The job of any good writer is to get inside the minds of others, to relate to any human being, no matter how different or alien. I sometimes sympathize with my most evil creations in order to understand and write about them convincingly. Here’s a quote expressing this same idea:
“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
This beautiful sentiment comes straight from Ender’s Game, pg. 168. Hard to believe the very same person had this to say,
“There are no laws left standing that discriminate against gay couples. 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.”
As a writer, how can Orson Scott Card be unable to understand the wants of a homosexual? Or bring himself to imagine the societal ostracism gays face on a daily basis? How can he remain blind to their position and be so ignorant as to believe it is a choice? Apparently, we can sympathize with alien bugs invading Earth, but humans of the same sex who love each other is beyond the scope of his compassion. But as a Sci-Fi author, Card’s anti-gay stance is even more perplexing, since, to write well about science fiction, you must know something about science, and all the scientific evidence supports the theory that homosexuality is the result of a difference in the brain established at birth. If anything, good Sci-Fi predicts how society changes over time, and if Card cannot see how gays will become as accepted in the next ten years as interracial couples, he is a very short sighted writer. But perhaps all of this can be best explained by simple denial. Card does not need to imagine himself in the shoes of a gay man because he is already there. Like any bigoted fundamentalist (Card is a Mormon) no amount of evidence can sway him, because he does not care to recognize the evidence. Is it any wonder his debut novel contains only two females (which he refers to as the weaker sex), while the rest are young boys who frequently dress and undress, sleep naked, take showers, and at one point wrestle naked in the shower?
I rarely criticize other writers harshly, but after reading some of the racist and homophobic things spewed by Orson Scott Card, I saw an opportunity to be more vocal. Many books, like Cloud Atlas, are greatly underrated, while Herbert’s Dune, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye are more than worthy of acclaim. But Ender’s Game, a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, I found to be amateurish on numerous fronts. For instance, much of the dialogue is forced and unnatural, so that I never got a sense of real characters behaving as real people. Here’s a cringe worthy example:
“When I gave myself to starship travel, just so I would still be alive when you appeared, my wife and children all died, and my grandchildren were my own age when I came back. I had nothing to say to them. I was cut off from all the people that I loved, everyone I knew, living in this alien catacomb and forced to do nothing of importance but teach student after student, each one so hopeful, each one, ultimately, a weakling, a failure.”
Jeesh. While I have written a post defending the use of melodrama, Ender’s Game isn’t Shakespeare, or fantasy, or some other world—this is modern Sci-Fi, and the dialogue simply does not fit. Another problem is exposition. Thirty pages until the end, and we’ve learned virtually nothing about the war between humanity and the buggers (really, best name he could come up with?) and then, in a single block of dialogue, all the info is dumped on the reader. Better novels, like Harry Potter, introduce concepts gradually, allowing the protagonist, and hence the reader, to discover things for themselves.
I bring up Harry Potter because Ender’s Game is in many ways similar. Here we have a young boy whisked from his family and the cruel brother who torments him. Like Harry, Ender is the last great hope for mankind, only, he cannot know anything about it. He is sent to “suffer” through boot camp to prove his worthiness to fight buggers while becoming a ruthless commander in the process. Only problem, boot camp is hardly worse, if not easier, than Marine recruitment. Aside from being removed from his family at a tender young age, Ender doesn’t suffer any more than I did. Kids say mean things to him and he is kicked and punched, but for the most part, he spends years playing a zero gravity game of laser tag, where he (SPOILER ALERT) wins every single time. Poor Ender. Imagine Harry bitching about quidditch while always winning (and come to think of it, didn’t he lose his bones after being attacked by a rogue bludger?). I also take issue with the prodigy concept, mostly because I cannot accept anyone born to succeed where years of training and practice fail. Kasparov may have been a genius chess player, but he wasn’t playing the masters at age six. Accepting this caveat, some of the brilliant things Ender comes up with doesn’t seem all that brilliant. One of his tactics is to orient himself downward, so that the enemy can only target the bottom of his feet, making him harder to hit. It’s an obvious tactic that no commander in the history of the game ever thought of. In fact, it seems none of the other genius IQ children come up with anything.
As pulp Sci-Fi/military fiction, Ender’s Game is a highly enjoyable read. I appreciated the hard science approach, no surprise considering Ben Bova mentored Card. Space travel, for instance, is based on physics we understand, so that invading the bugger home world takes a good seventy years. Even relativistic time dilation is mentioned. As a Sci-Fi writer from the eighties, Card also predicts quite a few things accurately, like the rise of the Internet, school desks similar to iPads, and video game simulators like the latest PS4 consoles. On the other hand, he still has humans piloting individual fighters while drones could have done just as well. I also enjoyed the intricacies of zero-G combat and the strategies of three dimensional warfare. Star Wars and Star Trek look outdated by comparison, although I am still uncertain as to why so much time was spent floating around a room when the actual battle is based entirely around a screen. It’s like taking karate classes to excel at Street Fighter. Despite its shortcomings, however, Ender’s Game rises to three stars with its very clever twist ending. Though you’ll likely see it coming a good twenty pages off, it is still pretty damn cool, and I imagine, the inspiration for the short story that spawned the novel. Given the unnecessary back story and training regimen that comes before, I wonder whether the book worked better as a short story. But even this climactic twist is not without credibility issues. MAJOR SPOILERS: Highlight to read: Was it really necessary for Ender to believe he was playing a simulator the whole time? What if he rage quit or had to go to the bathroom? I had a hard time swallowing the reasoning behind it, the idea that Ender was too compassionate to kill alien bugs (he didn’t seem too kind to his bullies) or the idea that compassion is somehow necessary to know your enemy (tell that to Genghis Khan).
Orson Scott Card works with other writers, teaches fiction courses, and has written two how-to books. He has gone on record stating that fiction should not be used for ideological purposes, a stance I strongly disagree with, and find hypocritical as well, considering the political posturing in Ender’s Game and the anti-gay tirade that is Hamlet’s Father. I had to argue with close-minded professors in my college days, including a PHd whose religious viewpoints skewed his understanding of my work. When thinking in absolutes, in writing or in life, you close your mind to possibilities, limiting the places you can take your story, just as you limit your compassion for people who feel and think differently from you.