Greensboro author of ‘Ender’s Game’ confronts controversy as his book hits the big screen

pkelley@charlotteobserver.comNovember 2, 2013 

  • Story behind the story

    In October, I requested a face-to-face interview with Orson Scott Card through his assistant, Kathleen Bellamy. Since he lives in Greensboro, I was hoping to spend time with him to get a sense of his personality and how he works.

    “As I guessed early on,” she wrote in an email on Oct. 9, “he would be happy to answer questions via e-mail, but prefers not to schedule an in-person interview.”

    So I emailed questions, which touched on his writing routine, current work and health. I also asked about his views on gay marriage and asked him to explain his purpose in publishing a “thought experiment” describing President Obama creating a national police force that hunts down and kills the president’s enemies.

    Three days later, Bellamy got back to me: “Unfortunately, Mr. Card is not going to be able to do the interview after all. Sorry about that!” When I asked why, she responded: “He didn’t give me a reason – sorry!” Pam Kelley

  • In his own words Sometimes, Orson Scott Card sounds like a reactionary right-winger. Other times, he sounds like a left-winger. Many of his opinion columns are posted on his website, hatrack.com.

    “The dark secret of homosexual society – the one that dares not speak its name – is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.”

    “Homosexual ‘Marriage’ and Civilization,” Feb. 15, 2004.

    “I’m ashamed of our society for how it treats the poor. One of the deep problems in Mormon society is that really for the last 75 years Mormons have embraced capitalism to a shocking degree.”

    “My favorite author, my worst interview,” by Donna Minkowitz in Slate, Feb. 3, 2000.

    “How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”

    “State job is not to redefine marriage,” in the Deseret News, July 24, 2008.

    “I dread the general hatred toward those of Middle Eastern origin that is likely to come now.”

    –“Aftershock: What will this tragedy do to the American psyche?” by Jeff Lyon in The Chicago Tribune, Sept. 14, 2001.

    “Obama will claim we need a national police force in order to fight terrorism and crime. The Boston bombing is a useful start, especially when combined with random shootings by crazy people.

    “Where will he get his ‘national police’? The NaPo will be recruited from ‘young out-of-work urban men’ and will be hailed as a cure for the economic malaise of the inner cities.

    “In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama’s enemies.

    “Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people ‘trying to escape’ – people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.”

    “Unlikely Events,” May 9, 2013, which Card describes as “just a silly thought experiment! I’m not serious about this!”

Greensboro author Orson Scott Card, a man known for voicing prolific and controversial opinions, isn’t saying much these days. Perplexing, this seems, especially considering his recent achievements.

The biggest, of course, is that the film version of Card’s most famous novel, the sci-fi classic “Ender’s Game” will be among the top-grossing movies this weekend. It stars Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield. Card is a producer.

Then there’s the book itself. Buoyed by movie buzz, it has spent the past year on the New York Times bestseller list. Not bad for a novel that came out in 1985. And Card, 62, recently took on a public role in North Carolina: He was appointed to UNC-TV’s board of trustees.

So this moment would seem the apex of a successful career for Card, a devout Mormon who has published dozens of books that have sold millions of copies.

In fact, it’s a publicity nightmare. Instead of recounting his accomplishments, Card recently described the “savage, lying, deceptive personal attacks” being waged against him. His comments came on Salt Lake City’s Mormon-owned TV station, one of the few media that has aired or published a recent interview.

Card has long been outspoken in his views about gays and gay marriage. In 2000, he told a Salon writer that gay behavior was “deviant.” In 2008, he wrote a column suggesting the legalization of gay marriage could force a fight to destroy the U.S. government. In 2009, he joined the board of the National Organization for Marriage, a group working to prevent legalization of gay marriage. He left in July.

Lionsgate, the company distributing the “Ender’s Game” movie, has announced repeatedly that it disagrees with Card’s anti-gay views, but it hasn’t been able to stop a group called Geeks OUT from organizing a boycott.

Neither has Card, who attempted to defuse the controversy in July, in a statement declaring the gay-marriage issue moot in light of two June Supreme Court rulings seen as victories for gay marriage.

“Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984,” Card’s statement said. “Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

Despite the statement, Card keeps getting hammered, not only for his views about gays, but for other statements, such as his description of President Obama as a dictator who might create a national police force to destroy his enemies.

Card’s new higher profile has also prompted a fresh examination of “Ender’s Game” itself, a story that has been interpreted as both an anti-war tale and a defense of genocide. In September, a Salon writer described the novel as “a careful, eloquent, and impassioned brief for the virtue and beauty of mass murder.”

The controversy may explain why Card declined the Observer’s interview request. He initially agreed to answer email questions, but canceled after the Observer sent them.

An influential novel

Whatever you think of Card the man, there’s no doubt that “Ender’s Game” ranks among the last quarter century’s most popular and influential science fiction.

The novel, which has appeared on lists of best books for teens and best science fiction of the 20th century, has fans of all ages. It’s especially popular with teenagers, many of whom identify with title character Ender Wiggin, a child who gets tormented by bullies, but whose brilliant military skills prompt government leaders to recruit him to save the world.

Ender’s task is to destroy a civilization of insect-like creatures called buggers. (The movie and later books in the series call them Formics, from a Latin word for ant.) Much of the book’s action is set at a military school where children play war games to prepare for battle.

The book won both the Nebula and Hugo awards, the sci-fi world’s most prestigious honors, as did its sequel, “Speaker for the Dead.” No other writer has replicated this feat, both the Nebula and Hugo, awarded in successive years.

The Marine Corps makes “Ender’s Game” required reading for privates and corporals. The director of the Army’s simulation technology center said in 2003 that the story’s Battle Room, where children play battle-simulating video games, “has had a lot of influence on our thinking.”

Like many Ender devotees, Demi Marshall, who works at Park Road Books, vividly remembers reading the novel. She was an eighth grader at Providence Day School, and as she sat on a school bench devouring the final 50 pages, she completely forgot that her mother sat in a nearby car, waiting to pick her up.

“It’s one of those books that changes your life,” she says.

It has been difficult, she says, to reconcile her love for the novel with her dislike of Card’s views. While Marshall keeps her worn copy of “Ender’s Game,” she decided years ago that she wouldn’t purchase Card’s other works. If she wants to read one, she borrows it.

But she has decided to see the movie because Lionsgate, which has long recognized same-sex unions and domestic partnerships in its corporate benefits program, took pains to distance itself from Card’s views, promising to host a benefit for LGBT causes.

A prolific career

Card was raised in California, Arizona and Utah, one of six children in a family whose Mormon roots couldn’t get much deeper: Mormon leader Brigham Young was his great-great-grandfather.

He grew up loving Broadway musicals and majored in theater at Brigham Young University. Before he focused on fiction writing, he founded and ran a theater company, and he’s still involved in community theater. He credits drama training for making him a better writer. “It’s the best training in the world for a writer, to have a live audience,” he says in a biography on his website, hatrack.com.

At the start of his career, Card supported his family through writing endeavors, including scriptwriting for Living Scriptures, a company that sells recordings and videos based on the New Testament and Book of Mormon.

The first science fiction he published was a short version of “Ender’s Game,” which appeared in the magazine Analog in 1977. In 1983, he moved to Greensboro with his wife, Kristine, and young family to take a job with Compute! magazine.

His literary career took off two years later with the publication of “Ender’s Game,” followed in 1986 by “Speaker for the Dead,” set about 3,000 years in the future.

Card is amazingly prolific. Print out the bibliography on his website, which includes awards, audiobooks and foreign language translations, and you’ll have a stack of 35 pages. He has written more than 70 books, including sequels and prequels to “Ender’s Game,” plus short stories, plays, poetry, fantasy series, alternate histories and a series profiling women in the Book of Genesis. A recent novel, “Empire,” features a radical leftist army invading New York and declaring itself the nation’s rightful government.

Liberals and chocolate chip cookies

If you want to explore Card’s world view, you can find plenty of online interviews and lengthy columns that he writes for Greensboro’s Rhinoceros Times and other publications. The more you read, however, the more confused you may become.

Card has described himself as a man without political party. He left the Republican Party long ago, “nauseated by the growing Reagan-worship,” he told the National Review, but he often criticizes liberals and the liberal media.

When The Chicago Tribune asked for his views following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Card responded: “We must wage concerted and relentless war against all the terrorists who have struck at America and its allies, and against all the nations that fund and harbor them, until there is no nation that dares to support terrorists.”

But he added: “Before we label our enemies as monsters, let’s remember that we, too, have bombed people who were innocently going about their business, without a declaration of war and with no meaningful military objective.”

Many of his opinion pieces aren’t political. They focus, in fact, on the trivial. In the past year, he has described his favorite brands of chocolate-chip cookies (Famous Amos, Swoozie’s, Bart & Judy’s) and written about changes in Greensboro’s recycling program (“Now any plastic with recycling numbers from 1 to 7 can be recycled, regardless of shape.”)

He also reviews lots of movies, though he recently explained that he won’t be seeing the blockbuster “Gravity.” “Hollywood comes to an idea sixty years late,” he writes, “but they’re so ignorant they think they’ve invented the wheel. Yeah, we get it, it’s lonely out in space. Especially when you don’t know the laws of physics.”

Victim or bully?

Card, who has described family and faith as the focus of his life, has weathered the deaths of two of his five children – daughter Erin Louisa, who died at birth in 1997, and son Charles Benjamin, who had cerebral palsy and died in 2000 during a family vacation at Myrtle Beach. He was 17. “He stayed with us longer than we had any right to hope for,” Card wrote in an obituary.

Card had a minor stroke in 2011, which he wrote was “dull and second rate on the danger-and-debilitation-meter.” He told Wired magazine recently that if the stroke had been fatal, “I would have left my wife to pay back some pretty big advances on books, so I’m working my way through the existing contracts as quickly as I can. If another one carries me off, I’m intending not to leave my family in debt.”

Some who’ve met the author call him down-to-earth and lovable. In a 2008 profile, a School Library Journal writer described him as “somewhat of a pussycat – charming, tolerant of his interlocutor’s ignorance, and often funny.”

His supporters point out that his opinions about gays follow the tenets of his Mormon faith, which teaches that sexual activity should occur only between a married man and woman.

“He’s entitled to his own opinion,” says Bonnie Kunzel, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association. “To castigate his work because of that is wrong.”

Card also has a reputation for being difficult. “He would think of himself as being the victim, but I always saw him as the bully,” says John Kessel, a prize-winning science fiction writer and N.C. State creative writing professor. Kessel and Card became friends in the 1980s, but they’re friends no longer, Kessel says.

If Card sees himself as a victim nowadays (“Character assassination seems to be the only political method that is in use today,” he told the Salt Lake City TV station), maybe it’s understandable.

In September, N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger appointed Card to the UNC-TV Board of Trustees. Within days, Progress NC Action launched a petition calling for Berger to rescind the action. And an online writer for Mother Jones magazine warned that N.C. viewers “probably won’t be seeing shows like Frontlines’s “Assault on Gay America” or the 2011 American Experience episode on the Stonewall uprising.”

That prediction was about as far-fetched as Card’s scenario suggesting Obama would send urban gangs to destroy his enemies. The trustees are an advisory board that controls neither the content nor policies of North Carolina’s public television.

A plea for tolerance

Will Geeks OUT, the nonprofit promoting the “Ender’s Game” boycott, hurt the movie’s box office?

It’s hard to say. With the Internet, launching a boycott is easy, says Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture. But some boycotts, he says, “burn brightly, then burn out.” When it comes to the rest of Card’s career, however, “this kind of thing can put a cloud over it.”

For Friday night’s “Ender’s Game” opening, Geeks OUT, which formed in 2010 “to raise queer visibility within the worlds of comics and gaming,” had planned alternative “Skip Ender’s Game” events in eight cities. Organizers say they want to keep their money “from going to Orson Scott Card’s antigay activism.”

The boycott has received lots of coverage, with several commentators coming out against it while disagreeing with Card’s views. It’s a controversy that raises an old question: Should we condemn art – even if we like it – because we don’t like the politics of the artist?

In a recent column, Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, who has a gay son, analyzed the dilemma by quoting lawyer Alan Dershowitz: “Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views.”

But he also took note of Card’s recent plea for tolerance: “There’s something unpleasantly ironic about a man who for decades espoused intolerance turning to tolerance as a last resort.”

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271.

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