One of my favorite science fiction characters of recent decades is Ender Wiggin, the sad little boy who is plucked from his family home and drafted into military service after tests show he is the best chance to save humanity from an alien invasion. Ender is the creation of author Orson Scott Card, who is back with a new book about the reluctant hero: “Ender in Exile.” Alicia Lozano, a writer here at the Los Angeles Times, interviewed Card about “Exile,” the new Marvel Comics adaptations of the saga and the ongoing talk of a film. Her story is below.
Twenty-three years have passed since Orson Scott Card first dazzled readers with “Ender’s Game,” a seminal work that blurred the lines between young adult and adult fiction and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction’s highest honors. Now he’s back with “Ender in Exile,” which picks up where the 1985 book left off.
The revival of Ender, the boy hero who saves Earth from bug-like aliens, goes beyond the novel’s pages with a new comic book adaptation of the original saga and roiling interest in Hollywood as a potential film franchise.
All of this quite surprises the 57-year-old North Carolina resident, although he suspects the story still resonates partly due to its sad martial tale: Card introduces the protagonist as a 6-year-old prodigy who is bred to be Earth’s future hero, but to achieve this end Ender must train to become the perfect soldier — cunning, strong, ruthless. He is symptomatic of a war-obsessed society, a reclusive character grappling with the very grown-up issues of isolation and loneliness.
With such powerful themes, Card is at times amused by Ender’s popularity among young readers. He never intended to be a young adult author. He is proud, however, that the books speak to adolescents who are reading them and engaging in serious philosophical conversations during their most malleable years.
“In our society children are kept from adulthood until they graduate college,” he said. “A lot of kids find in Ender an imaginary outlet for an impulse to do something real. It’s like they’re sneaking into an adult conversation.”
When we revisit Ender, he is 17 and exalted as a hero for fending off the third wave of alien marauders that threatened to obliterate Earth. But his brutal military techniques render him a monster to the very people who trained him to be a killer. He is mercilessly exiled from his home planet and forced into a colony that is light years away.
“Exile” is not the first time Card has dipped back into Ender’s universe — there were three sequels, a spin-off series and several short stories — but “Exile” fills in the “lost years.” That’s because in the original follow-up, “Speaker for the Dead,” Ender is about 35 years old and healed from the trauma of being Earth’s savior.
“Most adolescents are trying to disconnect, but Ender wants to root in society and he really can’t,” he said. “I see someone who is ready for adulthood but declines when he finds it.”
Ender’s biggest challenge is not those threatening to destroy Earth, but rather himself. He is ready for adulthood and could find happiness with an intended mate, yet he rejects living a conventional life and instead opts for the role of solitary leader, a protector who reaches into man’s most basic fighting instinct.
Card insists that war is part of a universal human history and that Ender is merely a product of that legacy. But with combat raging in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, it’s hard not to compare Ender with modern soldiers, and Card does not shy away from this point. A student of all things military, Card is a proud conservative who writes a regular column for the Ornery American, a right-wing online magazine.
But Card’s beliefs do not fit neatly inside a box, which annoys some of his followers. He is a registered Democrat but also an avid supporter of George Bush’s war on terrorism and a bitter public foe of same-sex marriage. He is a leading figure not only in science fiction but also in Mormon literature -– he is a descendant of Brigham Young and has written theological plays, short stories and novels.
His fans and critics disagree on where the author’s sympathies lie. Some say the stories are pro-military because they glamorize the duty-at-all-costs mind-set. Others say the books are decidedly anti-military because of the deception and cruelty used to train the boy soldier. Card says this is the wrong debate; he maintains that his books are simply pro-soldier, an attempt to sympathize and to understand the importance of what they do.
“The real question is: How do you make good people into killing machines,” he said, “and bring them back into full citizenship?”
Card draws a parallel between his character and the soldiers of today, who volunteer for the military despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war. Their commitment to serve does not come without consequence, he said. Card, whose brother served in Korea in the 1960s, has spent a lot of time speaking with troops who loved his book. Like Ender, many of these men and women struggle with the dichotomy of being protectors and aggressors, he said.
“Soldiers, in a sense, never come home,” he said. “[Those] who have seen radical violence are never able to share that. We regard it as pathology if they do.”
This complex weave of emotions has made the Ender story especially difficult to film and has resulted in two decades of fizzled studio meetings, dead-end scripts and a marathon director search. The author said he’s not interested in a “tough hero action film” and refuses to condescend to green-screen Hollywood. Card imagines a “film where the human relationships are absolutely essential — an honest presentation of the story.”
“Ender’s Game” was recently in the works with director Wolfgang Petersen (“In the Line of Fire,” “The Perfect Storm,” “Troy“) on board; however, Card did not feel comfortable with the movie’s approach. That production was scrapped early in November with no plan to pick up the pieces.
The novels did make a step into a visual medium this last October with the first issue of “Ender’s Game: Battle School,” a Marvel Comics five-issue adaptation of “Ender’s Game.” The third issue of the series by writer Chris Yost and artist Pasqual Ferry hits stores Jan. 28.
There’s also a second Marvel mini-series starring Card’s boy soldiers: “Ender’s Shadow: Battle School,” by the creative team of Mike Carey and Sebastian Fiumara, which began early this month. That one adapts the 1999 Card novel “Ender’s Shadow,” which presents the events of “Ender’s Game” from the point of view of a young orphan named Bean, one of Ender’s allies during his training.
Considering the Hollywood attitude that comic books are the now the trendiest storyboards for pitch meetings, perhaps the well-received Marvel series will actually give the saga of Ender Wiggin some traction in Hollywood. If so, Card will be pleased to see his thrilling space opera reach a whole new audience of young people.
“People sneer at escapism. I see it as training for life,” he said. “Training people as heroes is extremely important.”
— Alicia Lozano
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Credits: “Ender’s Game: Battle School” artwork courtesy of Marvel Comics.