Ender Wiggen and the Adolescent Mormon Nerd
I had no special plans to see Ender’s Game, let alone write about it, but things have conspired otherwise. I still won’t watch the movie any time soon, for a number of reasons wholly unrelated to anything but my short attention span and family time commitments, but the inspiration to write appeared rather out of the blue.
Before continuing with this post, I highly recommend reading this article from Grantland. For those who don’t know, Grantland is an ESPN spinoff run by noted Boston homer, pro sports addict, and all around funny man Bill Simmons. It is primarily an outlet for long form sports journalism and advanced statistical analysis, but randomly tosses up pieces about pop culture and American society. In this case, the author is a Kansas-raised, Muslim immigrant writing about the lessons in hope and tolerance he learned from an adolescent reading of Ender’s Game. Some day I hope Two Dudes publishes a post this amazing.
Now, I’m not going to address this article directly, but it opens up a discussion that I can bring a very different view to, one that understands in a different way why Card seems unable to stop saying incendiary and intolerant things in public.
Both of the Two Dudes were raised in the Mormon church. My silent partner has since repudiated most of his upbringing, but I maintain a complicated and sometimes adversarial relationship with my religion. (Long time readers may have already known or surmised this, but for those who haven’t, there it is.) Of course, Orson Scott Card is famously Mormon. In fact, he is the only Mormon I know of to win the Hugo or Nebula, and until Brandon Sanderson appeared, the only prominent SFF writing Mormon of whom I was aware. Needless to say, this was a big deal to me twenty five years ago. The thought that another Mormon was out there, involved in SCA, writing space operas, and winning awards was quite intoxicating, especially compared to the people I saw each week at church. (We Mormons are a well meaning, hard working bunch, but awfully bland.)
Ender’s Game itself was also a big deal twenty five years ago, but my experience is so typical as to be almost not worth mentioning. Indeed, how many thousands of geeks found outlets for repressed wish fulfillment in the tale of a young outcast who becomes a military genius? I imagine that a huge proportion of fandom under the age of forty or so had their lives changed in adolescence by Ender’s Game. In my case, I haven’t read it since the early 90s, fearing that the Suck Fairy has visited and somehow robbed the book of its power. (It may hold up, along with Speaker for the Dead, but my anxiety is real.)
To be honest, I have only read one Card book since 1994: Capitol. I found the ideas intriguing, but something about the book seemed so very fervent, enough that I remain wary of picking up another. What I have read in recent years is a column that Card wrote (writes?) weekly for The Mormon Times. The Mormon Times is an insert that came tucked in with The Church News, part of a gift subscription from my mom. I dutifully scanned these as they arrived, including Card’s missives. I honestly don’t know where Card stands in the current pantheon of SF writers, but in the late 80s and early 90s, he was producing bold, challenging, and humanitarian work. In this venue, I expected that he would turn his considerable powers of both prose and characterization to chart out interesting new perspectives in contemporary Mormonism, or perhaps calling into question our unreflected biases and assumptions in the same way his books dug at thorny moral conundrums. No such luck. I was disappointed each week to read a by the numbers, toe the party line style explanation of one vanilla topic or another. Card was, in The Mormon Times, immovably Mormon.
And this, dear readers, is the crux of his problem. Nothing Card says, from the homophobia to the Obama hating, the rabid anti-Muslim writings to the dystopian conspiracy theories, is more than two or three steps off the Mormon mainline. The church hierarchy remains apolitical, but the rank and file, even here in the pinko commie Northwest, flirts with the worst of the Tea Party excesses. And while there have been some steps forward, Mormons are largely defined to the outside world by the bitter, bigoted Proposition 8 battle in California. (For those not from here, Prop 8 was a 2008 initiative banning gay marriage. The church spent heavily and mobilized as many sympathetic members as possible to pass this law, something that, five years on, still alienates the LGBT community and sparks internecine Mormon warfare.)
Readers look at books like Ender’s Game (and even moreso Speaker for the Dead) , with its message of tolerance and understanding, and are justifiably baffled by Card’s vitriol. I suspect that many of these people would look at the less publicized Mormon charity work, public service, and exhortations to love and respect each other (that are both sincerely given and followed) and be unable to reconcile these with stern leaders who stand in front of the whole of the church and basically say, “God hates gays.” On LGBT issues, Card merely follows lockstep with the leadership of the religion he remains devoted to. If the politics get a little crazy, well, nobody from on high has shut down any of the other crazy political garbage spewing out of the Mormon heartland either.
I’m sure there’s much more to it all, but maybe this is a start to unpacking all of the baggage that Ender’s Game has brought with it. It doesn’t simplify my feelings towards the book and its author any, but I have no way of untangling them from bigger issues in my life. Every Sunday that I spend in church makes Orson Scott Card a bit easier to understand.