Friday, October 15, 2010

Orson Scott Card is Retconning My Childhood

enders_gameI received Ender’s Game as a Christmas present in middle school.  I’d been reading a lot of Star Wars books, and my mom thought I’d like it because it had a spaceship on the front.  I scoffed.  What was this book?  Who was Orson Scott Card?  Why bother reading it if it didn’t have any Jedi or X-wings? 

Put plainly: I was a fool.

Like every kid who ever fell under the spell of Ender’s Game, I saw much of myself in the novel.  In early grade school, I fancied myself a budding pilot.  (Of course, this interest never grew beyond a ravenous appetite for X-Wing novels and late nights with a number of space sims.) I’ve been a patron of electronic games since I first tried to teach my mother Yoshi (I failed), and when I wasn’t indoors playing Final Fantasy I was running around my backyard acting it out.  I, like the protagonist Ender, was a third child whose two older siblings possessed diametrically opposed temperaments.  I, too, was plucked – far less dramatically and traumatically than Ender – from my elementary school class and bumped up into a program for “gifted” students.  Finding Ender at that stage in my life was kismet. 

Ender’s Game never left me as I grew up.  I bonded with new friends over it.  Nerdy introverts opened like spring flowers at the mention of Battle School.  The first real-life conversation I ever had with Rob Kunzig took place when he peeked in my dorm room on the first day of college and saw Ender’s Game already displayed prominently on my bookshelf. 

But my first read well over a decade ago wasn’t about the relationships I had with other fans.  It was about the relationship I had with Ender, how I saw my reflection in him.

With the threat of another half-baked Ender’s Game movie treatment (no matter who you attach to this project it always seems like its going south before inevitably going nowhere) looming on the horizon, I can’t help but think about the ways Orson Scott Card’s undermined my affection for Ender.

Casting a Shadow

I wonder if Card is friends with George Lucas.  Star Wars fans worldwide facepalmed at Lucas’ clumsy prequel trilogy.  Not only did the movies muck up a beloved franchise with their renewed focus on catering to toddlers, Lucas dispelled one of Star Wars’ greatest mysteries: the Force.  With one word – midichlorians – he replaced a potent metaphor for the power of faith (in goodness, oneself, etc.) with mere bacteria. 

Ender's ShadowCard similarly undercut his own work with Ender’s Shadow, a companion novel to Ender’s Game released fourteen years after the original.  In Game, Ender overcomes the Battle School’s atrociously stacked odds by leading a ragtag group to greatness, earning the love and respect of peers who would then go on to help him (unknowingly) defeat the mysterious alien Buggers.  Shadow reveals that many of the School’s sinister machinations involve Ender’s second-in-command, Bean: Ender’s team is hand-chosen by Bean; Bean assumes command when Ender is incapacitated; Ender’s capacity for love becomes cold comfort in the face of Bean’s icy strategic genius.  We’re shown the man behind the curtain, and he’s a profound disappointment.

Ender’s Game grew from short story form into a novel proper because Card felt he needed to flesh out Ender before he wrote Speaker for the DeadSpeaker then raised its predecessor’s themes by an order of magnitude.  How do we define an Other?  Can members of our own family be as alien as foreign organisms?  How do we remember someone: by their deeds or their intentions?  The latter entries in the initial Ender tetralogy got a little out there, but they still fall in nicely behind Speaker.

Shadow, and the series of increasingly disappointing books that followed, failed to address any of their questions.  The Shadow series asked the reader to slog through pages upon pages of Card’s alternate near-future fantasies – military operations, rehashed political plots, etc.  I raced through each novel when they first came out, but found myself enjoying less and less with each subsequent trip to the Enderverse.  2008’s Ender in Exile didn’t help.  I didn’t need to know about that one time Ender put on a Shakespeare play in a spaceship.

A Complex Situation

Toward the end of Charge Shot!!!’s first year, Andrew and I inadvertently posted a double review of Shadow Complex, a modern Metroid-like game developed by Chair Entertainment.  We loved the game, but not because of anything Card had done, it seems.  Despite Shadow Complex taking place in the universe of Card’s right-wing-tinged novel Empire, it didn’t feature a story of any great consequence.  And the best writing I can remember is when I once caught two A.I. guards arguing about the Cubs’ World Series chances.ShadowComplex2Card’s involvement in the game, however, became the stuff of controversy.  His less-than-tolerant views on homosexuality have been well documented, and his connection to the summer’s biggest downloadable title riled the feathers of a number of gamers.  NeoGAF members debated the possibility of a Shadow Complex boycott, with naysayers frequently asserting, “Hey, it’s just a game.”  Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt refused to accept this medium-specific dismissal of a how bothered gay gamers (himself included) were by Card’s link to the title.  He wanted to play Chair’s game, but he’d since swore off directly supporting Card with his money.  Gay Gamer even suggested donating to a gay charity to offset your Shadow Complex purchase.  Suffice to say, people had opinions.

When I read Ender’s Game in middle school, I don’t know that I had many opinions.  Not meaningful ones anyway.  (I wasn’t a troublemaker, so I guess I believed in some conventional sense of morality.)  Now, however, I have more than a few.  Full disclosure: I’m a liberal who likes to blend in with the moderate crowd.  Were I more educated (or took more time away from theater or writing for this blog to educate myself) on the issues, I might have the courage to be more outspoken and proudly plant my flag on the left.  Sheepishness aside, I believe in erring on the side of personal liberties.  I have gay friends, and I’d never dream of begrudging them happiness or the right to pursue it.  If a person’s lifestyle choice (be it sexual orientation or whatever) doesn’t harm someone else, I’ll defend their right to make it.  I know that’s a black-and-white description of a pretty grey belief system, but it’s worked alright for me so far.  However, the Shadow Complex controversy forced me to reconcile my nascent political beliefs with those of a man I spent years calling my favorite author. 

Years ago, a friend of mine went to a book-signing and brought me back a birthday present: a copy of Ender’s Game with Card’s autograph.  My heart swelled as I gently opened the book and read the looping Sharpie ink on the first page.  “Happy birthday to a fellow Third,” it read, referencing the once derogatory-then-acclaimed term for third children in the Enderverse. 

Looking up from this computer screen, I can see that exact book on my shelf.  I’m not sure how I feel about it being there.  I don’t know where my love for the book ends and my disdain for the author’s views begins.

Speaking For What I’ve Read

Card’s career post-Speaker for the Dead confuses me, obviously.  I can forgive him the oddness of Xenocide and Children of the Mind.  They brought me full circle on the Ender tetralogy’s varied cast of characters while continuing to cleverly use science-fiction as a means to explore metaphysical questions.  Ender’s Shadow and its sequels, however, express a profound a lack of understanding for what made the original books so good. 

Ironically, they were books about understanding.  Understanding a person’s faults so you can look past them and see their strengths.  Coming to understand your own limits so you could, without pretense or resentment, ask for and accept another’s help.  Looking back at someone’s life and undergoing the immense effort it takes to see them as they were, not how you wanted them to be. 

It saddens me to now see Orson Scott Card as a man incapable of the kind of love and understanding that defined Ender.  Perhaps instead of writing new books, Card should simply go back and read his old ones.