Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Presentation at the History and Fiction Conference at the University of West Georgia: Speaker for the Dead: a Historian’s Tale (Part I)

This weekend I was down in Carrollton GA for the History and Fiction Conference hosted by the University of West Georgia. I would like to thank Dr. Julia Farmer for helping to organize the conference and for her personal kindness to me in helping me deal with Sabbath issues. She also gave an excellent presentation on Ariosto and his conflicted attitude toward Charles V. I stayed at the Jameson Inn and the staff there was exceptionally courteous, particularly in terms of the Sabbath. The room was nice too so if anyone reading this finds themselves in the South I strongly recommend this franchise.

At the conference I spoke about the work of Orson Scott Card, particularly Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, and its influence on me as a historian. I am posting the draft I wrote for the speech. It is largely taken from various blog posts I have done here. My advisor has at times questioned my decision to spend the amount of time that I do writing this blog; time that could surely be better spent on other pursuits like finishing my degree. So now I have managed to actually accomplish something positive with my blog. I did not read from the text so my actual presentation differs slightly. In keeping with my style of teaching, I accompanied the lecture with a slide show of pictures and important concepts.

I would like to thank you the department for inviting me to speak. It is not often that I get to combine my role as a historian and my role as a reader of science fiction. History and science fiction have a lot more income than you might otherwise think. Science fiction, as those who are active consumers of it know, is much more than just space battles, babes in skimpy spacesuits and saving the universe from giant insects. Like history, science fiction, at its best is a study as to the nature of society. Traditionally history has been a study of states; in recent decades we have expanded to a wider conception of society. One could say that we historians are finally catching up to those in science fiction. Today I would like to discuss the work of one particular science fiction writer, Orson Scott Card, particularly his Ender series, and its influence on me as a historian. I was first introduced to Card when I was in high school by my younger brother, who had to read Ender's Game for class. He wanted me to read it so he would not have to. Well that was the start of a very fruitful relationship. The Ender series began with Ender's Game, published in 1985. Ender's Game went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. This was followed the year after with Speaker for the Dead which also went on to win the Hugo and Nebula awards. Card went on to complete the story of Ender Wiggin with Xenocide (1991) and Children of the Mind (1996). In recent years Card has written a parallel series to Ender, the Shadow series, and this past year he has written a bridge novel, Ender in Exile, taking place between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.

On a general level the Ender series is a magnificent example of science-fiction as a tool to explore the nature of society. There is one of Card's trademark issues, the society building story. A group of random strangers, who have no particular reason to like each other, are thrown together by circumstances. What sort of relationships will they form? Will they prove willing to sacrifice for each other and if so why? Card confronts the issue of history in a more direct way with the figure of the speaker for the dead, whose task it is to explain to those living who the departed where and what they stood for.

Ender's Game is about a boy named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin who is drafted into a military training school. The premise of the school is to gather gifted children from around the world and train the next Napoleon or the next Alexander the Great to fight the Buggers, a race of insect-like aliens that have twice attempted to invade earth and destroy humanity. For those of you who have not read the book, this book is not, as you might think, spaceships, space battles and saving the world with a healthy side does of implied xenophobia, with the aliens standing in for some undesirable group. For one thing this book is only incidentally about battling aliens. This is a story about relationships and the building of a society as bonds of friends are born among the students at Battle School and a corps of future officers is formed to fight the coming war. I read Card as a running meditation as to the question of how one builds and maintains a society? What causes people to join together as a society? How does the individual relate to the surrounding society? What brings an individual to make sacrifices, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, for the sake of his society? Ender's battle school is a group of competing societies. Ender Wiggin is a genius, his real talent is his ability to handle people. Ender is someone whom other people are willing to follow. People admire him and desire to learn from him and emulate him. Ender in turn is someone who honestly desires to help people. The narrative arch of the novel revolves around Ender building societies. Ender connects to various people and gets them to forge bounds with each other. These people become his subordinate commanders in the coming war against the Buggers.

It would be a mistake to confuse this society with a group of
friends. While the societies that populate Orson Scott Card's novels are often quite small and might be passed off as a group of friends, it is not friendship that binds them. Card's plots tend to revolve around the issue of his characters, despite the fact that there may not be any great friendship between them, attempting to build a society together. For their societies to succeed Card's characters must confront the question of what are they willing to sacrifice for it, ultimately for people whom they owe nothing to and have no logical reason to care for. What Card's societies can be are families. Families, particularly in the world of Orson Scott Card, are groups of people thrown together, with complete disregard for compatibility or love. Despite this, family members do form bounds of loyalty with each other, even with family members that they dislike and continue to dislike.

Ender's Game climaxes with Ender and his team defeating the Buggers and saving the world. Ender destroys the Bugger home world, a la the Death Star and
Alderaan, with a Molecular Disruption device. Humanity is now free to colonize the galaxy without competition and Ender goes to one of the former Bugger worlds as governor. Living happily ever after? Not exactly. The novel ends with Ender finding the last remaining Bugger hive queen and learning the truth. The Buggers, having finally realized that humans were intelligent beings even if a different kind than the Buggers, had decided to leave humanity in peace. The human fleet that Ender led had destroyed an intelligent race of beings that no longer posed any threat. He, not the Buggers, was the mass murder.

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