Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Society Building Story and its Implications for Individualism and Faith

I have written a number of posts dealing with Orson Scott Card, Stephenie Meyer and their use of society building stories in their fiction. Before leaving the issue (for now), I thought I should say a few words to wrap things up. In looking back at my posts on the topic I realized that I failed to adequately explain why I think this issue is so important. Stephenie Meyer’s decision to follow Card’s lead is not a matter of artistic copying but of a shared critique of modern individualism and a shared religious vision.

At its heart, the society building story, in which a small group of individuals, with little reason to care for one another, are thrown together and attempt to build a society with one another, possesses an ambiguous relationship with individualism. If one wanted to be simplistic one could even accuse it of being anti-individualism. The characters start off as relatively independent individuals. The plot turns on their decision to surrender their independence and tie themselves down to the needs of the group. For example, in The Host, Wanderer surrenders herself to helping her community of free humans. With Ender, however strong he might be, he needs some sort of group to give himself up to. This is a far cry from the sort of do it alone heroic individualism at the heart of so much of modern fiction and of science fiction as well. This is not the work of Robert A. Heinlein; this is most definitely not Ayn Rand.

One could even link this to the religious beliefs of Card and Meyer. Card and Meyer are both Mormons, a religious group known for its strong sense of group discipline. Card and Meyer could therefore be read as anti-moderns, whose message is that, to find fulfillment, one must reject the individualism of modern secular society and submit oneself to the demands of the group; much in the same that Mormons and followers of other religions allow themselves to be controlled by the dictates of their group.

In a sense, though, the society building story used by Card and Meyer is strongly individualistic. The characters freely choose to bind themselves to their newly built society. So this act of society building is ironically very much the act of individuals; they could not have succeeded unless they were such strong individuals. Also, this act of society building is done in defiance of some other society. Wanderer rejects the perfect society of the Souls. The Cullen family of Twilight, by their very existence, is a rejection of the Volturi and their value system. Ender’s Dragon army fights the system at the Battle School even as it plays its mock battles against other armies.

This ambiguity about individualism is also at the core of work of Robert A. Heinlein, the father of heroic individualism within science fiction, as well. In certain respects, Heinlein is a forerunner for both Card and Meyer. While Starship Troopers glorifies the individual soldier it is also a remarkable ode to duty and an indictment of modern society’s inability to install a sense of duty and responsibility within its members. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress can be read as a society building novel itself. It is about a computer led rebellion by the residents of the Moon against the rule of Earth. The people living on Heinlein’s future Moon reject the paternal statism of the countries of Earth and strive to build their own libertarian state. The real struggle in the story is not over whether the people of the Moon can defeat the occupation forces from Earth but if such a diverse group of people can band together as one group.

Card and Meyer are hardly supporters of the sort of polyamorous marriages that Heinlein advocated. Card and Meyer belong to the mainstream Mormon Church, not to one of the polygamous sects, so they are not into alternative lifestyles. As I see it, their use of society building stories has a distinctively religious component to it. Any religious group operating in the western world today operates, to a certain extent, on a similar model as the societies found in the work of Card and Meyer. All religious groups are, in one way or another, counter-cultures. In a secular state, the government cannot be used to advance the cause of any religious group. Even more importantly, in a secular society, the very ethos of the society is contrary to the values of established religions. One can see communities of faith as collections of renegades from the general society who have been thrown together by circumstances other than their personal like for each other and must join together to form their own alternative society.

The society building story as it is used by Card and Meyer carries the distinct stamp of their Mormon faith. Mormonism is a religion organized in a highly authoritarian manner, but also one in which power is closely centered at the base. The Mormon religion does exert a tremendous amount of control over the day to day lives of its followers; members most give tithes to the Church and serve the Church in the field as missionaries. That being said the Church maintains no paid clergy; instead, leading members volunteer to serve for a fixed period of time. What is truly fascinating about how Mormons operate is their system of wards. Wards are small chapters, usually encompassing a single city or neighborhood. For Mormons, wards operate as an extension of the family; there are ward meeting and ward picnics. Mormons fall under the authority of a given ward simply by living in a given area. They do not get to choose who their fellow ward members are; if they do not get along with other members of their ward they do not have the option of breaking away and creating a new ward. (Considering all the fights and splits that go on in synagogues, I can see the advantages of such a system.) So an individual Mormon’s relationship to a ward runs in terms of a society building story. One is thrown in with a group of people that one has no particular reason to care for. In such a situation, there is no other choice but to build for oneself, out of such material, a society, and even a family.


Chari said...

I am a hesitant lurker leaving anonymity. But I must tell you that I thoroughly enjoy your posts, especially your in depth analysis of these books, the authors and the influence of their faith. It causes me to stop and reflect more rather than just enjoying the stories. Which I do! I am of the same faith and appreciate the respect which you show. Also, you are an excellent writer-concise, clear, provoking thought. I'm intimidated by your ability to present thought in such a beautiful way.
As a side note, I was asked to present Twilight at a book club several months ago and I actually took one of your posts which caused me to reflect and presented it along with the book. It was a fascinating discussion and all of the participants came away enriched because of the thoughts which you added through your written words. I realize writing this that I should have asked your permission. I hope you don't mind.

Izgad said...

Thank you so much.
I think that you praise me more than I deserve. I believe that my writing has improved over the past year and a half, I have been writing this blog. (You can look at earlier posts and judge for yourself.) That being said I believe that I have a long way to go. One of the reasons/excuses for writing this blog, time that my advisor would like me to spend on other things, is that it helps my writing.
I am honored by the fact that you used a piece of mine in a book discussion. I have no problem with people quoting my posts and presenting them as long as I am sited.
All the best.

P.S I help run a book club here in Columbus. Do you have any suggestions as to books that make for good discussions? I gather that Twilight worked well. I have been considering puting it foward. The problem is that the group is mostly guys and Twilight is a lot longer than the other books we have done so far.

Anonymous said...

Astute observation and analysis regarding individualism that leads to connection with and develop of societal systems in Meyer's and Card's works. This "is" the Mormon story, by the way (the founder refused to join an established church as a young boy, starts his own in adulthood that develops into one of the most structured, authoritarian religions in the world). Many Mormons, including myself, are perplexed by the church's maverick beginnings and its present conformity to mainstream American values - but, there is something about this tension that keeps us interested, and constantly questioning and wondering.

As for book club books, you might enjoy reading Lois Lowry's trilogy: The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger (each book is around 200 pages). You won't know they are a trilogy until Messenger. Lots of fodder for discussion - and more guy-friendly than the Twilight series.