Ender in Exile, Orson Scott Card

I found Ender in Exile a few months ago when I was with my husband on one of our bookstore dates. Those dates always involve me spending way too much on books I mostly read a few pages of and then decide to take a chance on. I didn’t need to read a few pages of this one to know I wanted it.

You see, Ender is an old, dear friend of mine. Reading Ender in Exile is, for me, what I imagine Facebook must be for people who like Facebook. In reading it, I’m picking up again with old acquaintances, characters I’ve known since I was 13 years old. Sure, they’re fictional, but how real are those people from high school who “friend” us – people we never ate lunch with or called on the phone but who recognize our names from the bowels of memory and seek a connection because of what? Nostalgia, maybe. A desire for shared history, more likely. Ender is as real to me as any of those people whose names I have literally erased from memory, just as their lives are as much fiction to me as any of the books in Ender’s universe.

If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, the first of the books in this collection, you should. (Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, you should still check it out.) Maybe it won’t mean as much to you as it did to me as a teenager, but I have since read all the books in the series, and to varying degrees, I have loved them. Orson Scott Card has a talent for writing characters who are easily taken into the heart to love and despise in equal degree, and his gift for storytelling is worthy of the many awards he’s won.

The books in this series are so much more than genre fiction. They remind me in some ways of opera (I know – I’m making them even more appealing to you now, aren’t I?) in that the emotions are soaring yet intimate, the scenarios both implausible and familiar. In one of my favorite moments in Ender in Exile, Ender’s parents, who we see little of in other books, are discussing the enormous difficulties they face in deciding what’s best for all three of their superlatively brilliant children:

   “Teresa, we have to decide: What’s best for Ender? What’s best for Peter and Valentine? What’s best for the future of the world?”
   “Sitting here on our bed, in the middle of the night, the two of us are deciding the fate of the world?” (pg 5)

Maybe I’m alone in having nights that feel like this, but I don’t think so. I don’t even have to have my own children to know that parents feel the pressure of the world bearing down, worrying at them, even when their children aren’t military geniuses. The fact of the matter is, living in a community puts an impetus on each of us to care about something more than ourselves. It puts us in the way of all sorts of decisions, and that’s what these books are about. What happens when you place people – people too young or smart or ordinary or evil – in the path of decisions that affect, not only the world, but the entire unknown universe?

In light of that, there is one other thing I feel I need to add to this discussion, and while it’s not always a conscious consideration when choosing books to read, this discovery has influenced my perception of Orson Scott Card (and burdened my heart in no small part). He has been, for many years, an outspoken advocate against gay rights. People have attributed this to his Mormon faith – and he does identify that his plots around care for children stem from these beliefs – but I personally know many Mormons who are tolerant and open-minded about issues of orientation, so I prefer not to make the assumption that this is where his opinion stems from. I admit I didn’t know this about him when I first started reading his books; I didn’t learn of it until about two years ago, and since then, I have been trying to put together the novelist who has written characters seeking justice and tolerance, his stories, which embrace hugely different cultures and upbringings, and the man, who has such a conservative social view-point.

I’m not sure whether I would have read his books had I known then that he uses his position as a well-loved author to forward ideas I find abhorrent. This is what my favorite English teacher would have called an existential crisis. On the one hand, I love his books. The characters are so dear to me that I can’t imagine my literary life without them. On the other, I was raised to act with compassion toward all people, even those others denigrate, and especially, most difficultly, those who hold ideas I find repugnant.

The benediction at our wedding was from our favorite passage in Micah: “What does God require of you but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” To me, this is the end all and be all of my entire faith. I am not asked to judge others, or despise them for their hatred, or force my opinions on them. Certainly people rarely let go of intolerance because others have hated them into it. Even in Card’s books, the worst villains were never truly beaten by violence or superior strength but by others meeting them with love and patience.

Existential crises are hard. If I knew the answer for sure, I would be much happier. If all the people whose writing I liked could be as liberal as I am, it would be so much easier. But I don’t, and they aren’t. Life is sort of like the best book ever written that way. Nothing is as plainly good or evil as you hope it will be. Villains may redeem themselves or not. Conflict that rips you open from gut to gills can end up changing the world into a much better place than it was when you were nice and put together. There are sacrifices worth the heartache and things done for the greater good that are worthless. It’s a story filled with unfair plot twists and too much death with little enough adventure and romance to balance out the cosmic scales.

So we do little things. We complicate other people’s beliefs by giving them as much information as possible then allowing them the freedom to choose. We bite our lashing-out tongues one moment, then stand up and take the punches meant for another in the next. We fail one day and live to fight another.

I love Card’s books. I can’t help it. I hate that buying his books might in some way support propagating hatred though, so in the future, I’ll check them out of the library instead of purchasing them myself. This is the best answer I have right now, and it’s nowhere near satisfying. In five or ten or fifty years I might come up with a more perfect solution, but for now, this is where I stand. These books may hold undercurrents of his ideals, but they are in no way stories of intolerance or prejudice, and I can’t bring myself to throw them on the pyre because I disagree with the author. Down that road, tempted though we may sometimes be, lies chaos, unearned self-righteousness, and the death of free speech.

If you’d care to read more about Orson Scott Card’s work, he has a comprehensive site here.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

I’m going to start by saying, I’m not very good at being a geek. Sure, I like ST:TNG and the original Star Wars movies. I’ve seen a couple of Monty Python flicks. My brother and I owned a Sega Genesis back in the day (although we only owned the game that came with it – Sonic the Hedgehog – so that should tell you something right there about our commitment level to gaming). I know who Wil Wheaton is, and I know why he is so beloved on the interwebs years after TNG ended. I even know how to handle a number of computery problems by myself (though, again, the fact that I even used the word “computery” gives you an idea of my depth of expertise). I’ve watched most of Ranma 1/2 in the original Japanese, and my first really big celebrity crush was on Jonathan Frakes.

My only strong interests in geekdom currently, however, are in fantasy and sci-fi literature and in the mildly appalling fact that I occasionally get sucked down fan fic wormholes. I’ve never been to a con. I can’t stand reading graphic novels (not because they aren’t cool, but because it hurts my eyes and brain when I try to process information that way). My closet is filled with many non-black tee shirts. I have the attention span of a gnat for any kind of video game, and probably most damning of all, I’m a morning person.

That being said, I married a geek. One of my best friends is a geek. In fact, many of my friends are insanely geeky, awesome, stupefyingly brilliant people, and I’m often jealous of the cozy little world that has evolved alongside the internet, allowing geeks to rise up their proper place in the social order. When my husband and I first started dating, he even gave me a copy of The Geek Handbook, which I read cover to cover that very night (I’m also not a procrastinator, which I’m pretty sure bans me from full geek status on its own). I then went on to let him know exactly how and why I already knew all about the care and handling of geek humans – which might have been the moment he fell for me.

I was raised on the edge of geek culture, and I’ve always enjoyed it – even the parts I didn’t understand (and there are many) – maybe that’s why I fell in love with Ready Player One before I finished the first chapter. It was like reading little bits of history out of the lives of so many people I love. I have no doubt that Cline is a supreme geek, aw=s well as knowledgable in the extreme about 80s culture, and reading his story (because you can’t be even a little bit geek without this sort of being your story too), I was sucked in.

The funniest thing is, it takes place almost entirely inside a virtual reality gaming system, and one of my worst nightmares is that someday the world will be so bad, or so bored, that this is what will happen. The lines between reality and gaming will blur almost to extinction. We’ll all be living in an artificial world because the real one is just not enough. This scares me more than being caught on a suspension bridge during a huge earthquake. Or drowning. Or that scene in Indiana Jones where he falls into a train car full of snakes…and that scares me a lot.

I would never want to live in a world like that, not even if it meant I could control an avatar that was fiercer and more graceful than I am. It might allow me to do all the things I could ever dream of, but at the end of the day, I would know that I hadn’t done anything at all, and I think it would break my heart.

But if it ever did have to come to pass, I would want to see it as Ernest Cline has envisioned it – as a place where children can get an equal education regardless of wealth or situation, where friends can emerge from the most unlikely places, and where noble men and women emerge to protect a system of open source information sharing…

Because honestly, he makes it seem pretty great.

Ernest Cline can be found at http://www.ernestcline.com/. Also, I hear the audio version of this book is pretty fabulous (and narrated by Wil Wheaton), so if that’s more your speed, definitely check it out at your local library or on audible.com.

Censorship in the YA world

I’m in Wyoming for the holidays, and I have had much less down time to read than expected, so instead of posting a new book review, I’m re-posting a blog entry I wrote in June 2011 that I believe is important when thinking about all of us as readers:

My parents sent me a link to an article by Sherman Alexie (www.fallsapart.com), author of The Absolutely True Diary of  a Part Time Indian, called “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” It was in response to another article by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who was talking about the role of parents in guiding the literary choices of teens.

I don’t often follow back and forth rants, certainly not in the political or financial arena, but when it comes to literature, education and children, I’m hooked. So I read both of these articles (Sherman’s first, Gurdon’s second), and I pulled out some sections to share.

First, from Gurdon:

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

I don’t know when or where this woman was a teenager, but those years are not much about joy and beauty, and I say that from the perspective of someone who had an exceptionally enjoyable teen life. Being a teenager is about learning how to deal with damage, brutality and loss on your own, usually with mixed results. Teens are striving for independence, but most are not well-informed enough about their own rights, or about sexual health, or about what constitutes abuse…the list goes on and on. Many teens have seen “depravity” in their own homes, neighborhoods, and schools; they have seen representations of it on tv (the news being one of the worst culprits) without any of the information being put into context for them.

And as for careless readers? There’s no such thing. Children and teens who read especially are not careless about their selections. I should know – I spent my entire childhood taking ten to twenty books home from the library every week. I would sit on the floor pulling down book after book, reading the back or the insert and usually the first few pages if I had time. It felt like there were never enough books to choose from, certainly not in the YA section, which is where I was at around age ten.

And while I agree that there are people of all ages who are more drawn to reading about what she calls “depravity,” and what many others call “life,” this is not a choice to change through censorship. Did I read some books when I was a kid that scared me, that I wished after the fact that I hadn’t read? Yes. So I learned to censor myself – I didn’t like to be scared, so I didn’t often choose to read books that frightened me. I used knowledge about myself, discovered through experience, to make good choices. Isn’t this what childhood is about?

In her article, she shared excerpts from some of the books she finds unacceptable. To be honest, I have no desire to read most of those books either. Graphic violence, sexual assault, and the abuses of mental illness are not topics that I gravitate toward when I’m reading for entertainment. I didn’t even completely understand The Catcher in the Rye or A Prayer for Owen Meany  when I read them in high school and those are nowhere near as disturbing as many of the books published under the YA genre these days. The difference between Gurdon and myself, I believe, is that I can decipher between books I personally don’t want to read and those that supposedly have no value to a wider and very diverse audience.

Here is part of Sherman’s response:

Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students–teens and pre-teens–who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read….

(T)here are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

All over the world exist children and teens who have technically never been abused, hungry, depressed, ostracized – and yet YA books continue to be published (and devoured by readers) that depict the very worst of human nature. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time with very young children and have seen how it’s possible for children as young as five months recognize their “place” in the social schema that I simply don’t believe in a world where even “privileged” children are not hurting in ways it’s difficult to comprehend.

I understand that Ms. Gurdon wants to protect children from the worst parts of the human nature, but as Sherman says, it’s too late for that. When five-year olds form cliques in order to mete out punishment to social subordinates, it’s too late. When the number of teens committing suicide or going into schools to kill other students becomes an “epidemic,” it’s too late. When any adult who wants to volunteer at the library, a school, a church, scouts – even for a day – has to be fingerprinted, it’s too late.

Fear for our children is rampant. We want to protect them from every graphic book or movie or website or video game, or person they don’t know, and the fact of the matter is, it’s not possible. Or even healthy. Our energy would be much better spent trying to build programs that support children and teens so that they have to face fewer monsters, rather than limiting tools that offer an opportunity for connection. We could be using those books as a bridge to talk to children and teens about disturbing issues. We could be asking them what they get out of those kinds of books, then taking that information and creating curriculum that empowers teens and children to stand up to monsters.

Furthermore, when we take those books away, when we label them as “bad,” what does that tell those people who have experienced atrocities first hand? It reinforces the abuser’s line, “this is your fault  and no one will ever believe you.” Children and teens are so vulnerable; there is so much, especially for them, that is unknowable, and that is the most terrifying thing.

Books are information – they remind readers that nothing under the sun is new – so if you cut, or drink, or suffer abuse, you are not the only one. If you dream of a world where you make a better vampire than you do human, where it’s possible to fly through the galaxy, where exist dragons and villains, and most importantly, allies, you are not alone. If you live a sheltered life, books are where you can face fear or recognize compassion and true friendship for the first time. Books allow you to fall in love and to test out feelings that have no outlet outside of literature. Books are cathartic. Books are a lifeline. Books are dear friends when life is mysterious and dark and sad. Books are information. They are power. They are perspective.

Does this mean you have to read every book out there? No. You don’t even have to allow your children to read any book that they want; but if you do, or if you have an honest conversation about why a particular book might be less age-appropriate, or more disturbing than another, you’re teaching your children that you value the experience they’re bringing to the table, not just your own. Maybe it will prompt you to read a book that your child is reading so that you can try to answer questions or concerns they have. Maybe it will remind you that not every experience is yours, and that the child you’re raising will be far better off equipped with knowledge than they will ignorance.