I Regret Spending that $4, or the End of the Game

21 08 2013

So I started reading Ender’s Game last night. Actually, I started reading it the night before last, but didn’t get far. I’ll get to that in a moment. The movie is coming out soon, and the book has always shown up on “science fiction you absolutely must read or you’re a worthless poseur” lists. A lot of people whose opinions I trust implicitly have great things to say about it, and it was one of those books that was always around when I was growing up, one of the ones I always meant to read but never did. Of course, over the years, its author, Orson Scott Card, has made a name for himself as a writer of science fiction and as a font of questionable political speech in equal measure. His work was the basis for a recent video game, Shadow Complex, that was apparently quite good. It’s of the “Metroidvania” type, which I tend to like quite a lot, but it was made in cooperation with Card, and I didn’t want to send any money his way in light of his opposition to same-sex marriage rights. So I never played it. Now, though, the Ender’s Game trailers are running (and looking pretty good), and they set me to thinking about that book I never read. I asked the holders of those implicitly trusted opinions if it was worth reading, and they said it was. They know my politics, and they even agree with me on many – maybe even most – points, so I asked if it was still worth reading given Card’s recent history. There was no question – it’s still worth it. So I bought the Kindle version for something like $4, and I started to read.

My first mistake was reading the Introduction. I never used to do that. I’m not sure when I started, but at some point I decided “If someone took the time to write it, I should take the time to read it.” I read almost everything truly cover-to-cover now. Well, not truly – I don’t pore over the Library of Congress details and the tables of contents, but everything else gets a read. Introductions, epilogues, acknowledgements – hell, throw a colophon at me and I’ll read that. Sometimes, they’re fun and add something to the story. I got a kick out of Stephen King’s intro to The Gunslinger. I’m not a huge King fan, but there was something charming about the older, presumably at least a little wiser King looking back on the work of the young punk (by his own definition) King and finding value in it while still acknowledging and apologizing for the rough edges. It expressed an attachment and a devotion to the story and made it seem almost like something that King gladly struggled with over the intervening decades, with strong hints of that old saw, “It writes itself, I’m just a conduit.” Taken with the way that the Dark Tower saga spins itself out over several books, it felt like a bit of insight into the way it came to be and what it meant to its author, and it was worth reading. It certainly didn’t set my teeth on edge.

Not so Card.

I have to grant that I may have gone into the intro looking for a fight. Even if Ender’s Game turns out to be fantastic, I think of Card as a crank, and the intro… that’s not the story. The opinions of note said the story’s great, avoid everything else. So I ignored them, and thus came to start reading the book on two consecutive nights.

The first night, I read the entire intro, and I found I couldn’t keep reading. It was smarmy and self-congratulatory, going on about how lots of gifted young people had told Card that Ender’s story made them feel better about their own sense of isolation and rejection. He shared a letter from an Army aviator who connected powerfully with the story and asked Card to write a book about helicopter pilots. Thing is, all of that is fine. It’s good to be proud of your work, and if it helps people, that’s got to make an author feel spectacular. Still, something about the way Card wrote about it made it seem like he took it as a matter of course. Like that kind of impact was just a given. He talked about how Ender’s Game was his first novel, similar to The Gunslinger being King’s first, but there was none of the sense of nostalgia tinged with age-won wisdom or perspective. Sure, there was some acknowledgement of mistakes and things that could have been written better, but there was no sense of having grown at all in the intervening years. It felt intensely self-satisfied, and when I finished it, I couldn’t will myself to start reading the narrative.

So I started reading Ender’s Game last night.

The actual book, not the unpleasantly self-satisfied intro. So far it’s okay, and I totally get how it could be absolutely formative to a lot of people. The main character is a gifted child who is evaluated by the government and selected for special schooling to become a military mastermind, and it’s chock-full of instances where the prodigy is mistreated and resented for being smart and capable. And then he grows up to be amazing. So of course nerds like me loved it, and I almost certainly would have if I read it when I was younger. I may still like it in the end. But Orson Scott Card is an unbelievable ass, and I regret giving him any money whatsoever. The movie looks right up my alley, space combat and such, but I don’t know that I can see it after reading anything he’s said outside of fiction (and inside of it).

His most recent essay posits President Obama installing himself as permanent dictator of the United States, using “proofs” that are completely groundless, like Obama’s unwillingness to compromise (which, as you know, is how we got our government-run single-payer health insurance system that operates without any form of profit motive whatsoever, and how all of the guns have been taken away). He talks about Obama giving official status to “urban” gangs, who will act as a secret police force to silence dissenters. “Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people ‘trying to escape’ — people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.” He predicts that Iran will attack Israel with nuclear weapons and we’ll stand by and do nothing, because Obama won’t go to war. He cites Syria as proof of this, but remember that John McCain, who said we’ll definitely be able to tell who’s a terrorist and who isn’t, sat down for souvenir photos with al Qaeda members in Syria – it’s not easy to tell who’s on your side, and you can easily make things worse even with the best intentions. Of course, this neglects our participation in the Libyan revolution, which went fairly well overall. He believes that George W. Bush didn’t lie about WMDs in Iraq, which may just be careful word choice – if Bush genuinely believed that there were WMDs there, he wasn’t lying, but ample evidence was available to him that showed that it was highly unlikely that Hussein had actually restarted his weapon programs. So he might not have lied, but that just means he ignored copious intelligence and chose the one bit that suited his pre-established narrative.

Card rewrote Hamlet, largely because he can’t identify with a uncertain protagonist who can’t stop questioning his own motives and actions (side note: I love Hamlet, and I identify strongly with someone who is pathologically unable to shit or get off the pot). In his version, Hamlet’s uncle didn’t kill his father. Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, did it as revenge for being molested by Hamlet’s father in his youth. In fact, Hamlet’s father molested all of Hamlet’s male contemporaries, but Hamlet himself was protected by his mother. When all is said and done, Hamlet ends up in hell with his father, who greets him with “Welcome to Hell, my beautiful son. At last we’ll be together as I always longed for us to be.” No part of this has anything at all to draw from in the original. None. And it’s kind of creepy. Card insists that no one in the play is gay, but as William Alexander points out at RainTaxi, Card may protest too much. The words “gay” and “homosexual” may never show up in the text, but he gives us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “as fusty and peculiar as an old married couple. I pity the woman who tries to wed her way into that house.” Hamlet has no particular reaction to the news of Ophelia’s suicide but to seem amazed at the idea that Laertes wants to kill him over it. He could understand Laertes being angry that Hamlet killed his father (though he should let it slide, because it was totally an accident), but seeking vengeance because Hamlet tormented his sister to the point that she committed suicide? That’s just crazy. Alexander writes:

After all, the prince shows tenderness for Horatio, and only for Horatio. He is physically shocked when, at one point, Ophelia tries to kiss him. Afterwards, he only notices her beauty in the abstract: “She had been a sweet girl, when he knew her years ago; she was a pretty woman now, and though he had no particular desire for any of her tribe, he knew it was wrong to trifle with her.” Tribe meaning women here, it’s clear that women delight not Hamlet.

Maybe Card intended his Hamlet to be asexual, but Alexander’s reading of the Prince of Denmark as gay doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. To be fair, I haven’t read Hamlet’s Father, so it’s entirely possible Card added a new female love interest for Hamlet, one who makes it clear that Ophelia’s “tribe” didn’t refer to women. Maybe she’s Jewish in Card’s version? So Hamlet’s not gay – he’s an anti-Semite. Or maybe Ophelia’s a Yankees fan and he likes the Mets?

I don’t want another thin dime of mine to go to support this ass. I’m not going to see the movie. I have a morbid curiosity about Hamlet’s Father, but I’m definitely not going to pay for it. And you know, it occurs to me that I didn’t need Ender’s Game because I already had my go-to text, my own story of a gifted kid who gets thrust into the middle of a war. His name was Rick Hunter, and he was a gentle, kind kid who happened to be a hell of a pilot and found himself in a situation where he had to use his gifts for war. He didn’t want to – he hated violence and killing – but the people he loved were threatened, and he had to do what he could to protect them. Even when he did, he was never certain, and he was always eager for peace. He wasn’t bullied or painfully isolated, necessarily, but he was a trainwreck in his relationships with women and often was painfully awkward in general. And he grew up to be amazing. Robotech is shot through with these kinds of characters, loners and weirdos who rise to the occasion and are instrumental to peace. They fight when they have to, and for all the right reasons, and when they see a chance for a just, decent peace, they grab it. They were exactly whom I wanted to be.

So Orson Scott Card can stuff it, and he gets no more of my money, dammit.

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