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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Orson Scott Card's Ender books

Orson Scott Card is one of the giants of present-day fantastic literature. The Wikipedia article on him says that he is the only author to ever win both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards in the same year, two years in a row.
I believe that I have read all but one of the books by Card that are set in the so-called Enderverse. There are, so far, four books in the Ender series, and four in the Shadow series, and, also several short stories. I wish to do four things in this post. (Ender is a nickname given to Andrew Wiggin, the central character of the Enderverse, by his sister, when both of them were young. It also can take the meaning of "one who ends something.")

First, I often post about religious aspects of fantastic literature. (See here for the most important such post, which links to several others.) Card is a Mormon. I am far from an expert on Mormonism. As I understand it, its adherents place considerable value on the family unit. That comes through in Card's books. They are as much books about family dynamics and relationships as they are about novel ideas and far planets. There are at least four families of importance in the Ender books, with Ender, his sister and his brother being one such. Both Ender and his sister also become part of another significant family.

There are religions in some of the Ender books. In Speaker for the Dead, the humans on the planet Lusitania are from Brazil, and they practice a form of Catholicism. There are hints of the practice of some oriental religions in the books.

There are ideas about the relationship between matter, or body, and spirit, which are prominent. They may come from Mormonism, or Card, like many another writer before him, may have just made them up. These ideas are part of a helpful Wikipedia article on "Concepts in the Ender's Game series." See the sections on Philote and Philotic Web. The article, and Card, present these ideas as physics -- The Way Things Are, not as religion per se, but, like real physics, they have religious implications. In this case, the implications are related to the nature of the soul, and its immortality.

Second, I wish to commend Card for what has been called the Hierarchy of Exclusion, introduced in Speaker for the Dead, and used in his later novels. What is a hierarchy of exclusion? It is a classification of intelligent beings, based on how well we understand them, or could understand them. The terms, which Card mostly took from Swedish, are useful in fantastic literature, much like Ursula Le Guin's invention of the concept of an ansible is. I don't know if anyone but Card has used them in fiction. Ansible has been used by more than Le Guin. Both Card's terms, and Le Guin's, may someday become a reality. Some stage from Card's Hierarchy should be immediately applicable if we encounter another species somewhere. One of the books, Xenocide, has a title which comes from one possible way of dealing with another species -- Ender, himself, unwittingly was almost a Xenocide -- he nearly wiped out another intelligent species.

In C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, there are three intelligent non-human species on Malacandra -- Mars. All of them could be called ramen, in relation to humans. They, and the humans, are capable of communication and co-existence.

Third, I wish to comment briefly on Card's biology. Card creates sub-creations with bizarre means of reproduction, or, perhaps better put, means of establishing a new generation. One such is the diggers, of his Homecoming Saga. (The link does not explain this biology, and I'm not going to try, either.)

In the Ender books, there are two other important species, the buggers, or Formics and the piggies, or Pequininos. The buggers are something like intelligent wasps, bees or ants, with a queen, and sterile workers. The species is propagated from colony to colony by queen producing queen. (I don't recall a "male" bugger mentioned in the books.) The piggies are even more un-human in their propagation. When a piggie dies, or is sacrificed, and properly prepared, that creature becomes a tree. There are, actually, two kinds of trees, mother-trees and father-trees, and new piggies begin their existence in the mother-trees. As I said, Card can be bizarre.

Card also uses a so-called virus, the Descolada virus, which is of extra-terrestrial origin, quasi-intelligent, and able to make fundamental changes in the biology of the species it infects. It can infect humans. Card doesn't explain how a microscopic parasite can have enough information, or information processing ability, to be even quasi-intelligent. Another example of strange biology.

Fourth, a little about Children of the Mind, the fourth book in the Ender series.

Ender is, by now, about 3,000 years old, earth time. He is, physiologically, a mature adult. He has done so much near-light-speed travel that he finds himself millenia from the time of his origin. His sister, Valentine, has done much the same thing, much of it with Ender. Both of them have married. Valentine has children of her own, and Ender has married into an  intelligent, and deeply dysfunctional family of Lusitanians. Their brother, Peter, who was, in his time, a vicious bully, then the wise leader of the human planets, is long dead. Jane, a conscious being who lives, as it were, in the unused processing time of the computers used by humans on many planets, is a key character. She is capable of moving containers large enough to hold several humans at a time to other planets, with no time elapsed. Jane's processing power is so great that she uses Ender's mind to construct a new Valentine, with a personality like that Ender remembers from his youth, and a new Peter, again a young man. Ender finally dies, and Peter takes on his personality and memories. With various members of Ender's and Valentine's families, and with the help of piggies and their trees, and the hive queen, Lusitania foils an attempt, by all the other planets with humans, to destroy it entirely. The new Peter, and his wife, and Jane, now in a human body, are left to continue their lives.

In some ways, the Ender books resemble the Hyperion series, by Dan Simmons, also an award winner, where intelligent entities live in the unused computer processing capacity of the computers run by humans, and it is possible for computers to bring about instantaneous travel between planets.

There are moral questions in the book. How to treat other species is one. How to deal honestly with family problems, and forgive, is another. There is, I would say, much more conversation than action, although there is a lot of action, domestic, interplanetary, scientific.

Orson Scott Card has a splendid imagination. He deserved his awards. Thanks for reading.


Seth R. said...

You mentioned Mormonism's influence on Orson Scoot Card. I thought you might find it interesting that his "Homecoming" series is basically a sci-fi retelling of the first couple portions of the Book of Mormon - 1 and 2 Nephi (or "Nafai" as the main character is called in the novels).

You might also find this article from Orson Scott Card (where he describes his faith's influence on his writing) interesting:

Just read the first section if you're interested in his description of the Book of Mormon influence on his writing. The rest of the article (the majority) consists solely of his reasons for why he thinks the Book of Mormon is valid, and you can skip that part if you're not interested.

George said...

I have a story about Orson Scott Card. He is from Greensboro, NC, where I lived for most of my life. Each Christmas season for several years, I sang in the Greensboro Oratorio Society's presentation of Handel's Messiah. It was a volunteer chorus, and there were probably a hundred or more voices. One year, I noticed that the program told me I was singing beside a man named Orson Scott Card. In retrospect, this seems curious, since he is a Mormon. At any rate, we were at the dress rehearsal, and the chorus was having a difficult time keeping up with the beat of the conductor. When the conductor stopped in frustration, Card spoke up and shouted to the conductor, "Since there are a hundred of us and only one of you, why don't you try following us instead of us following you?" A very pregnant silence ensued, and every singer in the general vicinity wanted to choke him. The conductor was very gracious and handled himself well. That's my recollection of Orson Scott Card.

BruceA said...

I love Card's writing. He manages to give his characters a depth that I don't see in most fiction, and he places them in situations where they must wrestle with moral dilemmas. I've had my own views challenged more than once while reading Card's work.

Thanks for this post.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, BruceA.

Mormon or not, he puts his characters in serious moral dilemmas. It's no wonder he's won some important awards.