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A prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, Orson Scott Card has the distinction of being the only author to win two sets of Hugo and Nebula awards for consecutive novels in a series. Card stands out in these genres for the moral and philosophical questions he tackles in his works.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Start in Theater
Orson Scott Card was born August 24, 1951, in Richland, Washington, into a devout Mormon family. He is related to Charles Ora Card, a son-in-law of early Mormon leader Brigham Young and the founder of the first Mormon settlement in Canada— Cardston, Alberta.
Before science fiction captured the young Card’s interest, the theater drew his attention. At age sixteen he entered the Mormon-founded Brigham Young University to study his craft; just a few years later he was penning plays and seeing them produced. Though his education was delayed for a brief time when he served as a Mormon missionary in Brazil during the early 1970s, he founded a theater company upon his return to Utah. Following his graduation with honors in 1975, he accepted a position as an editor for Ensign magazine, the official publication of the Mormon religion, and continued working for the BYU Press, a job he had begun while still a student.
Facing a bleak financial situation, he realized he needed to make a vocational change. With his experience as a dramatist, he already possessed some basic techniques of storytelling; moreover, the idea for the story ”Ender’s Game” as well as notions for other science fiction works had long been brewing in the back of his mind. ”All the time that I was a playwright,” he told an interviewer, ”these science fictional ideas that never showed up in my plays were dancing around in the back of my mind.” The genre, he felt, offered him the most expedient way of getting published, since the field thrives on up-and-coming talent and fresh ideas. He also admitted that he chose science fiction because, as he said himself, ”I knew the genre. While it was never even half my reading, I had read enough to be aware of the possibilities within it.” Card also noted that science fiction was a field in which ”high drama” similar to his previous religious works was permissible.
Breaking Into Science Fiction
Hoping to break into science fiction, Card sent one of his first short stories to the editor of the leading science fiction magazine Analog. The editor rejected the work, but he liked the way Card wrote, so he urged him to submit something that was more in line with the genre. Card next wrote the short story ”Ender’s Game,” which, upon its publication, earned him the World Science Fiction Convention’s John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. Though Card was thrilled with his sudden success, he retained his position as editor at Ensign and in 1978 began composing audio plays for Living Scriptures. He also continued honing his writing skills. He received mixed reviews for his early works; while commentators criticized his use of violence and standard science-fiction elements, they praised his literary talents and imagination.
An Established Reputation
His literary gifts came to fruition with the 1985 publication of the award-winning novel Ender’s Game, a full-length version of the short story discussed above. The following year, Card released the sequel, Speaker for the Dead. Both novels were well-received by science fiction critics and fans, and Card’s reputation and literary career were firmly established. Card continued Ender’s story five years later in Xenocide (1991), and in the early 1990s, Card published the first novel in his ”Homecoming” series, The Memory of Earth, a volume, according to one reviewer, that ”expertly weaves Biblical imagery, modern science, philosophy, and emotion in a tale of a young man . . . growing and maturing.” Card also created the successful Tales of Alvin Maker fantasy series, beginning with Seventh Son (1987), set in a an alternative version of early America and heavily inspired by Mormon tradition and myth.
Since his success of the mid- and late-1980s, Card has written many books in a variety of genres, often under different pen names. He has won several other important awards in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and he has an avid readership.
Works in Literary Context
Exploring Moral and Philosophical Questions
Card acknowledged that his Mormon beliefs inform all of his works, but his writing is not overtly religious or moralistic. His stories do, however, feature characters, usually young people, who are struggling with moral, political, and philosophical problems. In many of his books, Card focuses on the moral development of his young protagonists, whose abilities to act maturely and decisively while in challenging situations often determine the future of their communities. This kind of concern with moral and philosophical questions is an important theme throughout Card’s work. In interviews, Card has stated that he is deeply concerned with his own unresolved moral and philosophical questions as well, and he maintains that science fiction affords him the benefit of exploring these issues against a futuristic and imaginative backdrop.
The Individual in Society Card’s writing often explores the role of the individual in society. This is illustrated by the importance of individuals such as Ender Wiggins and Alvin Maker, whose abilities have a direct effect on the greater world. Again, Card’s Mormon beliefs inform his writing, though more as a thematic inspiration than as a source of answers. He credits his solid religious background with instilling in him both a strong sense of community and an affinity for storytelling. ”I don’t want to write about individuals in isolation,” he once told interviewers. ”What I want to write about is people who are committed members of the community and therefore have a network of relationships that define who they are.”
Works in Critical Context
Since publishing the story that evolved into his award-winning novel Ender’s Game, Card has remained an important writer in the science fiction and fantasy fields, and he has generally received strong reviews in both the genre press and mainstream newspapers and magazines.
Although some critics found the plot of Ender’s Game formulaic and of the conventional ”super hero saves world” variety, most commended Card for his ability to create a character who generates sympathy from readers even though he commits almost total genocide. Dan K. Moran wrote in the West Coast Review of Books that ”Ender Wiggin is a unique creation. Orson Scott Card has created a character who deserves to be remembered with the likes of Huckleberry Finn. Ender’s Game is that good.” Gerald Jonas observed in the New York Times Book Review, ”Card has shaped this unpromising material into an affecting novel full of surprises that seem inevitable once they are explained.” Commentators also pointed out that Ender’s Game rises above standard science fiction fare since it ponders moral questions regarding the manipulation of children as well as the significance of compassion.
Speaker for the Dead
With the publication of Speaker for the Dead, Card became the first writer to win the genre’s top awards, the Nebula and the Hugo, for consecutive novels in a continuing series. Speaker for the Dead generally met with an enthusiastic reception; many critics considered the work proof of Card’s maturing literary strength and praised the author for crafting compelling characters who face issues of acceptance, guilt, fear, empathy, and redemption. As Michael R. Collings wrote in Fantasy Review,” Speaker not only completes Ender’s Game but transcends it. … Read in conjunction with Ender’s Game, Speaker demonstrates Card’s mastery of character, plot, style, theme, and development.” In Science Fiction Review, editor Richard E. Geis notes that Card has woven a constantly escalating storyline which deals with religion, alien/human viewpoints and perspectives on instinctual and cultural levels, the fate of three alien species.., and quite possibly the fate of mankind itself.” Critics also noted the moral and psychological complexity of Card’s work. Michael Collings asserts that the Ender novels succeed equally as straightforward SF adventure and as allegorical, analogical disquisitions on humanity, morality, salvation, and redemption.”
- Collings, Michael R. and Boden Clarke. The Work of Orson Scott Card. San Bernadino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995.
- Collings, Michael R. Review of Speaker for the Dead. Fantasy Review (April 1986): 20.
- Easton, Tom. Review of Ender’s Game. Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact (July 1985): 180-181.
- Frank, Janrae. ”Wars of the Worlds.” Washington Post Book World (February 23, 1986): 10.
- Geis, Richard E. ” Speaker for the Dead.” Science Fiction Review (February 1986): 15.
- Jonas, Gerald. Review of Ender’s Game. New York Times Book Review (June 16, 1985).
- Lassell, Michael. Review of Ender’s Game. Los Angeles Times Book Review (February 3, 1985): 11.
- Moran, Dan K. Review of Ender’s Game. West Coast
- Review of Books (July 1986): 20. Review of Ender’s Game. Kirkus Reviews (November 1, 1984): 1021.
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