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Stranger in a Strange Land

Ender's Game, its controversial author, and a very personal history

The Ender’s Game movie premieres today, nearly 30 years after Orson Scott Card’s science fiction classic was published. The film, in development for almost half that time, does not lack star power. The story is about a dystopian future in which pubescent boys and girls are recruited to lead armies against aliens who nearly destroyed humanity a generation earlier, and the film necessarily casts teenagers1 in the lead roles. Asa Butterfield, who plays the title role of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, was last seen displaying his talents as the lead in Martin Scorsese’s beautifully rendered (albeit interminably boring) Hugo. Abigail Breslin, who plays Ender’s sister Valentine, and Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Ender’s Battle School mentor, both earned Oscar nominations before they were 15. The adult leads, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis, are even more decorated. If the movie flops, it won’t be because the actors can’t act.

The star you won’t see associated with the film in any meaningful way is the book’s author. Card, one of the modern-day giants of science fiction, has been invisible in the marketing lead-up to the film’s release.2 This is both profoundly sad and completely understandable: Card has been an outspoken opponent of gay rights for many years, arguing vociferously against same-sex marriage and serving until recently on the board of the National Organization for Marriage.

In 2013, a person neither can nor should expect previous statements such as “laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books” to be overlooked without consequence. And there have been consequences. DC Comics put Card’s Adventures of Superman anthology contribution on hold after fierce public reaction led the comic’s artist to drop out of the project; the LGBT group Geeks OUT is organizing “Skip Ender’s Game” protests; those associated with the movie, from Ford to director Gavin Hood to Lionsgate, have done the requisite dance, distancing themselves from Card’s homophobic views while arguing that the author’s bigotry should not detract from the movie’s themes of inclusiveness and tolerance.

The movie’s themes of inclusiveness and tolerance stem from the book’s themes of inclusiveness and tolerance, which is what makes this entire episode so depressing. The book became an instant classic upon its release in 1985, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction’s two highest honors. It also quickly won over millions of readers.

Including me.

A young Rany JazayerliI first discovered science fiction in 1985, when a friend convinced me to shell out a few bucks at the seventh-grade book fair to buy Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Asimov’s background resonated with me: We were both the children of immigrants from parts of the globe that evoked suspicion (in his case, Russia; in mine, the Arab world). More importantly, the books were awesome. In short order I had finished Asimov’s entire oeuvre of fiction — dozens of novels and short-story collections — and a considerable amount of his nonfiction. I was trolling public libraries looking for anything in his 50-year catalogue that I hadn’t yet read.

I had essentially run out of options by 1988, the summer I turned 13, when my best friend recommended Ender’s Game. “You’ll love it if you’re an Asimov fan,” he told me.3 And I did. I’ve read the book four or five times, and I plan to read it again before I see the movie this weekend.

Like many of the best science fiction stories, Ender’s Game takes an element of modern society — our propensity to send young men off to fight in, and bear the costs of, wars that are instigated by old men — and postulates what would happen if that were taken to the extreme. The book is set a few generations after Earth’s first contact with the insect-like “buggers.” With another, decisive war imminent, the world needs soldiers who are not merely brilliant, but who have the creativity and flexibility to conceptualize and conduct space warfare in three dimensions. The world needs the most brilliant child prodigies alive.

Andrew Wiggin4 is 6 years old when he is recruited to join Battle School and leave behind his family. His departure continues a theme that pervades the entire book: Ender’s intense loneliness despite, or perhaps because of, his success. Ender was already a misfit: In a world that had implemented emergency restrictions limiting parents from having more than two children, Ender was a Third, his parents having received a special dispensation when the authorities saw how brilliant older siblings Peter and Valentine were.

Ender was teased and bullied before he ever saw Battle School, and that isolation continues once he arrives. The military leaders deliberately advance Ender at an accelerated pace, keeping him from sticking in a class long enough to make friends and engendering resentment from older students who have to take orders from a pipsqueak. As Ender prepares to command Earth’s military forces before he’s gotten his first pimple, he is forcibly removed from Battle School and taken elsewhere for intense, personalized final training. He’s kept from seeing other children at all.

That endless loneliness is what makes it so easy to root for Ender. Card is so deeply sympathetic, so deeply empathetic to Ender’s plight that the reader can’t help but feel the same way. It’s what makes the book essential reading for every kid who has walked away from the protective embrace of his or her parents, which is to say every kid who has ever hit puberty.5 To be young is to feel alone, like an outcast, like a misfit. Adolescence is alienation.

Ender's GameWe all feel alienated at some point, but the book’s message resonates even deeper with those who really stick out from the crowd. The empathy extends to the reader. There are no gay characters, but that is presumably because most of the characters are prepubescent children. (Ender is essentially asexual.) But there are girls at Battle School who play important roles; there are characters who are dismissed by other kids because they’re too short; there are Jewish kids who get mocked for the size of their noses.

I am neither gay, nor a girl, nor short. I am, however, a Muslim who grew up in Kansas in the 1980s, and I struggle to think of a more perfect recipe for creating a sense of isolation in an American teenager. I literally did not know another practicing Muslim family in Wichita at the time. My best friend who recommended Ender’s Game lived in Appleton, Wisconsin. I saw him once or twice a year, but because his dad and my dad emigrated from the Old Country together, I had more in common with him than with my next-door neighbor.

It was in the context of trying to find my place in the world, of struggling to reconcile my faith with my country when I had no role models to show me the way, that I encountered the following passage about Ender and his Battle School classmate Alai. It stopped me cold:

“I don’t want to go,” he said.

Alai hugged him back. “I understand them, Ender. You are the best of us. Maybe they’re in a hurry to teach you everything.”

“They don’t want to teach me everything,” Ender said. “I wanted to learn what it was like to have a friend.”

Alai nodded soberly. “Always my friend, always the best of my friends,” he said. Then he grinned. “Go slice up the buggers.”

“Yeah.” Ender smiled back. Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, “Salaam.” Then, red-faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks. Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden. A suppressed religion, perhaps. Or maybe the word had some private and powerful meaning for Alai alone. Whatever it meant to Alai, Ender knew that it was sacred; that he had uncovered himself for Ender, as once Ender’s mother had done, when he was very young, before they put the monitor in his neck, and she had put her hands on his head when she thought he was asleep, and prayed over him. Ender had never spoken of that to anyone, not even to Mother, but had kept it as a memory of holiness, of how his mother loved him when she thought that no one, not even he, could see or hear. That was what Alai had given him; a gift so sacred that even Ender could not be allowed to understand what it meant.

If you don’t see the importance of this passage, I envy you. Alai is clearly a Muslim, and in the 1980s, Muslims were portrayed in American popular culture as one of three categories, if they were portrayed at all: crazy ayatollahs, greasy lecherous oil sheikhs, or bomb-wielding hijackers.6 Ender’s Game was literally the first time I had encountered a positive portrayal of a Muslim character in American fiction. It floored me. I finally saw a positive image of myself in print, and it came not from a fellow Muslim but from a wildly popular Christian author who could trace his American lineage for generations.

I learned that I had more in common with Card than I had thought. Card is a Mormon; that lineage of his traces back to Brigham Young himself. Card and I were both devout believers in religions that were shrouded in stereotypes and inaccuracies. As white guys we were members of the racial majority, but we were also part of the religious minority, giving us the weird and vaguely uncomfortable ability to define ourselves depending on the needs of the moment.

Card’s community had a far greater toehold in America, of course. Mormonism is an American religion at its fundamental core, while Islam was beaten out of the African slaves who practiced it centuries ago and wasn’t revived in the African American community until the 20th century. Only after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did America’s shores open to immigrants from the Muslim world. There were no writers from the Muslim world to whom I could turn in the 1980s, no Khaled Hosseinis or Reza Aslans who had mastered the rhetoric of American culture and could present the Muslim community to their countrymen in a native tongue.

As far as I was concerned, Card was carrying the torch that my own community was too young and inexperienced to hold. And as a Mormon, he was no doubt familiar with receiving prejudice from fellow Americans who held bigoted and misinformed views on his faith. Certainly this was someone who appreciated the value of tolerance, of trying to understand other views even when you don’t agree with them.

I devoured Card’s portfolio as quickly as I had Asimov’s, though with Card being in the prime of his career instead of the twilight, much of his literary output still lay ahead. In 1996, he published Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, an alternate-history novel in which researchers from the future attempt to change the events surrounding Columbus’s journey to America in order to prevent the Native American genocide. The novel contained two Muslim characters, Hassan and Kemal, both much more integral to the plot than Alai was to Ender’s Game, and both portrayed with sensitivity and nuance.

At no point did it occur to me that Card was homophobic. Quite the contrary, in fact: Much as I encountered my first sympathetic portrayal of a Muslim in Ender’s Game, the first book I read that featured a gay man as an integral character was Songmaster, which Card wrote in 1980.7 Card portrays the brief and doomed relationship between Josif and Ansset, the title character, lovingly, even poignantly.

Throughout the 1990s I regarded Card with a sort of distant wonder. He was somebody who embodied everything I valued in others and strove for in myself. He was devoutly religious but seemingly tolerant of and empathetic toward other religions and lifestyles. He was unapologetically American and refused to let the prejudice that some Americans had about his faith diminish by one iota his belief in the miracle of the American experiment, our commitment to religious pluralism, and our genuine belief in e pluribus unum. And he could write prose like a wizard.

Orson Scott CardIn 1999, not too long after Card had created his own website, I worked up the courage to write him a thank-you letter. I can still remember the embarrassingly awestruck first line of my email:

“The soul of wit is the key to getting my email answered, or even read, by Mr. Card. I’ll keep this brief.”

I thanked him for Alai and Hassan and Kemal and submitted the email through his website. I was overwhelmed when he responded two days later, graciously thanking me for my note and engaging me in a brief back-and-forth. I recall that we discussed the challenges of growing up as part of a religious minority in America. At one point, he explained why he and his wife had chosen to raise their children in North Carolina, away from family and far from his community’s spiritual center in Utah. The sentence was so profound that I’m still pissed off Gmail hadn’t been invented yet so that I’d have a copy of the email. But it was something about how growing up in a monochromatic community of fellow believers removes faith from your essential core of self-identity, and how it’s easier for a child to lose his or her religion when it’s not integral to that sense of self.

I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. This towering figure of science fiction, who had always written about my faith with warmth and compassion, had deigned to spend a few minutes of his time conversing with me and dispensing new bits of wisdom. I was in awe of the man.

I don’t know what’s happened to him since.

Maybe time changed Card. Maybe he was this way all along, but he stopped bothering to keep his impulses hidden. Or maybe he never hid his feelings in the first place, but it took the Internet and a quality search engine to expose their ugliness.

As early as 1990, Card had written in defense of Georgia sodomy laws that criminalized sexual activity between consenting adults in the privacy of their homes. He has since attempted to explain his stance, saying: “My call to ‘leave the laws on the books’ was simply recognizing the law at that time, and my call to not enforce it except in flagrant cases was actually, within that context, a liberal and tolerant view — for which I was roundly criticized in conservative Mormon circles as being ‘pro-gay.’ Those who now use this essay to attack me as a ‘homophobe’ deceptively ignore the context and treat the essay as if I had written it yesterday afternoon. That is absurd.”

I understand how difficult it is to shift the Overton Window in a conservative religious community, but this actually represents the tolerant pole of Card’s stance on homosexuality. It has all been downhill since.

In a 2004 treatise against the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that said outlawing gay marriage was unconstitutional, Card wrote: “The dark secret of homosexual society — the one that dares not speak its name — is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse.”

Card’s bigoted views about gay people are bad enough, but he exacerbates them with seditious and frankly insurrectionist comments about a country that would tolerate gay marriage. In that same treatise, he wrote, “If America becomes a place where the laws of the nation declare that marriage no longer exists … then our allegiance to America will become zero.”

In a 2008 column in the Deseret News, he wrote: “How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down.”

I still have trouble believing that the same man who wrote fiction full of such empathy and understanding would suggest that a civil war is preferable to legalizing gay marriage.

The irony is that in some small way, Card’s fiction probably helped set me on a path of self-reflection. Discussing this forces me to use an uncomfortable three-letter word: sin. Most of the world’s major religions consider gay sex a sin, and anyone who thinks a religious person should get over that belief, or the belief in sin generally, fundamentally misunderstands what it means to be religious.

But there is a difference between a sin and a crime. The Constitution mandates that difference: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” My understanding of what constitutes a violation of the laws of God shouldn’t make a damn bit of difference in what our government deems a violation of the laws of man.

There are a lot of cultural norms in American society that I regard as sins. I believe drinking alcohol is sinful, but I’m not advocating that we ban it. (That would probably displease some of our corporate sponsors.) I believe that heterosexual relationships are sinful if they’re outside the confines of marriage, but I’m not suggesting that we close down high schools. I also believe that it is man’s nature to commit sins, and that I’m certainly no exception to this rule, and that God is infinitely merciful and compassionate.

So I could no more imagine legislating against gay people based on my religious beliefs than I could imagine legislating for the return of Prohibition. Having said that, I can’t tell you that I supported gay marriage when I went off to college in 1991, because I didn’t. I had never given it a moment’s thought, and when the topic first presented itself, I didn’t exactly warm up to the idea. But it never occurred to me to oppose gay marriage because of my religious beliefs. I wasn’t against gay marriage because I thought it was sinful; I was against gay marriage because I thought it was icky, weird, nonsensical.

My evolution on gay marriage has been a microcosm of the country’s evolution on the subject, which has occurred at a breakneck pace. I started to change my mind the way most do: I stopped seeing gay people as an abstraction and realized that they are, you know, people. I met openly gay men and women for the first time in college. I became friends and colleagues with some of them not long after that. Like the characters in Card’s books, I tried to empathize with those around me. I tried to put myself in their shoes. And I came to the realization that there was no legitimate reason why gay people should be denied any of the rights or freedoms — particularly freedom from discrimination and freedom from fear — that I claimed for myself. Like a lot of people, I got hung up on the m-word. But I found my way out of the conundrum when I realized that the government’s conflating of the two definitions of marriage was the problem. Once I learned to distinguish between a legally sanctioned marriage and a religiously sanctioned marriage — marriage takes place both before God and before the law; it is both a sacrament and a contract — my last doubts dissipated.

I think being a Muslim made it easier for me to come to that realization, because I knew what it felt like to have bigoted eyes watching me. I knew what it was like, even before 9/11, to hide a part of myself from strangers because I could never be quite sure how they would react. And so I was surprised when I learned that Card, as a Mormon, wasn’t able to frame gay rights through the lens of his own experiences with prejudice and suspicion.

Tolerance isn’t an easy mountain to climb, but the view gets better the higher you go. While I was feeling my way up the path, Card was rolling downhill and picking up steam. And as much as I’d like to find a justification for his behavior, as much as I’d like to extend him the courtesy of empathy that his books always preached, that rope is fraying at the edges. Card’s homophobia has obscured the larger story about him, which is that his bigotry is hardly limited to homosexuality.

Orson Scott Card at BYU SymposiumI think 9/11 changed Card in some fundamental way. It changed all of us in some fundamental way, but instead of responding to a collective psychic trauma by reflecting inward, he seems to have turned bitter toward the outside world, seeing enemies everywhere.

A month after 9/11, Card began a regular column on his website, which he called “War Watch,” since renamed “World Watch.” In his first column, he referred to a theoretical Palestinian state as a “barbarian power,” and then went after American academia: “Why do we tolerate state-supported universities that, instead of educating our children to be productive members of our society, train them to become enemies of everything good about America?”

It didn’t get much better from there. He compared environmentalists to the Taliban; he compared Palestinians to rabid dogs.

I read all of his columns because I read everything he wrote, but I quickly realized that Card the op-ed columnist was very different from Card the storyteller. He suddenly seemed to be getting his information about Islam from conspiracy websites, writing that “Even the Q’uran names Christians and Jews as shaitan, satan, the enemy” (it does not; he retracted the comment seven weeks later), and then misinterpreting certain verses of the Quran that deal with warfare by claiming they exhort Muslims to kill their enemies indiscriminately (they do not).

After a year of this, I finally decided to pipe up. Whereas three years earlier I had emailed Card to thank him for his presentation of my faith, I now emailed him calling him to task. I don’t have these emails, either, but thankfully I don’t need them, because Card not only engaged me but asked permission to turn our email exchange into its own column, which you can read here. I felt I had set the record straight; we agreed to disagree on a few things, and I hoped that I had moderated his views a little.

He hasn’t made any attempts at Quranic exegesis since then, but he has moved on to other topics. He has written that global warming is a hoax created by the scientific establishment. His latest hobby horse is President Obama: He wrote a column suggesting that Obama should be impeached for the crime of — wait for it — trying to put Elizabeth Warren in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.8 Yeah, that sentence is as weird as it looks.

Card’s most recent column, from this May, starts with “This is the column where I predict how American democracy ends.” After issuing the disclaimer that “it’s just a silly thought experiment!” Card spins a yarn in which President Obama creates a National Police Force that answers only to him; rules the country like a mafia don; gets Michelle elected for two terms; and then amends the Constitution to remove term limits for the presidency.

Card is not a monster, and those who portray him as one are doing him a disservice. He has written eloquently about the evils of racism and the courage of the civil rights movement. He has written with passion and compassion about the plight of illegal immigrants. He has expressed his growing unease with rising income disparities in America. But at some point, he took a drive down Conspiracy Lane and got lost. If Card wasn’t getting so much attention for being a homophobe, people would be talking about how he’s turning into a kook.

Asa Butterfield in a scene from "Ender's Game." (Card has lain low during the run-up to the Ender’s Game premiere; his only public comments came in a press release in which he essentially conceded defeat on the gay marriage issue: “With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

It sounds like Card wants to put the whole episode behind him, though it’s kind of rich that he has suddenly rediscovered the virtue of tolerance now that the shoe is on the other foot. And his mea culpa doesn’t address the increasingly bizarre opinions he holds on other topics.

Card’s most famous story opens as a movie today, a generation after he first wrote it. I gave the book to my 10-year-old daughter to read last December. She devoured it as fast as I did, and we’re not going to miss the movie. Whether you’ve read the book or not, I hope you see it too.

I respect those who choose to boycott the movie, but I also politely think they’re missing the boat (and, from the early reviews, a pretty good film). It’s not just that I think boycotting a movie is kind of an intolerant way to combat intolerance. It’s not just that if we’re going to boycott a work of art because of the behavior of the artist, there are better places to start than with a man who has expressed hateful words but hasn’t broken any laws.9

No, the main reason boycotting Ender’s Game is counterproductive is that the theme of the story itself is the best repudiation of everything for which Card has come to stand.

That theme is perhaps best expressed in a passage from the original sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, which was published in 1986. It is a very different kind of book; while Ender Wiggin is still the main character, it is set thousands of years in the future, and the adult Ender has long left his soldier days behind and morphed into a philosopher/prophet. It is, in my opinion, Card’s best book; like Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead won the Hugo and Nebula awards.10 (And unlike Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead really is unfilmable.)

Toward the end of the book, Ender is talking to a Portuguese Catholic boy named Olhado. Ender says:

“Science refuses to admit any cause except first cause — knock down one domino, the one next to it also falls. But when it comes to human beings, the only type of cause that matters is final cause, the purpose. What a person had in mind. Once you understand what people really want, you can’t hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can’t hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.”

That’s what Ender’s Game is all about, really. In order to defeat the buggers, Ender has to figure out their tactics. In order to figure out their tactics, he has to understand them. In order to understand them, he has to stop hating them. Empathy leads the way to victory, but it also leads the way to emotional devastation, because how can you live with yourself if you’ve defeated an enemy you’ve grown to love?

Maybe Card decided at some point that the price of empathy was better borne by his characters than by himself. It’s hard to hate your enemies when you understand them; it’s much easier to go through life holding on to your prejudices by keeping those with whom you disagree at arm’s length.

I don’t recognize the Orson Scott Card I see today, but I refuse to believe that the author whose stories helped me navigate my teenage years has disappeared entirely. Others may hate him, but I’m still struggling to understand him. That’s the least I owe him for gifting me with an ethical compass when I needed one. How strange and how sad, then, that Card’s compass pointed me in one direction while he strode off in another. But maybe that’s what he had given me: a gift so sacred that even Card himself could not be allowed to understand what it meant.

Filed Under: General topics, History, Movies, Thor

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

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