Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Peter (Wiggin) Principle

 Contact: pierce07446@outlook.com

Orson Scott Card has become notorious of late, first for hateful attacks on gays as part of a campaign against same-sex marriage and then for a ludicrous conspiracy theory about Obama plotting to become president-for-life with a secret police force recruited from black gangbangers.

From the reactions of LGBT community, you’d get the impression Card had hardly written anything in his life but anti-gay screeds.[i]  In reaction to the Obama conspiracy post, Dave Schilling proclaimed Card to be “officially” the most racist science fiction author.[ii] The furor over what turned out to be Card’s short-lived deal with DC Comics to collaborate on an episode of Superman may have been aggravated by fears that he would somehow sneak anti-gay propaganda into the episode, but the protest soon expanded to call for a boycott of the forthcoming movie of his 1985 novel Ender’s Game. Card stayed away from Comic Con, where producers of the movie managed to talk about it without even mentioning his name – except during the Q&A session. As for Schilling, it isn’t clear just what gives him “official” authority to determine that Card is the most racist sf author ever – he’s a comedian.

One thing is clear: Card is finished in the sf community. Even if people keep buying his books, he can never show his face at a con again. He’ll never be nominated for another Hugo or Nebula; for all I know, the Science Fiction Writers of America might expel him. David Gerrold, the most prominent gay sf writer, has opposed the boycott of the movie, much as he detests Card’s rants, but his may be a minority opinion even among straights. And Card has certainly brought it on himself; he could have opposed gay marriage, as C.S. Lewis might if he were alive today, without characterizing gays as sexual abusers or products of sexual abuse (Lewis opposed legal sanctions against homosexuality, and – unlike the Religious Right today – thought theocracy was the worst possible system of government.). And while Cards’s rant against Obama may bring to mind a conspiracy theory popular among liberals around 1970 – that Nixon planned to cancel the 1972 election and have all his opponents thrown into concentration camps – it crossed the line in racist venom as well as patent absurdity.

It’s safe to say Orson Scott Card the anti-gay racist is the only Card most people know today; the media and Internet campaign against him has gone viral. And that campaign has exaggerated his importance; you’d think that he was the Prime Mover of the entire anti-gay movement, and if only he could be stopped, it would usher in the Millennium for LGBT’s. I think the real reason for singling him out is that he’s a soft target; his readers, and the potential audience for the movie, are doubtless overwhelmingly straight  – but chances are a good number of them are liberal in the broad sense. Card can be hit where it hurts. What can gay activists do about Pat Robertson – boycott The 700 Club? There’s a parallel with celebrity chef Paula Deen, whose career went into the toilet after she was accused of racist remarks. Deen may indeed be obnoxious, but from the furor directed at her you’d have thought she was the Grand Dragoness of the KKK. She too was a soft target, compared to racist political and religious leaders in safe (for them) constituencies.

When the controversy about Card erupted, I realized that I’d somehow never gotten around to reading Ender’s Game and its sequels, although I was familiar with a number of his other works. I’d also seen him at cons, back in the days when he had a traveling road show called The Secular Humanist Revival Meeting, in which he poked fun at the Religious Right for its opposition to the Theory of Evolution. I knew he was a Mormon, but in his revival meeting he mentioned that the Mormons had abused secular power when they had a chance, and in a series of Mormon sf stories, The Folk of the Fringe (1989), he even seemed to be flirting with heresy in “America,” a story in which one of the heroes has a one-night stand with a native American woman and fathers “a boy who will become the future leader of an America that is controlled by Native Americans.”[iii]  Not, in any case, what you’d expect from the “officially” most racist sf writer. And in Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1996), time travellers from an environmentally-devastated future Earth set things right by undoing the genocide of Native Americans – introducing genetically-engineered viruses in order to give them immunity to European diseases, while also preaching a form of Christianity to persuade them to give up human sacrifice.

Other novels of Card’s I’d read include Invasive Procedures (2007), a variation on the hoary old scenario of a Mad Scientist trying to take over the world. In Empire (2006), he decried the very sort of toxic ideological politics he has since embraced, although in a sequel, Hidden Empire (2009), he seemed to have accepted Caesarism as inevitable. I’d also read some of Card’s non-fiction. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1990, reissued 20 years later as The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy), this rabid racist praised Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed (1988) as an example of the principle of “abeyance” in sf exposition – withholding basic information from the reader until there’s good reason for the protagonist to be thinking about it. In an introduction to the 2003 Modern Library edition of H.G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), he had intelligent things to say about Wells and sf as a genre.

So how did we get from that Orson Scott Card to the pariah we know today? Perhaps the Mormon hierarchy had been on his case for seeming deviation from the True Faith. Or maybe he’s undergone one of those political conversions, where people do a 180 from liberal to conservative or vice versa. There may be a hint of this in Earth Afire (2013, with Aaron Johnson), one of a series of prequels to Ender’s Game that deals with the first Formic War: here, the aliens have already invaded the Solar System but the government and media try to cover it up in hope of appeasing the enemy. Earth’s leaders make Neville Chamberlain seem like a war hawk; is this really supposed to be about the Muslims, and an attack on liberals who supposedly regard any criticism of jihadist Muslims as “islamophobic?”  I don’t know, but I think I do know why I’d put off reading Ender’s Game. I’d read the 1977 story from which it grew, and thought it was over the top. I’d also read some of the stories in the Worthing Saga about the same time, and thought they were pretty dumb. Maybe I thought Ender’s Game would be too.

Card himself had second thoughts about the novel, because the version now available is a 1991 revision. I don’t know whether the changes are substantive rather than cosmetic, but I assume the basic story is the same: the boy Ender being trained from age six in battle simulations to prepare him for combat against the Buggers – never realizing that he is being manipulated every step of the way to turn him into a weapon that is supposedly the only hope of victory. The whole point of the novel is that he is manipulated into wiping out the enemy in what he thinks is only a simulation – and he has to atone for his crime by finding a surviving hive queen and searching for a place to give her refuge. It’s all very manipulative; it seems the hive queen was actually communicating with him before he wiped out the rest of her kind, without him knowing it at the time. And he makes himself a pariah by ensuring that the story of his xenocide is spread far and wide

Card’s critics are legion, but they seem to have overlooked the obvious in some regards.. There was an attack on Ender’s Game in 1987 by Elaine Radford (“Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman”) that accused Card of basing his character admiringly on Adolf Hitler. In 2004, with “Creating the Innocent Killer,” John Kessel rejected that interpretation, but considered the novel a sham, masquerading as a story of redemption when it was really feeding into the sick fantasy of abused children: “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.”[iv] Kessel found Card’s argument about judging characters by their “intentions” rather than their acts to be an evasion of any foundation of morality. But while he gave a lot of attention to Ender’s having been bullied as a child, by his older brother Peter and then by older children at the Battle School, he seems to have been at a loss on one issue: “One of the unaddressed questions of Ender’s Game is how did the Wiggin family produce a psychopath like Peter? The book gives no hint of an explanation for his behavior; it’s possible I suppose that Card believes simply that 'some people are just born bad' but I find no clear indications of a source for what seems to be Peter’s motiveless evil.”[v]

Only, what jumped out at me early on was that the Wiggins are a totally dysfunctional family. We learn next to nothing about the parents, but it’s hard to believe they could have ever loved their children. This is strange, as Mormons are supposed to be big on family values; and Card writes a lot elsewhere about the importance of loving families. Yet neither in Ender’s Game nor in Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (both 1991) is there a single example of a family that isn’t dysfunctional – except for that of Ender’s younger sister Valentine, and we actually see very little of her and her husband and children. As for other issues that concerned Radford and Kessel, Card has Valentine compare Peter to Hitler,[vi]  And the man in charge of manipulating Ender at the Battle School admits that he has “as much chance of being a monster as a military genius.”[vii] Ender is and remains a very conflicted man in the first three books of the series; he has trouble connecting with anybody (except an artificial intelligence named Jane), and can’t seem to learn basic social skills. I can imagine that the 100,000 to 200,000 people a year who were buying Ender’s Game when Kessel wrote his essay might sympathize with him, but I can’t imagine them wanting to be him.

But there are other issues that seem to have been overlooked. Card admits that he came late to reading sf; when he wrote about psionics in The Worthing Saga, he “had no idea this was a sci-fi cliché at the time.”[viii] When he conceived “Ender’s Game” as a short story, he may likewise had no idea that nasty insectoid aliens were also a cliché. (Calling them “buggers” has been called into question; surely he must have known then that the word was an epithet for gays; yet in the novel, Ender’s tormentors call him a bugger, and it was common long before that for bullies to use that and other epithets of the kind for boys they considered sissies.). By the time he wrote the novel, he was better read in sf, adopting Ursula K. Le Guin’s “ansible” as an instantaneous message communicator. Of course, he comes up with his own imagined “science” to explain how it works, having to do with elementary particles called “philotes.”

Science fiction writers do this sort of thing all the time, warp drives and wormhole jumps and the like are used only to explain how people traverse interstellar distances. Ansibles have likewise been adopted by Elizabeth Moon and others for their original purpose, and any explanations have to do only with that purpose. But in Xenocide, Card turns philotes into practically a religion: it seems that they’re not only the basis of all matter and all life but even the basis of immortal souls. In one scene, Ender explains to the hive queen he’d rescued at the end of Ender’s Game and found a refuge for on Lusitania that in producing a new hive queen “this philote that you call out of the non-place … takes on that identity and possesses the body and becomes the self of that body—”[ix] As if that weren’t enough, when the plot calls for a faster-than-light drive (For some reason, nobody’s been able to devise one for 3,000 years!), a neophyte manages to invent one on the spot. Only besides traveling to wherever, Ender miraculously creates avatars of Peter and Valentine – not the older Valentine, who still lives – plus a healed edition of a Miro, a stepson who had been crippled as a young man. The Force, the Force!

This is the most cockamamie stuff I’ve ever seen from a major sf writer. But bringing Peter back reminds me of another Peter: the Peter Principle. We’ve seen it before in science fiction, when a writer has gone beyond his level of competence – the most obvious example is Robert A. Heinlein. With Stranger in a Strange Land, he imagined himself as a guru, and his philosophizing there and in most of what he wrote after The Moon is a Marsh Mistress (1965) can only be called embarrassing. Of course, there had already been the galactic social Darwinism of Starship Troopers (1959), which many find offensive; but it still served a good story. “Novels” like The Number of the Beast (1980) were just silly. The thing about Card is that his encounter with the Peter Principle came a lot earlier.

I haven’t read Children of the Mind (1996) yet, but from the Wikipedia entry, it seems to be even sillier, with Peter (actually Ender’s soul downloaded into his body – so that’s what Peter was really good for! Though he has somehow played a positive political role in the meantime.) and Jane (her computer mind is likewise downloaded into young Valentine’s body) finding wedded bliss. This is apparently intended as apotheosis, but strikes me as just the opposite – the young Peter and Valentine are evidently treated as nothing but vessels for their “betters.” I haven’t seen such arrogance in Card’s other novels that I’ve read; maybe he got over that sort of thing – before he got into paranoia.

What he didn’t get over, I think, was that his imagination is more that of sci-fi movies and TV shows than of literary genre sf. That shows not only in the business of philotes, but in other aspects of his invention, such as the pequeninos (piggies), the natives of the planet called Lusitania, where there is a small human colony of dark-skinned Catholics from Brazil. They have a bizarre life cycle, being born from trees and eventually turning back into trees – all native life forms go through similar life cycles. This seems to be guided by a virus called the descolada, which has also infected the human settlers. The humans take anti-virals to keep from being similarly transformed themselves, but the virus itself keeps mutating – and anyone leaving the planet (human, pequenino or formic) could spread it elsewhere. That’s why the Starways Congress has sent a fleet to sterilize the planet, even as Ender once sterilized the homeworld of the formics (buggers). One can easily imagine James Cameron coming up with this sort of scenario.

The exasperating thing is that there are both good and bad things in the Ender saga. The just-the-facts eulogy Ender gives for Marcão in Speaker for the Dead is eloquent, and honest, if also very painful to those who hear it (He has made a career of such truth-telling eulogies, although we are never given any other examples.). But the circumstances are hard to take. The plot has manipulated Libo, who has been studying the pequeninos, into becoming the father of two different families, and his son Miro falls in love with his half sister Ouanda – finding out the truth almost too late: contrived tragedy is no better than contrived happiness. Miro’s mother Novinha had married Marcão, but never had any children by him; after he dies, she marries Ender – but he isn’t really much of a stepfather, for all his seeming show of concern. Meanwhile on Path, a distant world populated by Chinese who supposedly hear the gods but in fact are genetically engineered to have an obsessive compulsive disorder that makes them think they do that, there is yet another dysfunctional family that plays a role in the saga.

But most of the action is on Lusitania. For some reason, a lot of pequeninos embrace Catholicism. That seems illogical to begin with, and Card has fun with the idea of Father Estavão, who also goes by the pequenino name of Quim, trying to find “a meaningful way to perform [marriage] between a fathertree and the blind, mindless slugs who were mated with them.”[x]  But a distant pequenino community comes up with a novel heresy that descoladas are the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, and Quim sets out to bring them back  to the True Faith. He dies at their hands, and Ender seems to take him seriously as a martyr – although he is no more a Catholic than Card himself (What Card does and doesn’t take seriously as religion is a continuing bizarre element.).

Yet in a powerful scene right after that, a mob of crazed Catholics attacks the nearest pequenino community – which had nothing whatever to do with what happened to Quim. Yet they scream “For Quim and Christ!” and “Die, pigs, die!”[xi] They slaughter their alien neighbors and torch the mothertrees and fathertrees. Grego, another of Ender’s stepsons, takes part in the pogrom although he repents at the end, and the Bishop imposes a harsh penance afterwards, ordering his people to tear stones from their homes and every other building in town, leaving them shattered – while using the stones to build a new chapel, where: “We will pray for Christ to include our terrible sin in his atonement, so we will not have to spend eternity in hell.”[xii]

That scene is full of passion, and outrage at the kind of crimes committed in the name of religion. And yet, in the name of religion, Card himself has since resorted to shameful hate speech. As I said at the outset, I can’t understand why. From his Wikipedia entry, Card’s shifting political allegiances don’t make a lot of sense, except for the fact that he was offended at Mitt Romney being attacked as a Mormon. And after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage (but before his attack on Obama), he gave up the fight on the marriage issue, but pleaded for tolerance from its proponents – and couldn’t seem to figure out what anyone had against him.[xiii]

One thing for sure: you can’t make this stuff up.

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/11/dc-comics-orson-scott-card_n_2663591.html
[ii] http://www.vice.com/read/orson-scott-card-is-officially-the-most-racist-sci-fi-author
[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_%28short_story%29
[iv] http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi/Killer_000.htm
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, TOR 1991, p. 93
[vii] Ibid., p. 41
[viii] Ibid., p. xv
[ix] Card, Xenocide, TOR 1991, p. 313
[x] Ibid., p. 109
[xi] Ibid., p. 226
[xii] Ibid., p. 233
[xiii] http://insidemovies.ew.com/2013/07/08/enders-game-orson-scott-card-statement/