Ender Wiggen and the Adolescent Mormon Nerd

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.

Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

This episode of the Coode Street Podcast starts with some comments on American politics, then quickly segues into asking why we read science fiction. The point that Gary Wolfe uses to pivot these topics is in itself fascinating, and indeed is one answer to the title question, but the entire discussion sparked a mental thunderstorm here at Two Dudes. It forced me to take stock of my reading habits, the reasons underlying them, and the ways in which these habits ripple through my world view. The answers I arrive at suggest that SF fandom stretches far beyond an escapist enjoyment of exploding spaceships and weird aliens. It does, at least, for me. I don’t presume to speak for others.

There are two superficial reasons that I have often given for my taste in SF. First, I love Outer Space and always have. Even before I discovered Star Wars, I was looking up in the sky, then finding books on the Solar System at the library. This is a pretty obvious reason to read what I do. Second, I tend to shrug off questions about my books by explaining that I have enough worries already and just want to read for fun. This is generally directed to people who wonder why I don’t read Booker Prize-type stuff, if I’m going to spend so much time with critique and analysis anyway.

Until now, these answers have sufficed. But listening to the podcast, I started to unpack them a little more, particularly the second. After all, if I’m just looking for light reading, I could be digging into mysteries, comedies, thrillers, or any number of best sellers. Is an interest in Outer Space really the only thing separating me from a James Patterson addiction? Further, it’s not just that I read science fiction, but the sub genres wherein I spend my time: Hard SF, cyberpunk, New Space Opera. I don’t even read all that much fantasy, though the proportion has increased a bit recently (and the fantasy I read tends heavily towards science fictional tropes). What does this say about me?

In the podcast, Wolfe tries to explain to his Australian friend that the current political mayhem here is, among several other questions, a science fictional argument about the nature of the future. On one side, he explains, are people that think the past and present can be measured, ordered, and comprehended; thus the future can be predicted and influenced. On the other are those that feel that the future, in God’s hands, can only be revealed. Climate change is the most obvious front line in this battle, but something like the debt ceiling question is analogous: experts from economics, finance, and big business lining up to invoke a monetary cataclysm, while people who have no real idea what they’re talking about assure us that a national debt default is no big deal. Not everyone I know automatically takes the opinion of a Nobel Prize winner over that of a radio personality.

Why is this science fictional? The answer lies in the purpose of science fiction, which I would define as using the present to extrapolate an internally consistent future for storytelling purposes. (Note that I do not use the word “predict.” SF is about speculation, not prediction.) SF writers must, by necessity, tend towards that first group of people Wolfe describes, all the moreso those authors working in the more rigorous sub genres. I am sure that some fall more readily into the “revelation” camp, but I am guessing that they write in the more forgiving areas of tie-ins, Baen-style military SF, or neo-pulp. After all, why write about a seriously considered fictional future if one is not seriously considering our own future? (Last parenthetical before I move on: this is not to say that all SF authors are Democrats, merely that most SF authors are likely to reject the mindset that says intellect does not matter because the future will come as God/Allah/whoever wills it. This axis is applicable to more cultures than my own, regardless of political and sociological orientation, I merely draw on what I see around me to explain a point.)

We’re taking the scenic route here, but this mirrors the paths my brain trod to find an answer. I should admit right now that I am not good at science. I struggled through high school physics and chemistry, then completely melted my brain in calculus. My daughter’s 4th grade math occasionally stumps me. I am, in the end, a musician. On the other hand, I have a fierce loyalty to the Western empirical tradition and the dreaded Scientific Method. I am suspicious of natural healing, New Age anything, the supernatural, the anti-vaccination crowd, and, despite my own convoluted religious background, organized church. (Again, this cuts across US political lines. I am equally enraged by both the “Jesus rode dinosaurs” Creationists and the crazy hippies in my neighborhood that would choose acupuncture over the hospital, even if they were losing limbs in a horrible Roto-Rooter accident. “Keep them doctors away from me, Moonbeam. Just stick a couple of needles in my shoulder and pass me that crystal.”)

What does all of this have to do with my fiction bookshelf, 90% of which is Hard SF? At the risk of parroting a hoary chestnut, I confess to reading SF for the rush, the, dare I say it, sense of wonder. I enjoy other genres, especially spy novels and literature, and am generally happy when I step out for something new, but almost nothing else gives me the buzz that the best SF can. I couldn’t say if my love of SF comes from my scientific world view or vice versa, but I think them to be inseparable. The same part of me that rejects political fantasy also rebels at unconvincing plot development. (Hello, Hollywood!) Likewise, statistically sound economic policies tickle the same part of my brain that devours a four page FTL drive infodump. I have to think that many in SF fandom feel the same. There are certainly other ways to sense wonder, but for me, Alastair Reynolds is much more convincing than Avatar. I am finally understanding why.

So this is a long way to say something that may be painfully obvious to everyone else, but was a bit of a revelation to me. I have a better answer now if someone asks why I read what I do. Somehow, “Rigorous science fiction aligns with my empirical perspective of the world,” sounds better than, “I like it when spaceships blow up.” I suppose that it is my small contribution in the war against entropy, fought this time on the intellectual front.

SFF Review Gender Balance Part II

I hadn’t planned on following up the last post, but the comments (and links therein) got me to thinking more. In particular, this post on Dribble of Ink attracted some heated discussion and forced me to catalog the more detailed bits of my opinion. Let me make it clear that nothing I write here is an exhortation. Instead, this is the logical progression in my head from one position (apathy) to another (cautious activism) that works for me. It may not work for anyone else, and that’s just fine with me.

The most common response to musings on the gender balance seems to be, “I choose what I read based on what I like, not the gender (or anything else) of the author. It works for me, I’m happy with my reading choices and I’m not discriminating against anyone.” This is usually followed by some variation of the hoary “none of this should matter anyway, because we’re supposed to judge books (or movies, or science papers, or whatever) by the content, not by some form of affirmative action.” Both of these are valid points, but they depend on one being a certain kind of reader, and on an assumption of underlying equality. Again, I’m not blowing up anyone else’s reading experience here or calling a great many well-intentioned readers bad names. In fact, I happen to believe that the book-centered SFF community is a tolerant, gentle, and altogether inclusive bunch of people, even while Greater Geekdom is a fetid, slimy bog of Prehistoric social attitudes.

That said, my own position as a reader dictates certain things. Everything else that I will say is based on two givens. First, seeking a greater balance in reading choices is not the same thing as altering final opinions of a book based on some factor unrelated to the book. Just because I think I should read more books by women does not mean I feel like I should give books positive reviews because they were written by women. This seems like a no-brainer, but I see a lot of arguments that conflate the two. Second, while we are making considerable progress equality-wise, only the densest of us would proclaim the battle over when The Patriarchy is still clearly in control of everything, both in the genre and in the rest of the world. If any readers have a bone to pick with these two baselines, I recommend reading no further and leaving no comments. It won’t end well for any of us.

The crux of the matter, for me, is the kind of reader I have chosen to be. If I am reading purely for fun, then I feel no compulsion to break out of my comfort zone. There are plenty of other things in life that I consume more or less indiscriminately, because I have no investment in the Platonic Ideal of whatever that is. Clothes, for example, or ice hockey. I had been, until a few years ago, a casual consumer of science fiction, reading for escape and amusement; I would no more seek out authors to make a statement than I would pick up a romance novel. To this reader I say, “Have at it! Enjoy what you read! Do whatever works for you!”

Now however, I see myself as a student of science fiction. I profess to be engaged in science fictional dialogues across time and space, excavating symbolism from the meta-contextual substrate, illuminating the threads of cliché woven throughout the grand tapestry of genre, and other such pompous hoo-haw. Imagine how deflated I was to realize that mostly I’m just reading a bunch of words written by English speaking white dudes. I feel a bit like I am writing a pretentious food blog focused primarily on Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s. Not to put down some of what I’m reading, of course, since those white dudes are cranking out amazing books, but there’s so much more I’m missing!

Dialing up the pretentiousness even more, this blog makes me, in some small and insignificant way, an advocate for SFF. Even if the only person whose view of the genre I am shaping is my mom, that’s still one person who might skip over worthy stuff because I didn’t go to the trouble to seek it out, or worse, decided to skip it because the author didn’t fit my comfort zone. I doubt that every blogger feels this way, nor should they, but I feel some responsibility to be on the vanguard. From the first, I have tried to do this with Japanese books, but those aren’t expanding my personal horizons. As a (painfully obscure and self-appointed) part of the genre institution, I’m just propping up the privileged class if I don’t search for and amplify the marginalized voices. Self-important? Perhaps. But if someone doesn’t make an effort, how many writers will never get a chance?

I’m not instituting any quotas, I won’t harangue other bloggers, and I’m not going to force myself to read stuff that I’m not interested in. (Hello there, urban fantasy and crappy supernatural pulp!) I am however going to think a bit more about the choices I make to read and review, and make an effort to try things that others might not. At the end of the year, I’ll take stock again and see if anything has changed. After all, as a working musician, I know exactly what happens to those voices that the mainstream ignores.


SFF Review Gender Balance

I was clued in today to a post on Strange Horizons detailing the gender breakdown of SFF reviews and reviewers. Considering the rabid cesspit of racism and misogyny that is geekdom, it comes as no surprise that everything skews male. The numbers made me wonder about Two Dudes and how we measure up here. I assumed that things would be pretty heavily male here also, considering that that I (Pep) do most of the posting and my core reading is done in Hard SF. Of all the genres and subgenres of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Hard SF is the most traditionally male, except for perhaps right wing military SF. Obviously the posts on here are 100% written by men, but that is mainly because I can’t find any women who will write for free. Neither Dude has any objections to women writing for Two Dudes (despite the name) and would actually love the contrasting views. In terms of review subjects though, we have no such constraints. This is the 151st post on the site, with the following numbers:

Male authors: 105
Female authors: 17
Misc. posts, movies, announcements, etc.: 29

This is a bit of a shock. I knew that I read more books by men, but I thought that women would make up more than 15% of the reviews here. I don’t personally care much who writes my books, but numbers like this imply that I am indeed favoring the masculine side of SFF, however unconscious it may be. I don’t think of myself as part of the problem of misogyny in the SFF community, but I may not be part of the solution either. I try to bring up gender issues in my posts, encourage my daughter to explore science, and fight back against stupidity when I see it, but if I’m not supporting the women writing SFF by reading it and talking about it, I fear I’m not helping enough.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Without looking, I would guess that the majority of my 2013 Must Read List is also male. It may be time for a bit of self-reflection, a second look at my reading plans for the coming months, and some thinking time about how my underlying assumptions of SFF may be helping or hurting the rest of the community.


Deconstructing Tolkien

Deconstructing Tolkien: A Fundamental Analysis of the Lord of the Rings
Edward McFadden

This book is not what I expected. To a recovering academic, the title Deconstructing Tolkien: A Fundamental Analysis of the Lord of the Rings suggests certain things. While I am not a literature type, easily befuddled by discussions of lit theory, subtext, and symbolism, my political science background does mean that I tend to read things in certain ways. The intellectual toolkit once applied to economic reports and diplomatic incidents turns itself now upon science fiction. Thus, words like “deconstructing” and “fundamental analysis” make me expect a certain dry, probing dissection of the source material. Because McFadden declines to advance in this assumed line of attack, refugees from The Ivory Tower are left facing a basic question of criticism.

McFadden is an editor, not a professor, so he opens the text with a different set of tools. This is the bait and switch, as it were. He approaches Tolkien from the perspective of a fan and uses more of the editorial eye to unpack the stories. In some ways, this is unique and interesting, especially as he slips in other authors’ short stories between the analytical essays. I suspect that not everyone will appreciate McFadden’s attempt to trace lines of influence into and out of The Lord of the Rings, but it is certainly different. I most enjoyed the H.G. Wells story; in general the older works that McFadden supposes Tolkien drew on were more fun to read than later stories that obviously borrowed LOTR’s themes.

It is McFadden’s own essays that cause the consternation that worries away at my bosom. He tends to explain LOTR rather than analyze, if that can be a distinction with a difference. He manages at times to illuminate certain parts of the story, but often as not is writing opinion. There is much of what McFadden likes and dislikes, with less digging into meta-contextual ideas, the discourse of the time period, or fundamental world views. He proposes lessons to be drawn from the tale, virtues like loyalty and courage, but not what those indicate about Tolkien himself or the state of the genre at the time. McFadden tells us that Tolkien’s influence is daunting in fantasy, which it is, but does not trace themes and archetypes through modern fantasy.

What kills me is not that McFadden chose the path that he did, but that my reaction to that is so strong. In many ways this gets to the heart of literary criticism: am I to evaluate the book based on its stated goals and the accomplishment thereof, or on its potential? Or, to be blunter, do I let the author define his own success or do I get to do it for him? Deconstructing Tolkien succeeds at what McFadden wants it to do. For a certain reader at a certain time in his or her reading history, this is an ideal book. It opens up the first pages of the admittedly vast body of work on Tolkien, setting the reader on a path to a deeper reading of LOTR. A more discriminating reader, however, is going to walk away from the book disappointed. I wanted it to be more – more detailed, more demanding, more complex. I wanted Tolkien explained to me by an author with vastly more experience and wisdom than I have, to wit, someone with a PhD in lit theory rather than simply a fan.

In the end though, maybe it isn’t up to me to decide. McFadden never set out to write the book I wanted to read, so it doesn’t seem fair of me to judge him harshly for it. Taken in terms of his modest goals, the book is a modest success. Since I neither commissioned nor even paid for the book (it was a free promotional download somewhere), I probably don’t have any right to condemn it for not being what I thought it could have been. That is, I suppose, the eternal curse of the critic.