July 25th, 2013


An Open Letter to PT Black: On the subject of Ender's Game

All right, PT, you asked for it! :-) I like Rebecca Onion's "delay watching Ender's Game for at least two weeks to game the numbers" solution quite a bit, as I've been wrestling with the selfsame issues. Should we boycott the Ender's Game movie because of Orson Scott Card's vocal opposition to gay marriage? Card rankles. He's an ass. His positions are indefensible. Even more than whether or not I see the film, I'm with you: I'm concerned with how his subjectivity impacts my understanding of/ enjoyment of the original.

I'm about 90% on the side of "the author's opinions should not impact your enjoyment of the work." But that's very different from "the author's opinions should not impact your understanding of the work." Or is it?

I keep coming back to feminist standpoint epistemology, and the way that it has encouraged feminist critics to identify themselves as specifically as possible (age, race, gender affiliations, nationality, economic background), instead of invoking the "universal narrative voice". The argument is that such a voice is inherently hegemonic, in that it ties a complex social experience to a fictitious unseen authority designed to bolster the impression of the text as "truth", rather than leaving space open for the reader, and encouraging interaction with the author as a fallible human and with the text as a cultural artifact.

Card's story is all about authority. It is all about tapping into these Western cultural pseudouniversals. Ender is the Underestimated Genius Cis Male Child. His battles are epic, grand. And because Card shies away from gay male sex (which would be an obvious topic to address in the mostly-male military environment he depicts), his work does not give voice to the issue. Much. Though there's always Shen, an Asian recruit mocked "because he wriggles. Look how he shimmies his butt when he walks." Whether or not Shen is gay, he's doing gender wrong, and Ender defends him against his attackers.

Who are we as readers? Because of the cultures you and I are in, we respond wholeheartedly to Card's story of a young genius, and we root to see Ender succeed. It is a success story, and the terms of that success, and of our own enjoyment of a very specific type of victory, are what is interesting. How can we annoy Card by using the text to interrogate our own stance as readers? (Marxist resistance?)

On the face of it, Ender's Game is a military success story in which a puny, absurdly young male genius, Ender, outkills all the brawny alpha males that compete with him. All the while Ender protests that he doesn't want to be a killer. ("I didn't want to hurt him! Why didn't he just leave me alone?") Ender is figured as the "happy medium" between his sister Valentine (mild and wise) and Peter (his equally intelligent but cruel older brother). Ender is a rare third child in an overpopulated world. His birth was requisitioned by the military (the International Fleet, or IF) precisely because they hoped for a happy medium between the first- and second-born geniuses. From birth Ender is groomed to become the leader of the upcoming invasion against the "buggers". The buggers, an alien race, led a previous failed assault against the human race, and were stopped only by the last-minute intervention of a genius soldier named Mazer Rackham. The buggers are coming back for more, and against their superior numbers and technology, the military believes the only hope for humanity is another singular genius like Mazer Rackham. The military's lackeys, including the remote but occasionally sympathetic Graff, do their best to create what they perceive as the best conditions to make Ender the ultimate killer and savior of the human race -- incidentally along the way setting Ender up for a miserable existence. Ender is both the Chosen One of the establishment, and the one with the establishment against him -- a neat hat trick. In the long run the government's strategy is proven to be "correct" by the success of their venture -- in a hyped-up video game that turns out not to be a simulation at all, Ender succeeds in eradicating the distant and unseen Other in an act of inadvertent genocide. Yes, you read that right, inadvertent genocide.

A quote: "Of course we tricked you into it. That's the whole point," said Graff. "It had to be a trick or you couldn't have done it. It's the bind we were in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs."

So in other words, it's the story of a young boy whose entire existence is contingent on the will of the distant, dispassionate, survivalist International Military. Everything is justified by the genetic will to survive. (The text is peppered with references to genes and biological determinism. Ender asks if the military school's all boys -- the answer? "A few girls. They don't often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them." Or Graff, on fighting the buggers: "When it comes down to it, though, the real decision is inevitable; If one of us has to be destroyed, let's make damn sure we're the ones alive at the end. Our genes won't let us decide any other way. Nature can't evolve a species that hasn't a will to survive.") Ender's "success", and the subsequent approval of the IF, is in fact the culmination of a monumental mind-rape of a child soldier whose every motion has been controlled from the get-go. His will has been stolen from him. At the same time it's also the ultimate paternalistic approval story, because at no point is the real establishment undermined or even proven incorrect, even though Ender battles against many lesser morons. Even Graff's efforts to go easy on Ender are proven to be incorrect, and the brutal strategy of the "higher-ups" wins out.

And yet in some ways Card has written a book which destabilizes itself. People from all walks of life enjoyed and identified with Ender. Some of them are the people that Card hates most. And perhaps he even encouraged the thing he fears most -- identification/ empathy with the underdog, the people forced outside the cultural norm. It's actually one of the things feminist criticism encourages us to do -- rather than throwing away the hegemonic texts, destabilize them. Find the cracks, the throwaway words, the points of identification. Own the texts. Instead of permitting the original author's views to pollute the text, pollute it yourself in his (in this case) view by an uncomfortable identification. Tell your story with it! You see where I'm going with this. Power and pollution! Foucault! Identification!

In many ways I'm supremely uncomfortable with the fact that I enjoyed the story as a fifteen-year-old reader. Wholeheartedly, unreservedly. However, I can refigure my point of identification with the text, and this is the truth -- the specifics of Ender's success meant nothing to me. As far as my enjoyment was concerned, as a fat, Jewish, female feminist reader, I rooted for the underdog. I rooted for someone on the outside who learned to be the best. Someone with the odds stacked against him. I was interested in the smart details of gravity-free strategy gaming. I supported every victory of mind over brute force. Irony, I know, considering the outcome.

To my fifteen-year-old self, the monumentally offscreen and distanced nature of the war's climax scene only served to underscore its irrelevance to the primary narrative which interested me -- the young geek's win. To myself now, that displacement is in fact the locus of some of my most profound discomfort with the text. A 25-paragraph genocide is followed by an encounter with a single remaining hive queen cocoon who simultaneously reinforces Ender's innocence, the justified nature of his attack, and apologizes for the crimes of her race. Like Ender, she didn't mean to kill -- she just did not perceive humans as intelligent because they did not communicate mind-to-mind like buggers. Ender becomes the Chosen One all over again -- as the destroyer of her race (and it's no accident she is female), she looks to Ender to permit her to be born so that she can repopulate her species. It is unexplained how Ender, as the single killer of their race, is the sole being able to "hear" her telepathic communications. She welcomes the new influx of human colonizers with forgiveness as "guestfriends" and encourages them to populate the now empty worlds left by the killings (incidentally solving humanity's overpopulation problem). Of course her permission and welcome aren't necessary as Graff has become the new Minister of Colonization, saying humans will colonize "as soon as we get the reports back on the bugger colony worlds. I mean, there they are, already fertile, with housing and industry in place, and all the buggers dead. Very convenient." Convenient indeed. Ender becomes the "Speaker for the Dead" and gives the queen a human voice.

Ender's sister Valentine reminds us that Buggers aren't very interesting: "Ender, what's done is done. Their worlds are empty now, and ours is full. And we can take with us what their worlds have never known -- cities full of people who live private, individual lives, who love and hate each other for their own reasons. In all the bugger worlds, there was never more than a single story to be told; when we're there, the world will be full of stories, and we'll improvise their endings day by day." So despite the idea that Buggers were tragic equals (if only a kiss had been the first action instead of a kill), in fact they are the ultimate colonized, offering an almost Biblical rebirth for humanity. At the same time, Ender becomes the bearer of any hope for resurrection.

Yes, a most uncomfortable text. And so we get back to understanding vs. enjoyment. Is it possible to understand Ender's Game, and to enjoy it? Difficult. And yet, underdog readers are no stranger to taking parts of texts and identifying with them, finding spaces for resistance inside of texts. . . and I think it can be done. . . And if it brings Card's pernicious subjectivity to the forefront of our thoughts, all the better.

Thoughts welcomed!