Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past twenty years, you’ve probably heard of Orson Scott Card. He’s a Mormon author who primarily writes science fiction. And he’s a very good author — to this day, his best work, Ender’s Game (which won Hugo and Nebula awards) is considered one of the better sci-fi novels of the past quarter century. Of course, Card’s Mormon background raises the question of what we can learn by viewing Ender’s Game as Mormon literature.
I’ll start with a basic description of the story. (WARNING: Contains spoilers — if you haven’t yet read the story, and are intending to do so, you won’t want to read any further).
Ender’s Game is in many ways a one-idea story. It’s a very, very good idea. The world at war with an alien race; searching for pilots to control its fleet of space ships, the military trains six year old children in a “game” which actually ends a few years later as they take control of the real fleet for a final battle. In the process of training, the children — particularly the hero Ender — are ruthlessly manipulated by the adults, becoming the best possible warriors for the battles. The children are never told (until after the war) that the battles they fought were real.
The book began its life as an interesting short story, which presented that one idea (children as warriors, unaware that they were directing a real battle). Card then developed the story into a novel, giving Ender an interesting family background and adding new material such as interesting psychological quasi-psychic plot points. The hugely popular book spawned sequels which have received mixed reviews. It is also reputedly in development for adaptation as a movie.
I’m no literary critic — for real literary criticism, see this guy or this woman. But I’ll take a crack at it anyway (as T & S readers must know by now, a J.D. brings with it the attitude that one is always qualified to opine on any issue.)
First, Ender’s Game is not explicitly Mormon. If anything, it’s a rather assimilationist book. There is no real discussion of Mormonism; the mother’s Mormonism is a background piece, but mentioned only in passing. If there’s a Mormon message, Card is not wearing it on his sleeve. If anything, the message is “don’t look for Mormonism here — we’re just like everyone else.”
Of course, that might have been a requirement for any realistic chance at publication. Whatever its provenance, the book is facially unaffiliated with any religion, and we’ll have to look beyond easy surface clues to see how it works as a Mormon work of literature.
A second initial note is that Card’s universe is not one that easily fits with widely accepted ideas from Mormon theology. The appearance of the alien race and the fight with them is difficult to reconcile with ideas from the Plan of Salvation. Similarly, the very existence of a future, hundreds of years away from our own, goes against widely held McConkian and Skousenian ideas of the relatively imminent arrival of the millenium. Like many of Card’s works, the novel is based in a world where some Mormon ideas about life and the universe do not fit.
Despite those initial hurdles, it seems that there are many aspects of the novel that show ideas that Card may have imported from his Mormon background. Let’s go over a few of them:
1. The idea of sending children off to war, because the children are the world’s best hope. This idea — which creates the underlying current that makes the novel at the same time so compelling and so uncomfortable — is reminiscent of the army of Helaman. At the same time, it is much darker than Helaman. The children’s army in the novel, like Helaman’s, is victorious — but at a terrible cost to itself. (Is that how the stripling warriors felt as they returned to their homes?)
2. The conflict with the unrighteous, domineering older brother. The entire Ender / Peter interaction is in many ways a retelling of Nephi and Laman. Peter is incensed at not being chosen over Ender, as Laman was incensed at Lehi’s tendency to prefer Nephi. But at the novel, the two brothers eventually reconcile. (How different would Nephi-Laman have been if they had reconciled? How different would Ender’s game have been if the Enderites and the Peterites had declared everlasting war against each other?)
3. The total destruction of an opposing force. The final battle is like the surreal chapters in Ether, which end only after the destruction of all sides. Ether seems to be making a statement about annihilative war — not a particularly positive statement — and that message is echoed by Card.
4. The sense of wrongness of what was done to Ender. There is an ambivalence in the author’s voice, between the practical utilitarian realization of necessity in war, and the Kantian outrage at the manipulation and destruction of so many innocent children. In many ways, the entire story is a meditation on that troubling scriptural passage, “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”
5. The discussion of the difficulty of two peoples living together, and of the misunderstandings that can arise from miscommunication and culminate in war. The bugger war, caused by misunderstandings, is reminescent of the continual problems that the Mormon pioneers felt as they were chased from place to place. One theme of the book, at the end, is the idea “if only we could have understood each other.”
Those are some initial thoughts of mine on how Ender’s Game can be viewed as Mormon literature. I’m sure that there are a number of other parallels. Despite its lack of overt Mormon imagery, I’ve always felt that it had a Mormon feel to it.
Finally, of course, the question is — what does this mean? It seems to me that there are at least three things that we can gain from looking at Ender’s Game as Mormon literature.
First, we can better appreciate the book. We can read it and say “ahh, that’s just like Nephi” or “ahh, that’s just like Ether.” It adds a richness to the text and makes it more enjoyable to read.
Second, we can apply Card’s interpretation of Mormon themes as we read and study those themes. When we discuss the stripling warriors, we can think back to Card’s potrayal of the difficult transition of children ripped from their childhood and sent to war. We may disagree with some of Card’s ideas, but the add a new way to reflect on our beliefs and experiences as church members.
Finally, we can appreciate Ender’s Game as a scriptural and religious reinterpretation, placing it within that well-filled canon. Ender’s Game is not a direct or semi-direct scriptural retelling like Paradise Lost or Byron’s Cain, but a piece of literature that was clearly shaped by the religious background of its author. And as Mormons, we are particularly attuned to see and to enjoy these underpinnings.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. They’re subject to change, of course, but at the moment I think that Ender’s Game clearly reflects the Mormon background of its author, and that that aspect makes both the book and the background more interesting. Ender’s Game is Mormon literature.
(Notes: See also Russell’s comments on Card; Melissa Madsen Fox’s comments on sequel Speaker for the Dead; I think that others — Bob Caswell? Eric Stone? Julie? Russell some more? — have discussed Card, but I couldn’t quickly locate those discussions).