Saturday, August 16, 2008

Complaints and Grievances: Sympathy for the Superman

Thanks to, I've just recently been exposed to Elaine Radford's essay on the parallels between Ender Wiggin, protagonist of Ender's Game, and Adolf Hitler. The author makes a number of solid points, and the comparison is certainly food for thought; nevertheless, I felt that both Radford and the critic to whom she links, John Kessel, misrepresent a couple of details in the book to belabor their points about the iniquity of Card's morality. This would offend me considerably less were it not for Radford's reply to her readers' most common protest. When asked why it must be true that Card drew the Hitler comparison intentionally - why the book cannot just be science fiction, with nothing but innocent coincidence to tie in the Fuhrer - Radford replies that she has done Card the courtesy of assuming he's not an idiot. It follows, then, that she feels her evidence so complete - her argument so convincing - that Card must really have been a moron to miss it. The book must be read the way she has read it, and if it was not meant to be so, the author is grossly incompetent.

I'm far from thinking things are so clear-cut as all that, and at risk of defending Card - whose long-standing views on gay marriage have served to expose serious problems with his morality - I feel obligated to temper criticism of Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead along these lines. I'm not much of an internet detective, and so have not been able to track down Card's rebuttal to Radford's original essay - if (as I have regrettably little reason to doubt) she is representing it more or less accurately in her own retrospective, he acquitted himself poorly and may not deserve my assistance at all. I firmly believe, however, that one can read these texts more innocently than Radford and Kessel have, and arrive at a more positive moral conclusion.

My complaints have much more to do with Radford's essay than Kessel's, and so I'll begin with the Hitler comparison that Radford feels she has drawn so conclusively. The problems with her analysis of the books begin right away, in "The Formative Years" - wherein she labels Ender's relationship with Valentine as "quasi-incestuous" and notes that "Card makes us wait until well into the second novel before he tells us that Ender hasn't consummated his love for Valentine." This is a particularly misleading piece of writing, intended to make us assume that Ender - like Hitler - consciously attempted to commit incest and was later revealed not to have been successful. In truth, if Card waits until the second book to make this fact explicit it is because there has never been the slightest reason to assume it - "quasi-incestuous" is about the strongest phrasing one could reasonably use, and I've never met a single reader who believed at any point in the reading that Ender and Valentine's relationship was sexual. It is perhaps closer than one might expect, but it's difficult to fault Ender for that - given his difficulty believing that anyone else in the universe understands him.

Likewise, "Ender's chastity until his marriage at the age of 37" is not puzzling - not at all, to anyone really familiar with the book. By the time of the events in Speaker for the Dead, Ender's life for two decades has been private and nomadic, with no more than a couple of years spent on each individual planet. Through relativistic faster-than-light travel, he has passed about three thousand years in this fashion, and any prospective mates would have to be willing to travel the universe with him, forsaking all other serious human relationships - as would any children of the union. The necessary state of secrecy in which Ender lives precludes any serious intimacy - not to mention that there may simply be some Christian disdain for premarital sex at work here. A marriage has not at any point in Ender's life been a serious possibility, and any premarital relations would pose problems both for the logic and the story and for Card's Mormonism (which is not the topic of our current discussion). No puzzle whatsoever.

It also seems premature to leap to Hitler's life again when Ender's choice of wife presents a mystery. First of all, allow me to say here that I hate Novinha - I find her a repulsive, frustrating character and deeply regretted Ender's love for her. With that said, I'm not sure it's my place to fault Card's writing just because I question Ender's taste in women. In fact, I'm forced to conclude that their compatibility makes a certain amount of sense - Novinha's self-destructiveness, after all, comes from immense guilt. Nobody understands the lengths to which people will go to erase guilt better than Ender.

Further problematizing the accusations of misogyny is Radford's misreading of the Marcao eulogy. First of all, in the full text of Ender's speech, it is clear that it's not the Victim that is to blame for Marcao's psychology - it is the entire community, which has treated him like an animal. Second of all, the intention of Speaking for the Dead is not to demand forgiveness for their actions - it is to demand sympathy for their motives, and to demonstrate that all people are understandable to themselves. Given a strong enough voice, Card argues, even the worst offenders could explain their actions in a way that would give us pause. Not forgive, not justify - explain.

This, indeed, is my primary criticism of Kessel's essay, which I nevertheless consider by far the stronger of the two. Indeed, Kessel's description of the book's probable appeal to adolescents strikes me as largely accurate - it was certainly my reaction to first reading Ender's Game in seventh grade, and the reaction of many of my peers. There are, however, two reasons that the situation may not be as dire as Kessel claims.

The first reason is that, while they may certainly idolize Ender, few if any adolescents are going to confuse his reality with their own. The intelligent, introspective people that make up much of sci-fi fandom are unlikely to conclude that their situation is the same as Ender's - Ender lives in a world where adults undoubtedly abuse him, his peers unquestionably want to kill him, and his actions have certainly been obfuscated, their true ramifications unknown until they are irreversible. While this may, as Kessel points out, be stacking the moral deck unfairly in Ender's favor, that very fact renders the book Mostly Harmless - its world is too far removed from our own, even if its psychology is not. Children may all want to be Messianic Supermen in Battle School, but few seriously believe themselves to be.

(Aside: this may undermine my earlier point, but the deck is also not stacked quite as radically as Kessel thinks. For example, writing about Ender's fight with Bonzo Madrid, Kessel argues that "Ender’s enemies don’t care about the human race, all they want is their own revenge." In fact, the passage he describes is much clearer in context: Ender's enemies do not want to believe he is the savior of the human race. They are not merciless demons bent on world destruction; they are blinded by envy.)

The second reason is that, as stated above, I feel the same texts can be read in a more mature light by reasonable adults (and young adults, many of whom in my personal acquaintance have successfully reached an insightful stage of moral development). Taken together, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead make a convincing case for the internal logic of human morality: that all people think they are right, and you would too if you were them. The Speaker's role, in Ender's universe, is not to exonerate evildoers - it is to present morality as a truth about which there can be many perspectives, each with its own validity if properly understood. Note that Ender's penance, after he commits genocide, is not to write in his own defense - it is to write in defense of the Buggers and Peter, to make human beings out of both his faceless enemies and his greatest tormentor. It is to prevent human beings from practicing unconditional hatred against anyone, no matter how seemingly vile. The two books, taken together, represent Ender's eulogy - written, in a sense, by his Speaker for the Dead.

The notion that human motive can have no bearing on absolute morality may well be the correct premise on which to base an ethical or legal system - it is, however, nothing with which the majority of human beings can sympathize, and the broadness of Card's appeal may well lie in the tolerance and empathy these books preach. Whether Card himself is tolerant or empathetic is a discussion for another day; the interpretation I have outlined here is possible either way, and is shared by a majority of readers in my acquaintance. The bottom line: all human beings believe their actions are correct, and could tell you why. That this applies to those we hate as well as to those we revere is no reason to discount its clear validity.

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