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Card rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Card rant
riah_chan asked for a rant about Orson Scott Card.

I already ranted about the Gary Stu-ing of Bean in the Shadow series (toward the bottom of the essay), so I'll avoid that. I'm also not interested in ranting on his personal politics, which--despite his characterization as an arch-conservative--really are just... conservative. Except on economics, where he's a decided Democrat who has little patience with laissez-faire policies. He has a column in which he writes about his politics, just as I have a journal where I can write about mine. The difference (I hope) is that my fiction and my politics are at best cordial acquaintances. My ingrained beliefs show up in my fiction because they're part of how I think, but I don't write fiction in order to demonstrate them. But more on that when I get to what I am going to rant about.

The other thing I'm not going to rant about are the single culture worlds of Starways Congress. I've heard people go on about that--"Like there would be a Chinese world where people were living some mythical Chinese ethnicity in a futuristic world!"

Shrug. What the SC worlds strike me as--which seems to be confirmed in the set up for the never-realized Eutopia collection, in which only Resnick's Kirinyaga seems to have been finished, but which seemed to be a more explicit study of an SC-like system of culturally designed worlds--are worlds formed by intellectuals and admirers who applied to the government for the explicit purpose of trying to start such colonies, followed by people who thought, "Oh, cool!" And proceeded to deliberately create a vision of what they perceived as the "proper" culture. It's the ethnic neighborhoods of the Northeast writ large, a great big faux Irish pub with tin whistle bands on Tuesday night, or the Italian festival in north Buffalo with every kind of pasta known to man. It seems to be something that people do naturally enough, and it doesn't look like most of the planets have huge populations, so the population centers that grew up around the initial founding would most likely still be the major influences. And of course, people can leave if they don't like it, and probably do, which is what makes it different from a static population. At any rate, the SC worlds always seemed to make sense to me. I made up a Jewish for fun called Galut (capital, Yavneh), where the founders had opted to go for a Talmudic type of culture... or how they perceived such a culture in rose-colored retrospect, at any rate, which is exactly what I think Path was to Chinese Buddhism.

Card's problem is that more and more as the years have gone on, his books have gone from stories that happen in his head as a by-product of how he thinks and believes to crafted parables trying to explain what he thinks and believes. Instead of telling the story of a bright and lonely child (later, a bright and lonely man), the characters begin behaving as mouthpieces in order to explore questions which, while interesting, are often rather cold. When the twin aiua children appeared, it could have been a good opportunity to explore issues of identity (and I will say, there was a great moment in Children of the Mind when the aiua!Valentine and real Valentine realized that Ender was bored with them--that was human and painful). But neither of the "children" really asked questions. Peter was better at it than Val because he had a more interesting identity issue--he was supposed to be the one who was all of Ender's most-loathed qualities, but he was the one in whom Ender was most interested--but even there, he didn't seem especially passionate.

More to the point, Ender himself, along with poor Novinha (who may have been unpleasant, but did not deserve the patsy-ization she got!), really go the short shrift. He has an unhappy marriage to Novinha, so they both go off and join a married convent, then he's bored with her and himself, so he decides to shuck off the body he has and move to another one which might or might not have his memories, and this is somehow interpreted as both death and living and...

You see where it's starting to get messy?

Now, had the question of whether or not aiua!Peter become fully Ender been raised, it would have been one thing (and I'm sure that switching to a new body would end up being a legitimate cause for anullment, if the issue was the new marriage), but no--it was briefly brought up and then abruptly dropped. Peter keeps the name "Peter," but we don't find out how much "Ender" he is... except, of course, that he can apparently work miracles and is never, ever wrong.

That's the other thing.

Both Ender's Game and Seventh Son were about very talented young boys, but in both cases, the boys were human. Ender didn't make a lot of military mistakes, but he couldn't puzzle out his brother, was homesick for his family, and wasn't especially good at making friends. Alvin was close to his family, but careless and occasionally selfish (though he was trying not to be), and a realistic kid who complained about school and fidgeted in church. Ender grows up into a haunted man who is despised by everyone and finally finds a home in a family that's as broken as he is. Alvin grows into a headstrong young man who tends to do stupid things.

And then, um, they become plaster saints. Not very good plaster, either. It's all crumbly and starting to get moldy. Ender ultimately passes into pure spirit form, while Alvin becomes someone who is never, ever responsible for the misfortunes that befall him. He's always doing the right thing.

The same flattening of character occurs with the "bad" brothers, Peter and Calvin. The brilliant and complex Peter Wiggin of Ender's Game--who once, after an afternoon of cruelly tormenting his brother, stood over the presumably sleeping Ender and said, "I'm sorry. I know how it feels. I'm sorry. I'm your brother. I love you"--is gone, replaced by someone who only exists to use others and aggrandize himself. He's no longer seeking the self-control that he wept and begged Valentine to provide, nor does he seem to think he should. It's not an issue anymore, and the implication seems to be that we're meant to think he was playing Val in the first place. The Cally Miller who promises that he "doesn't never wish [Alvin] dead" and wishes he could be Alvin is replaced by a snotty man who has no higher goals at all. In both cases, it would be one thing if it was a change in behavior behind which the old personality was creating a conflict, but that's not how Card is playing it. He's playing it as though the sympathetic moments were never there.

In the case of both the good guys and the bad guys, what he's basically done is reverse character development. People who started out as fully realized and believable have become cardboard cut outs who exist to represent various strains of thought which are sharply delineated as either good or bad. I couldn't even make it through The Crystal City, though, so maybe it was all rectified and Calvin and Alvin started acting like human people again.

And shall we talk about the women? Er, no, maybe not. Like the boys, they get the reverse characterization treatment. Peggy Larner in Seventh Son was a wonderfully believable girl, and Novinha's first scene with Pipo in Speaker for the Dead is terrific. They're specifically put in to become the wives of the heroes eventually, so their stories are given weight and their personalities established as good matches. Then they get progressively flatter. It's like watching a Macy's balloon deflate. Now, Petra Arkanian is getting the same treatment. It's like they grow up and suddenly stop being who they are, which is surprising in an author who said in a nonfictional setting that he remembers how he thought and felt as a child and didn't think it was significantly different from the way he thought and felt as an adult, or, more specifically, that it didn't feel different to him to think and feel that way. So what's with the Plaster Gods (and demons) and their Stepford Wives? Isn't the marriage (or enmity) more interesting when it's between the same two people it was originally intended to between, and not between pod people who look like them?

It's not that he's lost it. He did very well when he went back to his roots with the "First Meetings" stories. It's just...

He's stuffed his characters into corsets, and they can't breathe!
6 comments or Leave a comment
mamadeb From: mamadeb Date: February 1st, 2005 07:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I just finished reading The Crystal City, mostly because we picked it up at Arisia. I couldn't get through Heartfire at all.

I agree with you about the flattening, and I'm not going to worry about Card's politics.

But I was going to rant a bit on The Crystal City and what I think are unconscious racial prejudices. It's that the three "races" - Whites, Reds and Blacks - have different *intrinsic* magic. The Whites have "knacks" - they have "knacks" even if they're reared in a religion that doesn't believe in them and they either consider them evil or deny their very existence. This is what tells me they're intrinsic, not cultural. And while knacks are not unique to any one person, there is considerable variety.

On the other hand, the other two groups each have the same magic, and in the case of Reds, it's *fragile* - if they choose to live a different way of life, they lose it. The Blacks require outside aid - small sacrifices. While some whites use tools - dowsers, for example - others just involve tools - cooking or weaving or barrelmaking. And some don't even require that. And whites don't lose their knacks.

More than that, a child who is half Black and half White has a knack, as if the White trumps the Black. It's a powerful one that was diluted when extra White (from Alvin) was added to the mix, but it's clearly White magic.

(Oh, and, no, they stay cardboard.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 1st, 2005 08:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
The impression I got in Red Prophet was that the difference in the way people practice magic is cultural rather than a matter of belief or intrinsic nature (per se), though it's still irritating--that Europeans use magic to do small manipulations of the world to make it work to their own advantage, Native use the magic to create a kind of wholistic world, and Africans do magic on one another by means of physical objects--there's no reason that one can't learn the others (Alvin does), but the way it's used is culturally ingrained. Arthur Stuart was raised by a white family, so he was accustomed to thinking in terms of a knack.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 1st, 2005 08:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
(The reason it annoys me is because Card's suggestion is that this is true of everything, not just magic--whites, in his view, do nothing but try to manipulate and kill nature to suit their own needs, etc, etc. The cultural stereotyping, regardless of the intrinsicness of the skills, irritates me.)
jetamors From: jetamors Date: February 1st, 2005 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's it exactly. I remember putting down the last Ender book (Xeno-something?) and thinking, there's lots of cool ideas here, but it's all jumbled together and the characters are just there to act them out. *sighs* Card, like McCaffrey, doesn't seem to be good at the Art of the Sequel.
From: pyxidis Date: February 2nd, 2005 01:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I think you hit the issue on the nose about SC's lack of ability to write a sequel. Both the Ender/Shadow and the Alivin Maker series have been mention, but the same hold true for the Memory of Earth Series, they get progressivly worse as the series continues. (The exception for this series is the last of the book, which is better, but only because he leaves the old characters behind and jumps ahead a few hundred years.)

I have much more enjoyed his stand alone novels, such as Treason, Homebody, Songmaster ect.
riah_chan From: riah_chan Date: February 2nd, 2005 02:09 am (UTC) (Link)
I can totally see all that you are saying there. On the later books, it just doesn't seem like he is trying as hard with the characters. I do enjoy 'Ender's Shadow' even if Bean gets turned into a Stu... the way he's characterized hit buttons that make me like him. The later Shadow books I don't like as much but I still like 'Ender's Shadow'.

Have you read his Women of Genesis books? I've read them in that last few months and enjoyed them very much... I don't necessarily agree with the veiws but they are really interesting and he seems to have done his research.

Thank you for the great rant!

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