don't have a problem identifying themselves (in some cases, at least) as sexist oinkers.  It would be easy enough for the organizers to add a Hugo Award for young adult SF, which has exploded in the last ten years; to place more programmatic emphasis on graphic novels and manga; to adopt anti-harassment policies like those adopted by Chi Fi*, and to offer student discounts.  But the old grumblers who've been going for twenty years might not like it, and they're the ones who currently have the money and inclination to attend.  So be it. In fifty years some of them will still be going to Worldcon, perusing glass-cased displays of Gor novels, quarreling about whether Bradbury was a better writer than Bester, and making snide remarks about female novelists.  Perhaps one or two of them will wonder, while waiting for their nursing aides to show up, why no-one at the con was under the age of eighty.  Then it will be time to go back to the Home, or off to the Soylent Green factory.

* In fairness to the 2013 Worldcon, it did, in fact, have an anti-harassment policy, but this is still not universal at SF cons.

Friday, October 4, 2013

This One Goes to Elevener

Hiero's Journey, Chapter Eight, continued:

(For the previous installment in this series, click here.)

Hiero and friends have defeated the frog mutants who attacked them in our last installment, but the sinister salientians' boats are too small or fragile for our heroes to use, or else Hiero and Luchare and Gorm are too tired to think, for instead of fleeing the island they choose to stay and fight the Evil Unclean priests who are on the way.  Were we talking of a more conventional post-apocalyptic action hero we might assume that Hiero simply doesn't know that the Really Bad Guys are on the way, but Per Desteen has already used his extra-sensory perception to sense their approach, so ignorance does not explain his or his friends' disinclination to skedaddle.

Around dawn the EUMs glide up to the island in their lightning-gun boat, and their leader, S'carn, oilily offers Hiero one more chance to join the Evil Conspiracy. Hiero replies that he knows the offer is a trap, and taunts the Unclean priest with the sort of pulpy, campy diction that makes reading this book such fun:

“Come and try with your weapons! I defy your Unclean crew, your filthy, perverted Brotherhood, and above all, you, shave-pated master of foulness. If you have us fast, come and take us!” (192)

It works better if you imagine Hiero's part played by some forgettable action hero from the 1970s, like Jeff Cooper in Circle of Iron, and the evil priests played by a talented but dissolute European actor, like Max von Sydow or David Warner.

The heroes then resume preparations for one last stand-up fight, when, abruptly, deus ex machina arrives.  It takes the form of an old and plainly dressed “Elevener,” who warns the EUMs to depart. They refuse, naturally, whereupon the newcomer summons his secret weapon: an immense mutant fish with six-foot-long teeth!  The leviathan proceeds to shatter the Evil Mutants' boat and its crew. As the Elevener – whose name is “Aldo” - subsequently explains, the Eleveners have some psychic mojo of their own, including the ability to communicate with non-intelligent and semi-intelligent animal species.

Aldo tells Hiero, Luchare, and Gorm that he has come to find out why the heroes are causing such havoc on the Inland Sea. He promises, after Hiero summarizes the party's adventures thus far, to tell all he knows about the Unclean Menace and its plans, which apparently date back to the great radioactive war 5,000 years earlier. This must, alas, wait for the next chapter.

I'm not sure what became of Mister Giant Fish, but I suspect he swam off to digest his Unclean Mutant meal in peace.  Bon appetit!

Coming next: Sterling Lanier writes the first rough draft of Norman Spinrad's Songs from the Stars (1981).