Category Archives: Orson Scott Card
Posted by Melissa
Last weekend, I went to see Ender’s Game in theaters, which was very exciting since Ender’s Game, the book, is one of the very few science fiction novels that I actually enjoyed. Now, you may mistakenly believe that I am a connoisseur of all things sci-fi, judging from my incredible science fiction short story that I wrote in September, but really I am not much of a sci-fi person. I prefer my dragons and magic over spaceships and technology.
Ender’s Game is an exception for me because it is all about characters, and I love well developed characters. Yes, there is lots of space and tech and ships and even aliens (to which I have a particular aversion for various reasons). But the story is a character-driven one about a young genius whose gifts are being molded to create a perfect warleader regardless of the struggles Ender himself endures because of his views on conflict. He is an incredible strategist, but he also has a developing set of morals, and this is the central tension of the novel.
Admittedly, the battles that the teams of youngsters engage in are pretty cool, as well.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed the book. I appreciated that it was not a straightforward battle against a big, wriggly army of aliens, and I appreciated how Ender grew and changed and remained an interesting person throughout the story.
Going into the film, it was impossible not to have at least some hopes for a similar story to be told. However, what I had to keep in mind was that this was a movie, not a book, and films will always be different. How can a film convey a character’s inner thoughts and conflicts, or embrace exposition and narrative brought into it by the author? How can one film span years of involved storytelling and show the growth of a character from a very small child into a pre-teen? How can a film possibly relate all of the elements of the book that readers love in a two hour timeframe?
The simple fact is, a film cannot fulfill every hope and dream a reader has. Moviemakers must pick and choose what to use, what to change, and what to dispense with. Ender’s Game was not exactly the same as the book. The timeline was sped up significantly to take place over months rather than years. Of course, we were not inside the character’s head, but could only guess what Ender was thinking or pick up on bits of exposition. There was not nearly as much time spent on the relationships between Ender and his battle schoolmates and how he became a leader. The Peter/Valentine plotline was gone entirely.
The film was not the book.
But that’s okay. The trick to enjoying a good book-to-film adaptation, at least in my opinion, is to set the book aside as much as you possibly can and judge the film based on what it offers. Of course, if you’ve read the book, it is not possible to forget the story or what you loved about it as you sit and watch it play out before your eyes (or not, as the case may be). But the more you can step away from the book and watch the movie, the less likely the inevitable comparisons will upset you.
I will say this, the film Ender’s Game was remarkably closer to the book as far as adaptions go. These are all my own personal opinions, of course, but as I watched it, I felt that I was enjoying the same story. It followed the same plotline, it got Ender the character down very well, and it turned my vague and uninformed visions of what battle school and the battle simulations might have looked like into a fantastic reality. It was fun.
Most importantly, though, using a book about the ethical implications of training child soldiers, of deceiving and manipulating those children for “the greater good,” and preemptive attacks on an enemy that may or may not pose a future threat, the movie had the daunting task of grappling with these same issues in a very short span of time. It did so, I thought, very well. In some instances, I felt more strongly for the characters in the film than I did for the ones in the book.
But (let me say it again!) Ender’s Game, the film, is not the book. Some characters were deliberately changed from their book versions, scenes were altered or cut altogether. The story was different because of the medium and the timeframe. Did it lose anything for being different? Not necessarily. Of course, if a film that claims to be “inspired by” a certain novel goes off the deep end and has nothing much in common with the original, I think we are justified to be more than a little miffed, not because the film itself is automatically bad (it might be quite good!), but because we were led to expect to see a story we know and loved recreated in some way. What is less reasonable is to become miffed when a film takes liberties with the book and changes things. Once again, it will be a much more enjoyable experience for us if we can just watch the movie as a movie in its own right and see how it does.
An example of this that I often think of is the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan. I have read the book and consider it one of the best children’s books ever written. The film version is profoundly different. They changed one of the fundamental issues of the novel – that is, the inability of Peter Pan to mature or change. You might even say, the movie is nothing like the book at all because they changed what the story was supposed to mean. But it’s a very, very good movie. It is beautiful, fun, emotional, and sweet. It is well acted, funny, and fulfilling as a film. Is it different from its original source? Yes! Do I mind? Not at all.
Now, judging Ender’s Game as a film and not as an adaptation of a novel, there were definitely some flaws. I felt that it was too rushed and could have stood for more time developing the character and going through school. It lost a sense of realism in being so quick. The characters, though, were all believable, and the story itself was powerful.
This film stands alone just fine. The good news for lovers of the book is that it also represents the story in the novel very well. I guess the point I’m trying to make here, aside from the fact that I liked this film, is that complaints about the film should not really be driven by how it does and does not reflect the book. Rather, we can judge this film on its own merits, and I think that it comes out looking very strong.
Hello everyone, ’tis I, Erik the Reddest, back on rotation. Since this is my first day back, I’d like to take a moment to give a quick response to Melissa’s story, “Quincy and the Nano,” since that was basically directed at me. Melissa and I work closely together and have talked at length before about the subject (Ok ok, she’s my girlfriend). She generally makes fun of me for doing the science-y technobabble thing we science fiction writers are prone to do, and I generally make fun of her for her inability to write an unhappy ending. So then she had the idea of seeing what it would be like to try to write a science fiction story of her own, and The Nano was the result. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this story yet, go check them out.
Here at While We’re Paused, I’m pretty much the science fiction guy. This is not an incidental thing; I’m actually the chair of SF at Lantern Hollow Press. The Gatekeeper, if you will, for SF stories that arrive in the hopper for the next ezine. This isn’t to say that no one else here at LHP writes or likes sci-fi. Dr. Williams is a Trekkie, for example, and if you mention Firefly around our group, more than a few ears perk up. The thing is, I actually study this stuff, and it comes to me as sort of a default, whereas Dr. Williams is a poet, and Dr. Melton is a historian. Heck, I’m even making my Master’s thesis about science fiction.
I’m not saying any of this to try to put myself on any sort of pedestal. But, given Melissa’s posts last month, it falls to me to respond to her rendering of Science Fiction. It is my solemn duty to answer the challenge: is the difference between my beloved SF and the ranks of Tolkienesque Swords-N-Sorcery stories really only the mere mention of Nanos rather than Magic?
What is Science Fiction, Anyway?
Genres are weird, inconsistent things. The common complaint of modern genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres in today’s fiction is that the only reason we have them is because of the marketing department of the big traditional publishers. But that’s not really fair, is it? The marketing guys wouldn’t have to come up with names like “Alternate-History Gothic Noir Magipunk” if there weren’t people in the world that said “Hey, I could really go for a fictionalized historical account of wizard Dr. Frankenstein’s monster detective agency set in 18th century England.” The academics are often also to blame, as there are many authors within the learned circles who have always pushed the envelope of what kinds of stories can or should be told. But clearly, regardless of what sort of chicken-and-egg argument you make for how we came to all of these splintered ideas about genre in fiction, we are further from a helpfully specific definition of science fiction and fantasy than before we decided to attempt to be so drastically specific in how we label our stories.
That’s why Melissa’s “Quincy and the Nano” not only succeeds in being an amusing story, but also quite aptly frames a real problem authors face when they approach writing science fiction and fantasy. Where is that line? What elements does a story have to have in order to be called Science Fiction, or Fantasy? When does a story stop being science fiction and start being fantasy? Well, I’m happy to report that you don’t really have to answer that question! As Melissa’s story demonstrates, the most important thing for a story is for it to be good, and that relies on the basics: good plot, good characters, and a well executed narrative. If you have those things, exactly what specific box you fit into almost doesn’t matter so much.
Now, certain sub-genres do have particular conventions that readers look for. Melissa couldn’t write her story and then claim it to be “Hard Science Fiction,” for example. There’s just not enough technical structure to her technology for fans of that genre to take it seriously. But that is, of course, not the point at all! The point of Melissa’s story is to make fun of how magical some of these things in science fiction actually are.
So, even as the self-declared SF guru of Lantern Hollow Press, I’m not going to even try to tell you what the dry, technical definition of science fiction supposedly is (that is a much debated topic, and the definitions change dramatically the further you get away in history from the “Scientifiction” days of early SF). Instead, I’ll just shamelessly reference myself from this post, where I was discussing Orson Scott Card’s thoughts on the differences between science fiction and fantasy:
Card offers us these basic definitions: ‘…science fiction is about what could be but isn’t; fantasy is about what couldn’t be’ [How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 22]. Worlds containing technologies and cultures that are based on what is conceivable but not known by the laws and theories of science would fall into Science Fiction. If that world contains things that are contrary to known laws (like magic, for example), then it is more suited for the category of Fantasy.
So really, it’s not all that important as long as you can make a case one way or another so you can get it published. The much more important thing you should remember is that your story must first and foremost be a good story. If you don’t have that, you have nothing!
As For Quincy and the Nano…
Now, since Melissa, a self-declared fantasy writer, wrote a science fiction story to show the ambiguity in genre, I thought I’d try something similar. The funny thing is, I actually do write a lot of fantasy. But, unsurprisingly, since my approach to story worlds is so heavily colored by my love of science fiction, my fantasy stories tend to feel awfully similar to science fiction. Expect my own story, “Jasper Frank’s Very Bad Day,” next week, in which I will attempt to demonstrate this peculiar habit of mine as well as continue the genre discussion.
For more discussion of the Science Fiction genre in particular, check out my extensive series of Science Fiction Problems posts. Until next week, what’s the craziest mash-up sub-genre you’ve ever run into? Let me know in the comments below!
This is the second part of a two-part post. Click here for Part I
Hello again, everyone.
This is the final post in my series on Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and the last post of my rotation this month. Last week I started explaining how Card’s Piggies demonstrate his advice about writing aliens from his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy .as I’ve previously discussed in my series on writing aliens. This week I’ll finish that up with the last two points: Culture and Environment. This is a really great book and series (I’ve since gotten into Ender’s Shadow and love it so far) so I highly recommend them! As before, a warning:
WARNING: SPOILERS IMMINENT
Culture: The Problem of Monocultures
As I’ve said before, the concepts of Biology, Culture, and Environment that Card focuses on in his advice are interrelated. But the fact that these elements blur only occurs if you are approaching the writing of your aliens correctly according to Card’s method: if you want to make memorable, believable, and unique aliens, you have to think about these elements of biology, culture, and environment related to each other. To do otherwise is carelessness or flawed in concept.
Culture is a construct, as much in the fictional world as in reality. The way we live here on the east coast of the US is different from how they live in the Congo, for example. Much of this has to do with people having to learn how to adapt to their environment, and our biology dictates our needs and desires within that environment. Other elements are dependent on the rational mind: art, science, law, and other marks of civilization go beyond mere survival to creating a distinct culture. You’re well served to think through all of these things, of course, but there’s one big problem you should avoid as much as possible: monocultures. You’ve seen them in Star Trek and other science fiction, and it’s incredibly lazy. An entire world, one giant, homogeneous culture? Even if you’re trying to convince me that your aliens have formed one world government and nation, it is unbelievable that regional differences would not create a varied culture, even if there are some overarching constants. It’s one of the weaselly ways that stories get around the problem of entire worlds needing to be filled.
That said, the Piggies are, in a way, a monoculture. If the author’s tendency for making monocultures is based in the difficulty of filling an entire world with varied aliens, Card sidesteps the issue quite nicely. The human scientists who encounter the Piggies are not allowed to go out and explore the rest of the planet by order of the International Fleet, for one thing. They can’t verify how the rest of the planet’s Piggies act, so we can’t see if there are significant variations of culture. The Piggies are all stone-age in their technology, so that does limit how much their culture would have differentiated (very low communication technology, for example, restricts the spread of ideas). But the main reason the Piggies make sense as a monoculture is because their lives are tied so closely to their biology. As I mentioned in the last post, the Piggies’ reproduction is tied to the forests they live in. The trees themselves play a role, because in a way the trees are Piggies. I’ll leave the exact mechanism a secret for now (mostly because I can’t think of a way to explain it that makes much sense or doesn’t come off as really weird), but the basics are that Card has come up with a really unique life cycle for his aliens which defines everything they do, from their language, to how they make their tools and weapons, to how they interact with their females. Card’s Piggies are not quite a monoculture, but in this case, Card has shown a narrow exception to his own rule.
Environment: Defining a People’s Limitations
Assuming biology is basically the same across the board, the way your aliens live in different environments should look very different. Think about how humans live on Earth: in the desert, on the tundra, on the coasts and islands… we are very fortunate that Earth’s environment is so beautifully varied. The mistake many SF writers make is that they decide on a particular biome and say “Yeah let’s just make an entire planet like that.” Well, it’s not that easy! First of all, you have to make sure what you’re describing is actually possible. Even if you’ve come up with some contrived reason that the planet makes sense, someone, at some point in your story needs to be curious. It would make sense that the stone-age natives of a cube-shaped planet wouldn’t blink at the revelation of this fact. But it would be silly if no one took issue with this fact and tried to figure out the mystery of it. Barring any crazy, plot-affecting features, if a planet is hospitable for whatever reason, if we are to assume that something can live there, it’s got to be well adapted. If the planet is fairly hospitable, you would be well served to come up with some reasons why it isn’t basically just Earth 2.0 (unless that’s a plot point).
Card’s Piggie homeworld Lusitania is basically what you’d call a “garden world,” being mostly habitable temperate zones with some small polar icecaps. A majority of the landmass is covered with vegetation, and the Piggies live pretty much everywhere. On the surface, it looks a lot like earth, which might otherwise be inconsequential to the plot (it doesn’t always have to be a big deal). But there’s one major difference that makes Lusitania very strange and un-earthlike: it lacks diversity to an extreme. An otherwise fertile planet that, much to the human visitors’ surprise, has very few species. This becomes extremely important to the plot of Speaker for the Dead as the human scientists unravel the mystery of the planet’s lack of numerous animals and plants, and its connection to the Descolada, a terrible plague that was only narrowly cured. I won’t spoil anymore, except to say that Card’s Lusitania is a great example of his interwoven approach, making each aspect of his world reliant on the other. The effect is unique and memorable.
That’s it for this week, and this series! I did my best not to spoil the best parts of the book, so if you haven’t read Speaker for the Dead, definitely pick it up! I’d also recommend How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy to anyone interested in writing in either genre. Card has a lot a great advice, with great examples from his own work.
Posted in Aliens, Authors, Books, Cliches, Ender's Game, Erik Marsh, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Speaker for the Dead, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps
This is the first part of a two-part post. Click here for Part II
Hello again, everyone. Erik the Reddest here for the next part in my series about Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the second book of his Ender saga. I’ve spent the last couple weeks giving some additional counter examples to my HHH post based on my original example of Ender Wiggin. This week, I’ll be taking a closer look at how Card designed his aliens in this book, compared to a few of the more important pointers he gives in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Once again:
WARNING: SPOILERS IMMINANT
It Would Be Rather Pointless If He Didn’t Actually Write This Way
I find it extremely interesting that there are so many “How to Write” books written and readily available to be snapped up and learned from, and just as many different, valid methods to the process. There are, however, a few constants in these books: you generally only want to really focus on the ones written by people whose writing you respect. If the book was written by either nameless authors contracted by the publisher, or someone who you’ve never read anything from, you’re not likely to connect with their advice, and they’re probably just regurgitating general academic conventions or mimicking the actual masters of the craft. You’re much better served to seek out books written by authors of books that really floored you, that did something you truly didn’t expect.
To me, Card was that author, and Card’s book on writing was like a window opened to let fresh air into a musty room. So much of the generic advice like “write what you know!” that I found in other handbooks and guides didn’t really make sense until I had a context to put it in. Card’s methods, for the writing process in general and the SF and Fantasy genres in specific, were both grounded in a book I had actually read in which he demonstrated these things. While it was important that Card actually did what he talked about, it was more important to see that it worked.
Much of his advice can be narrowed to one basic admonition: don’t be lazy, implications matter. This expresses itself in many ways, but three that I’ll talk about today: Creature Design, Culture, and Environment. The trick? All three of these elements are separate, but thoroughly entangled ideas. And Card demonstrates these three considerations expertly in the Piggies, the alien race introduced in Speaker for the Dead.
Creature Design: Clearly Evolved, but How?
As I said in Part I of my series on writing aliens, I don’t believe that macro-evolution occurs in our world. This doesn’t mean, however, that it could occur in a story, and it remains a very logical and effective means for brainstorming ideas for exotic and interesting aliens. It isn’t enough anymore for aliens to just be scary or strange. They need to make sense for modern audiences to accept them. If a creature simply doesn’t seem like it could exist (never mind whether or not it does, or should, for that matter), you lose your audience. Simple as that. And evolution is a convenient logical construction that makes the process fairly simple. You ask yourself: what sort of creatures could live here, based on the idea that life adapts to its conditions for optimal survival? So, you either decide what sort of place it is and figure out what lives there, or the other way around, starting with who you want to live there.
But Card’s Piggies turn that all on its head, to great effect. After clearly establishing what evolution dictates should be on Lusitania, Card gives us a world that doesn’t make sense. Where myriad diversity should have created a complex ecosystem, the number of species runs in single digits. Water snakes seem to spontaneously generate out of the riverbank. The large cattle are all female, but consistently give birth. And the one sentient race of creatures on the planet appear to all be male.
Card’s design for the Piggies is deliberately inter-related with his plot, his world, design, and the mystery of the rest of his world which is unraveled during the course of the story. The Piggies themselves are innocuous (I mean come on, what could be less threatening than a little pig-man?), mythical, and mysterious right down to the biological level. While they have some physical features that make immediate sense, like their opposable digits which generally accompany intelligent life, they are very specialized for their tree-dwelling culture. One Earth, or on another similarly diversely populated planet, we wouldn’t give that element a second glance. But on Lusitania, it doesn’t make sense.
If monkeys developed their climbing ability as a way to stay away from predators, why did the Piggies? For that matter, what about the strange multiple languages that they speak, especially the mysterious Father Tongue, which involves a ritual dance and beating of sticks and singing? Card’s design of the Piggies goes to show that you can’t just arbitrarily stick feelers and bug-eyes on people and call ’em aliens. I mean, you can, and lots of people would agree with you (heck, the feelers would be enough for that), but they wouldn’t be very good, would they? Unless you consider the implications carefully. Every decision Card made about how the Piggies look and act revolves around their connection to everything else in his story.
That’s it for this week! Next week I’ll get into the other two areas that Card’s Piggies demonstrate. Until then, have you read Speaker for the Dead or Xenocide? If so, what do you think of Card’s aliens? Let me know in the comments below.
Hello again everyone! Last week I tap-danced around spoilers while attempting to give an explanation of what Orson Scott Card’s character Ender Wiggin is in Speaker for the Dead, but this week I’m not going to be able to keep that up. I want to get into what makes this book good writing, and to do that I need to actually talk about the writing in more detail. I want to talk about the design of Card’s alien race which introduced in this book and plays a role in the next book in the Ender Saga, Xenocide, but to do that I need to spoil a few important plot-related details. I could try to do this in another very round-about post, but I’ve decided not to hamstring myself. All that to say:
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
But even if you decide to read the rest of this post and learn a few of these details, the book is still well worth your read. The details I reveal have vast implications that only become clear if you read the book, and Card’s other characters are excellent.
Another note before we begin: the reason I want to talk about the Piggies (and Speaker for the Dead, for that matter) is because Card demonstrates very well all of the things he talks about in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, which I’ve examined thoroughly in a post series I did a while ago called Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens. Check out the posts if you want to see Card’s tips and tricks, and my examples. Without further ado, let’s talk about the Piggies.
Piggies, Pequeninos, or “The Little Ones”: an Introduction
Ender’s life’s work, as I talked about in the last post, is to prevent a second xenocide from occurring. After the humans wiped out the Bugger homeworld and therefore killed every Bugger everywhere else in the galaxy, the humans started colonizing the now empty previously Bugger-inhabited worlds. During this process, the humans came across a garden world which they call Lusitania, and while it had a very limited ecosystem with surprisingly few species of flora and fauna, the colony, founded by a new wave of Catholic charters which were pushing out from the home system of Earth, was able to eke out a living fairly easily. All of this is complicated when the short, bipedal, pig-like creatures that lived in the forests of this world were found to be intelligent. For the first time since the Bugger Wars 3000 years before, humans had found a non-human sentient race.
But unlike the Buggers who were space-faring and efficient in war and inter-stellar colonization, the Piggies (called this because, well, they look like earth-pigs walking on their hind legs) were basically stone-age. Not even that, really. More like… wooden age? The Piggies didn’t event really use tools except some inexplicably sharp and durable wooden knives, and sturdy wooden clubs used in their infrequent wards with other Piggy tribes. They speak verbal language. In fact, they speak several of their own languages, and quickly learn the human languages of Stark (short for Starways Common) and Portuguese (the cultural language of the settlers of Lusitania). The Piggies love song and conversation, and ravenously seek knowledge and learning in any form they can manage, especially when they figure out that the humans have so much they could teach them. From a world-building perspective, the Piggies are basically a complete 180 from the Buggers, with one very important exception.
The plot of Ender’s Game, centered around the looming threat of the terrible Bugger fleet which so incredibly outmatched the human starships, all stemmed from one primary theme: miscommunication. The entire Bugger war, from the initial contact in which the Buggers killed humans indiscriminately and viciously, to their wiping out most of the starfleet scrambled together by the frantic humans, to the annihilation of the Bugger homeworld, were all because humans could not talk to the Formics. The insect-like beings evolved, unsurprisingly, from a hive-like species centered around a queen, mingling the minds of the entire colony into one consciousness. They never talked to each other, and so did not have any idea how to communicate. In fact, the Formics’ mode of “communication” is basically telepathy, instant thinking to each other in such a way that made each individual drone nothing more than an extension. So the queens, controlling their drone-children from light-years away, came across the ships filled with squishy humans and thought they were basically killing communications antennae, not people. Opposite, the humans thought they were fighting a monstrous, xenocidal race of war-machines bent on destroying them. It was only through Ender, who lead the human fleet that destroyed the Bugger homeworld and killed all of their queens, that the human race eventually realized the tragic mistake, that they all killed each other only because they didn’t know how to communicate.
The Pequeninos, which is Portuguese for “little ones,” do speak, but a grave miscommunication occurs that Ender fears may result in another xenocide. As soon as the Starways Congress finds out that the Piggies are sentient, they order that the colony on Lusitania would be fenced in and isolated so that the new intelligent beings would not be contaminated culturally or technologically. They do, however, allow two scientists to directly interact with the Piggies to research them, disallowing and direct questions that might reveal information about the humans, or introduce corrupting influences. The Piggies kill two of the scientists working with them, ritualistically vivisecting them.
Essentially, Card has hit the same theme of miscommunication from an entirely new angle. Humans are in the seat of terrible power, able to completely destroy the Piggies just as the Buggers were no doubt able. And to some people, the Piggies have just announced that they are uninterested in living peacefully. After working so hard to get this second change right, for humans to redeem themselves for the mistake of the Bugger War, the pendulum has swung too far. By isolating the Piggies, their hunger for knowledge, to be uplifted from their primitive lives into the space age only grows, and the scientific community is completely incapable of learning anything meaningful about them.
The Piggies themselves are so integrated into their environments that they could literally not live anywhere else. They rely on the massive trees of their forests for their reproduction, just as every other species in the world of Lusitania (except the humans, of course) relies on a partnered plant species for its reproduction. The Piggies (and the Buggers, to a degree) are probably they only cases I’ve seen for legitimate monocultures, something I harped on in Part II of my series. But as I also talked about in Part II, this biology also figures directly into their culture. The Piggies revere the trees, and their terminology and turns of phrase revolve around their relationship with the forest, and not in the sort of cliche elf-y sort of way we hear so often in bad fantasy books.
And that’s enough for one post! Next week I’ll get into how the Piggies fulfill Card’s recommendations for how to write aliens quite beautifully. Until then, have you read Ender’s Game or Speaker for the Dead? What do you think of the Buggers or the Piggies? Let me know in the comments below!