NPF: ART vs ARTIST

At first glance this is going to seem like a curious interpretation of "No Politics", but I'm interested to see the resurgence in interest in the science fiction classic Ender's Game resulting from its (inevitable) Hollywood film adaptation. Accordingly, the book's author, Orson Scott Card, has also gained a higher profile. In case you didn't know, Orson Scott Card is an asshole. Specifically, Orson Scott Card is a ultra-strict Mormon who has a Falwell-sized beef with The Gays. He calls himself a libertarian but believes that the government should be violently overthrown to prevent people from doing The Gay.

This has led to articles like the recent Salon piece "What Happened to Orson Scott Card?" speculating about the his descent from respect author of a sci-fi classic to Michael Savage knockoff. While the obvious conversation to have here would be the old "Can the art be separated from the artist?" debate, I have a more naive question.

I am not a great student of fiction writing and I do not claim to be able to talk about it with an air of expertise. But I can't figure out why anyone who read Ender's Game can claim to be surprised by Card's heel turn. It has been a while since I read it – and I did not really like it, hence it's not like I re-read it a dozen times – but my read of Ender's Game was essentially as an Objectivist fairy tale. I thought it was Atlas Shrugged written by a person with basic English writing skills and more imagination. I also thought that everyone realized this because it seemed really goddamn obvious. It surprised me over time to learn that the book was quite popular in my social circle and most people did not see it that way.

I'm sorry if I'm taking potshots at your favorite book here. I don't have especially negative feelings toward it; it just wasn't my thing, and I thought its ideological core was Randian. Since I hate listening to myself talk about fiction and literature I'm not going to go into an extensive discussion of why I thought the right-wing undertones and themes were obvious throughout the book. I'm just curious to see if anyone else read it that way, or if I imagined/misinterpreted those political messages where they were not.

For me, however, nothing Happened to Orson Scott Card. I assumed he was this way from the outset.

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72 Responses to “NPF: ART vs ARTIST”

  1. jon Says:

    Here's a distinction between art and artist: having heard Ender's Game is good but also having heard that the author is an asshole, I won't be making his book a priority for either me or my sons. In fact, I will advise them not to see the movie, either.

  2. Xynzee Says:

    @jon:
    "I won't be making his book a priority for either me or my sons. In fact, I will advise them not to see the movie, either."

    As a thought as an observer, this could be an excellent parenting opportunity for you. You could read it together and then discuss it. This way you're instilling reading and critical reading skills. You can then debate the themes etc, and how your boys can tolerate differing opinions. See it as a form of shared activity that encourages different skillsets not just thumping each other.

  3. lofgren Says:

    My comment has been awaiting moderation all day, so I am reposting without the links to see if it can get through.

    Nick-B, I think your analysis neglects or downplays some really important aspects of the story.

    the book continually tries to justify the "We can't do anything if they act first, so WE must act first" mentality, which I find abhorrent.

    I don't think it's fair to call this abhorrent or even to call it a "mentality." It's actually just "the reality of the situation." Remember what the humans know about the bugs when they first committed to the plan:

    1. Unprovoked, the bugs suddenly attempted the total annihilation of the human race.

    2. Humanity will not survive a second attack.

    And that's about it. The bugs had already "acted," so the humans weren't really "acting first." They were launching a retaliation that they knew might not be necessary, but that is only because they had already been pushed to near extinction. While it is eventually revealed that the bugs had no intention of launching a second attack, the humans did not know that at the time.

    It's like the prisoner's dilemma: "I assume you will do the worst to me, so I will do the worst to YOU first!"

    It's interesting that you should bring up the prisoner's dilemma. In fact, the most successful strategy in the prisoner's dilemma is something called tit for tat. Tit for tat is a simple strategy whereby all prisoner's initially cooperate. However, if one prisoner defects (say, by attempting to exterminate the second prisoner's entire race) then the second will retaliate in kind, after which the slate is wiped and tit for tat returns to cooperation. This is not just an abstract game. Tit for tat is found in nature, and is the basis of cooperation between many species. So given your assertion that the humans were players in a prisoner's dilemma, responding to the bugs' attack was not only warranted, it was the most rational AND most natural response.

    In the book, they didn't even try to think of an alternative, they just derided the other side as non-human aliens (which they were) which can NEVER be understood and must be destroyed.

    There are two other options that I can imagine: either they could do nothing, or they could attempt to communicate with the bugs.

    I think we can all agree that doing nothing would be flat out insane. While it was eventually revealed that the bugs had no interest in reinitiating contact, crossing their fingers and hoping that the bugs didn't return to kill us all wasn't really an option. So that leaves diplomatic overtures or attack.

    The novel leaves it open to debate whether diplomacy or attack was the better option (another successful algorithm in the prisoner's dilemma is called "a tit for two tats,"). On the one hand, the bugs could be communicated with and were open to non-violent relations. On the other hand, diplomacy would have been staking the continued survival of humanity on a lot of of unknown factors.

    The resulting story can quite reasonably be read as an indictment of human nature. With no knowledge of who the bugs were or why they were attacking, humans fell back on the only model they had available: us. And based on our species' treatment of the rest of our environment, eradicating us probably would be the safer option.

    Sure, if they messed up, en entire generation of child geniuses would be ruined, setting them back a decade or so, but success is all they need,

    OK, a generation of screwed-up geniuses is not a small price to pay. But considering that if the bugs returned, all of those kids would be dead anyway, the only rational choice is to pay it. Whether or not that is the moral choice is left to the reader. I am not convinced the book takes a clear position.

    and time is what they got.

    Not exactly. Although they have the time to find their genius, the plan to attack has to be devised an initiated very quickly in order to be implemented and executed before the bugs return. I think that's an important detail that gets neglected: this was not a carefully considered plan that was dreamt up during the long peaceful absence of the bugs. It was conceived in the wreckage of a decimated human fleet floating in the midst of a still-living bug army that had been stopped through pure luck.

    I don't think that the book outright disagrees with your assessment of it's moral choices. The problem is that, given the scenario, there are no easy alternatives. Maybe you would gamble extinction on diplomacy. Personally, I'm not sure I would.

  4. lofgren Says:

    The thing is that I agree with your interpretation of the motivations of the human/Earth military and government, that they were saying "well we don't know what will happen, so the only answer is to BOMB SHIT NOW!"

    You people are really amazingly forgiving of a race of belligerent, alien monsters who attempted to exterminate the human race for no reason whatsoever.

    I honestly do not get how anyone could not understand why the humans felt like they had no choice. They were up against an enemy who was technologically more advanced, smarter, more organized, better prepared, and, oh yeah, tried to kill us all once already.

    This is like if the Soviet Union cut off all communication, bombed the shit out of the entire west coast, and invaded and occupied the west coast, and the Wolverines were like, "Hey guys, we don't really know what's going to happen here. Let's just walk up to those guys with the machine guns and the Cuban accents who killed our families and see if they want to be friends."

  5. Mark P Says:

    I read EG many years ago and liked it. Like some of the commenters, I found the sequels less satisfying. I had not considered the Randian angle, but I think I can see it, based on what I remember.

    But once I learned who Card was, there was no way I would ever again buy anything he wrote. It's not a matter of separating the artist from his art, it's a matter of not wanting to help enrich this creep in any way.

  6. Pinacacci Says:

    Yeah, what Mark P said. Separating the artist from the art? Sometimes the artist is so loathsome I have no desire whatsoever to explore their oeuvre.

  7. Nick-B Says:

    @ lofgren

    Those are some pretty good points. I suppose I am guilty of basing my reasoning of the overall situation on what I knew about them after the fact, which of course is not how the people in the book knew about things.

    But one odd part of it all was in how the humans completely hid what was the actual cause of winning the first war. They knew that their military leader discovered a central ship, one that when destroyed stopped their entire fleet. This information they knew was significant, yet decided to HIDE such a fact from those who were supposed to be their leaders in the future.

    Regardless, I suppose I can't really judge their actions too harshly. In the end, it ended up being a bad choice (in terms of being "right"), but they had no way of knowing. And yeah, I guess I shouldn't talk as if I am willing to gamble our species extinction over diplomacy, especially after what they went through. In fact, in later books, an identical situation pops up, via the disease on that one planet. Some argued that the disease showed signs of intelligence, but as long as it continued to destroy the humans with no contact possible, there is really no other choice than retaliation.

    I'm depressed now. I've been argued into accepting a genocide, which is one thing that I personally would not want even at the cost of my own life.

    Haha, good talk.

  8. lofgren Says:

    I've been argued into accepting a genocide, which is one thing that I personally would not want even at the cost of my own life.

    If it makes you feel any better, if you are American, I'm pretty sure you're not on the side that committed the genocide.

    Ender's Game should be a wake up call to Americans that if we keep invading other people's countries and killing their families for no good reason, we're going to end up creating a situation where the only rational and natural response is for them to eradicate us without warning.

    In the real world, we're the bugs, not the humans.

  9. Jared Says:

    The biggest plot hole in the novel is the notion that the buggers, after realizing their mistake, did not at any point send a message saying "Our bad. Sorry", and instead left a planet full of spacefaring and really pissed off humans to stew in their rage for a century or so. And once the war was joined, did not make any overt attempt at peaceful communication.

    Oh, and the human invasion was the _third_ war. There were not one but two previous attempts by the buggers to wipe out the human race. Which really would serve to crank the Fleet's paranoia dial up to 11.

    > Ender's Game should be a wake up call to Americans that if we keep invading other people's countries and killing their families for no good reason, we're going to end up creating a situation where the only rational and natural response is for them to eradicate us without warning.

    Yikes. The truly scary part is that I can't really find fault with that line of reasoning.

  10. lofgren Says:

    The biggest plot hole in the novel is the notion that the buggers, after realizing their mistake, did not at any point send a message saying "Our bad. Sorry", and instead left a planet full of spacefaring and really pissed off humans to stew in their rage for a century or so. And once the war was joined, did not make any overt attempt at peaceful communication.

    Correct me if I am misremembering, but as I recall the bugs were so alien that they never really figured out how to communicate with humans, nor vice-versa. It took somebody with Ender's superhuman empathy to be able to understand them. It's sort of like if humans realized that ants had some kind of psychic communication and it was morally wrong to kill them. That realization alone is not enough to allow us to apologize for all the ant traps we've laid over they years.

    (Incidentally, for a kind of cool prequel-of-sorts to Ender's Game, check out Peter Watts' Blindsight. Both of these books portray truly alien aliens, as opposed to funny-looking humans as aliens. Blindsight is the story of a first contact, in a world that could easily have developed into the world of Ender's Game.)

  11. Weird Old Tip Says:

    Interesting thread. The comments after the Salon piece linked to in the OP were also illuminating. For those who don't mind reading Sci Fi & who want to hone their Rand detectors, check out E.E. 'Doc' Smith. Whew.

  12. moderateindy Says:

    Loved Enders game, enjoyed the sequels and Card's other series. Now that I know much more about the Mormon religion I realize that the Alvin Maker series was all about it.
    But I was not aware of Card's religious or political beliefs and am happy I wasn't. The beauty of art is that it is personal. it can mean different things to different people. One of my favorite example of this is from Jerry Garcia when he expressed dismay over the crowd's reaction to a line in a song that to him was supposed to be melancholy, but always was greeted as celebratory. Art is great not because it convey's the message the artist intended, but because of how it speaks to those that consume it.
    I thought that EG's message was about the dilemma faced by earth. A vastly superior enemy that has already shown its willingness to obliterate you is out there, what is the response? Is such a genocide the logical conclusion? Is it justifiable? It is, when only viewed in a context that has limited information. As soon as you learn the truth, the obvious becomes abhorrent. Likewise, does the end justify the means. It didn't feel like it did, especially to the story's hero that was used as an unwitting pawn. Idon't really see it as particularly Randian in nature.

  13. Eric Titus Says:

    "Randian" is an adjective that should be reserved for special cases. Plenty of sci-fi imagines a dystopian future in which large corporations/governments stifle individualism. Often the main character is a skilled loner who resists these organization and thinks outside the box. Throw in a dash of libertarianism and freedom rhetoric and it becomes easy to label most sci-fi as Randian if you just skim the plot. Brazil? Randian. Bladerunner, Heinlein, Card, Gibson? Randian. But given that libertarianism/anarchism clearly crops up in plenty of American (and British) art it's probably important to be able to distinguish between that tendency and proper objectivist rhetoric.

  14. Dael Morris Says:

    dude, Ender's Game is the ultimate Mary Sue fantasy. Ender is secretly cleverer than EVERYBODY and while it LOOKS like he's just playing video games, the truth is he's SAVING THE WORLD. SO THERE, HATERS.

    this is not to say it isn't objectivist. both the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged can be read as Mary Sue style fan fic.

  15. Dael Morris Says:

    also, this:

    http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2011/10/hamlets-father-orson-scott-card-and-the-nightmare-of-the-patriarchal-family.html

    you might not agree with the analysis and conclusions, but the endless repetition of themes is inarguable.

  16. Eddie-O Says:

    I sidestepped reading Ender's Game back in high school, which is just as well since i was also a real sucker for Heinlein back then. I did read his adaptation of The Abyss, which did a pretty wonderful job of filling in the characters by rooting their onscreen behavior in terrible, terrible childhood traumas…

    That does actually speak to a compelling element of Card's work: at his best, he can open up really rotten people and show how they tick, how their own painful and twisted lives have brought them to the point where they make things really suck for other people without any sense of how wrong they are or that they have other choices.

    He should really be writing Lex Luthor.

    Now, if i may direct your attention to the back of the rabbit hole: http://www.kuro5in.org/story/2005/28/22428/7034

  17. Eddie-O Says:

    Dang, I screwed up the link. Just Google "Ordinary Scott Card has always been an asshat"

  18. Metafalcon Says:

    So let me get this straight…

    A vehemently homophobic SF writer writes a book in which humanity is driven to do limitless evil out of a fear of aliens whom they mistakenly believe to be an existential threat, but who ultimately turn out to be harmless. And they're named "buggers."

    To wit:

    [i]There's always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won't reflect the storyteller's true beliefs, it will only reflect what he BELIEVES he believes, or what he thinks he should believe or what he's been persuaded of.

    But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don't even think to question, that you don't even notice– those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.

    –Orson Scott Card[/i]

  19. don Says:

    MetaFalcon – you wrote:

    "A vehemently homophobic SF writer writes a book in which humanity is driven to do limitless evil out of a fear of aliens whom they mistakenly believe to be an existential threat, but who ultimately turn out to be harmless. And they're named "buggers.""

    Indeed. Thanks for noticing. When I read my husband's copies of these a couple of years ago I got confused and had to ask if this was the gaybashing Orson Scott Card, or some other Orson Scott Card. In a subsequent book in the series Ender rescues the Last Queen, I believe, which is just approaching Narnia levels of obvious. In a different age more in need of sideways metaphor, a film of this thing could have been a secret gay classic right up there w/ the Wizard of Oz.

  20. Eric Titus Says:

    Don, that's the sort of insight that makes me glad people invented blogging.

  21. Robert M. Says:

    Answering a week late and after several people have all made the same point, because I'm passively-aggressively rebelling against a boss who think's it's TOTALLY REASONABLE that I'm working at 10:30 on a Friday night.

    Anyway.

    I first read Ender's Game as a kid; I think it would have been fourth grade, which would make me 9 years old. It's not too much to say that it shaped a great deal of my adult thinking about violence, as well as about the American military experiment.

    The first thing that got my attention about it is that I was a highly gifted kid, and subject to both physical and emotional bullying for it, so I empathized strongly with Ender. And while the novel describes a situation where children are terribly abused to get access to what they can do, the children are in a very important sense not powerless. The adults understand that they're special, the adults need them, and the adults listen to them. The kids in Ender's Game were real kids (in the same way that the aliens were actually aliens, not the humans with heavy makeup I watched on Star Trek). All of those things resonated powerfully for me.

    The second major thing was that–at least as I read it–it was a powerful statement on the self-perpetuating tragedy and ultimate futility of violence. Other commenters have said it at least as well, but it's a situation where every step mankind takes apparently makes sense. And then there's the final, unfathomable revelation of the effect of the "Little Doctor", which unravels the entire chain of rational military decisions and shows them clearly as fundamentally the same as every one of Ender's other, more personal experiences with violence: cruel and awful things that leave everyone involved including Ender exhausted, violated, and less than they were before.

    That is, that violence can be entirely justified and still wrong. The idea had never occurred to me before I read Ender's Game, and it's still with me more than 20 years later.

    I can't honestly square that with the man who, in 2013, believes that the federal government's failure to violently enforce his religious convictions about other people's sexytimes is grounds for violent insurrection. And, honestly, I'm not even interested in trying; I continue to value the lessons my very young self learned from Ender's Game too much to wreck them by trying to incorporate Card's warped vision of the world today.

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