#68: ORSON SCOTT CARD. I’m not a huge one for science fiction or fantasy; as with any genre, the best approach is to have a few friends who read omnivorously and who are willing to do a little plum picking. Some of it I’ve liked (Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness), some I’ve found grandiose but forgettable (Asimov’s Foundation trilogy), some of the fantasy I’ve found charming (Patricia McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Diana Wynne-Jones’s Howl's Moving Castle) and a fair amount of it I’ve found flatly unreadable (Frank Herbert’s Dune). I’ve found some first-rate and intriguing ideas and themes, a lot of secondhand characterizations and uninspired execution, and a large supply of thoroughly wretched prose (Frank Herbert’s Dune). Tolkien, of course, looms behind almost all the commercial fantasy; with The Lord of the Rings, you have to keep a straight face through long swampy passages, a lot of Prince Valiant haircuts, some awful dialogue (“Ai! Ai!” wailed Legolas. “A Balrog! A Balrog is come!”) and a really bizarre story-telling structure, but you get the awesome wingspread of Tolkien’s imagination, his linguistic adventurousness and the true heroic seriousness that is Tolkien’s bedrock. Mind you, even Tolkien suffers from the moral simplicity—his best wizard wears a white gown and rides a white horse—that reduces so much fantasy to genre status. If one more dweeb whose cinematic horizons consist of a seventy-fourth viewing of “Star Wars,” says to me one more time, “Like all great literature, it’s about good versus evil,” I shall not be kind. Hamlet is about good versus evil? Madame Bovary? Go home. Leave me alone.
Orson Scott Card’s novella “Ender’s Game” appeared in 1977 in Analog Magazine, and was expanded to novel size in 1985 and has placed itself pretty firmly on the science fiction must-read list. As the story opens, Earth has suffered a near-devastating attack from an alien life form—oversized insects called Formics or, less formally, Buggers. The Buggers have been momentarily repulsed but are believed to be gearing up for attack number two. Alexander Wiggin, called Ender, is a kid beset with an abusive older brother, ineffectual parents, a suspect social status as a third child in a reproduction-controlled state, and an innate genius for military strategy that happens once in a millennium. He is drafted, at age eight, into a highly advanced military school, run at a space station by the sort of people who run advanced military schools. They speak in weighted badinage, they vivisect their students emotionally and spiritually, what they do is monstrous and dishonest, but they aren’t monsters—they’re men facing situations most of us will never face. Or are they? These equivocal puppet-masters—Ender sniffs them out and does battle with them as furiously and inventively as he will against the Formics—end up being a new and disturbing twist on Lord Acton’s dictum, and Ender's Game is a long, dirty, harrowing look at the inherently Pyrrhic quality of military success. The masters keep Ender physically safe, but he is very nearly destroyed anyway, and the coda to the book is Ender’s desperate search for some way to nourish what’s left of his soul. In contrast to the optimistic we-can-go-anywhere spark of some early pulp SF, Ender's Game is part of the more mature, saddened SF that remembers that no matter where you go, even in space—there you are.
Trilogies, quartets, sequels, prequels are all stock in trade for genre work—milk it ‘til it’s dead—so if I’d been paying attention in 1999 when Card issued Ender's Shadow, a “parallel novel” to Ender's Game told from the point of view of Bean, one of Ender’s co-students, I probably would’ve rolled my eyes. Milking aside, telling the story from another point of view—why bother? But Card brings it off—in changing the narrator, the essence of the story changes with it. Bean is a six-year-old, off-the-chart brilliant kid with an emotional chip missing and the cynical misery of a holocaust survivior. Starting from spiritual ground zero—a post-everything Rotterdam whose inhabitants are like an infestation—Bean sets on an almost opposite route from Ender, until, at the final battle, he thinks of the dying men and speaks the words of David’s elegy for Absalom. Ender almost loses his soul; Bean has one conferred on him. And yet the mordant onlook of the earlier book is the same, running a chill finger down the spine. These are popular fiction, you bet, but if all pop fiction was this good even cynics like me would be still.