"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
During the next six months, you’re going to be hearing the name Orson Scott Card a lot. Card is the author of Ender’s Game, one of the greatest works of science fiction and children’s literature ever written. In November, an all-star film production of Ender’s Game is hitting theaters, and along with the buzz, there’s sure to be lots of controversy.
Why? Because in addition to being one of the most critically acclaimed writers of science fiction, Card, or OSC, as he’s dubbed in sci-fi circles, is also one of the most openly bigoted. Card is the great-great-grandson of Mormon icon Brigham Young, and his politics are deeply linked to his lifelong Mormonism. Card has been openly railing against what he calls “the homosexual agenda” for decades.
Earlier this year, DC Comics found itself embroiled in a public relations fiasco after it hired Card to write its latest Superman adventure. Already rather beleaguered on the subject of diversity, DC caused a public outcry when it announced the anti-gay Card would be scripting a story about the American icon, and finally had to put the issue on hold indefinitely.
But Card has been in the science fiction business for decades, and has become one of the powerful and influential authors in the industry. He is the only author in history to win sci-fi’s two biggest awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, back-to-back: for 1985′s Ender’s Game and its sequel Speaker for the Dead. He’s the winner of the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award—nearly every prestigious sci-fi/fantasy award on the planet. He runs a yearly “boot camp” for sci-fi writers, teaches at Southern Virginia University, and serves as a judge for the annual sci-fi Writers of the Future awards.
In 2008, the esteemed Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) awarded Card its Margaret A. Edwards Award, annually given to an author whose lifetime has been spent “helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world.” The decision inevitably caused controversy, but YALSA argued that Card’s personal views should not diminish the impact of the Ender‘s series, which is stridently anti-war and progressive in its depiction of intergalactic cultural clashes and the societal cost of violence.
But Card remains a polarizing figure in a corner of the publishing industry that’s long been criticized for its commitment to upholding a mostly male, mostly white standard of excellence. It matters that when Orson Scott Card talks, the world of sci-fi is listening; because so often what Orson Scott Card has to say overshadows the iconic Ender and its sequels.
Despite being a Democrat, Card also has stridently right-wing political views that verge on neo-conservative. He also hates fanfiction, even though he frequently writes it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the paradoxical mishmash of Cardian beliefs that might provoke some brain-scouring and heated debate among sci-fi fans near you as the buzz for Ender’s Game starts to grow.
OSC and the “Homosexual Agenda”
In 2008, Card lamented that he had for so long been labeled a “homophobe” because of his stated positions on homosexuality. Here’s a run-down on what he said. Notably, he’s become far more vocal and politically active in the fight against gay marriage in recent years.
1990: Card argued that states should keep sodomy laws on the books in order to punish unruly gays–presumably implying that the fear of breaking the law ought to keep most gay men in the closet where they belonged.
2004: He claimed that most homosexuals are the self-loathing victims of child abuse, who became gay “through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse.”
2008: In 2008, Card published his most controversial anti-gay screed yet, in the Mormon Times, where he argued that gay marriage “marks the end of democracy in America,” that homosexuality was a “tragic genetic mixup,” and that allowing courts to redefine marriage was a slippery slope towards total homosexual political rule and the classifying of anyone who disagreed as “mentally ill:”
A term that has mental-health implications (homophobe) is now routinely applied to anyone who deviates from the politically correct line. How long before opposing gay marriage, or refusing to recognize it, gets you officially classified as “mentally ill”
Remember how rapidly gay marriage has become a requirement. When gay rights were being enforced by the courts back in the ’70s and ’80s, we were repeatedly told by all the proponents of gay rights that they would never attempt to legalize gay marriage.
It took about 15 minutes for that promise to be broken. …
If a court declared that from now on, “blind” and “sighted” would be synonyms, would that mean that it would be safe for blind people to drive cars?
No matter how sexually attracted a man might be toward other men, or a woman toward other women, and no matter how close the bonds of affection and friendship might be within same-sex couples, there is no act of court or Congress that can make these relationships thesame as the coupling between a man and a woman.
This is a permanent fact of nature.
Card went on to advocate for, literally, a straight people’s insurrection against a pro-gay government:
[W]hen government is the enemy of marriage, then the people who are actually creating successful marriages have no choice but to change governments, by whatever means is made possible or necessary… 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….
2009: He joined the board for anti-gay lobby The National Organization for Marriage, which was created to pass California’s notorious Proposition 8, banning gay marriage.
2012: He supported his home state North Carolina’s constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage by arguingthat gay marriage “will be the bludgeon [The Left] use to make sure that it becomes illegal to teach traditional values in the schools.”
Homophobic Subtext in Card’s Writing
While subtext is a tricky thing to address, Card’s subtext is often, well, text.
Hamlet’s Father: In 2008, Card wrote this hilariously painful Shakespearean fanfic that posits that Hamlet’s father was a pedophile who molested most of the royal court, with the implication that the abuse made them all gay. OSC joked that he left Shakespeare’s version “in shreds on the floor.” You don’t say.
The Homecoming Saga. This book is Card’s fanfic retelling of the Book of Mormon—in space. It also features a gay male character who gets married for the good of society, because he recognizes that procreation is his duty. The book espouses the joy and love of his relationship with his wife, though, notably, Card doesn’t attempt to “cure” the gay man, and sex continues to be a chore for him.
Ender in Exile. In this book, as in several others, Card sets up a situation where civilization is in the early stages of formation, which means it’s largely dependant on high fertility rates and stable, monogamous heteronormativity. This sets the stage for Card to spend time rhapsodizing about the benefits of straight sex. Ad nauseum. “In between things actually happening it’s ALL lecturing about marriages and heterosexuality to the point of propaganda and driving me insane,” writes one Goodreads reviewer about the book.
Songmaster. Songmaster was Card’s attempt to show that he could write fairly about gay people—more specifically, gay men, since his writing seems to pay little attention to lesbians. However, Card’s well-meaning (sort of) attempt at depicting homosexual love is muddied by the creepy overtones. The main gay love story features a young man who was groomed to be mostly homosexual in a pederasty-based society similar to Ancient Greece. He falls in love with a 15-year-old castrati.
To make things worse, the 15-year-old has the body of a10-year-old. To make things even worse, when they finally have sex, the 15-year-old in a 10-year-old’s body loses his virginity, only to nearly die because of a plot point that leaves him unable to have sex ever again. Card addressed Songmaster in his 1990 essay, and described the relationship as a “mutually self-destructive path”:
What the novel offers is a treatment of characters who share, between them, a forbidden act that took place because of hunger on one side, compassion on the other, and genuine love and friendship on both parts. I was not trying to show that homosexuality was “beautiful” or “natural”—in fact, sex of any kind is likely to be “beautiful” only to the participants, and it is hard to make a case for the naturalness of such an obviously counter-evolutionary trend as same-sex mating.
So basically, Card wrote a novel whose main plot point involves punishing homosexual sex, in the guise of identifying with mostly gay men. Did we mention the older lover was also in a straight relationship? With a kid? Once again, reproduction trumps all.
Orson Scott Card and Fanfiction
In 1989, Orson Scott Card wrote a story called “The Originist.” It was a work of Isaac Asimov fanfiction, published in an anthology alongside other Asimov fanfics. Card later explained that although fanfiction is terrible and unimaginative, he wanted to write it to prove how much better his fanfiction was than everyone else’s fanfiction. In the 1990 anthology Map in the Mirror, Card first expostulates that “Written science fiction has an author-driven audience. The real science fiction audience doesn’t want to read [works written by one author in another author's universe].” He then goes on to tell how he gleefully jumped at the chance to write Asimov fanfic:
[F]or this one anthology, Dr. Asimov was allowing the participants to set stories within his own closely-held fictional universes… Suddenly I was sixteen years old again and I remembered the one story I wanted so badly to read, the one that Asimov had never written…
Card explains that even though he has laid down the law regarding franchised works and other forms of fanwork, the rule doesn’t apply to him “because I had a compelling story to tell.”
Card also went on to write the novel tie-in for the franchise The Abyss.
In 2004, he went even further, bluntly stating on his website that “The time to write fan fiction is ‘never,’” and that “to write fiction using my characters is morally identical to moving into my house without invitation and throwing out my family.”
In a post-Fifty Shades publishing environment, however, Card has rapidly thawed out. Last year he hosted a fanfiction contest and told the Wall Street Journal that “Every piece of fan fiction is an ad for my book. What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?”
Taking Card at his word, then, we are happy to direct you to our favorite repositories of Ender’s Game fanfiction on the Internet. Enjoy the gay, gay slash fanfiction—or write some of your own.
Ender’s Game fanfiction at AdultFanfiction.net. Highlight: “Ender is forced to pleasure his brother, Peter. Routine, dismissed in the face of desire. Two wills, pitted in a game of lust and control.”
Ender’s Game fanfiction at Fanfiction.net. Highlight: “Ender encounters Alai at night. Boy/boy, but the fluffy sort, with conversation.”
The ins and outs of Card’s bibliographical representation of gay men may not be relevant to everyone. But with Card already taking center stage this year for the DC comics fiasco, and the first trailer for Ender’s Game dropping today, soon a great number of people are going to be revisiting their childhoods, and revisiting the views of one of their favorite authors in the process.
Whether you think a writer’s works should speak for themselves, or whether no great work can be read without context, between now and November, you’re likely to have no shortage of debate around sci-fi’s most hotly debated author.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)