Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Orson Scott Card
Why it’s daunting: Orson Scott Card is the kind of author who always has several plates spinning at a time. He writes several ongoing series and currently has six forthcoming novels in progress, with a few others proposed or otherwise planned. Since he began writing in the late 1970s, Card has published more than 50 novels, and just as many short stories, from fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction to novels with a more religious focus, and even a considerable amount of non-fiction. Card’s work is also inconsistently aimed at different audiences, sometimes even within the same series. His two most notable series went through a progression from young-adult science fiction to more mature philosophical and morality tales, then back around to more truncated young-adult literature focused on filling in previous narrative gaps.
Card often tells stories about young people forced to take on great responsibility due to a lack of capable adults. He’s repeatedly returned to the theme, in a wide array of genres, over the course of his career. Its roots can be traced to his Mormon faith, which emphasizes missionary work for its male members at a young age, and has an average first-marriage age well below the national average. Though most of his work isn’t overtly religious in nature, elements of his personal beliefs seep into almost every one of his books, which has given him a reputation as a bigot, or at the least as preachy—elements that have kept some prospective readers at a distance.
Possible gateway: Ender’s Game
The 1985 Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel Ender’s Game is unquestionably the best place to start reading Card. The novel synthesizes the themes Card developed in numerous later novels into a fast-paced, thrilling science-fiction story of mankind’s sacrifices to ensure its own survival. The novel begins on Earth with a focus on the three monstrously gifted children of the Wiggin family: Peter, a violent psychopath who tortures small animals, Valentine, the fiercely empathic peacekeeper, and Ender, the youngest, a military genius with an almost crippling conscience. In Card’s future, humans are engaged in a war with an insectoid alien race called Formics. Each third child of Earth families belongs to the state, and Ender moves to the space station Battle School at a young age, where he joins the ranks of children bred to potentially lead the armies of Earth against the alien threat. The novel weaves together a geopolitical power struggle, the influence of political columnists, military justice, and the emotional cost of war into a science-fiction backdrop with notable action setpieces keeping the pace. Card has spent nearly the past 30 years expanding and refocusing the thematic Rubik’s cube of Ender’s Game in subsequent entries in the series, but he never distilled the dread of children presiding over a war while hanging from adults’ puppet strings in the same way he did here.
Ender’s Game contains Card’s single greatest creation: a simulated war game in zero-gravity, pitting teams of young cadets against each other with guns that freeze opponents. The novel’s Battle Room ties directly into the students’ overly militaristic education, and is a key component in Ender’s begrudging transformation from a promising child into humanity’s great hope. It also underscores the corruption within the administration, always out to manipulate Ender and accelerate his progression.
As Ender crushes his fellow schoolmates, heightening their jealousy, the overseers ratchet up the difficulty, stacking the odds against Ender in increasingly impossible examinations in the hopes that it will better mimic unfair war conditions. This progression is so compelling, it threatens to overshadow the later stages of the novel, which find Ender accelerated through to Command School on an asteroid, and training to control the human assault against the Formics via detailed simulations. With young characters thrust into harm’s way, forced to be obsessively competitive, and turned into battle leaders, Ender’s Game doubles as a vibrant precursor to more contemporary series like The Hunger Games.
Next steps: Ender’s Shadow follows Ender’s protégé, Julian “Bean” Delphiki, from childhood through Battle School and his relationship with Ender Wiggin, up to the end of the Formic War. It’s the only other book in Card’s two major tetralogies—the Enderverse and the Bean Quartet—to utilize the Battle Room as skillfully as Ender’s Game. Bean escapes from an experimental genetics lab and joins a massive gang of street children. A benevolent nun intervenes to make him a Battle School recruit, but also discovers that he has a genetic defect, the result of an experiment that gave him prodigious intellect and perhaps saved his life in the streets, but condemns him to gigantism and a short life. Ender’s Shadow, and the subsequent Shadow Of The Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow Of The Giant, detail the geopolitical fallout on Earth of the military genius of Ender’s young commanders as they scatter to their home countries and seize power. The novels alternate between children committing violent acts upon each other and political posturing that resembles an unusually speedy game of Risk, but the Shadow saga keeps the pulsing action beats intact.
In contrast to the Earth-centric Shadowverse, the next Nebula and Hugo award-winning installment of Ender’s story, Speaker For The Dead, doesn’t contain nearly as many thrilling action sequences. Set 3,000 years in the future, as Ender travels at light speed and ages comparatively slower than his fellow humans, Speaker is slower, more deliberate and philosophical. Ender meditates on the ethics of war and colonization, and questions whether the Formics are actually an enemy, as he was told at an impressionable age. At the conclusion of Ender’s Game, Ender writes an anonymous elegy to the Formic Queen he destroyed, and by the time he appears on a distant Brazilian Catholic colony researching a newly discovered alien species, the book becomes a widespread religion, used at funerals to remember the dead. The human race sympathizes with the Formics, using Ender’s name synonymously with genocide. Over the course of the final two volumes in the original tetralogy, Xenocide and Children Of The Mind, Ender’s story gets increasingly metaphysical, dealing with complex theoretical physical concepts, foreign diseases, alien species, and material heavily influenced by Arthur C. Clarke and the Star Child sequence from 2001: A Space Odyessey.
Outside of the Ender and Shadow series, Card has written a handful of other novels that merit sampling. Treason, the 1988 revision of Card’s 1979 novel A Planet Called Treason, takes place in a distant future on a vast continent of warring humanoid tribes, where there are no naturally occurring hard metals to make advanced weaponry. The Mueller tribe achieves the ability to heal rapidly and generate body parts through generations of eugenics. As Lanik, yet another young male narrator, approaches the end of puberty, it’s discovered that he is a “radical regenerative” who’s grown female reproductive organs and full breasts, costing him his rightful inheritance and causing his royal family to shun him as an outcast. Though it refers to humans in a distant past, it’s a more foreign brand of science fiction, even more violent and overtly sexual than Card’s later writings. However, as one of his earliest novels, it contains some early traces of questionable dealings with race. The first tribe Lanik encounters outside his own is a tree-dwelling people with dark skin, who are derogatorily referred to as apes and monkeys. This is presented as a matter-of-fact state of the world, but it’s a hard detail to look past without acknowledging the discomfort.
The Alvin Maker series is a good example of Card’s speculative fiction work, using an alternate history of 19th-century North America where people are born with specific mystical talents. The title character is a seventh son of a seventh son, a Maker, who can alter matter at will. Like Treason, the distinctions of abilities between the races border on racism: “Reds” perform blood magic and “Blacks” perform something akin to voodoo. There may be no intent to offend, but some of Card’s novels take a simplistic view of race that’s difficult to defend.
Where not to start: Other series by Card are inessential to anyone other than readers of religious literature in the Left Behind vein. The lengthy Homecoming novels reimagine the story of the Book Of Mormon, and the Women Of Genesis series expands the stories of Biblical women, adding fictional material.
Aside from being a prolific science-fiction writer, Card also has vocal personal opinions on current events. He’s been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, and basically any rights for gays, a position that gets more and more curious with every novel Card writes with homoerotic-tension elements, like the naked shower fight between children in Ender’s Game, the confused transsexual narrator of Treason, or the overarching metaphor of the dangers of succumbing to sins of the flesh in Wyrms. The more progressive fans separate the extremely socially conservative man behind the work, the more likely they are to continue appreciating his entertaining novels.