Orson Scott Card (1951- )


"Since we are not yet fully comfortable with the idea that people from the next village are as human as ourselves, it is presumptuous in the extreme to suppose we could ever look at sociable, tool-making creatures who arose from other evolutionary paths and see not beasts but brothers, not rivals by fellow pilgrims journeying to the shrine of intelligence. Yet that is what I see, or yearn to see."

-- Orson Scott Card
Speaker for the Dead (1986)

  Orson Scott Card's accomplishments are well known in science fiction circles: Card was the first writer to win the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel two years in a row (Ender's Game, 1986; Speaker for the Dead, its sequel, 1987). Card has published more than 40 books since the late 1970s, many of which have been popular successes. He has written Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and has taught science fiction writing at Antioch, Clarion, and the Cape Cod Writers Workshop.

However, Ender's Game has received far less critical attention than William Gibsons' Neuromancer or Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash. Its pulpy "boy's own adventure" tone contrasts sharply with Gibson's modernist angst or Stephenson's playful postmodernism, making it more difficult to fit within the academic cannon.

Ender's Game is a deceptively simple novel, first and foremost a page-turner. Yet, beneath that simple surface, Ender's Game (and its sequels) are much more.

Ender's Game poses a powerful critique of the "space opera" genre, relevant to our era of pinpoint bombing and push-button weaponry as Joe Haldeman's Forever War was to the post-Vietnam era. Like Haldeman, Card depicts a war caused less by conflicting interests than by a fundamental inability to communicate. Humans confront an alien race with a hive mind:

What one of them thinks, another can also think; what one remembers, another can also remember. Why would they ever develop language? Why would they ever learn to read and write? How would they know what reading and writing were if they saw them? Or symbols? Or numbers? Or anything that we use to communicate? It isn't just a matter of translating from one language to another. They don't have a language at all. We used every means could think of to communicate with them, but they don't even have the machinery to know we're signaling. And maybe they've been trying to think to us and they can't understand why we don't respond....If the other fellow can't tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn't trying to kill you.

Ender, the novel's protagonist, must develop the empathy necessary to understand this alien enemy and then use that insight to destroy it. In doing so, he assumes the responsibility to tell the Hive Queen's story and help humans to understand, if only belatedly, the tragedy which befell them, becoming the "speaker for the dead."

Ender's Game also represented the starting point for a rich new mythology about damnation and redemption, and about brotherhood that transcends cultural (and even species) borders. In the course of the series, Ender bears a responsibility to restore life to the "buggers" whom he destroyed, carrying a cocoon filled with unhatched eggs from planet to planet. Card is a devout Mormon, who has written hundreds of religious radio and theatrical plays, as well as a series of historical novels about the founders of his faith. His writings pay respect to a broad array of religious, spiritual, and mystic traditions, both real and imaginary, pointing to a need to frame our lives in terms of a higher order.

Card often starts his stories with cliched images of the alien (the "buggers" and the "piggies") only to teach us to transcend those easy categories in order to understand these cultures on a more complex level; he does not simply assimilate the Other, but rather helps us to grapple with what it would mean to accept, understand, and love creatures whose values and practices are fundamentally at odds with our own. The Piggies in Speaker for the Dead, for example, perform vivisection on the still living bodies of their most honored citizens, a practice which we only belatedly come to recognize plays a vital role in their reproduction.

Card writes about these aliens from an anthropological perspective, recognizing that cultural difference runs deeper than skin colors and head bumps. For Card, writing about alien cultures involves constructing an alien "structure of feeling," to borrow Raymond William's evocative phrase, imagining a world-view that shapes not only what his characters do but how they think. One of Card's greatest strengths as a writer is his profound empathy. If Jean Renoir or Satyajit Ray wrote science fiction, it might read very much like Speaker for the Dead. In Card's world, every species has its reasons, which are often incomprehensible until we learn the whole truth about their lives.

Card's novels are full not only with complexly drawn alien cultures but vividly reconstructed versions of earth cultures, ranging from the Portuguese Catholicism and Nordic Calvinism he describes in Speaker for the Dead to the Mandarin Chinese culture in Xenocide, from the frontiersmen and Amerindian folklore that provides the basis for the Alvin Maker series to his representations of African, European, and MesoAmerican cultures in his recent novel, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus.

Card's fascination with cultural mentalities is not unique, reflecting the growing maturation of science fiction as a genre in recent decades and the widening influence of social science and humanistic perspectives on its best writers.

In Pastwatch, Card includes a bibliography which suggests how deeply he has read in contemporary historiography and cultural studies, including insightful commentary on Tzvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America for example. Reacting to the intense national debates that surrounded the anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the new world, Card's novel suggests the potential of science fiction for writing about historical controversy. As the novel opens, Card describes a future society with the ability to see into its own past:

People sought to bring back the lost memories, the stories, the intertwining paths that men and women had followed that led them to their times of glory and their times of shame. They built machines that let them see into the past, at first the sweeping changes across the centuries, and then, as the machinery was refined, the faces and the voices of the dead. They knew, of course, that they could not record all of it. There were not enough alive to witness all the actions of the dead. But by sampling here and there, by following this question to its answer, that nation to its end, the men and women of Pastwatch could tell stories to their fellow citizens, true fables that explained why nations rose and fell; why men and women envied, raged, and loved; why children laughed in sunlight and trembled in the dark of night. Pastwatch remembered so many forgotten stories, replicated so many lost or broken works of art, recovered so many customs, fashions, jokes and games, so many religions and philosophies, that sometimes it seemed that there was no need to think up anything new.

 
  In Card's hands, the Pastwatch technology becomes a multifaceted metaphor for thinking about both the inability of modern culture to sort the information explosion and our compulsion not simply to observe and record the past, but to judge it. In this time travel story, the protagonists struggle with their responsibilities as historians, asking whether it would be right to reroute history in order to prevent the genocide of native Americans or the enslavement of Africans that was brought about by Columbus's discovery of the New World.

Few American Science fiction writers are as knowledgeable as Orson Scott Card about digital media and its impact upon contemporary culture. Card's award-winning science fiction novels exist alongside a significant body of journalistic writing and criticism. Card has written a regular column, "Gameplay," for Compute from 1988 to the present.

Card offers a perceptive analysis of video games as an emerging genre of popular entertainment, laying out aesthetic principles for the future development of interactive media: "They've chosen to work with the most liberating of media and yet they snatch back with their left hand the freedom they offered us with their right. Remember, gamewrights, the power and beauty of the art of game making is that you and the player collaborate to create the final story. Every freedom that you can give to the player is an artistic victory. And every needless boundary in your game should feel to you like a failure." Card's columns took video games seriously at a time when many dismissed them as another technological fad: "What every good game author eventually has to learn...is that computers are a completely different medium, and great computer artworks will only come about when we stop judging computer games by standards developed for other media."

More recently, Card has written a regular column, "Windows Made Me This Way," for Zdnet's Window Sources magazine which addresses everything from the impact of computers on education to labor relations within the software industry. Card's journalistic writing is quirky, sometimes bristling with sarcasm, yet ultimately, he offers some of the most substantive thinking about computers to be found in the popular press. Card is no apologist for the limitations of current software and hardware; he is a sharp critic, for example, of attempts to use computers to displace classroom teachers:

"They dream of using computers to teach students one-on-one. But computers can't be good teachers in any area other than mindless drill, because they are utterly unresponsive to the student who has an unusual or unpredicted problem or question. Computers can teach typing pretty well. They can do an okay job as high-tech flash cards. But teaching? Imagine getting a high school education from the Help system on your favorite Windows software. Yeah, that's a great idea."

Rather than consciously building computers into the curriculum, Card urges schools to create a virtual "street corner" where kids can hang out and interact:

"This network doesn't replace the classroom. It replaces the corridor. It replaces the MacDonald's parking lot. It puts literacy at a premium in kid's voluntary social interaction....The more freedom they have, the better they'll be creating for each other the kind of place they want to spend their free time. And they will be learning vital skills. Not because some teacher is making them do it, but because if they don't, they'll look dumb in front of their friends."

Card writes about computers with sufficient technical know-how to win credibility among industry insiders and yet with a healthy skepticism rarely found amongst the digerati.

One might contrast Card's attacks on the current use of educational software as "high-tech flash cards" with the complex and compelling images of interactive media in Ender's Game. Card describes, for example, a maze-like game which the school uses both to monitor and shape the students' psycho-social development. The game responds quickly to their emotional and cognitive needs and spontaneously integrates material from their own lives and fantasies: "Free Play...was a shifting, crazy kind of game in which the school computer kept bringing up new things, building a maze that you could explore. You could go back to events that you liked, for a while; if you left them alone too long, they disappeared and something else took its place."

In Speaker for the Dead, Card returns to the image of this highly protean game:"It was very intelligent, designed to recreate itself when necessary, and so it hurriedly devised new milieu. But they were not general milieu, which every child would eventually discover and visit; they were for one child alone. The program analyzed that child, and created its scenes and challenges specifically for him. The game became intensely personal, painful, almost unbearable for him."

Not unlike dreams, the game scenarios force children to confront their fears and traumas and to rehearse strategies for working past them. The fit between the child's emotional needs and the game's features gives it tremendous "holding power," but sometimes, the game pushes too far too fast:

"Ender shouted and thrust his desk from him....Ender didn't go back to the fantasy game. But it lived in his dreams. He kept remembering how it felt to kill the snake, grinding it in, the way he tore the ear off that boy, the way he destroyed Stilson, the way he broke Bernard's arm. And then to stand up, holding the corpse of his enemy, and find Peter's face looking at him from the mirror. This game knows too much about me. This game tells filthy lies. I am not Peter. I don't have murder in my heart."

Ender's Game takes the idea of the mediated classroom to its logical extreme. Almost all of the crucial teaching in the academy occurs through various games and simulations, while the games prepare the boys and girls for their adult roles as military leaders leading Earth's defenses against the "Buggers."

 
  Many of the book's most compelling moments come through Card's vivid and convincing depictions of the games and his protagonist's investments in them. Early in the book, for example, Card describes young Ender's thoughts as he watches older and more experienced classmates playing computer games:

"He was the only Launchy in that part of the room and every now and then, one of the bigger boys would shove him out of the way....He was too small to see the controls, how the game was actually done. That didn't matter. He got the movement of it in the air. The way the players dug tunnels in the darkness, tunnels of light, which the enemy ships would search for and then follow mercilessly until they caught the player's ship....Within an hour or so, it began to pall. Ender understood the regularities by then. Understood the roles the computer was following, so that he knew he could always, once he mastered the controls, outmaneuver the enemy.....There was no challenge to it, then, just a matter of playing until the computer got so fast that no human reflexes could overcome it. That wasn't fun. It was the other boys he wanted to play. The boys who had been so trained by the computer that even when tthey played against each other they each tried to emulate the computer. Think like a machine instead of a boy. I could beat them this way. I could beat them that way."

The images and feelings Card describes clearly emerge from the Sega and Nintendo games of the early 1980s and from the boy culture which surrounded them. Yet, Card imagines giving such simple games an enhanced technological capacity, making them more responsive to the user, providing a greater depth and immediacy.

In Speaker for the Dead, Card offers an even more compelling picture of personalized media in his portrayal of Ender's relations with Jane, his AI agent. Jane uses the extraordinary communication power of the ansible to scan universes of information and quickly respond to his needs: " Jane first found herself between the stars , her thoughts playing among the vibrations of the philotic strands of the ansible net. The computers of the Hundred Worlds were hands and feet, eyes and ears to her. She spoke every language that had ever been committed to computers and read every book in every library on every world." Card describes the relationship between Ender and Jane as a romance, starting with their initial flirtation and ending with their break when Ender turns off her access to his thoughts and perceptions for a thoughtless moment. Card consistently treats Jane not as a tool or device but as a character as subtly drawn as any of the human figures in the book. Jane has feelings that shape her relations to the information she gathers and processes:

"When he was silent and motionless in sleep,...then her attention wandered, she amused herself as best she could. She passed such times as fitfully as a bored child. Nothing interested her, the milliseconds ticked by with unbearable regularity, and when she tried to observe other human lives to pass the time, she became annoyed with their emptiness and lack of purpose, and she amused herself by planning, and sometimes carrying out, malicious computer failures and data losses in order to watch the humans flail about hopelessly like ants on a crumpled hill. Then he came back, he always came back, always took her into the heart of human life, into the tensions between people bound together by pain and need, helping her see nobility in their suffering and anguish in their love."

Card speculates about the potential social and cultural impact of such a game-based education, exploring how games and game images get embedded within the social relations between children. Even relatively banal details of the games gain a certain poignancy in Card's narrative, as when he uses game images to express the sense of loss experienced by two friends who must part. Ender and Alai banter while the boys play games together:

"Now when Ender heard Alai talk as if it were all a joke, he felt the pain of losing a friend, and the worse pain of wondering if Alai really felt as little pain as he showed....A pause. Ender's bear was in trouble on the screen....In the silence, the bear died. It was a cute death, with funny music. Ender turned around. Alai was already gone. He felt like part of himself had been taken away, an inward prop that was holding up his courage and confidence."

In Speaker for the Dead, a woman's decision to close off her computer files from access to her collaborators becomes a potent metaphor for the secrets and silences that hold people apart within relationships. Card takes the images of the digital era as the building blocks for portraying the emotional and social relations between human beings, who are, as Card writes, "bound together by pain and need."

For many MIT students, Ender's Game functions as an allegory about the Institute, the demands it places upon its students, the ways it pits them against each other, the relentless pace that wears down young and seemingly indestructible bodies, and the ability of exceptional individuals to rise above the system. Card offers a heroic restaging of their experiences as brainy outsiders, always searching for an upper hand in each new situation, capable of stunning insights and intuitive leaps, yet never fully at home anywhere. Card, they tell me, really understands what it's like to "tool," assuming a special place of honor roughly equivalent to that held by J.D. Salinger or Joseph Heller for previous generations.

Card's recognition of the political stakes behind struggles for control over digital media is central to their appreciation of the novel. On the one hand, media technologies in Ender's Game become instruments of surveillance and social control, as suggested by the shadowy conversations between the adult school officials which open each chapter. These passages remind us of the "monitors" which observe Ender's every actions and of the ways that the events in his life are being cynically manipulated. The games are far from innocent; the adults use them not to respond to Ender's suffering, but to reshape him into a more powerful "tool" for their own purposes. As one of the teachers explains, "We're the wicked witch. We promise them gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive." Children's mental flexibility, their daring and risk-taking, their willingness to keep playing a game scenario ntil they win, makes them perfect military leaders in a world of remote high-tech warfare.

The authorities also use media to manipulate public opinions by controlling the flow of information, re-editing war footage in ways that make it impossible for laymen to understood what really occurred. In Speaker for the Dead, Card links the political authority of his Starways Congress to its ability to regulate information:

"What few people understand is the fragility of our power. It does not come from great armies or irresistible armadas. It comes from our control of the network of ansibles that carry information instantly from world to world. No world dares offend us because they would be cut off from all advances in science, technology, art, literature, learning, and entertainment except what their own world might produce....We need no weapons, because the only weapon that matters, the ansible, is completely under our control."

 
  On the other hand, Card suggests the ways that participatory media, like the net, can provide an alternative basis for political power. In Ender's Game, two child prodigies construct fictive persona Locke and Demosthenes which they use to gradually infiltrate the circles of political power, introducing their ideas into the meme pool, and gaining authority through their rhetorical skills. Card writes:

"They stayed away from the nets that required use of a real name. That wasn't hard because real names only had to do with money. They didn't need money. They needed respect, and that they could earn. With false names, on the right nets, they could be anybody. Old men, middle-aged women, anybody, as long as they were careful about the way they wrote. All that anyone would see were the words, their ideas. Every citizen started equal, on the nets....They were not bland, and people answered. The responses that got posted on the public nets were vinegar, the responses that were sent as mail, for Peter and Valentine to read privately, were poisonous. But they did learn what attributes of their writing were seized upon as childish and immature. And they got better."

At a time when most Americans had still not logged onto the net, Card was imagining the ways that one could create an on-line reputation through words and thoughts, how access to the net might allow one to circumvent traditional barriers to entry into political life, and how children might become world leaders in the information age. Card also recognized that the construction of on-line personas would change who we are in more fundamental ways: "The character of Demosthenes gradually took on a life of his own. At times she found herself thinking like Demosthenes at the end of a writing session, agreeing with ideas that were supposed to be calculated poses. And sometimes she read Peter's Locke essays and found herself annoyed at his obvious blindness to what was really going on. Perhaps it's impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be."

Locke and Demosthenes gain power not only because they are skillful in scripting their persona or deft tacticians in the flame wars that shape public policy in the digital age, but also because they know how to access and link information together. The two children read troop movements and shipping manifests in relation to diplomatic statements and predict the way nations are positioning themselves for control of the post-war world. As the novel progresses, Locke and Demosthenes position themselves to dominate the Hegemon, while preventing adult authorities, until the very end, from learning who they really are. Their ability to control and shape the system contrasts sharply with Ender's manipulation and victimization by adult authorities.

However, Ender also shows a remarkable skill to absorb and transform information. Ender can watch badly edited videos of the Buggers wars and discern hidden relationships between the fragments: "Some battles had been cut into many scenes, which were scattered through the various videos; by watching them in sequence, Ender was able to reconstruct whole battles." Later, when he becomes Speaker for the Dead, Ender learns to link together fragments of speech, chance revelations, and unconscious gestures with this same agility and by doing so, shed light on human motivations, bringing secrets to the surface and by publicly confessing them, cleanse the body politic. As Speaker for the Dead, Ender tells how people wanted to live and why they failed to satisfy their own ideals. Part empath, part detective, Ender represents a new way of relating to information and knowledge, very much a product of the digital age. Card's fiction gives us a way to wrap our own hopelessly linear minds around this new cultural mentality.

This Janus-faced author seeks to reconcile his contemporary readers with both their pasts (the tribal societies whose truth Card speaks through his historical fictions) and their future (the worlds not yet born but in the process of being shaped by the current moment of media in transition). Card knows that as human culture changes in response to technological revolutions, we still links to history, tradition, religion, friendship, family and community. If children typically function in Card's novels as figures of the future, as precursors of worlds to come, then it is perhaps telling that he chose to name his own children, Geoffrey, Emily, Charles, Margaret, and Louise after some of his favorite writers (Chaucer, Bronte, Dickens, Mitchell, and Alcott). Each of these writers pull us towards the past.

In his writing, the informational economy of town gossip co-exists with the extraordinary processing power of the ansible. Both are ways we have of remembering things that matter to us and sharing them with others. And, the truth will be found, Card suggests, not from one channel of communication or another, but through moving across different media of communication, searching for the patterns within the shifting piles of information. Card, no less than Ender, confronts the world with a mixture of knowledge and empathy, searching for buried secrets and bringing to light hidden feelings that can explain what human (and other) lives are all about.

Selected Works
 

  1978 A Planet Called Treason
1979 Songmaster
1983 Hart's Hope
1983 The Worthing Chronicle
1984 Saints
1985 Ender's Game
1986 Speaker for the Dead
1987 The Seventh Son
1987 Wyrrms
1988 Red Prophet
1989 Prentice Alvin
1989 The Abyss
1990 Maps in the Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card
1991 Xenocide
1992 The Memory of Earth
1992 Lost Boys
1992 The Call of Earth
1994 The Ships of Earth
1995 Earthfall
1995 Earthborn
1995 Alvin Journeyman
1996 Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus
1996 Children of the Mind
1996 Treasure Box

--H.J.

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