Sunday, March 8, 2009

Prop. 8 and Orson Scott Card: Ender's Game (1986) / Speaker for the Dead (1987)

Subgenre: Military and anthropological fiction, respectively.

Ender's Game and its sequel Speaker for the Dead won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards in consecutive years, an achievement that has never been matched. Speaker is easily in my top ten, and maybe my top five favorite science fiction novels, and I recommend it - as a book - almost without reservation. I'm not writing this article because of that; I'm writing because at this moment, the California Supreme Court is considering Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that prohibits gay marriage, which was previously allowed in California.

Orson Scott Card, as a prominent representative for a Mormon church that has a fairly strong anti-gay-marriage position, wrote several articles, including this essay and this more recent one for Mormon Times. I read most of the Ender series before I read these articles, and I've spent a lot of time trying to reconcile the idea that the same person who wrote Speaker, which is a paean to compassion for aliens, and Ender, with its focus on a child persecuted for being different, that this person could write that homosexuals "suffer from sex-role dysfunctions," and advocate overthrow of governments that supported gay marriage.

My initial feelings were ones of betrayal, and to judge by various internet firestorms I'm not alone. Ender's Game, with its focus on precocious children, grabbed many of us young, dragging us into science fiction. I wasn't one of those kids; though I loved the story for its adventure, I was bothered by some of the violence and the ruthlessness of Ender's character. I also feel that Ender's Game betrays its origins as a short story, with some parts of the novel feeling bolted on. However, I fell for Speaker for the Dead almost immediately - it mixes an anthropological mystery about an alien race with the dysfunction of a human family - think The Mote in God's Eye (another favorite) filled with Christopher Titus's family. Ender, the titular Speaker for the Dead, performs the simple duty of telling the truth about the dead - not merely their actions, but their intentions - which demands a remarkable compassion.

Had I misunderstood one of my favorite books? How could such articles come from the author of such a humanitarian work? I have close friends who oppose gay marriage, and are good, compassionate people - the contradiction that bothered me most was not there, but in the almost vicious tone of these essays, the absence of any consideration for the humanity of homosexuals. So I set out to reread Speaker with this dilemma in mind, and see what understanding I could come to.

It turns out that Speaker overall holds up very well to a second reading, even with Card's essays in mind. This is partially because Speaker is almost a secular humanist novel. I think this drives some of the feelings of incongruity between it and the gay marriage issue, which is often fought over religious lines. Ender is nonreligious, and most of the main characters are at least unobservant. Religious characters are respected mostly in measure with their rationality:
"The Filhos are as ardent as any unordained Christian could hope to be," said Dom Cristão. "But since we have no priesthood, we have to make do with reason and logic as poor substitutes for authority." Bishop Peregrino suspected irony from time to time, but was never quite able to pin it down.
In fact, Speaker's first impression is significantly less religious than one of Card's admitted influences, James Blish's A Case of Conscience. Of course, the essays on gay marriage are also secular in content and focused on logic, even arguing from biology - though no doubt Card's axioms have been influenced by his faith.

Card even includes some fairly nontraditional relationships within his novel - Ender's partnership with the artificial intelligence Jane is cast within the framework of a romance, and he sees his relationship with his sister Valentine as reflecting the chaste marriages of San Angelo's monks. Even the romances that are doomed by the plot are treated with sympathy, but there is a clear pattern: relationships driven by individual desire are selfish. These desires break families, ruin research, and occasionally cause fleets of warships to be sent across interstellar space. Marriages are, to Card, something different: "Marriage is a covenant between a man and woman on the one side and their community on the other." These ideas, of course, are not all so surprising - anyone who's been to a wedding recently has probably heard something similar.

The most telling commentary on marriage in light of Card's essays is actually quite early in the novel, in a line I overlooked in the first reading:
Pipo never thought to ask them about their marriage plans. After all, he thought, they studied biology from morning to night. Eventually it would occur to them to explore stable and socially acceptable reproductive strategies.
Let me repeat that last: "Stable and socially acceptable reproductive strategies." That's the core of marriage, to Card - reproduction made socially acceptable, with safety ensured. To Card, society exists for the sole purpose of furthering our offspring's survival chances - a remarkably clinical and evolutionary perspective (once again, part of the reason I perceived Speaker as a secular humanist book). From the 2004 essay:
"There is a very complex balance in maintaining a monogamous society, with plenty of lapses and exceptions and mechanisms to cope with the natural barbaric impulses of the male mating drive... even though civilized individuals can't pursue the most obviously pleasurable and selfish (i.e., natural) strategies for reproduction, the fact is that they are far more likely to be successful at reproduction in a civilized society."
First, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind Card that in this species, females also have a mating drive. Second, though, is the crucial point: there is more involved in the maintenance of a civilized society than the regulation of individual desires. Yes, there are individual sacrifices made so that, evolutionarily speaking, the species can survive. But in an increasingly intelligent species such as ours, this only functions if the society guarantees some level of individual freedom - I would not prescribe arranged marriage as a cure for our society's divorce problems. I see free choice of marriage partner, irrespective of fertility, class, etc... as a fundamental right - the right to form contracts and associations freely.

So have I come to some resolution, an agree-to-disagree with the author of one of my favorite books? Not really. Even with the context of Card's personal beliefs, Speaker for the Dead is a remarkable achievement, a monument to honesty and empathy, family and science, and it remains one of my favorites. I also recognize that I have some base-level disagreements with Card - after all, I have no particular desire to normalize gender roles, as I consider human rights and responsibilities to be preeminent over male or female roles. I could come to an understanding of his words if it were merely these axioms with which I disagreed - but the inflexibility and self-righteousness of those essays is repellent to me. Perhaps Card would see himself as Ender, with that mix of compassion and mercilessness in the service of a good cause, but I see him instead in Ender's line:
"They aren't stupid," said the Speaker. "This is how humans are: We question all our beliefs, except for the ones that we really believe, and those we never think to question."


  • Because of Card's writing and LDS support of Prop. 8, I no longer feel comfortable buying his books, and I'd ask you not to, either. If you'd like to read one, I'll loan you my copies.
  • It might be worth taking a look at Donna Minkowitz's interview with Card
  • Xenocide isn't as good, though that's mainly because of the terrible ending.
  • I can't pass this one up:
    "If we had to observe your university under the same limitations that bind us in our observation of the Lusitanian aborigines, we would no doubt conclude that humans do not reproduce, do not form kinship groups, and devote their entire life cycle to the metamorphosis of the larval student into the adult professor. We might even suppose that professors exercise noticeable power in human society."

  • Seriously, are the restrictions on the anthropologists not the best parody of the Prime Directive ever?

Hugo-worthy? Yeah - Ender's Game is about a B+ and Speaker for the Dead an A.

1 comment:

  1. I found this posting to be really interesting. I have read Ender's game for the first time a few months ago, and I was never aware of Orson Scott Card's personal background. Its surprising that the author of Ender's game would have that kind of position and even write those articles. I agree with your B+ rating for Ender's Game which makes me more curious about "Speaker for the Dead" now. Great blog btw.