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Via Paul Melko by way of David Moles, I encountered this morning a fascinating essay by SF writer and scholar John Kessel exploring and repudiating the morality of intention that underpins Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and attempting to explain the book's enduring popularity.

It's a long essay, and quite worth reading if you have any interest in morality and fiction, but here's a distillation:

The number of times this scenario of unjustified attack and savage retaliation is repeated, not just in Ender's Game but in other of Card's stories and novels, suggests that it falls close to the heart of his vision of moral action in the world.... The same destructive act that would condemn a bad person, when performed by a good person, does not implicate the actor, and in fact may be read as a sign of that person's virtue....

This, I fear, is the appeal of Ender's Game: it models this scenario precisely and absolves the child of any doubt that his actions in response to such treatment are questionable. It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender's story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else. Your mistreatment is the evidence of your gifts. You are morally superior. Your turn will come, and then you may severely punish others, yet remain blameless. You are the hero....

We see the effects of displaced, righteous rage everywhere around us, written in violence and justified as moral action, even compassion. Ender gets to strike out at his enemies and still remain morally clean. Nothing is his fault. Stilson already lies defeated on the ground, yet Ender can kick him in the face until he dies, and still remain the good guy. Ender can drive bone fragments into Bonzo's brain and then kick his dying body in the crotch, yet the entire focus is on Ender's suffering. For an adolescent ridden with rage and self-pity, who feels himself abused (and what adolescent doesn't?), what's not to like about this scenario? So we all want to be Ender. As Elaine Radford has said, "We would all like to believe that our suffering has made us special—especially if it gives us a righteous reason to destroy our enemies."  (John Kessel, "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality")
I've read Ender's Game four or five times myself, and despite the occasional qualm, I've been seduced by its moral universe every time. Kessel in his essay mostly avoids speculating about the roots of that moral universe, but of course I'm less circumspect. I think it's the fact that Card was steeped in LDS morality from childhood, like I was.

There's a passage very early in the Book of Mormon that I've long considered to be the most important (and repugnant) in all of LDS theology. The Book of Mormon is the supposedly historical account of Jewish prophets who fled Jerusalem for America around 600 BC. After they've left Jerusalem but before they've built their boat, God commands our hero Nephi and his contentious older brothers to return to Jerusalem to acquire the "brass plates," an important scriptural record that seems roughly equivalent to the first half of the Old Testament. An evil man named Laban has custody of the brass plates, and not only does he rebuff Nephi's attempts to claim the plates, he steals the gold they've brought in exchange and sends them fleeing for their lives at swordpoint.

Led by the Spirit of God, Nephi returns to Jerusalem that night under cover of darkness, without his no-good brothers. Skulking through the abandoned streets, he stumbles across a man passed out drunk in an alley. It's Laban! Here's what happens next, in Nephi's "own words":

And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.

And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.

And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;

Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.

Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.

And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.

And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.

Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword." (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 4:10-18)
It's the same situation as Ender—a young man of impeccable morals tormented by older siblings for no reason but jealousy is forced into situations where he must commit violent acts for the benefit of future generations. He feels bad about it, but the acts themselves don't tarnish his innocence.

(There are more interesting parallels to be drawn between the life of Nephi and that of Joseph Smith, who wrote—er, translated—the Book of Mormon and founded the LDS Church, but Card cuts out the middleman and recapitulates Smith's story more directly in the Alvin Maker books.)

I seem to keep returning in this blog to wrestling with Card's legacy. For a period during my own early development, he was one of the most important influences on my writing. But I hope I've worked my way past the sort of worldview that informs his fiction, and that John won't be writing an essay like this about my work any time in the future.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 3rd, 2005 06:21 pm (UTC)
That is a wonderful essay. I saw him deliver it at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 06:27 pm (UTC)
Cool. How was it received?
Aug. 4th, 2005 11:42 am (UTC)
Quite positively. Good paper about a homophobe who hates academic critics.
Aug. 3rd, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC)
Interesting interpretation of "Ender's Game". On the surface, I agree with Kessel's conclusions, but I think he is reading more into the story than what is there.

I am forced to qualify that opinion by saying "Ender's Game" is the only book, other than "The Worthing Saga" (a novella and collection of other short works), that I've ever read by Card.

I've tried to struggle through is other books, and even today I don't mind picking up "Ender's Game" for a quick re-read, but I simply can't make it past the first few chapters of "Speaker for the Dead". My problem is that I don't, and never have related well to Ender.

I will say, that I do agree, Ender is a whiney assed bitch who spends his life moralizing about the great injustices done to him and what he was forced to become (and it is for this reason that I'd have been first in line to shove him out of an airlock). Where I disagree with Kessel, is that Kessel feels this was the whole point of Card's book. I think the story is more "classic" than even that.

I feel Kessel overlooks the fact that the entire "Battle School" system was designed to turn Ender into what he became. You can even look at it and say that his very genetics where manipulated (if you view Peter and Valentine as part of the process) and controlled to ensure he was exactly what "they" wanted him to be in the end. Left to his own devices, he may have been something different, he may have even been nothing at all.

In that sense "Ender's Game" is simply a tale of "Even the best, brightest, and most moral of us, can be forced into, and then rationalize immoral actions such as genocide".

Taken in that light, its less a story about "the innocent killer" and more a cautionary note about the power of authority, and as such is nearly as old as the story of the boy who met this girl...
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


William Shunn

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