Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Book Review: Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card

"Monogamy is what works best for any society in the long run. That's why half of us are born male and half female--so we come out even."
--Ender in Exile, 2008

"Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those whoflagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society." Orson Scott Card, 1990

" If America becomes a place where the laws of the nation declare that marriage no longer exists -- which is what the Massachusetts decision actually does -- then our allegiance to America will become zero. We will transfer our allegiance to a society that does protect marriage. We will teach our children to have no loyalty to the culture of the American elite, and will instead teach them to be loyal to a competing culture that upholds the family. Whether we home school our kids or not, we will withdraw them at an early age from any sense of belonging to contemporary American culture." Orson Scott Card, 2004

This is going to be a long one, folks. I'm going to spend some time on my feelings of Card's politics, my history in reading his books, the series as a whole, and, at the end, just for the novelty, I'll look at the book itself. To start:

I believe that Orson Scott Card fits under what I'd define as homophobic. I recognize that he is far more tolerant than some, and that his position now may not be the same position he took 7 and 20 years ago (though I don't have any reason to believe it's different, either). But when you imply that sedition is an appropriate response to government sanctioned same-sex marriage and you compare an adult homosexual to a sweaty teenager who can't control his urges, you've entered a mindset that I wouldn't, under any circumstances, support.
Unfortunately, from my perspective, at least, Card is also a pretty damn good sci-fi writer. The question is, if I'm really so deadset against his politics, how do I justify continued reading of his work?
Note, first, that I'm not questioning Card's right to have these views; free speech for a free society, and so forth. I'm questioning my own potential hypocrisy in supporting the works of someone whose views I find morally repellent. Further note that, technically, I didn't buy the book. I took it out from a public library. That's not a way out, though; rather than contribute finances directly, I'm contributing to a set of statistics that suggests the book and the ideas behind it are popular. It's a different level of complicity, but not really a different kind.
For the counterview, I think one of the best arguments can be found here: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin. /news_index.php?story=24627. It's for another Card product entirely--the video game Shadow Complex, loosely based on his Empire novel (but not loosely enough that Card doesn't collect royalties from the game). The game's adaptation was written by veteran comic book/sci-fi writer Peter David, who, as a left-leaning Jew, is about as far from Card, the right-leaning Mormon, as you can get. And in this article's comment section, he presents a compelling case against boycotts. He argues that a boycott is just financial censorship, that it valorizes the people you're boycotting among their core supporters. And if the larger company backs down, then the boycott is another step to making products that are as bland and self-sanitizing as possible. Rather, he argues, the best way to fight an idea is with a better one.
Like I said, it's a compelling argument. It appeals to democratic, community-based principles, and it's unflagging in its support of free speech. And it's not even an argument that I disagree with. In my comp defense, one of the examining professors asked me how I'd respond to someone who objects to game studies on the grounds that games promote violence, and my response was--after some hemming and hawing--that if they did cause violence, it's all the more reason to understand their effects, and that banning isn't a solution, because the ideas just go underground. But my professors weren't really satisfied with that answer (largely because I stalled for the time to come up with that argument by giving another argument, that the "magic circle" allows people to tell the difference between games and real life, an argument that contradicts a third, previous argument), and neither am I. Engaging with an argument changes it, and changes the way people view it--by blogging about and reading Card's books or studying violent games, I'm in part complicit in their perpetuation. Neither view, to me, presents a clear moral ground.
To sum up, then: How do I feel about continuing my reading of his work? I AM DEEPLY AMBIGUOUS.

Part of the issue for me is that I've been reading his books for a long, long time. There's a history there; more precisely, they're a part of my history. I came across the book in my grade 10 English class; we were doing a "sci-fi novel" unit, and we had to choose a novel to do a group book report on. Card's "Ender's Game" was my choice. It was one of the longer books, so I was prepared to do it alone; I remember being quite gratified that some other kids were willing to give it a chance just because I was reading it--I thought they valued my opinion on what makes a good book. Considerably later, I figured out that what they really wanted was someone to do their work for them--which I did, since I was the only one who actually finished the damn book in the group, and I wanted to pass, thank you very much. Luckily, the teacher realized that I was the only one who'd read it, and did everyone else's work for them. Or unluckily, if you consider the result of that revelation to my social status. High school is a complicated time.
The point of this anecdote, however, is that the premise of the book struck me immediately as appealling: children are chosen at a young age to train at a military facility to fight a race of alien invaders, and they train through the use of war games. Recall that I read this book about 10 years ago, and at the tender age of 16, I already found game-based sci-fi narratives to be pretty interesting (which bodes well for my future career). I didn't actually read any of the subsequent books in the series; Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind all came much later. But I do remember that Ender's Shadow came out during my last year of high school, and for a long time, it held the status of my favorite book. The idea was that it told the exact same events of Ender's Game--but from the point of view of a different character, Bean, rather than Ender. Every conversation both are present for turns out the same way, but with a vastly different interpretation. The transformative power that a change in perspective could bring to a narrative struck me, and left a longstanding mark. (Sidenote: I was so enthused about the book that I blabbed about it at length during a book report project that year. And opened old wounds, as one of the students who had attempted to read the original with me thought I was rubbing his failure to complete it in his face. High school PoC could NOT catch a break.)

Further investigations into Card's writings never quite reached the same level of quality for me. There's a few reasons for that. First, the sequel works mentioned above, Speaker for the Dead, and so forth, are all very different from Ender's Game, though they star the same protagonist. Essentially, in the end (spoiler alert), Ender gets tired of his war memories and guilt and commits a sort of psychic suicide. After a few thousand pages and four books, that's a downer ending. His other two main series--Homecoming, in which colony of people returning to Earth after years of being away; and the Tales of Alvin Maker, an alternate reality 19th century America where magic, or "knacks" are commonplace--are much more overtly influenced by Card's religion, Mormonism. In Homecoming, the characters discover scripture written on buried gold tablets, and Alvin Maker is very obviously an analog of Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion. It probably reflects my own feelings towards Mormonism than anything else, but when these influences are more overt, I find it harder to take the books at face value--or rather, I'm a lot more uncomfortable with what those face values are. The other major series is the sequel to Ender's Shadow; in general, the Shadow books are more politically based than religious, and I find them fairly entertaining, if a little revisionist in their white-washing of Peter Wiggin. Somehow, despite being a genetically-altered super genius mutant, Bean manages to be a more relatable protagonist than Ender.

So, if there's anyone still reading, it's time to say a few words about the book itself. It's another book that fleshes out the between-scene events of Ender's Game--specifically, it happens, as Card tells us in the afterword--between Chapter 14 and Chapter 15 of the original book. It starts nearly immediately after Ender defeats the aliens, follows through his exile to Earth, his discovery of the dormant hive queen of the aliens, and the beginning of his search for a new home for her. And if that sounds like a spoiler, then frankly, I'm about 25 years too late; this is exactly what happened in the original book, only in twenty so pages rather than 450. The question is, then, what the new version brings to the table. There's essentially three plot climaxes: Ender's confrontation with the admiral conveying him to the Shakespeare colony, Ender's guilt over committing xenocide and confusion about why the aliens let themselves be killed, and Ender's confrontation with Bean's lost son, wrapping up some loose threads from the Shadow series. The first element subsumes the first 300 odd pages of the book, only to get wrapped up in an almost perfunctory manner (it also unbalances the book fairly severely, as the climax and colony sections seem almost like afterthoughts in comparison). The second element, which bears much of the emotional drive of the book, is a fairly moot point; those who've read the first book already know that the aliens allowed themselves to be killed because they'd already planned to hide their last queen. And they also know that Ender's guilt will be overcome because he has to find the queen a safe place to live. And those who've read the entire Ender series know a much more depressing answer, that Ender never gets over his guilt, and eventually sacrifices himself over it. You could argue that not every reader will have read Ender's Game and know how things turn out but... first, why would you start a series with the sequel? Second, if you haven't read at least Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant, then the third element, the supposed climax of the story won't really mean much, because it's all things happening to characters you don't know.

So the interesting part, then, is less the plot than how it's told and what themes it draws on. The book is heavy on dialogue, which has always been a draw for Card's work. It's not an easy task to write really witty dialogue. It's even harder, I think, in the scenario Card has set up; Battle School is supposedly a compilation of the greatest child geniuses the world has ever known. That means you've got a full cast of children to write for, and children who are supposed to radiate intelligence in everything they say. And they have to sound intelligent in such a manner that the reader doesn't find them ingratiating. It's a difficult balance to get right, and to his credit, Card does it well. In terms of themes, the book has two major ones: survivor's guilt, and the need for family roots, both genetically and physically. Survivor's guilt--or maybe killer's remorse-- has always been Ender's issue; I honestly don't have a lot to say about it, other than it's so ingrained in his character that I didn't even notice it until Card brings it up at the end, at which point it seemed both thunderously obvious that it was there, and that it was absolutely essential to the story. The other theme is family, which shows up over and over again: in the drive to perpetuate the species, in Ender's parents' emotional struggle over forcing their son into exile, in Bean's son's warping at the hands of his surrogate mother, and even in small things such as Graff's repeated statement that his children are the colonists and the children of Battle School, rather than any of his own.

Essentially, Card presents the case that the best actions are those that are predicated in what's best for the human, or sentient, family, and those that are motivated for promoting the individual are selfish, and immature--an idea easily reflected in his views on homosexuality.

So we're back we've started. Rather than run in circles, I'll just draw to a close. To sum up, then: Ender in Exile doesn't tell anything that's absolutely new; it really can't, as a piece that fits between other parts of a vast tapestry. I'll fully admit that there are two specific moments--when Ender writes a letter to his parents after years of silence, and when he acknowledged the role Bean played in Ender's Shadow--when I actually sighed out loud in satisfaction, as literary tensions that are over a decade old are resolved. I think that's the key thing here. The book is, at its core, for people such as me, who have grown up reading the series, and, for better or for worse, grown up engaging the morality it presents.

Later Days.

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