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'Ender's Game,' its controversial author, and a very personal history - Grantland

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I am neither gay, nor a girl, nor short. I am, however, a Muslim who grew up in Kansas in the 1980s, and I struggle to think of a more perfect recipe for creating a sense of isolation in an American teenager. I literally did not know another practicing Muslim family in Wichita at the time. My best friend who recommendedEnder's Game lived in Appleton, Wisconsin. I saw him once or twice a year, but because his dad and my dad emigrated from the Old Country together, I had more in common with him than with my next-door neighbor.

It was in the context of trying to find my place in the world, of struggling to reconcile my faith with my country when I had no role models to show me the way, that I encountered the following passage about Ender and his Battle School classmate Alai. It stopped me cold:

"I don't want to go," he said.

Alai hugged him back. "I understand them, Ender. You are the best of us. Maybe they're in a hurry to teach you everything."

"They don't want to teach me everything," Ender said. "I wanted to learn what it was like to have a friend."

Alai nodded soberly. "Always my friend, always the best of my friends," he said. Then he grinned. "Go slice up the buggers."

"Yeah." Ender smiled back. Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, "Salaam." Then, red-faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks. Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden. A suppressed religion, perhaps. Or maybe the word had some private and powerful meaning for Alai alone. Whatever it meant to Alai, Ender knew that it was sacred; that he had uncovered himself for Ender, as once Ender's mother had done, when he was very young, before they put the monitor in his neck, and she had put her hands on his head when she thought he was asleep, and prayed over him. Ender had never spoken of that to anyone, not even to Mother, but had kept it as a memory of holiness, of how his mother loved him when she thought that no one, not even he, could see or hear. That was what Alai had given him; a gift so sacred that even Ender could not be allowed to understand what it meant.

If you don't see the importance of this passage, I envy you. Alai is clearly a Muslim, and in the 1980s, Muslims were portrayed in American popular culture as one of three categories, if they were portrayed at all: crazy ayatollahs, greasy lecherous oil sheikhs, or bomb-wielding hijackers.6 Ender's Game was literally the first time I had encountered a positive portrayal of a Muslim character in American fiction. It floored me. I finally saw a positive image of myself in print, and it came not from a fellow Muslim but from a wildly popular Christian author who could trace his American lineage for generations.

I learned that I had more in common with Card than I had thought. Card is a Mormon; that lineage of his traces back to Brigham Young himself. Card and I were both devout believers in religions that were shrouded in stereotypes and inaccuracies. As white guys we were members of the racial majority, but we were also part of the religious minority, giving us the weird and vaguely uncomfortable ability to define ourselves depending on the needs of the moment.

Card's bigoted views about gay people are bad enough, but he exacerbates them with seditious and frankly insurrectionist comments about a country that would tolerate gay marriage. In that same treatise, he wrote, "If America becomes a place where the laws of the nation declare that marriage no longer exists … then our allegiance to America will become zero."

In a 2008 column in the Deseret News, he wrote: "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."

I still have trouble believing that the same man who wrote fiction full of such empathy and understanding would suggest that a civil war is preferable to legalizing gay marriage.

No, the main reason boycotting Ender's Game is counterproductive is that the theme of the story itself is the best repudiation of everything for which Card has come to stand.

That theme is perhaps best expressed in a passage from the original sequel to Ender's GameSpeaker for the Dead, which was published in 1986. It is a very different kind of book; while Ender Wiggin is still the main character, it is set thousands of years in the future, and the adult Ender has long left his soldier days behind and morphed into a philosopher/prophet. It is, in my opinion, Card's best book; like Ender's GameSpeaker for the Dead won the Hugo and Nebula awards.10 (And unlike Ender's GameSpeaker for the Dead really is unfilmable.)

Toward the end of the book, Ender is talking to a Portuguese Catholic boy named Olhado. Ender says:

"Science refuses to admit any cause except first cause — knock down one domino, the one next to it also falls. But when it comes to human beings, the only type of cause that matters is final cause, the purpose. What a person had in mind. Once you understand what people really want, you can't hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can't hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart."

That's what Ender's Game is all about, really. In order to defeat the buggers, Ender has to figure out their tactics. In order to figure out their tactics, he has to understand them. In order to understand them, he has to stop hating them. Empathy leads the way to victory, but it also leads the way to emotional devastation, because how can you live with yourself if you've defeated an enemy you've grown to love?

Maybe Card decided at some point that the price of empathy was better borne by his characters than by himself. It's hard to hate your enemies when you understand them; it's much easier to go through life holding on to your prejudices by keeping those with whom you disagree at arm's length.

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