Saturday, December 13, 2008

Orson Scott Card’s Failure to Make the Case for Traditional Marriage against Robert A. Heinlein

In a recent interview on National Review, Orson Scott Card responded to comparisons between him and Robert A. Heinlein particularly in regards to Ender’s Game and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Both of these novels are works of military science fiction that deal with wars set in a future world against giant insect like creatures. According to Card, while he has read a number of Heinlein’s novels, he has never read Starship Troopers and decided never to read it when he was told of the similarity to Ender’s Game. Card goes on to point out that his and Heinlein’s politics could not be further apart; Heinlein was a libertarian while he is an ardent communitarian.

I take it as a given that Card is familiar with a certain aspect of Heinlein’s work connected to his libertarianism that, while it does not appear in Starship Troopers, permeates almost everything else he wrote. I speak of course about Heinlein’s advocacy for polyandrous relationships and group marriage. For example in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress the colonists on the Moon take to group marriage as a practical solution to their situation. They have far more men than women so instead of forcing most of the male population to be celibate (funny that the issue of homosexuality is never raised) every woman has multiple husbands. While the more puritanical citizens of Earth look askance at such behavior, the Moon colonists have embraced this alternative lifestyle and fight to maintain it. Whatever one may think of Heinlein’s ideas, there is no question that he was a brilliant man and one of the truly great visionary writers of the twentieth century. His views cannot merely be cast aside and ignored.

In Ender in Exile, Card’s recently published sequel to Ender’s Game, Card sets up a very similar situation with the soldiers now turned colonists on the former bugger world now named Shakespeare. There is a shortage of women, something that will not be rectified for decades to come when the first batch of colonists arrive. The acting governor of Shakespeare, Vitaly Kolmogorov, makes the very un-Heinlein like decision to maintain monogamy. He has all the women distributed in marriage by lottery, with a little cheating on the side to cover certain particular situations. All men who do not win out in this lottery are forced, in theory at least, into a life of celibacy. In its own way Card’s decision to defend monogamy under such extreme conditions is equally as radical as Heinlein’s willingness to abandon it.

Card puts a human face, Sel Menach, to the situation and then turns him into his mouth-piece. Sel nobly turns down his assistant, Afraima, who comes onto him. (As a side point of interest, I should mention that both of these characters happen to be Jewish.) Not only does Sel turn her down he also asks that he either be allowed to quit or to have her fired so that she would no longer serve as a temptation. This whole bit is a remarkably lousy piece of writing that serves no purpose in furthering the book other than to foreshadow an equally lousy scene later on in the book when Ender has to keep his own teenage hormones in check.

I have no problem with Card arguing for traditional social values. Particularly in this present climate we need every voice we can get. And Card has generally been one of the more effective voices out there. It is precisely because of the situation we are in today, though, that we need something better than: “Monogamy has been proven, over and over, to be the optimum social arrangement. It’s not about genes, it’s about children – they have to grow up into the society we want them to maintain.” (Pg. 104) What exactly is so great about monogamy and when has it been proven over and over to be the best to the extent that one would make such a sacrifice when Heinlein offers such a tempting solution?

4 comments:

Miss S. said...

Oh look, my eyes actually caught something amiss...

Not only does Sel turn her down he also asks that he either be allowed to quite...

"quit"?

Izgad said...

Thanks.

Tobie said...

In re: why Heinlein did not mention homosexuality, his mindset seems to be extremely limited in its extremism, if that makes any sense. Although willing and eager to overthrow any concept of monogamy, in Stranger in a Strange land, he has a character think that the Martian would be able to grok something not right about those poor undecideds or some similar term (sorry, I don't have the book in front of me).

Rather like the way that his women continually re-affirm the most narrow gender stereotypes, no matter what weird futuristic sort of relationship they may be in.

Izgad said...

I have to agree with you on this point.
Heinlein was a lot like his fellow libertarian Ayn Rand. Even though Any Rand was a woman her books are very man centered. All the interesting really radical characters are men and all the women are kept in very tradtional gender stereotypes even as her books argued for the overthrow of traditional society.