Brace yourselves–I’ve come to praise Orson Scott Card (sort of).
This uncharacteristic outburst of charity was spurred by Rany Jayazerli’s lovely article in Grantland, which tells of Jazayerli’s teenage love for sci-fi and particular happiness when he finds a scene in Ender’s Game in which a Muslim boy becomes friends with our hero Ender. Jazayerli comments on an aspect of the book that doesn’t often come up—that Card’s creepy kiddie war school was a multicultural creepy kiddie war school. That doesn’t sound like much, but hear me out.
Back in the ancient days of yore, I took a class on science fiction and fantasy, where the students were assigned a bunch of classics of the genre, as defined by the one professor allowed to teach genre fiction. We read a lot of Ursula Le Guin, which ruled, and we read Ender’s Game, and more books–which remember were all supposed to be the best the genre could offer, not just as works of entertainment but as works of art.
The book closest to Ender’s Game in content (which I will loosely define as “shit happening in space”) was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Mote in God’s Eye. This book was one of the ur-texts of sci-fi, we were told.
Mote in God’s Eye was also the damn worst. The plot involved some lame-ass humans trying to stop an alien invasion. These lame-ass humans included the stolid white hero, the sexy white daughter of an important white dude, the shady Middle Eastern guy, all of who live in some society that despite multiple space wars is based upon the British feudal system. I can’t remember any other characters—a glance at the book’s Wikipedia page reveals there was a Scottish engineer, named Jock of all things, and I think there was a maverick scientist who was an awesome genius kept down by the man. I remember feeling a deep anger toward this book, partly because the alien civilization seemed genuinely interesting, yet the authors had no interest in exploring it other than in figuring out how it could be stopped in order to prop up their shitty, stereotypical new earth. It was as if somebody presented you with a box of really cool toys and then gave you a piece of paper with stick figures with crowns on them and told you that that was the only toy you could have and the real fun was in figuring out how to protect yourself from engaging with all the cool toys. Niven and Pournelle’s toybox sucked.
Mote in God’s Eye had no human characters of any skin color other than white person and pale tan (even the evil Semitic guy had European ancestry). The one female human character didn’t do anything other than act nice, cower, and make the white hero’s dick rise. Personally, I don’t feel particularly angry about this lack of representation–probably because of a lack of interest in hard military sci-fi, to the point where I’m prejudiced against the genre itself. I read it and think oh, no, only white straight male characters get to have cheesy-ass space adventures wherein gadgetry is described in interminable detail, what a shame. Everyone else is sure missing out!
Then again, not everyone is me and has an irrational hatred for military sci-fi. Not everyone is reading these books at the age of twenty-one, with a head full of third-wave feminist studies classes and contrariness. Some people are reading these books at the age of thirteen and are looking for what a version of what comic artist Cathy Leamy calls the paper mirror—some sort of reflection of themselves. Something that says that yes, I can be a hero, something that says, yes, I belong in this world. You’re reading this book and you’re thirteen years old or twenty-three years old or fifty-three years old and you feel alone and you empathize with the heroes and want to go on their adventures in their awesome world, and then suddenly it hits you. Wait, this author thinks I’m not a real person. If I was there, I would be screaming and frightened, something for the real people to take care of and make fun of and, if I was attractive, want to breed children on. Or I would be evil. I would always be set against the real people, because of where I was born and what I look like, and my culture that means that I’m not worthy of respect or trust. Or I wouldn’t be there at all. Nobody who looks like me, thinks like me, talks like me, can enter the world of the real people.
So, I have to give credit to Orson Scott Card and his Ender’s Game for helping Rany Jayazerli feel slightly less alone, like he had a space in the shared imagination–letting him enter into the world of the “real people.” I really shouldn’t have to give Card credit, because why the fuck would only white people be in space,* but compared to the rest of the military sci-fi and space opera available then… well, Card wasn’t idiotically racist. Damning with faint praise, but the praise is there.