"Ender's Game's" surprising lesson about gifted children

Card wrote about a gifted kid abused for being different. But he's still bigoted against those different from him

Published November 1, 2013 2:16PM (EDT)

 Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford in "Ender's Game"
Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford in "Ender's Game"

Orson Scott Card’s science fiction masterpiece "Ender’s Game" is a story about a little boy who is hated by children for being different, written by a man who hates adults for being different from him. Those are flummoxing propositions for fans of the novel to untangle. Now the film adaptation of "Ender’s Game" is being released, and it has raised an entirely different set of issues for some of those fans.

The gay rights organization Geeks OUT! called for a boycott, arguing that Card may be receiving a cut of the film’s profits, and therefore to see the movie is to fuel his anti-gay agenda. Fans of "Ender’s Game" who are sensitive to the LGBT community but are also emotionally attached to the novel are trying to have their cake and eat it too by pledging that however much their ticket to the movie costs, they will donate at least an equal amount to gay rights organizations. News broke Wednesday that Card wouldn't receive any money from ticket sales -- but ultimately, that changes little about the moral calculus of seeing a film inspired by the work of a homophobe.

The controversy is a reflection of how hard it is to separate "Ender’s Game" from the bigotry of its author. For people like me who have clung to "Ender’s Game" as a way to define our very particular childhood experiences, this difficulty is especially acute. When I discovered how hateful a man Orson Scott Card has become I felt betrayed, and still can’t understand how this could be the same person who made me feel, for the very first time, that someone understood the pain I felt growing up as a gifted child.

* * *

As a general rule children learn pre-reading skills between the ages of 4 and 5, and learn to read simple books between the ages of 6 and 10. I learned to read when I was 2 and a half years old. The counselors at my local elementary school found the idea ludicrous. My mother had to fight over their protestations that I’d just been memorizing the words before they would test me, and on the day the tests proved that her son actually could read I was assigned the label “gifted.”

I remember getting slapped by teachers in nursery school for making observations about their behavior. Had they bothered to listen they would have recognized that I was expressing genuine curiosity, not questioning their authority, but I’m convinced they reacted out of shock at what was coming out of my mouth. By the time I entered primary school I was far enough ahead of the standard curriculum that I’d mostly sit in the back of the class, bored, while I drew pictures or stared out the window and daydreamed.
Today it’s understood that children suffer socially for being removed from their peers when they skip a grade. I couldn’t benefit from that wisdom in the early 1980s. I will never forget my third grade teacher bringing me to the front of the classroom, telling the other students that I was very bright and had skipped second grade, and asking them to be nice to me. I had left all my friends behind. I was much smaller than everyone. And after that lovely introduction my new third grade classmates were inclined to be hostile toward me.
I was placed in a learning enrichment program, where I would remain for the rest of my time in primary school, and given special field trips and games to play while the other kids stayed behind in our classroom. The extra attention from teachers translated into extra attention from bullies. All I wanted was to be left alone and treated like everyone else, but what I wanted didn’t matter. The adults knew better.
* * *

"Ender’s Game" takes place in a world where humanity is engaged in a genocidal space war against an insect-like race that humans refer to as “Buggers.” Every child in this world is fitted with a monitor that allows the military to track their development. When a child shows promise, he or she is inducted into Battle School, where students learn the mechanics of space combat.

The novel’s hero, Ender Wiggin, is one of those children. He is considered one of humanity’s last hopes to produce the military commander it so desperately needs.

Ender’s story is a tale of isolation from his fellow children, manipulation at the hands of adults, and paying the price for being special.

In the novel, Ender and his batch of recruits are loaded onto a shuttle to deliver them to Battle School. Once the shuttle is in orbit, Ender is the first child to understand that, now that he is in space, and there is no gravity, that his sense of orientation has to be adjusted. The praise Ender receives for his insight invites a physical assault from another child. Ender is marked as an outcast even before the shuttle arrives at Battle School.

When I think about the introduction I received on the first day of third grade, I imagine that I might understand how Ender felt.

In the introduction to the 1991 edition of the novel, Orson Scott Card recounts a letter from a student at Purdue University who explains why "Ender’s Game" means so much to her and her friends:

We are all in about the same position; we are very intellectually oriented and have found few people at home who share this trait. Hence, most of us are very lonely, and have been since kindergarten. When teachers continually compliment you, your chances of "fitting in” are about nil.

In the novel, Ender realizes that the military regimen at Battle School is being changed in unprecedented ways specifically to challenge him alone, because his teachers need Ender to develop as quickly as possible into the tool they require. A classmate who is jealous of this attention attacks Ender in the shower, which leaves Ender no choice but to commit an act of brutal violence in order to save his own life.

What makes all of this particularly awful for Ender is that he suffers from a dilemma that's very common among gifted children. Ender not only fully grasps how and why the adults make the rules they make, but he is powerless to stop it.

Again, from Card’s introduction to the 1991 edition of the novel:

Children are a perpetual, self-renewing underclass, helpless to escape from the decisions of adults until they become adults themselves. And "Ender’s Game," seen in that context, might even be a revolutionary tract.

* * *

I didn’t learn about Card’s militant stance against homosexuality until a few years ago. I was devastated by the revelation. Card can try to cast the illusion that the bile he vomits at LGBT Americans cannot “be construed as advocating, encouraging, or even allowing harsh personal treatment of individuals who are unable to resist the temptation to have sexual relations with persons of the same sex” by hiding that bile behind religious imperatives, but hate speech encourages and implicitly validates hate crime. Card’s is the sort of thinking that occurs in the mind of someone who feels entitled to harass or assault a gay man on the street.

I still can’t make sense of Card, a man who wants to render such a huge swath of humanity isolated and to make their hopes and fears irrelevant, when that’s precisely the nature of the pain that gifted children suffer and a pain that Card implies he understands intimately.

In the introduction to the 1991 edition, Card recalls a letter sent to him by a guidance counselor for gifted children whose son had insisted "Ender’s Game" was a wonderful book.

She read it and loathed it…but the criticism that left me most flabbergasted was her assertion that my depiction of gifted children was hopelessly unrealistic. They just don’t talk like that, she said. They don’t think like that.

And it wasn’t just her. There have been others with that criticism. Thus I began to realize that, as it is, "Ender’s Game" disturbs some people because it challenges their assumptions about reality. … It was important to her, and to others, to believe that children don’t actually think or speak the way the children in "Ender’s Game" think and speak.

And he offers his response:

Yet I knew – I knew – that this was one of the truest things about "Ender’s Game." In fact, I realized in retrospect that this may indeed be part of the reason why it was so important to me…to write a story in which gifted children are trained to fight in adult wars. Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along – the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing "Ender’s Game," I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.

I would like to think that the lesson I learned from growing up gifted, from years of being beaten up by other children for the crime of being different and of having my valid feelings and decisions disrespected by adults, was that I should be kind to other people who were different, and to respect them where others did not.

I don't mean to treat all intolerances and prejudices as identical. Whatever rough treatment I received as a gifted child is assuredly a fraction of the hatred still tossed at LGBT Americans at schools and workplaces across the country.

But how much imagination does it take to experience hatred and pain, and from that experience, extrapolate the most basic of moral lessons we learn as children? Do unto others. The Golden Rule.

Sadly, that’s not the lesson Orson Scott Card learned, such that I wonder if he really did share in the experience of growing up gifted, or whether he just appropriated it as an interesting hook for his first novel.

* * *
When I took a course on adapting novels into film as a screenwriting student, I chose to adapt "Ender’s Game." The movie coming out on Nov. 1 is one I have wanted to see for almost 20 years. It is a chance to share my experience of growing up, in some way, with all my friends and relatives whom I can never count on to read the book, but who might see the movie.
But what I keep thinking about is something written by Robert A. Heinlein, another acclaimed science fiction author, as expressed through the character Jubal Harshaw, who is a writer among other things, in the novel "Stranger in a Strange Land": “… nor am I seeking praise from other writers for ‘technique’ or other balderdash. I want praise from the customer, given in cash because I’ve reached him -- or I don’t want anything.”

Heinlein understands that what validates the artist is the patronage of their work by the audience. In the case of ticket sales for "Ender's Game," every dollar spent on opening weekend is an argument for turning "Ender's Game" into a franchise. Orson Scott Card has heavily revisited the world of "Ender's Game" in some of his most recent novels, fleshing out the stories of secondary characters from the original story. There are "Ender's Game" comic books, and once there was discussion of a video game. There is a ton of material just waiting to be adapted into further "Ender's Game" films.

And even if the movie tanks and no sequels get made, seeing the film is in essence an endorsement of Card and his artistry. Every dollar spent on the work of Orson Scott Card, whether he draws direct profits or not, validates the soapbox he feels entitled to stand upon.

As much as I want to see "Ender’s Game" on the big screen, to see the filmic realization of a novel that has meant more to me than any other book I’ve ever read, I don’t want to participate in validating Card’s soapbox anymore. The ignorance he preaches while standing upon it isn’t just tragic, but could be dangerous to people I love dearly.

Orson Scott Card wrote a book about the pain of being isolated from and hated by other people because of one's perceived differences. He gives us reason to believe the book was inspired by his own struggles. Yet, out here in the real world, outside the realm of Ender and Buggers and Battle School, Card hasn’t learned to respect diversity. Buying a ticket to “Ender’s Game” gives Card further license to continue inflicting pain on those who are different from him, and I don’t think I can square that with my desire to see any movie, even this one.

By Dennis Scimeca

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA who covers the art and business of video games. Follow him on Twitter @DennisScimeca.

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