OSC Outtakes: Card's Supermen

Megan seems especially bothered by the lack of depth displayed by the characters in the most recent Orson Scott Card book, Empire.

Characters this thin cannot be described with the traditional “paper” or “tissue”; they seem to be composed of some sort of special alloy fabricated to be exactly one molecule thick. Worse, they’re not even entertaining. Stock fictional characters, well done, can provide hours of fluffy entertainment; these mostly bore one with ill-conceived sermons on politics and family life.

I liked a few of the domestic moments in the book a little better than she did. Malich’s wife and family, for example, were superficially reminiscent of the Wiggin family, and I felt like Card’s domestic scenes managed, in a fairly broad way, to work as at least echoes of his better work.

But that’s part of the problem. Because what struck me even more about not just Empire, but Card’s entire body of work, was how much he relied on a very similar, I’ll even say redundant, set of literary tricks throughout. I actually read (or, in many cases, reread) quite a few of his books for my recent New Atlantis article — all eight Ender books, plus Lost Boys, Pastwach, Treasure Box, Treason, and several of his short story collections. And even some of the books that I quite enjoyed on their own — Lost Boys, Pastwatch — came off worse when read alongside his other work. The best way to describe the experience is that it was like watching 10 hours straight of an episodic TV show. You might like it just fine for one hour a week, but the repetition of storylines and ideas becomes both glaring and irritating when taken in all at once.

The most obvious similarity between the books was in the way he constructed his characters. On one hand, he’s got a longstanding obsession with balance. You get this in Empire, of course, with the conservative/liberal dichotomy, but also in the way the Wiggin family is built, with the two older children each veering to an extreme before getting to the perfect blend with Ender. Even more than that, though, all you have the fact that almost all of his characters come off as sort of humble humanist supermen, like Ayn Rand heroes without the braggadocio. I actually wrote a fairly long segment on this that didn’t make it into the article, and for anyone out there who might be interested, I’ve pasted it in after the jump.

Almost universally, Card’s characters occupy the lofty moral territory of brilliant, dedicated, and good. They know their own abilities precisely and have high but accurate opinions of themselves, yet they never cease questioning their own behavior, always anxious, always driven to endless self-examination.

Ender, of course, is the prototypical Card hero. In Ender’s Game, we follow his journey through Battle School from his perspective, but when Card returned to the setting in a parallel novel, Ender’s Shadow, to tell the story of a different Battle School trainee, Ender is a great, looming figure—an icon for the other children. So it’s no surprise when one of them describes him in almost reverent language: “Ender’s good, man. You just—he doesn’t hate anybody. If you’re a good person, you’re going to like him. You want to him to like you. If he likes you, then you’re OK, see? But if you’re scum, he just makes you mad. Just knowing he exists, see? So Ender, he tries to wake up the good part of you.”

But Ender is merely the most obvious such character. Bean, who played a minor role in Ender’s Game but returned as the focus character for Ender’s Shadow and its three sequels, is another brilliant youngster. In fact, in an instance of Card feeling the need to top himself, we’re told that he’s even more brilliant than Ender. The difference seems at first to be that Bean, unlike Ender, is interested purely in self-preservation and lacks Ender’s intrinsic goodness. But it’s never really in doubt—especially if you’ve ever read a Card novel—that Bean, too, will prove to be generous and loving, caring and, yes, even good—not just a genius, but a genius hero.

Not all of Card’s protagonists are literally charged with saving the world, but even those that aren’t seem prepared for it. In Lost Boys, a realistic novel with a slight horror twist, Step Fletcher is a thirtty-two year old brilliant computer programmer with an adoring wife, three kids, and, if that weren’t enough, a Ph. D. in history. His wife is smart and sharp-witted, a sometimes flustered but never mean or particularly crabby homemaker, and they each perform near-superhuman feats in order to keep their family together. Treasure Box, another of Card’s contemporary fictions, this one with a thicker horror stripe, gives us Quentin Fears, a charming, educated young man of infinite patience who works hard at business and makes millions by his mid 20s—only to decide to retire and fund other people’s business dreams.

Even Christopher Columbus gets shoehorned into Card’s cookie-cutter protagonist mold. In Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, a time travel story in which researchers in the future look back on the Columbus’s voyages, a young Columbus (referred to in the book as Cristoforo) embarks on his first sea-journey with serious trading responsibilities. Card describes the adventurer with great admiration, going over every perfect detail, every skill, making sure the reader knows exactly the level of excellence that his hero receives:

“Cristoforo had prepared himself well. What he hadn’t done himself, he had watched others do with a close eye to detail. He knew how to supervise the loading of the ship and how to drive a hard bargain without making enemies. He knew how to talk to the captain, how to remain at once aloof and yet affable with the men, how to judge from the wind and the sky and the sea how much progress they would make. Even though he had actually done very little of the work of a sailor, he knew what all the jobs were, from watching, and he knew whether the jobs were being done well. When he was young, and they were not yet suspicious that he might get them in trouble, the sailors had let him watch them work. He had even learned to swim, which most sailors never bothered to do, because he had thought as a child that this was one of the requirements of life at sea. By the time the ship set sail, Cristoforo felt himself completely in control.”

Adoring descriptions like these abound in Card’s books; his protagonists never lack for drive or competence. Columbus has flaws and struggles, of course. He sometimes informs God of his plans rather than the other way around—though he quickly apologizes. And he grew up in a lowly household with bitter, bickering parents. But like Ender, Step, Bean, and Quentin, he performs his life’s work like he’s been tasked to it by God. The appeal of Card’s protagonists (and many of his secondary characters as well) is that they are at once real men and boys and larger than life heroes.

And, fitting with Card’s clear regard for moderation, they are all men of balance. They are violent but soft-hearted, brilliant but self-questioning, capable but humble. Step Fletcher, for example, may be a brilliant hacker and historian, but he isn’t above the dirty work of fathering, matching his wife, we are told, “diaper for diaper, with all three kids… a little vomit in the car would never faze him.” And Quentin Fears, who, despite spectacular success in business remains a virgin in adulthood (another instance of the boyish rubbing shoulders with the adult), gives himself the third degree over a sexually awkward evening with his new flame and fiancé:

“He kept trying to think what he had done wrong. What had she thought he meant to do? They were engaged, weren’t they? It wasn’t as if he meant to have sex with her that very night—he intended to wait till they were married. He had been raised that way. But couldn’t he touch her? Or was he so bad that it physically revolted her?

“Or was it him at all? Maybe she was—what, frigid? Was there such a thing really?”

The questions continue in that vein for the rest of a long paragraph, and the passage is typical. Card’s heroes are constantly cross-examining themselves, pouring over situations and second-guessing their every action and intention. Card, who in college judged his acting ability to be too self-conscious, too “in his head,” can’t get out of his character’s neurotic brains either.

Card makes all his heroes skeptics, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t make room for belief. A proud Mormon, Card has lamented the lack of decent religious characters in much contemporary fiction, and, as a science fiction author, he goes against the genre’s penchant for secularism by including deeply religious characters in many of his stories. Thus his fiction is filled with believers of all stripes: Mormons, of course, but also Catholics and Buddhists and Muslims. And, to his credit, he doesn’t let his personal loyalties get in his way. Though no religion is portrayed as perfect, Card simply portrays and defends the place of faith in everyday life. For Card, belief in the unseen, even serious, life-changing belief, is a good thing—just so long as long as it doesn’t lead to self-righteousness or fanaticism.

In fact, one way to tell a villain in Card’s stories is from his or her self-certainty. In Card’s world, the bad guys are also brilliant, capable, determined—and it makes them formidable opponents. The difference is that they are arrogant and boastful, unwilling to consider opposing points of view, too attached to their own pride.

Given Card’s training as a dramatist, it’s not surprising that he quickly dropped the single-character perspective of his early stories for a multivocal approach that tells the story from a variety of points of view. Still, it’s rare for him to peer inside the minds of his villains. One rare occasion in which he does, however, is instructive. In Ender’s Shadow, the series’ antagonist, a cruel, heartless murderer named Achilles, is caught in an air shaft and forced to recount his sins to his captors.

“He liked it, telling them like this. Nobody ever had a chance to understand how powerful he was till now. He wanted to see their faces, that’s the only thing that was missing. He wanted to see the disgust that would reveal their weakness, their inability to look power in the face. Machiavelli understood. If you intend to rule, you don’t shrink from killing.”

He’s not just a murderer—he’s power-mad, delusional, and utterly unswerving in his belief in his own righteousness, a sure signal, in Card’s world, of evil. In many ways, Card’s books paint this as humanity’s fundamental flaw, with an adult Ender putting it best in one of the sequels: “This is how humans are: We question all our beliefs, except for the ones that we really believe, and those we never think to question.” Ender, and Card’s other heroes, are the few who do manage (if sometimes only after a crisis) to question those beliefs, and who bear their brilliance with decency and humility.

In fact, their humility and their brilliance often seem bound together, for it is that combination that gives them power over others. Card’s characters, even those who are not supergeniuses, exhibit an almost supernatural intuition about what others are thinking and what words and actions will be necessary to manipulate them. In some ways, it’s rather simple manipulation of pride and customs. Card’s characters always know the local ways, the character of their opponents, and have no qualms about either pushing people’s buttons or playing along with whatever is required to get what they want. They are strategic about achieving their goals rather than preserving their own status, and this benefits them.

But it regularly goes beyond this. A key element of the brilliance of Card’s characters, both good and bad, is their ability to read a situation and then control it. Often, this means that the characters simply know things—things which, even with the most amazing powers of deduction (which the books continually assure us these characters have) would be nearly impossible to know. Ender, of course, is the prime example. When, as an adult, he enters a small Catholic town on a backwater planet and quickly navigates the city’s customs while disarming a host of prickly local personalities, another character observes:

“He had not expected him to be so intrusive, so dangerous. Yes, he was wise, all right, he kept seeing past pretense, kept saying or doing outrageous things that were, when you thought about it, exactly right. It was as if he were so familiar with the human mind that he could see, right on your face, the desires so deep, the truths so well-disguised that you didn’t even know yourself that you had them in you.”

This is Card’s most regular storytelling trick: By bestowing on his characters knowledge they almost certainly could not have, he makes them actually appear to be the rarefied geniuses he tells us they are.