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Games with Orson

by John J. Miller

The politically correct denunciation of a movie and a novelist

Almost halfway through Ender’s Game, the 1985 science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, a pair of siblings try to manipulate global opinion by posting polemics “on the nets” — Card’s early anticipation of the World Wide Web. To succeed, they must overcome the biases of “the news herd.” Card sets his story in a far future of interstellar warfare, but he seems to comment on our own times when he describes his characters’ need to sift “accurate information out of the stories of the hopelessly ignorant, gullible news writers.” Apparently some things never change.

Now the modern-day news herd has descended on Card himself, as the movie version of Ender’s Game, with its production budget of more than $110 million, prepares to reach theaters on November 1. Many left-of-center pundits dismiss Card as a social pariah — a gay-bashing bigot and possibly even a racist — simply because he is a Mormon who has had the gall to oppose same-sex marriage. “Card’s views are ugly,” complained Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post in a column about calls to boycott the movie on account of the author of the novel it’s based on. Petri came down on the side of seeing the film — see it despite the “visible intolerance” of Card, she said — but others are less certain. Many are doing their best to creep out moviegoers: David Weigel of Slate even compared Card to George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi party. It’s as if Ender’s Game were the new Triumph of the Will.

Card’s political views are of course fair game, and people are free to see the movie or skip it for whatever reason they please. Yet the controversy has the unfortunate effect of smearing a book that doesn’t deserve the notoriety. Ender’s Game is one of the finest science-fiction novels in recent decades. It’s a modern classic that won the Hugo and Nebula awards, the biggest annual prizes in the genre. Its influence in fact runs much deeper than winning these prizes suggests. Card didn’t mean to write Ender’s Game as a young-adult title — a sector of the publishing industry that has exploded since his novel’s first printing. Yet its hero is a boy, and it has made a lasting impression on many readers during their adolescence. I teach at a college, so I’m constantly around young people. Ender’s Game is one of the books they are most likely to have read outside of school — a shared text for a generation that doesn’t have many. Even Mitt Romney raves about it: In 2011, he listed Ender’s Game as a favorite book, alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So this is a novel worth knowing, no matter what Card’s detractors say.

The 62-year-old Orson Scott Card is himself a colorful figure. A great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, he was born in Richland, Wash., and his family bounced around the West as he grew up. For his tenth birthday, he received a set of Bruce Catton’s books on the Civil War, awakening a lifelong interest in military history — a fascination that would shape Ender’s Game. He attended Brigham Young University, majored in theater, and went on a Mormon mission to Brazil. Card eventually settled in Greensboro, N.C., where he has lived for the past 30 years, writing novels, collaborating on comics and video games, and raising children. His kids are named after his and his wife’s favorite authors, such as Emily Brontë, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Charles Dickens. Ender’s Game started out as a short story published in 1977 in Analog, a science-fiction magazine. Card rewrote it as a novel, and he’s never had to look back — the book’s success made it possible for him to become a full-time writer of science fiction.

Ender’s Game is one part Tom Brown’s School Days (a 19th-century novel by Thomas Hughes that is the progenitor of all schoolboy-adventure sagas) and one part Starship Troopers (a 1959 novel about war and democracy by Robert A. Heinlein). It tells the story of Ender Wiggin, a boy who is a “third” — his parents’ third child, on an Earth whose government limits families to two children except in special circumstances. With this dystopian backdrop, Ender emerges as a boy genius, recruited for an unusual variety of education for the gifted. He leaves home at the age of six to enroll in an off-planet Battle School, where he begins to develop the skills that will help Earthlings defeat the “buggers,” an alien race of insect-like monsters with mysterious motives and strange powers — and whose next assault is both expected and feared.

At the military academy, Ender makes friends and enemies, builds alliances and sows division, and tries to balance his instinct for compassion with the occasional necessity of ruthlessness. In other words, he faces the ordinary struggles of middle-school existence. He also confronts a series of problems, ranging from the perils of schoolyard bullying to the moral complexity of “xenocide” (the willful extinction of an alien species). Along the way, he gets to play a lot of video games, which turn out to be useful in the fight to preserve humanity. If nothing else, Ender’s Game gives kids raised with Xboxes an excuse to keep leveling up on Halo: “Mom, I’m learning the skills I’ll need to save the world!” There’s also a twist at the end — a surprise that is hard to see coming but that makes immediate sense when it arrives.

I asked Card, by e-mail, why Ender’s Game has achieved enduring popularity. “What makes the story work is Ender’s relationship, not with his friends, but with other kids whom he does not know all that well,” he wrote back. “It is the way Ender creates community despite all attempts to isolate him, the way he watches out for the welfare of other kids far more than he looks to advance his own career.”

Ender’s Game was not Card’s first novel, but it was among his first, and since then he has written dozens more, plus gobs of short stories. Card claims that he can complete a book in about five weeks, during what he calls his “typing time.” The thinking time that takes place beforehand can go on for years. Much of his fiction occurs in Ender’s universe, through sequels and parallel stories, but he has also written fictional accounts of Biblical women, such as Sarah and Rebekah; Pastwatch, a time-travel book involving Christopher Columbus; and Empire, a novel of a new American Civil War that splits Left and Right.

Card’s politics are unconventional, blending some elements of liberalism and conservatism while rejecting others: “I grew up Republican but left in 1977, nauseated by the growing Reagan-worship,” he says. “Though the Democratic party was already on the road to extremist madness at that time, there were still Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan — intelligent, capable of nuanced thought, and not given to hero worship.” Years later, Card came to admire George W. Bush: “the most honorable president of my lifetime,” he says. “No president since Lincoln has governed so well in the face of such vitriolic, dishonest, and hypocritical opposition.” He has served on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that has become a hate object of the Left for opposing same-sex marriage. Card remains a registered Democrat but believes his own party is committed to “insane social experiments.” He sees the GOP as anti-immigrant and racist. “I really am a man without a party,” he says.

Maybe it’s best to call Card ornery — he even blogs at the Ornery American (www.ornery.org), a website he runs — and recognize that creative types don’t need to be systematic political thinkers to engage the rest of us. In May, Card wrote what he called “a silly thought experiment,” even putting a disclaimer at the top: “I’m not serious about this!” The column described how Barack Obama might try to stay in power beyond his two presidential terms, in a plot that involves basically turning AmeriCorps into a brown-shirted national police force. Make of it what you will, but this is the sort of speculative thinking that we pay sci-fi writers to do. Card’s reward? Weigel of Slate branded him a racist crypto-Nazi.

So goes the “public shunning of Mr. Card,” as the New York Times has described the organized effort to defame Ender’s Game. Card’s critics might do well to set aside their wrath, read the book, and absorb what may be its ultimate theme: Through tolerance, that most difficult and liberal of virtues, we may learn essential lessons, even from those we first see as foes.

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