Dumb quote of the day: "Fuck Orson Scott Card, redux" edition--Ender's Game spoilers herein

>> Saturday, July 13, 2013

"The simple fact is that neither the underlying book nor the film itself reflect [Orson Scott Card's views on homosexuality] in any way, shape or form. On the contrary, the film not only transports viewers to an entertaining and action-filled world, but it does so with positive and inspiring characters who ultimately deliver an ennobling and life-affirming message," Lionsgate wrote in the statement [responding to calls for a boycott of their upcoming film adaptation of Ender's Game].
'Ender's Game' boycott"; USA Today, July 12th, 2013.

This comment contains plot spoilers from a book published in the mid-1980s.  The ultimate point of the comment would be that the above quote from Lionsgate's desperate press release at best reflects massive, fundamental changes have been made in adapting Ender's Game to the screen and at worst is simply disingenuous.

Before commencing with the spoilers, this: entering a partnership with a creator whose views have been openly on-record and a source of controversy for at least twenty years (since the early 1990's) is a gamble.  If someone wants to do a work inspired by Ezra Pound's brilliant poetry--and his poems really do rock--Pound's awful decision to embrace fascism is going to be an issue and you're going to have to deal with it.  If you decide to do another film adaptation of something of Rudyard Kipling's, you're going to have points raised about racism and nationalism; Kipling may be an especially apt example of this, actually, since there's been some constant effort to rehabilitate Kipling (a better and more imaginative writer than Orson Scott Card) since at least the days of T.S. Eliot and to whitewash--the pun is inescapable--some of the assumptions to be found in works like "The White Man's Burden" and The Man Who Would Be King, for instance (personally, and having indeed read some Kipling over the decades, I find it not only more honest but also more interesting to acknowledge Kipling's warts than to handwave them the way Neil Gaiman did once upon a time, but I digress).

Lionsgate, anyway, is no doubt concerned they're going to lose some money on their investment in Orson Scott Card, be it in the form of less profits than anticipated or an outright loss on the film, but that was a risk they assumed when they signed a contract with him and decided to pump money into an adaptation.  Pointing to gay-friendly Lionsgate releases like Gods And Monsters (an excellent film, by the way) is irrelevant (no, worse: it's a little along the lines of saying some of their best friends are gay); announcing they'll be holding a "benefit premiere for Ender's Game supporting LGBT causes" strikes me as outright insulting, somehow, though I'm not LGBT so perhaps my opinion on that point is off or just doesn't matter.

But let's talk about the quote I posted, and spoilers follow.

I didn't read Emder's Game in the 1980s, when I was a disaffected teenager and was the target audience for it and probably would have liked it.  In those days I felt alienated, misunderstood, smarter than most adults, that my gifts were at worst unrecognized and at best unappreciated--typical teenage stuff, though some aspects of my personal life were more harrowing and I spent my high school years depressed and even quasi-suicidal; I don't want to get into memoir and bring it up only because Ender's Game, a science-fiction book, set in the future, about a precociously brilliant six-year-old (Ender Wiggins) who is smarter than most adults (talks like an adult, too, as do all the juveniles in Ender's Game); abused by his older brother, Peter; underappreciated by his parents (two hazy figures who never enter much beyond the book's periphery even though we're to understand they had to have a special government dispensation to have Ender); bullied throughout his school career--this book would have been a narcotic to me, as it likely is to most kids who read it.

Instead, I read Ender's Game a few months ago, as an adult.  Unfortunately, in other words, with the sophistication to recognize exactly was Orson Scott Card was up to in creating a perfect child Gary Stu  surrogate for himself and his audience.  While I may knock Card's literary gifts so far as description, dialogue and characterization are concerned, I have to concede and even admire his gifts as a manipulator, a word that's unfortunately pejorative but accurate.  It shouldn't be taken as a negative criticism; someone once pointed out that, contra the Sex Pistols' reputation for musical incompetence, "God Save The Queen" is one of the most effective pop songs ever written, devastatingly accurate in the way it targeted mid-'70s British socioeconomic angst and intentionally pressed buttons that would offend the English mainstream while getting a lot of disaffected youthful fists pumping; the Pistols knew exactly what they were doing with that song and the best way to do it, and whatever Orson Scott Card's relative merits as a writer are or aren't, I think he has a pretty good idea of what he's up to in Ender's Game in much the same way, tailoring the characters and message for kids who feel good about feeling bad about themselves, which is nearly all of us at some point.

But if Ender's is a guided missile pointed at the bitter adolescent's heart, what's the message?

Ender Wiggins murders his first child when he's six, on pages six-through-eight of the 1994 TOR "Author's Definitive Edition" paperback reissue.  It's pretty brutal, though we don't find out it was an actual murder for hundreds more pages yet.  A bunch of kids at Ender's school are picking on him, partly because he's a special "Third" child (his parents had to apply for permission to exceed birth control quotas) and he's smarter and smaller (this is notable in what follows) than all the other kids.  So here's what happens when a bunch of kids grab Ender in the playground after school:

Ender did not feel like laughing, but he laughed. "You mean it takes this many of you to fight one Third?"

"We're people, not Thirds, turd face. You're about as strong as a fart!"

But they let go of him. And as soon as they did, Ender kicked high and hard, catching Stilson square in the breastbone. He dropped. It took Ender by surprise--he hadn't thought to put Stilson on the ground with one kick. It didn't occur to him that Stilson didn't take a fight like this seriously, that he wasn't prepared for a truly desperate blow.

For a moment, the others backed away and Stilson lay motionless. They were all wondering if he was dead. Ender, however, was trying to figure out a way to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I'll fight every day and it will get worse and worse.

Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that.

So Ender walked to Stilson's supine body and kicked him again, viciously, in the ribs. Stilson groaned and rolled away from him. Ender walked around him and kicked him again, in the crotch. Stilson could not make a sound; he only doubled up and tears streamed out of his eyes.

Then Ender looked at the others coldly. "You might be having some idea of ganging up on me. You could probably beat me up pretty bad. But just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me. From then on you'd be wondering when I'd get to you, and how bad it would be." He kicked Stilson in the face. Blood from his nose spattered the ground nearby. "It wouldn't be this bad," Ender said. "It would be worse."

A million bullied kids read that and probably said "Hells, yeah!" and found it pretty affirming.  At least one adult who represents troubled kids in juvenile delinquency proceedings, including cases arising from playground assaults, cringed.  Although Ender is defending himself from a crowd, immediately and preemptively, he also uses excessive force, repeatedly kicking another child the same age in the ribs and then in the groin to make a point about future consequences to a crowd that is developmentally incapable of getting their little, growing heads around the entire notion of "future consequences".  And we find out later that Stilson died from his injuries, though no one bothered to tell little Ender and he somehow managed to avoid being dragged into juvie to face even a manslaughter charge.

(It's probably worth pointing out, at least parenthetically, that although we're repeatedly told Ender is a small child, small for his age, even, he not only thinks like an adult, but is also capable of adult levels of violence.  I have no idea whether a six-year-old is physically capable of kicking another child to death, but I tend to doubt it; if nothing else, the relative absence of such incidents is suggestive.  Ender Wiggins may be the first child I've ever heard of who kicked someone to death, though I've heard of adults doing it and was recently professionally involved in a tragedy where an adult pleaded guilty to essentially just that.)

This happens, to be clear, early on in the book, on page seven (mostly): on page six, the children confront Ender and the last little bit there where Ender threatens them with mutually assured destruction occurs on page eight.  But it isn't the final time Ender is brutally, viciously violent: on page 33 (all pages are the TOR "Author's Definitive" version), Ender breaks another child's arm, ostensibly in self-defense (the other child is hitting him in the back of the head); on page 211, Ender righteously murders yet another child (with the unlikely name Bonzo Madrid)  in the shower, again in self-defense (the other kid and a gang of his buddies ambush Ender in the school showers, in a scene that echoes the Stilson murder and indeed leads to the revelation Stilson died from his Ender-inflicted injuries); then, at the book's climax, Ender murders an entire alien population.

You see, the major plotline in Ender's Game is that humanity is fighting a war against an alien hive species called "the Buggers" (and yes, everyone aware of Card's homophobia does a double-take re: that name), and it turns out that Ender's entire life is a government project to create a perfect killing machine capable of leading humanity's space forces in a vast effort to bring the war to the Bugger homeworld and end everything.  Ender's violence isn't hidden from responsible adults, indeed, it's tolerated and passively encouraged by military instructors who have been supervising Ender since birth (technically, before birth: there's some light eugenics apparently involved in selecting children for training) and intentionally placing Ender in difficult social situations to test him and to teach him he's on his own and must be self-reliant and that he must be able to use violence with extreme prejudice so as to not merely end a confrontation, but to make sure there are no sequels because his opponents are incapacitated and/or terrified of him (and/or eliminated).  The final goal of all this is to drop Ender into a videogame-like "simulator" of a final onslaught against the Buggers' home planet: Ender thinks he's playing a game, but in fact the instructions he's giving to the "ships" on his screen are being relayed to real ships in a real battle (and evidently are being implemented by real pilots--Ender is deliberately not being told that sacrificing real ships here and there constitutes real sacrifices); during this battle, Ender sees an opportunity for a hail Mary play that will end the conflict in much the same way he ended his fights with Stilson and Bonzo--he destroys the Bugger planet and kills their Queen, knowing that this destroys the hive (i.e. is an act of genocide), but not knowing he's really destroying the Bugger planet and really killing their Queen (and really committing genocide).

And there is much rejoicing, and all is revealed, and Ender feels pretty bad about the whole thing.

Which is the point, it turns out.  Ender's Game is a remarkable book about agency and responsibility, see, or rather the lack of it when you don't know what you're doing and feel bad about it later.  No, seriously.  See, it's okay that Ender murders and maims children, because he doesn't start the fights and doesn't want to fight and doesn't mean to kill or maim anyone and after they've been killed and maimed he cries because he's sensitive.  (This distinguishes him from his siblings: his brother Peter is a psychopath who doesn't feel bad about torturing animals and hurting people, while his sister Valentine is too sensitive to hurt anything at all in the first place.  Adolescents Peter and Valentine, by the way, take over the world by being Internet trolls in Ender's Game's B-plot, something that manages to be weirdly prescient--Card first published the full-length novel version of Ender's Game in 1985, back when Internet forums consisted of dial-up BBSes and social media was nonexistent--and hysterically ludicrous, for obvious reasons.)

And Ender's crying is gratuitous.  Because he isn't responsible for his actions, you see--not truly responsible, because he's always reacting to others' actions and doesn't really know what he's doing--he has no cause to feel guilty about it.  Adults keep telling Ender this, and as a narrator Card is pretty clear about it, too.  Ender has nothing to feel bad about, but he feels bad anyway because that's just what a mensch he is.  Poor, martyred Ender: he's just like Jesus, if Jesus' supreme sacrifice was to eliminate every Roman man, woman and child from the world, including all of the ones back in Rome and not just whomever was occupying the Middle East at the time. 

Contra Lionsgate's spin on the story, which I suspect is shared by many of the novel's fans and the various educators and librarians who keep putting the book on recommended reading lists for young adults (the new marketing label for kids), I don't find any of this especially "positive", "inspiring", "ennobling" or "life-affirming".  I find it a bit subversive (in a bad way) and vile (there's no good way for that).  Mind you, I grok that if you have a childish (and narcissistic--Ender is an obvious audience proxy) focus on Ender Wiggins, of course he faces many obstacles and comes out the far end as the savior of the human species, before humbly going off to the outer worlds (now open for occupation thanks to the total elimination of an entire other species) to be a leader and teacher.*  But Ender's Game doesn't tell you how Stilson's parents feel, or Bonzo Madrid's.  (The death of any child must be hard to a parent, but since Card makes such a big deal about Ender being a Third--his parents had to get a waiver from Earth's government to have more than one child--I feel obliged to point out Stilson and Bonzo are probably their parents' only children.)  We can imagine, if we have moral imaginations.  The child whose arm Ender breaks gets sent home and his future prospects might be dim, we don't know (he was one of Ender's fellow cadets, so he certainly doesn't have a future saving humanity).  And if we feel any empathy or even pity for the Buggers--Ender wipes out an entire species.**

One of the principle failings of Star Wars as a saga or epic or--as George Lucas would have it--a tragedy and redemption is that the whole thing can be boiled down to: It's sad but okay if you murder children, kill your wife, betray and kill your colleagues, attempt to murder your best friend and teacher twice (succeeding the second time), torture your daughter, blow up an entire planet full of unarmed people, torture your daughter again along with her boyfriend and his best pal, and amputate your son if you throw an old man off a bridge.  (But the old man has to be mean, and maybe also he has to be electrocuting the son you previously maimed.)  Throw the old guy into the abyss, you'll get into Jedi heaven after all, and your teacher you betrayed and sliced in half will even stand next to you when you get there instead of keeping the disgusted (and precautionary) distance you might reasonably expect.  But Ender's Game is worse, because George Lucas is basically an idiot; I mean, he's actually more talented as a director and producer than he's usually given credit for these days, but he's not much of a thinker and the reason Star Wars has a cruddy moral compass has a lot more to do with Lucas' thinking being muddled and incoherent than it does with him actually having a clear idea what he accidentally managed to say about ethics over the course of six films.  The moral of the story in Star Wars is completely accidental.  But Card, I think, is doing things on purpose; he knows what he's saying, and it doesn't seem to me that Ender's Game is meant to be a cautionary thought-experiment wherein Card lays out a kind of disgusting moral philosophy and pokes it with a stick for the audience's education and amusement.  I think Ender's is completely on purpose.

Lionsgate is certainly buying into it, anyway.  And this is where their press release is stupid, dishonest or both.  If the movie follows the book at all, then it's kind of the exact opposite of "life affirming"; in the real world, violence may indeed be a sometimes necessary and uncomfortable fact of life, but even so we're responsible for making certain that our uses of violence are necessary, discriminate, proportional and that we are accountable for the aftermath, all of which Orson Scott Card, in Ender's Game, postulates is unnecessary and optional.  If the movie doesn't follow the book, it can only be an improvement, but one I expect will enrage the novel's legions of fans.

As a kind of postscript, I highly recommend John Kessel's essay, "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality", which in my view does a magnificent job of raking Ender's Game to the bone with much more thought and thoroughness than I have any real desire to perform myself right now.  I think it's hard to read Kessel and not conclude Ender's Game isn't merely a bad book from a literary perspective, but from a moral perspective, too.  Of course, your mileage may vary.

From a literary perspective, Ender's Game is competent, and effective (in the Sex Pistols' sense, supra), but it isn't very good, and Norman Spinrad did an effective job addressing that which you may find (in part) on Google Books, here.  If you care to take additional time with it, it's worth the effort.

*Ender in fact becomes an advocate for the dead species he eliminated, which some critics of Ender's Game have not-inaptly compared to Hitler becoming an advocate for Jews.

In fact, one critique of Ender's Game went so far as to accuse Orson Scott Card of trying to write an allegorical apologia for Hitler, an accusation that I personally find a little overboard on the one hand and not entirely beyond understanding on the other.  That is, I don't think Orson Scott Card was intentionally trying to justify Hitler, however I do think Ender's Game is such a terrible book and the moral thrust of it is so reprehensible that the accusation isn't nearly as far a leap as it sounds.  If Hitler felt bad about the Holocaust and sincerely believed it was the Jews' own fault for "making" him kill all of them, would his feelings and intentions excuse it all away?  If you apply Ender's Game's moral philosophy to it, the answer to that question is "yes".  And that's just awful.

**The repercussions of this--for poor, poor Ender--are evidently dealt with in the sequel, Speaker For The Dead, which I hear is a better book than Ender's Game (faint praise, methinks), but which I have no desire to read anytime in the foreseeable future.  In the final chapter of Ender's Game, however, Ender finds a single surviving Bugger Queen pupa, and finds out the Buggers were sympathetic monsters after all and the whole war was a misunderstanding and the dead Bugger species as embodied by the single living Queen feels really bad for poor, poor Ender because they've come to understand he didn't know what he was--gah.  I can't even finish that.


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