Understanding the Missing Empathy of Ender’s Author

2013-11-12 Formic Tower

Ender’s Game is, more than any thing else, a book about empathy. From the very first line of the book (“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears…”) and on to the end the theme of empathy dominates everything the characters do and think about. It is the key to all of young Ender’s victories and the source of his greatest strength. It is the source of his deepest pain.

2013-11-12 JazayerliWhy, then, is the author of Ender’s Game an unrepentant homophobe and conspiracy theorist best described alternatively as either “intolerant” or “kooky”? That is the question Rany Jazayerli asks in his moving and thoughtful piece for Grantland. Jazayerli is clearly a sympathetic reader (sympathetic of Card, I mean). As a devout Muslim he shares Card’s Mormon view that homosexual sex is a sin. He is not only a fan of science fiction in general and Card’s works in particular, he writes movingly of how Card’s sympathetic depiction of a Muslim character in Ender’s Game (written in the 1980s) profoundly touched Jazayerli. He says:

Others may hate him, but I’m still struggling to understand him. That’s the least I owe him for gifting me with an ethical compass when I needed one.

I’d like to help Jazayerli understand Card.

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Ender’s Game and Maneuver Warfare

Biggest real-world use of maneuver warfare: Germans in WW2.
Biggest real-world use of maneuver warfare: Germans in WW2.

Medium’s War is Boring section has an interesting article on the strategic content of Ender’s Game. I’d known that the book was used as an example of leadership skills, but it turns out that it’s also a very good source for modern military theory:

By some strange, serendipitous coincidence, Ender’s Game is the best book on maneuver warfare ever written—and a contemporary of the theory’s renewed prominence. If you’ve ever read the novel, you’ve been exposed to some pretty smart ideas for waging war.

I’ve seen the movie, by the way, and the short-short review is “I liked it.” (Not “loved”.) I’ll write a longer review soon, but probably after I’ve seen it one more time and/or listened to the new Ender Alive audio version. In the meantime, read the rest of this article for an interesting new perspective on the work.

What Orson Scott Card Actually Thinks

I’ve enjoyed reading Mahonri’s pieces on Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, and homosexuality. I’ve actually been hard at work for the past few months working on an article about Ender’s Game to coincide with the release of the movie. Although my article doesn’t address the topic of homosexuality itself (it’s a more general look at how Mormon themes are exhibited in Ender’s Game), I’ve recently re-read several of of Card’s works. I’ve also observed for years that he, like Robert Heinlein, has gradually been adding more and more overt politics to his works as he gets older. On the one hand it’s easy to mock the tendency of older, successful men rambling on about their pet politics, but on the other hand I think the world generally needs more straight talk and not less. And, as I pointed out with Heinlein, this is sort of a tradition for the sci fi genre.

In any case, the first comment on Mahonri’s most recent post finally provoked a response from me on the topic of Card and homosexuality. I started to write it out in the comment section, but when I realized I was closing in on 500 words and still not finished, I decided to just write an independent post. Here’s the part about Danny’s comment that I’m responding to:

Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’rielly etc., all started off as main stream conservatives, as soon as they allowed their hate/prejudism to take control of their programs their Rhetoric has become a hateful propaganda that only hurts political dialogue in the US! Sadly, OSC has allowed his prejudism of “gays” to effect his beliefs on racism and sexism. OSC has put himself on the same path as the previously mentioned conservative talk show hosts.

2013-09-02 Janis IanThis analysis is deeply flawed in OSC’s case in particular, and I suspect that it’s deeply flawed in relation to Beck, Hannity, and O’Reilly as well. But let’s start with OSC. Although he was a friend of my grandfather’s, I’ve only exchanged a single email with him and we didn’t talk about any of these issues. Instead, I’m relying on the testimony of American songwriter, singer, musician, columnist and science fiction author Janis Ian who A – does know OSC personally and B – is openly a lesbian and has been since 1993. Here is what she has to say about OSC in her own words and on her own website. Here’s a selection: 

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Orson Scott Card and His Imitation of Fox News: Paranoia? Hyperbole? Satire?

After reading novelist and political commentator Orson Scott Card’s bizarre “thought experiment,” titled “Unlikely Events,” I really am quite mystified. In the article he plays a “game” in which he imagines President Obama becoming a fascist overlord ruling with an iron fist over America and being a figure akin to Hitler. Although he tries to reassure his readers that, of course, he doesn’t believe this stuff, and that he’s just wearing his hat as a “fiction” writer, yet he still also insists that “it sure sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Because, like a good fiction writer, I made sure this scenario fit the facts we already have — the way Obama already acts, the way his supporters act, and the way dictators have come to power in republics in the past.” He says that “the writer’s made-up characters and events must seem truthful. We must pass the plausibility test.”

But then Card shovels in comparisons to Hitler and every other dictator he can think of. When people start comparing their ideological rivals to Hitler, they have shown their refusal to speak with nuance and distinction. They have immediately lost the argument, in my mind. He then throws in a huge number of broad generalizations and hyperbolic statements such as this:

Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator. He hates the very idea of compromise; he demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press. He circumvented Congress as soon as he got into office by appointing “czars” who didn’t need Senate approval. His own party hasn’t passed a budget ever in the Senate.

In other words, Obama already acts as if the Constitution were just for show. Like Augustus, he pretends to govern within its framework, but in fact he treats it with contempt.

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Malice Towards None: Orson Scott Card, Gay Marriage, and the “Ender’s Game” Film Controversy, Part Two

Note: This is the second part of this essay. Part one can be found by clicking here.

“It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren’t for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn’t fight with honor… I fought to win.”
–Ender’s Game

“Somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew, you couldn’t do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood [them] well enough.”
Ender’s Game

Perhaps one of the most troubling things to me about the whole Ender’s Game boycott is the chill and fear it creates not only for those who, on personal, religious or ethical grounds, oppose gay marriage, but also to those who choose to work and associate with them. In these scenarios, all tainted parties are punished, even those who happen to be supportive with the gay rights movement.  It’s a modern McCarthyism, creating a feeling that all people who do not pass that sociopolitical litmus test must be shunned and, if you do not shun them as well, you’re suspect as well. Thus, in the case Ender’s Game, Lionsgate, Harrison Ford, Gavin Hood, Asa Butterfield, and the rest of the cast and crew of the film would be punished by this kind of attitude, even though they have all come out staunchly in the favor of gay rights, and insist the story of Ender’s Game is a story about compassion and empathy, so has nothing to do with Card’s stance on gay marriage.

Fortunately, a lot of the more level headed members of the liberal community see the implications of such actions. Juliet Lapados at the New York Times, even though she hardly agrees with Card’s more extreme views, called out this sort of action:

Generally, boycotts are used to pressure companies or governments to end objectionable activities; consider the boycott of Chick-fil-A to protest the chain’s financial support of antigay organizations. What Geeks Out has in mind is closer to blacklisting. The group wants to “send a clear and serious message to Card and those that do business with his brand of antigay activism — whatever he’s selling, we’re not buying.” This isn’t about stopping the dissemination of antigay sentiments; it’s about isolating Mr. Card and shaming his business partners, thus cutting into their profits.

If Mr. Card belongs in quarantine, who’s next?

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Malice Towards None: Orson Scott Card, Gay Marriage, and the “Ender’s Game” Film Controversy, Part One

“But mostly he got to power on words, the right words at the right time.”
Ender’s Game

With the upcoming release of the Ender’s Game film, adapted from Orson Scott Card’s novel (which is rightly considered a sci-fi classic), a flurry of controversy is building up around the release, especially since Geeks OUT called for a boycott of the film due to Orson Scott’s Card vocal views on homosexuality and gay marriage (some of Card’s views on the subjects can be found a little more rationally in his early work here, and a lot less rationally in his later work here). This is not the first time this issue has come back to haunt Card recently, as DC Comics had to temporarily shelve a Superman story Card had written for them due to some backlash the company had received about Card’s views (even to the point of the artist leaving the project). And, frankly, I can totally understand why the gay community wants to color Card as a boogeyman when he issues incendiary, inflaming, alienating statements like this:

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.

Biological imperatives trump laws. American government cannot fight against marriage and hope to endure. If the Constitution is defined in such a way as to destroy the privileged position of marriage, it is that insane Constitution, not marriage, that will die (Deseret News, July 24, 2008).

Now, whoa there, pardner! This style of “vive la revolution” diatribe is seriously extreme, no matter one’s belief system or worldview. And it’s also pretty impractical. This sort of rhetoric did much more to paint Card as a fanatic, than it did to rally the troops around Captain Moroni’s flag (I don’t actually think Card’s crazy, he’s actually really brilliant, but this particular article certainly made him LOOK crazy).

Card can hardly play the victim, nor be particularly surprised that the gay community has organized so thoroughly against him, when he says that he would prefer to see the government destroyed than let gay marriage stand in America. Statements like that are like holding a lightning rod in a thunderstorm. Card put too many of his RISK armies on one part of the board, and the opposition took advantage of his tactical error.

“I will remember this, when I am defeated. To keep dignity, to give honor where it is due, so that defeat is not a disgrace. And I hope I don’t have to do it often.”
Ender’s Game

“Since when do you have to tell the enemy he has won?”
Ender’s Game

Yet such brash words were obviously spoken in the heat of the moment since Card has now given up the fight, stepping down from his position on National Organization for Marriage, and has called the gay marriage debate “moot” (technically not correct, since there are still 37 states who still outlaw gay marriage, but I do think Card is prescient to see the writing on the wall). No revolution, no overthrowing the government, no going down with the ship… Card has presented the “enemy” with his sword and conceded defeat with this statement, “With the recent supreme court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The full faith and credit clause of the constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.”

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Ender’s Game Trailer is Here!

I’ve been waiting a long, long time for this.

Reactions? [SPOILERS]

2013-05-07 Ender's Game PosterFirst of all: I’m cautiously optimistic. Book adaptations are tough, and this one has been in the works forever. The problem was that they couldn’t get a good script, from what I’ve heard, and for this version Orson Scott Card finally took a hand in writing it himself. That’s risky, but the fact that they delayed it this long makes me hope they were willing to wait for the right script.

Another reason to be optimistic: the actors. Obvously Harrison Ford (as Graff) and Ben Kingsley (as Rackham) are serious stars. But they clearly made a decision to depart from the book a little bit by picking older kids for the children’s parts. In the book, Ender is selected for the Battle School at age 6. Asa Butterfield may be able to pass for younger than his actual age (16), but at 5’10” he’s not going to pass for a kindergartener. And that’s fine: adjusting the story to have older kids makes sense to get more experienced actors. Especially given the violence of the book: Ender kills his first opponent before he even leaves earth when he’s still just 6.

Another major change I noticed has to do with the first war. In the novels, Rackham’s brilliant final defense happens around Saturn, but in the trailer the battles are clearly being fought in Earth’s atmosphere with what look like current-generation fighter jets. So the story has been ratcheted back to be much closer to our timeline (although the actual events of the book happen 70 years after the first war, so we’ve got spaceships by then). I’m not sure what to make of that change. I don’t have anything against it, but I don’t see what is gained either.

2013-05-07 Rackham

As for the rest: the production looks stunning (of course) and so far I’m a huge fan of the sets and costumes. It’s got a really beautiful blend of sort of gritty, hard-sf (check out the muted colors on Ender’s Salamander Army uniform) and then a ton of glossy, bright futurism as well. I love the fusion, and so far I’m very excited by that glimpse into the tone of the movies. The Battleroom looks fantastic!

But it’s definitely too early to be confident. They’re going to have to make major departures from the book to fit this all into one book. After all: it spans several years of Ender’s childhood and several very distinct phases of storytelling, a lot of which involve Ender in almost total isolation. There’s also the fundamental problem that Ender directs the human fleet from a hollowed-out asteroid in our solar system, so none of the space-combat is first-person. It looks like they are getting around that by having Ender use some kind of virtual-reality technology to control the fleet, and that could be a  really great way to make more of the narrative visual.

So, like I said, cautious optimistic. There are definitely hurdles to overcome, but the early signs are all mostly positive.

Six months to go…

2013-05-07 Ender's Game Graff Wiggin