E N D E R
The post/essay itself is taken from a site that Gideon Burton, Liz Busby, Katherine Morris, Ben Crowder, Candy Eash and I engineered as an extension of the BYU Chapter of The Association for Mormon Letters back in early 2008. The site was designed as an starting point for what we felt was an essential piece missing from the Mormon Community when it came to Literature: Critical Conversations with regard to Mormon Literature and Media. The site was short-lived, though I still think it was a great idea. Essentially it choked as we all neared graduation and became to busy to effectively (and thoughtfully) contribute. My other posts (if you're bored or curious) include:
* A discussion on Deriving Literature from Scripture, where I document some of the ways Scripture has enabled and influenced me in creating works of creative fiction. (I also presented on this subject at the 2008 BYU AML Conference)
* A look at how Language can be a Vehicle for Effecting Change, especially with regard to the works of Carol Lynn Pearson in the Mormon Community with regard to homosexuality.
* A recap of a "Writing Salon" conducted at BYU where a number of BYU Professors who are also published authors held a sort of Q&A panel for students interested in Creative Writing, which elicited thoughts on how and why we write.
* Finally, an essay on Nostalgia and its purpose when viewed through the lenses of Literature and the Mormon Religion.
But that's not the focus of this post! You want to know about Ender and my experience with him. So without further, ado:
In light of the recent conversation on united Mormon fiction and literary genealogy, I thought I'd try and rein the conversation in a bit by focusing on a specific piece (albeit well-known) from the Mormon Literature Database. Specifically, I want to look at Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, my reaction to it, and the type of expectations that seems to reflect; all wrapped up in the notion of "Mormon Literature".
I've always heard good things about Ender's Game and must profess to being a prolific fantasy writer (and lesser so, reader), but never really dabbled much into science-fiction, unless it was Heinlein's Red Planet. Ender's Game was on my list for quite a while, but I finally picked it up over the Christmas break and read it voraciously.
When I was finished, I must say I was a bit bothered, but that may be more about my expectations than anything else. After finishing, I was left feeling...dissatisfied. I reread the introduction to the book in the hopes of calming myself, but to no avail. So I wrote about it. That's always helped me wring out my emotions in other cases. Unfortunately, I finished while I was on a plane back to Utah and I had no paper, only a pen. So I wrote my initial, reactionary thoughts on (of all things) an airplane throw-up bag:
This is going to eat at me until I get it out of my system. I hate the way my stomach feels right now. I just finished Ender's Game. I'm speechless. It's...brilliant, genius, utterly terrifying. The complete and utter breakdown of optimism. Ender is a tragedy. Chaim Potok was right about human nature. We are dualistic and hold within us two powers: create or destroy (see My Name Is Asher Lev). Love or hate. The greatest tragedy and betrayal then is when he who loves most is used to hate more. Ender, used for 10 billion deaths.... I want to hate Ender's Game more than any other novel I have ever, ever, ever read. Or will read. It sickens me, frightens me, appalls me, and yet I cannot turn away. Ender's Game is the best depiction of humanity ever to be conceived that I've read. We are driven, instinctual. I love and love and love. But when I get angry? Power. If I were manipulated in the same way I cannot — as much as I would love to be self-deceived — admit that I would do or be different. The will to survive and with that, power. Ender's Game to me is a dark book rife with bitter truth. We may be miserable, awful, and selfish beings but we can learn and that makes us decent. Well, what if I don't want to be decent? What if I want to be good? Where does that happen? Ender captures the notion, but there is no indication he ever achieves it.... Where is his redemptive nature? In the knowledge that he can bring back that which he unwittingly obliterated? I only feel all the optimism in me killed by the understanding of power I now have. My last breath of humanity died with Ender's last tear. [...] Power. That which is gained must be kept. And that requires the submission of all which could be a threat. So where is hope? Where do I glean joy and peace from this book? Serenity? In death? If there is something happy and optimistic here, where is it? How did I miss it? And what does that say about me? Maybe that's why I revile and recoil so vehemently against this book; I recognize how entirely close I am to being that killer — that hater. Did Ender win? Did he "save" humanity? Or did he break the very instant he was challenged? Should he have let Stilson take advantage of him? Cede power for love? This book has left me wholly without answers. Only questions. I hate questions because they teach me too much about what I'm supposed to be learning here without ever giving me any answers.
Looking back on that gut reaction to Ender's Game, I think much of my uneasiness was due to my expectations. And Card definitely fed into those expectations as he jabbed at his upbringing: mentioning Mormons as well as having characters from Utah. That reinforced my preconceptions; this is a book by a Mormon– "LDS literature" –therefore it must have a message of hope. Surely Card wrote with eternal principles in mind, right?
Now I have new questions about the way I'm reading literature. Being a Mormon, and knowing he was a Mormon, I tried to put this book in a "genre"/"category" without even reading it. When it explicitly rebelled against my conceptions it was deeply unsettling to me, more so by the fact of how plausibly he crafted his characters and plot. So I'm brought back to my earlier comment on Liz's post, with the problems of trying make a "Mormon Literature" genre. Attempting to categorize literature into a "genre" inherently brings with it a set of expectations (both on the part of the author and reader), so how do we define something accurately when the expectations that warrants implicitly (or explicitly) subvert the very categorization? I don't really have an answer for that (and don't expect you too either). It could just be a matter or redefining the expectation set that comes with the category, but how possible is that? Is it even conceivable to redefine the construct of "fantasy" to not include pointy-eared creatures? I also already argued that we could just expand our expectation set to include more expectations, but then the clearly-defined lines of genre and category become blurred and still deconstruct themselves, so we again flounder in trying to create a "Mormon Literature" genre.
This seems to posit a need for adaptation; just like Ender got people to think differently about the Battle Room challenges. "The enemy's gate is down." We need to figure out a way to look differently at that which is already in place, and use that to gain the victory we seek. With expectation, definition, and purpose.
In an attempt to allay my disconcertions, I immediately went out and got Speaker for the Dead, sure that if Card didn't allow Ender to be redeemed in the first novel, he would give him that chance in the second. It ended up being a good read, but I felt much of the same. How could Card write such hopeless novels? And if there really was hope in them that I was missing, again, what did that say about me? Am I just a pessimist? Is it because I have misplaced expectations? How does the approach we take with a novel affect the way we read it (you know, that whole "lens"/perception rhetoric)?
Some may argue that it's not Ender who is hopeless, but the society. And yet, I have trouble completely separating Ender from the society. He is already in many ways, but ends up being a product nonetheless of their exploitation. That raises a whole other set of questions on the problems underlying agency and responsibility I can’t hope to address in this post. All the same the issue of redemption remains unfulfilled, even at the end of Speaker. I'll admit I never got to the third book, but I missed a sense of Ender's penance/atonement for what happened along the way. Is helping the Hive Queen find a new home enough? What if they just get destroyed again? (And can we even feebly try and pass judgment on such things?)
Likewise some would assert that Ender is not entirely hopeless, only possessed of unfulfilled hope when it comes to the Hive Queen. He wants a place to put her, and this will bring the difference he is looking for in the universe. Yet from the clashing cultures of the pygmies and humans, as well as humanity's attitude toward the Hive, hope still gets lost for me. Will a book really alter their mindset that radically? How do you hold onto hope when everything that exists cries out against it? This causes me to pause and think about our world today and the downward cycle we seem to be in. The idea of peace is essentially moot because of the power construct Card so lucidly depicts. Even if a country elects a leader who stands for peace, it only leaves them in a position to be taken advantage of by everyone else. It would take everyone at the same time deciding to adopt peace and harmony in order for such ideology to survive. Even looking at the Bible affords the same bleak outlook; we all know that it's not going to get better before it gets worse. The world just decays to the point where it ends. Apocalypse anyone? So what place can I give to hope?
The blatant irony here is that I'm really not a pessimist! Anyone who knows me would vouch for my optimistic disposition. I cling to hope more fervently than I would my baby blanket when scared as a kid' that's just part of the way I live. But in order to have such with regard to Ender's Game I'd need to (re)place my beliefs (expectations?) on the book and I'm brought full circle back into the problems I've already proposed, which is most of the same I see for Ender and the Hive Queen. A vicious, hopeless cycle...to which I can apply hope.
I'm interested to hear other people's experiences with Ender's Game (and/or Speaker), the set of expectations you had going in, and how those two played off each other (are they reconcilable?) to create problems/questions in your mind. Also any thoughts on my thoughts are welcomed.
Addendum: Still feeling unsatisfied, even after having finished Speaker for the Dead I did in fact continue on with the series. Genocide and Children of the Mind are reviewed in this post. At the end, as it says, I was still left wondering about Ender's Redemption. I don't think I have an answer, still. Did he ever really achieve it? Only in death? How does this reflect on me? I'm more of a pessimist than I think? Or does it reveal something deeper and, in many ways, scarier, that I'm trying to keep hidden? Maybe even from myself? Do I feel irredeemable, and map that onto Ender? One thing Card did effectively, which I applaud him for, was immerse me in a truly life-altering experience that has raised questions, and continues to do so as I now dig through Ender's Shadow. Maybe I will never find the answers to the questions Card's writing evokes in me, but that won't stop me from looking. :)