Thursday, April 28, 2011

Speaker for the Dead and Civilization

The particular purpose, or strength, of fantasy and science fiction is to create a parallel world that gives us an opportunity to examine our own world while we think we are examining something totally foreign. The original Star Trek series dealt with the classic conflict between heart and mind. Bones was the passionate emotional influence; Spock was the dispassionate intellectual influence. Kirk, representing the struggle we have, had to figure out how to balance the two.

A similar trio shows up in Harry Potter. Ron Weasley is the passionate emotional influence; Hermione Grainger is the dispassionate intellectual influence (although in the movies she portrays some typically emotional female tendencies that kind of distort her role in the trio). Harry, like us, must be influenced by both to find the right balance. But the books have other comparisons with our world as well. There is racial and class discrimination. There is a classic conflict between good and evil. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” Dumbledore tells Harry when Harry is worried about similarities between himself and his arch nemesis, Voldemort.

So, anyway, I do occasionally read fantasy and science fiction, looking through that lens at our world. During the recent road trip I read Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card’s sequel (first sequel of several, I think) to Ender’s Game. There’s an introduction by Card in the paperback edition I read, and he makes some comments about science fiction in general, and about what he is attempting, that I thought were insightful.

p. xvi-xvii: Not only did they have no parents, few science fiction heroes seemed to marry and have kids. In short, the heroes of most science fiction novels were perpetual adolescents, lone rangers who wandered the universe avoiding commitments. This shouldn’t be surprising. The romantic hero is invariably one who is going through the adolescent phase of human life….
            The romantic hero is unconnected. He belongs to no community; he is wandering from place to place, doing good (as he sees it), but then moving on. This is the life of the adolescent, full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay and bear the consequences of error. Everything is played at twice the speed and twice the volume in the adolescent—the romantic—life….
            Most science fiction dealt with adolescent heroes, yes—but only because most fiction deals with adolescents. This is not to say that fiction about adolescents is necessarily adolescent fiction, either in the sense of being for an adolescent audience or in the sense of being undeveloped or immature fiction. Still, most storytellers invent their fables about the lives of footloose heroes—or heroes who become footloose for the sake of the story. Who but the adolescent is free to have the adventures that most of us are looking for when we turn to storytellers to satisfy our hunger?
            And yet to me, at least, the most important stories are the ones that teach us how to be civilized: the stories about children and adults, about responsibility and dependency. Not being an adult myself, I had concentrated for many years on the child’s point of view, but with Speaker for the Dead I was old enough, and perhaps (finally) civilized enough, to create the small community of the family from an adult perspective—not necessarily the parent’s viewpoint, but rather the viewpoint of an adult who felt responsibility toward the family.

That’s the kind of story I’m interested in, the stories that “teach us how to be civilized.”

Much of the conflict in this book is coming to understand how different cultures think differently—as well as how individuals think differently. In Ender’s Game, Ender is trained to play an ever more challenging game, including players under his command. When he wins the final round, after years of training and playing, away from him family, he learns that he was in fact commanding an actual attack on a different civilization, the buggers, which were a threat to humankind. He had committed xenocide without even knowing it.

In Speaker for the Dead, he has traveled the universe, looking for a way to redeem himself. Three thousand years have passed since the xenocide (but he has experienced aging only up to age 35, because of the magic of traveling near light speed), and humankind regrets the xenocide that the “evil” Ender committed. On a new colony planet, another species of person, the piggies, kill two of the scientists there to study them. Ender goes there with the attitude that, if he loves them, he will understand them. This goes for the piggies as well as for the family in crisis he finds there, who have suffered the losses.

Ender is pretty nearly perfect at this stage in his life. And yet we do learn from him, as well as some of the author’s observations. So I’ll share just a few of those.

p. 45, concerning the childhood story of an encounter on a playground between bullies and a large quiet boy: “Of course they accused Marcão of having done it without provocation—that’s the way of torturers of every age, to put the blame on the victim, especially when he strikes back.”

p. 336, Ender to the piggy called Human:
To grow until all the space you can see is part of you, under your control. It’s the desire for greatness. There are two ways, though, to fulfil it. One way is to kill anything that is not yourself, to swallow it up or destroy it, until nothing is left to oppose you. But that way is evil. You say to all the universe, Only I will be great, and to make room for me the rest of you must give up even what you already have, and become nothing. Do you understand, Human, that if we humans felt this way, acted this way, we could kill every piggy in Lusitania and make this place our home. How much of your dream would be left, if we were evil?

p. 370, conversation between Ender and the 12-year-old boy Olhado, when the boy learns that he is the Ender of legend. Olhado begins: “It’s funny. Before you got here, the Bishop tried to tell us all that you were Satan. Quim’s the only one in the family that took him seriously. But if the Bishop had told us you were Ender, we would have stoned you to death in the praça the day you arrived.”
            “Why don’t you now?”
            “We know you now. That makes all the difference, doesn’t it? Even Quim doesn’t hate you now. When you really know somebody, you can’t gate them.”
            “Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them.”

p. 371, when Ender, along with Olhado, places the last remaining hive queen of the buggers in the place on Lusitania he has prepared for her, so the xenocide he committed can be overcome. Olhado starts:
“And today we found the place to bring her back to life….Are you sure she won’t try to get even? Are you sure she won’t try to wipe out humankind, starting with you?”
            “I’m as sure,” said Ender, “as I am of anything.”
            “Not absolutely sure,” said Olhado.
            “Sure enough to bring her back to life,” said Ender. “And that’s as sure as we ever are of anything. We believe it enough to act as though it’s true. When we’re that sure, we call it knowledge. Facts. We bet our lives on it.”
            “I guess that’s what you’re doing. Betting your life on her being what you think she is.”
            “I’m more arrogant that that. I’m betting your life, too, and everybody else’s, and I’m not so much as asking anyone else’s opinion.”
            “Funny,” said Olhado. “If I asked somebody whether they’d trust Ender with a decision that might affect the future of the human race, they’d say, of course not. But if I asked them whether they’d trust the Speaker for the Dead, they’d say yes, most of them. And they wouldn’t even guess that they were the same person.”

Key ingredients in civilization are love, truth, and trust. Also in our world.

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