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Orson Scott Card




  Orson Scott Card



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  To Charlie Ben,

  who can fly


  Tor Books by Orson Scott Card


  A Thousand Deaths

  Omni, December 1978

  Clap Hands and Sing

  Best of Omni #3, ed. Ben Bova and Don Myrus (1982)


  Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, November 1989

  But We Try Not to Act Like It

  Destinies, August 1979

  I Put My Blue Genes On

  Analog, August 1978

  In the Doghouse (with Jay A. Parry)

  Analog, December 1978

  The Originist

  Foundation’s Friends, ed. Martin H. Greenberg (Tor, 1989)


  Low Life High Tech



  NEVER MIND THE question of why anybody would ever become a writer at all. The sheer arrogance of thinking that other people ought to pay to read my words should be enough to mark all us writers as unfit for decent society. But then, few indeed are the communities that reward proper modesty and disdain those who thrust themselves into the limelight. All human societies hunger for storytellers, and those whose tales we like, we reward well. In the meantime, the storytellers are constantly reinventing and redefining their society. We are paid to bite the hand that feeds us. We are birds that keep tearing down and rebuilding every nest in the tree.

  So never mind the question of why I became a writer. Instead let’s ask an easy one. Why did I choose to write science fiction?

  The glib answer is to say that I didn’t. Some are born to science fiction, some choose science fiction, and some have science fiction thrust upon them. Surely I belong to the last category. I was a playwright by choice. Oh, I entered college as an archaeology major, but I soon discovered that being an archaeologist didn’t mean being Thor Heyerdahl or Yigael Yadin. It meant sorting through eight billion potsherds. It meant moving a mountain with a teaspoon. In short, it meant work. Therefore it was not for me.

  During the two semesters it took for me to make this personal discovery, I had already taken four theatre classes for every archaeology class I signed up for, and it was in theatre that I spent all my time. Because I attended Brigham Young High School, I was already involved with the BYU theatre program before I officially started college. In fact, I had already been in a student production, and continued acting almost continuously through all my years at the university. I was no great shakes as an actor—too cerebral, not able to use my body well enough to look comfortable or right on stage. But I gave great cold readings at auditions, so I kept getting cast. And when I gave up on archaeology, it was theatre that was there waiting for me. It was the first time I consciously made a decision based on autobiography. Instead of examining my feelings (which change hourly anyway) or making those ridiculous pro-and-con lists that always look so rational, I simply looked back at the last few years of my life and saw that the only thing I did that I really followed through on, the only thing I did over and over again regardless of whether it profited me in any way, was theatre. So I changed majors, thereby determining much of my future.

  One obvious result was that I lost my scholarship. I was at BYU on a full-ride presidential scholarship—tuition, books, housing. But I had to maintain a high grade point average, and while that was easy enough in academic subjects, it was devilishly hard in the subjective world of the arts. The matter hadn’t come up before—presidential scholars hadn’t ever gone into the arts before me. So there was no mechanism for dealing with the subjective grades that came out of theatre. If I worked my tail off in an academic subject, I got an A. Period. No question. But I could work myself half to death on a play, do my very best, and still get a C because the teacher didn’t agree with my interpretation or didn’t like my blocking or just plain didn’t like me, and who could argue? There was nothing quantifiable. So choosing the arts cost me money. It also taught me that you can never please a critic determined to detest your work. I had to choose my professors carefully, or reconcile myself to low grades. I did both.

  But if I wasn’t working for grades and I wasn’t trying to change myself to fit professors’ preconceived notions of what my work ought to be, what was I working for? The answer came to me gradually, but once I understood it I never wavered. I rejected the notion, put forth by one English professor, that one should write for oneself. Indeed, his own life was a clear refutation of his lofty sentiment that “I write for myself and God.” In fact he spent half his life pressing his writings on anyone who would hold still long enough to read or listen. He showed me what I was already becoming aware of: Art is a dialogue with the audience. There is no reason to create art except to present it to other people; and you present it to other people in order to change them. The world must be changed by what I create, I decided, or it isn’t worth doing.

  Within a year of becoming a theatre major, I was writing plays. I didn’t plan it. Writing wasn’t something I thought of as a career. In my family, writing was simply something that you did. My dad often bought Writer’s Digest; I entered their contest a couple of times in my teens. But mostly I thought of writing as coming up with skits or assemblies at school or roadshows at church (Mormons have a longstanding commitment to theatre); it also meant that I could usually ace an essay exam if I knew even a little bit about the subject. It wasn’t a career.

  But as a fledgling director, I had run into the frustration of directing inadequate scripts. When I was assistant director of a college production of Flowers for Algernon, I finally got a professor—the director—to agree with me. The second act was terrible. I had read and loved the story, and so I was particularly frustrated by some bad choices made by the adapter. With the director’s permission, I went home and rewrote the second act. We used my script.

  About the same time (I think), I was taking a course in advanced interpretation, which included reader’s theatre. I loved the whole concept of stripping the stage and letting the actors, in plain clothes, with no sets and minimal movements, act out the story for the audience. As part of the course, I wrote an adaptation of Marjorie Kellogg’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. I had loved the book, and my adaptation was (and still is) one of my best works, because it preserved both the story and the madcap flavor of the writing. I asked for permission to direct it. I was told that advanced interp wasn’t a course for which students were allowed to direct. There was only one course undergraduates could take that allowed them to direct a play, and I had taken it and received a C, and that was that.

  No it wasn’t. My professor in that course, Preston Gledhill, was sympathetic, and so he arranged to bend the rules and I got my performance. Two nights in the Experimental Theatre, doing reader’s theatre as it had never been done before. The audience laughed in all the right places. They sobbed at the end. The standing ovation was earned. The actors still remember, as I do, that it was something remarkable. I may have been using someone else’s story, but that stu
dent production told me, for the first time, that I could produce a script and a performance that audiences would take into themselves. I had changed people.

  Because of those two adaptations, I resolved to try playwriting in a more serious way. Charles Whitman, who was the favorite among us undergraduates in those days (the late 1960s), was also the playwriting teacher and a fervent advocate of Mormon theatre. He thought that young Mormon theatre people ought to be producing plays for their own people, and I agreed—and still agree, enough that I have never stopped producing Mormon art throughout my career, often allowing it to take precedence over my more visible (and lucrative) career in “the world.” Taking Whitman’s class opened the floodgates. I wrote dozens of plays. I tried my hand at realism, comedy, verse drama, vignettes, anything that would hold still long enough for me to write it. I adapted stories from Mormon history and the Book of Mormon; I took personal stories out of my life and my parents’ lives; and through all this writing, I still thought of myself as primarily an actor and director.

  I mean, just because I wrote a lot of plays didn’t mean I was a playwright. I also designed costumes and did makeup and composed music and designed and built stage sets. The only reason I didn’t do lighting was because of a healthy case of acrophobia. No, I wasn’t a playwright, I was an all-around theatre person. I didn’t make the decision that I was a writer until one day I was sitting in the Theatre Department office with a group—some meeting, I don’t remember what—and a professor happened to say to me, “So you’re going to be a playwright.” I found something about his statement to be offensive. It flashed through my mind that I had already written a dozen plays that had been produced to sold-out houses. I was at least as much a writer as he was an actor or director or teacher—because I had done it to the satisfaction of an audience. So I answered, rather coldly, “I’m not going to be a playwright. I am a playwright.”

  A short while later, I happened to be sitting in on a class he was teaching, and he referred to that conversation in front of his class. “Some of you are going to be actors and some directors and some playwrights,” he said. Then, pointing at me, he said, “Except for Scott Card, there, who already is a playwright.” It was a great laugh line. The mockery I thought I heard in his words left me angry and frustrated. Later I would learn that he had intended his comments as a kind of respect; and we have worked together well on other projects. But I interpreted things then with the paranoia normal to “sensitive” adolescents, and took his words as a challenge. I brooded on them for days. Weeks. And at the end of that time, in my own mind I was a playwright, and all my other theatrical enterprises were secondary. I could succeed or fail at them without it making much difference—my future was tied to my writing.

  Skip a few years now. Years in which I started a repertory theatre company, which by some measures was a resounding success; but at the end of that time I found myself $20,000 in debt on an annual income of about $5,000. My own scripts had been quite successful in the company, but some bad business decisions—my decisions, I must add—had made a good thing go sour. I folded the company, and probably should have declared personal and corporate bankruptcy, but instead decided to pay it all off.

  How? My income as an editor at BYU Press would never be enough to make a dent in what I owed. I had to make money on the side. Doing what? The only thing I knew how to do was write, and because my plays were all aimed at the Mormon audience, there was no way that a script of mine would bring in that kind of money—not from royalties. There just weren’t enough warm bodies with dollars in their pockets to bring me what I needed. I thought of writing plays for the New York audience, but that would be so chancy and require so much investment in time that I rejected it. Instead, I thought of writing fiction.

  In a way, that was as scary as trying to write plays for the American audience at large. The difference was that with fiction, you find out much sooner whether you’ve failed. You can take years flogging a few scripts around in New York and regional theatre and end up with nothing—no audience, no money, no future. But you can find yourself in exactly that condition after only a few months of mailing out fiction manuscripts.

  And when considering what kind of fiction to write, science fiction was an easy choice. I wanted to start with short stories, and when it comes to short fiction, science fiction was then and is now the most open market there is. First, because the money is fairly low, the established novelists generally stay out of the short fiction market, making it more open to new names. Second, because science fiction thrives on strangeness, new writers are more welcome in this field than any other. True strangeness is the product of genius, but a good substitute is the strangeness inherent in every writer’s unique voice, so that when a science fiction writer is both competent and new, he gives off the luster of an ersatz kind of genius, and the field welcomes him with open arms. (Others might say that the field chews you up, swallows you, and pukes you back, but that would be crude and unkind, and it doesn’t always happen that way.)

  So for purely commercial reasons, deep in debt, I chose science fiction. I was lucky enough that the second story I sent out sold after only a couple of tries (told about elsewhere) and went on to come in second for a Hugo and win me the Campbell Award for best new writer. So as long as people were paying me to write science fiction why should I stop?

  That’s the colorful, devil-may-care answer. It’s also a crock.

  Because during that whole time that I “was” a playwright, I was also writing science fiction. I had not yet written a play when at sixteen I first came up with the story idea that eventually became “Ender’s Game.” I was taking fiction-writing courses at BYU right along with my playwriting courses, and, although I had brains enough not to turn in sci-fi for class credit, my heart went into the Worthing stories I was already writing before my first play was produced. Like my plays, my stories were all written on narrow-ruled paper in spiral notebooks, and at first my mother typed them for me. Then I mailed them out and treasured the very kind rejection notes I got. Not many—only a couple of submissions, only a couple of rejections. But between rejections—and between plays—I worked on my fiction as assiduously as I ever worked on anything else in my life.

  So now, glib answers aside, why science fiction? Why is it that, left to myself, the stories I am drawn to write are all science fiction and fantasy? It wasn’t because sci-fi was all I read. On the contrary, while I went through several science fiction binges, during high school and college I usually read only the sci-fi and fantasy that were making the rounds. I read Dune when everybody read Dune; the same with Lord of the Rings and Foundation and I Sing the Body Electric and Dandelion Wine. At the same time, I was reading Hersey’s The Wall and White Lotus, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, Rod McKuen’s Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows. Hell, I even read Khalil Gibran. I may not have dropped acid, but I wasn’t totally cut off from my generation. (Fortunately, by the time Jonathan Livingston Seagull came out I had matured enough to recognize it immediately as drivel.) I never, not once, not for a moment, thought of myself as a “science fiction reader.” Some science fiction books came to me like revelations, yes, but so did many other books—and none had anything like the influence on me that came from Shakespeare and Joseph Smith, the two writers who, more than any others, formed the way I think and write.

  If I wasn’t a science fiction reader, per se, why did my impulse toward storytelling come out in science fictional forms? I think it was the same reason that my playwriting impulses always expressed themselves in stories aimed at and arising from the Mormon audience. The possibility of the transcendental is part of it. More important, though—for Mormonism is not a transcendental religion—is the fact that science fiction, like Mormonism, offered a vocabulary for rationalizing the transcendental. That is, within science fiction it is possible to find the meaning of life without resorting to Mystery. I detest Mystery (though I love mysteries); I think it is the name we put on our decision to stop trying to understand. F
rom Joseph Smith I learned to reject any philosophy that requires you to swallow paradox as if it were profound; if it makes no sense, it’s probably hogwash. Within the genre of science fiction, I could shuck off the shackles of realism and make up worlds in which the issues I cared about were clear and powerful. The tale could be told direct. It could be about something.

  Since then I have learned ways to make more realistic fiction be about something as well—but not the ways my literature professors tried to teach me. The oblique methods used by contemporary American literateurs are bankrupt because they have forsaken the audience. But there are writers doing outside of science fiction the things that I thought, at the age of twenty-three, could only be done within it. I think of Olive Ann Burns’s Cold Sassy Tree as the marker that informed me that all the so-called Mysteries could still be reached through stories that told of love and sex and death; the need to belong, the hungers of the body, and the search for individual worth; Community, Carnality, Identity. Ultimately, that triad is what all stories are about. The great stories are simply the ones that do it better for a particular audience at a particular place and time. So I’m gradually reaching out to write other stories, outside of both the Mormon and the science fiction communities. But the fact remains that it was in science fiction that I first found it possible to speak to non-Mormons about the things that mattered most to me. That’s why I wrote science fiction, and write science fiction, and will write it for many years to come.