People vs Ideas: What Orson Scott Card’s Ender Saga Has Taught Me About My Own Writing

Well, I’ve been reading more Orson Scott Card. I wrote a post about Speaker for the Dead but ultimately decided against publishing it. It veered into the unproductive snarky, borderline-lecturing sort of content that I’m kind of sick of reading myself, and it’s not the kind of thing I want to put out in the world. It was a scathing interpretation and not a particularly productive one. I will say that I absolutely consider it to be the second worst book that I have ever read.

I should explain what I mean by that, because there are, objectively speaking, worse novels. But I try to judge books by what they set out to do and whether they accomplish it. Speaker for the Dead is an ambitious work, and because it sets out with loftier goals, it also has further to fall where it fails. So for example, I wouldn’t say that Charlaine Harris is a great writer, but Dead Until Dark is more successful at accomplishing what it sets out to do than Speaker is. The fact that I don’t like what Harris is attempting to do really says more about my preferences as a reader, than it does about her as a writer.

At any rate, after finishing Speaker I was about ready to give up on Card’s books, and certainly reading about some of his political positions does not make him amenable to me as a person, although it does put a new and fascinating light on the subtext of his work. But then I went to a library sale and found a copy of Xenocide for 50 cents, and I thought, what the hey, let’s give it a go.

And I’ve enjoyed reading this book. It presents a lot of intriguing ideas—as I was reading, I found myself copying down interesting quotes all over the place. This is a book that asks a lot of big questions, and even where I disagreed with the conclusions that Card draws in the text, I can appreciate how the book forced me into examining why I disagree with those ideas. There’s something to be said about diving into works you don’t really like or exposing yourself to ideologies you really disagree with. Examining a different world view really forces you to examine your own and I can appreciate the value of that even if I disagree with Card’s politics.

As I have been working more on my own writing, I have found it useful to examine what it is about Card’s writing that it both intrigues me and annoys the holy-living-bejeezus out of me, since understanding what I want as a reader is a good starting point for what I want to accomplish as a writer. I think I can distill it down to this—Card writes about ideas, and sometimes he writes about ideas about people, but he does not write about people as people.

In Ender’s Game this kind of works, because so much of the characterization of Ender is about his isolation. Within that isolation, the kind of inner-monologue analysis going on makes sense for that character. Ender feels the most like an actual person with a unique and believable psychology in Ender’s game—far more so than in either Speaker or Xenocide where he mostly operates as a symbol and mouthpiece for the ideas Card is trying to convey. In Xenocide virtually all the characters are essentially mouthpieces for specific arguments with very light and only surface-level characterizations, but this kind of works because the book is fundamentally about the big questions—what is the nature of reality? Does free will exist? Is it morally justified to render a sentient species extinct if its very existences poses an existential threat to your own species? These big philosophical questions are all related to the main tension of the plot, and so the work mostly succeeds in setting out what it intends to do.

But Speaker for the Dead, at least the way plot was going, seemed to be trying to be more about people and their relationships. And that’s why, in my estimation, it ultimately fails. It’s the old problem of “show don’t tell.” Because when it comes to how people interact with each other and develop relationships, Card does a lot of telling, and not much showing.

For example, in Xenocide, Olhado describes in a conversation with Valentine about how much Ender means to him as a stepfather, and how he provided the example of fatherhood that prompted Olhado to prioritize raising a family over professional achievement. I will also say that in true Card fashion the description of an ideal father figure is actually deeply unhealthy in a way that everyone in the books accepts as both normal and admirable. What Olhado actually describes is codependency—Ender “takes responsibility for other people” which is really just another version of control.

Additionally, Olhado’s assessment indicates clearly why Ender’s marriage is falling apart. The way Card presents it in the text is a combination of Novinha’s irrationality and apparent jealousy of the connection he has with both Jane and Valentine over her. It’s presented as an aspect of Ender’s goodness that he married her because she was “damaged” and that he could take care of her and be dependable for her in a way that no one else in her life had been. But what it really amounts to (and what Card doesn’t seem to notice either) is that paternalistic view of his wife also means that Ender doesn’t respect Novinha as a grown woman, certainly not as his equal. But he does respect Jane and Valentine—and that’s what’s really the root of their problems as a couple. Novinha is legitimately a hot mess, but Ender married a woman he does not respect, and he deserves no credit for that.

Regardless, when it comes to the relationship between Ender and Olhado, the reader only knows about it because Olhado describes it to Valentine. There’s almost no interaction between these two characters in the novel. Despite what Olhado claims is a close relationship, there is no scene with Ender that indicates this, no asides, not even anything from Valentine’s perspective that she might have observed between them. We never see this relationship in action. We’re just told it’s there.

The characters also analyze their relationships in real time—at the beginning of Xenocide Miro concludes that he can be more himself with Valentine because she doesn’t treat him with pity and allows him to finish his own sentences despite his sluggish speech and physical disability. He states this. Explicitly. At the end of the chapter after their first meeting. As a reader, I absolutely hate that. It’s the kind of analysis I want to be able to make by seeing how the characters interact. I don’t want it spoon-fed to me. These sorts of moments are brief and can be rationalized as necessary short-cuts for pacing in Xenocide—in Speaker for the Dead it’s the whole book. Ender wanders around analyzing the relationships of other people who he barely knows—and the reader is never given the opportunity to see where he’s really getting all the analysis from. Not enough for the reader to put it together on their own at any rate. It feels a lot more like somebody telling you about characters in a story, rather than just telling the story.

It’s supremely irritating. And I have to say that what irritates me the most is that I find myself doing the same thing in my own writing. I get heavy-handed and explain-y when it comes to portraying the relationships between characters. It’s a limitation of building the outline with the analysis in it. I’m realizing I need to show more and give the characters room to act and interact without explanation—and trust my readers to draw their own conclusions. So I suppose my next step is to pull out some authors I do like, and see how they achieve it.

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