In the Bugger Tunnels of Planet Eros:
Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card
by Kate Bonin
Note: This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form and under the title "Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card," in the December 2002 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. I cited Ms. Bonin's essay in my own essay "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality" and thought it might be worth the effort to make it more readily available, since it is I believe not to be found anywhere else online. She graciously agreed to let me post it here, and sent me this text of her original paper. I have tried to carry over the format correctly, but do let me know if you find errors.
Readers of Orson Scott Card’s award-winning science fiction and fantasy novels have long been puzzled by what appears to be a discrepancy between his fictional and non-fictional approaches to the subject of homosexuality. On the one hand, Card’s novels feature gay characters whose dignity, kindness and charm are readily apparent. On the other hand, Card, who is a member of the Mormon church, is outspoken in his opposition to gay civil rights (“Gay rights is a collective delusion that’s being attempted” Card said in a February 2000 interview with online magazine Salon.com). Card himself seems puzzled and hurt by accusations of homophobia, claiming that none of his views can be construed as “advocating, encouraging, or even allowing harsh personal treatment of individuals who are unable to resist the temptation to have sexual relations with persons of the same sex” (from a February 1990 article in Sunstone magazine). Instead, Card advocates showing individual gays kindness and compassion while condemning gay “behavior” as a practice—the standard Christian love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin distinction.
Perhaps this distinction is what allows Card to create sympathetic gay characters in fiction while still preserving his disapproval of “deviant” homosexual behavior? Maybe so. But this is not the whole story. In the universe of Card’s novels, homosexuality occupies a far more conflicted and complex position than his non-fictional message of Christian compassion. I propose to follow representations of homosexuality through a number of Card’s fictional works dating from 1978 to 1999. This twenty-year time span demonstrates how long and how consistently the same fraught image of gay desire has occupied Card’s imaginative interest. Indeed, his books return again and again to the same themes with a regularity that one is tempted to call obsessive.
1. Killing Desire
To begin, then: Card’s novels feature what might be called a pervasive erotic interest in beautiful male bodies. This doesn’t just mean that there are a lot of gay or gay-curious characters. Rather, in these works the narrative itself focuses a great deal of attention on handsome, often nude male bodies and the mesmerizing effect which they have on their viewer. Here are some examples:
To be sure, some of the characters who stare with such interest at these bodies are women. All the same, whoever does the looking, the object of their gaze remains constant: the body of a young man or boy, often characterized with the same attributes: smooth-skinned, white, slender, muscled, youthful, beautiful. The reader may or may not be turned on by these images. He or she may find some of them disturbing—Ansset is only six years old in the passage I have cited. But whatever the reader’s own response, one cannot help but notice that Card’s fiction shows a sustained interest in representing the erotic potential of male bodies.
Together with this interest, there is a disturbing trend of violence directed towards those same bodies. Put plainly, in Card’s imaginative universe, very bad things happen to males who express or who elicit erotic desire in other males. Ansset, for example, is interrupted in his first sexual experience by sudden and excruciating pain: “the pain increased and increased, centering in his loins and spreading in waves of fire through his body (…) climax came to Ansset, not as ecstasy, but as exquisite pain, more than his Control could contain, more than his voice could express. Silently he writhed on the bed, his face twisting in agony, his mouth open with screams far too painful to become sound” (Songmaster 298-9). Doctors inform Ansset that the drugs which were part of his childhood training regimen have left him both sterile and incapable of orgasm without terrible pain; in effect, his body becomes impotent rather than face the same ordeal again. Strangely, one doctor comments “Don’t worry, sir. There’s worse that could have happened to you. You won’t miss it” (ibid. 300). As for Ansset’s luckless partner Josif, he is arrested by imperial guards and castrated; later, he commits suicide by swallowing bed sheets until he suffocates. Perhaps this is what the doctor meant by “worse.”
In the Homecoming series, Zdorab describes similar tortures that heterosexual males inflict upon his city’s gay or suspected gay population: “They hung him by the feet from a second-story window, cut off his male organs, and then slashed him to death with knives (…) [Another friend] was arrested, but on the way to prison he had an accident. It was the oddest sort of accident, too. He was trying to escape, and somehow he tripped and in the act of falling, his testicles somehow came off and got jammed down his throat, probably with a broom handle or the butt of a spear, and he suffocated on them before anyone could come to his aid” (The Ships of Earth, 1994:138-9). Again the attack focuses specifically on the victims’ genitals; again there is tacit or active complicity from an official police force.
In Ender’s Game, Ender kills Bonzo (the boy whose beauty so moved Ender at first sight) by beating him to death in the shower, both of them “naked, wet, and alone” (182). Again, Bonzo’s genitals are targeted (“he flipped over, scooted under Bonzo, and this time when he kicked upward into Bonzo’s crotch, he connected, hard and sure”: 185). And again, authority figures (the school’s teachers and administrators) observe and even videotape the fight without intervening.
Fans of Ender’s Game may object at this point that Ender is compelled to fight Bonzo because Bonzo hates him and plots to kill him in the shower. True enough. But the question to ask is not whether the child Ender secretly harbors violent homophobic tendencies (like the obvious villains of Songmaster or The Ships of Earth), but rather: why does the plot maneuver Ender into a situation where, once again, a beautiful, desirable boy must die?
Bonzo’s death prefigures a second, greater killing at the narrative climax of Ender’s Game, when Ender destroys an entire alien species to save humankind from the threat of total destruction. One might easily indulge in a wink-wink/nudge-nudge reading of Ender’s Game in quest of hidden gay subtext: Ender must save all mankind from the hideous buggers, who are ruled by giant, scary queens; Ender must travel to a star-base on planet Eros and live underground, in smooth-walled rooms linked by tunnels, which were originally built and lived in by the buggers; here Ender shares a bedroom with his tutor, the aging but still virile war hero Mazer Rackham, while learning to understand, empathize with and even love the buggers in order to destroy them. The buggers’ home planet is protected by something called an Ecstatic Shield; but Ender’s fleet has a special weapon called the “Little Doctor”:
Readers may or may not find such an allegorical interpretation of Ender’s Game plausible or amusing (readers who are amused or intrigued might want to go back and re-read some of Ender’s dream sequences, which take on some startling new meanings). I don’t insist that everyone buy into this particular reading. But what does resonate, in Ender’s Game and elsewhere in Card’s work, is the constant pairing of homosexual attraction and violence directed toward that attraction. The violence is vicious, lethal, and socially approved. When Ender wipes the buggers out of the universe (or so everyone thinks at the time), a roomful of uniformed officials erupts into giddy celebration: laughing, shouting, hugging one another, praying. “Thank you, thank you Ender. Thank God for you,” say the men, as though God had sent them Ender in answer to their prayers. The implications of this are clear: Buggers beware! Even God colludes in your destruction.
Together with the overt threat of extreme, socially-sanctioned and God-endorsed violence, Card’s homosexual characters are very aware of another, subtler danger: if they do not father children, their genes will be lost, forever excluded from the future of the species—annihilated, in fact, as Ender’s buggers are nearly annihilated. As Zdorab comments: “It is against nature. I’m cut off from that tree of life that Volemak saw, I’m not part of that chain—I’m a genetic dead end” (The Ships of Earth 140). Fans of Card’s fiction will recognize here an echo of what is perhaps the dominant theme of all his works: a longing to escape the mortality of the body, to survive for far longer than the ordinary span of a human lifetime (whether through having children or by enchanted sleep, or futuristic technology, or any number of magical plot devices that produce the same end result). Seen in this light, the childlessness of Card’s gay characters is part of the recurring nightmare that haunts his fiction: one of the worst fates he can possibly imagine for any living, sentient being.
2. Zipless Fatherhood
Card offers his gay characters one chance of escape. They can stave off the threat of mutilation and murder, or the still-greater threat of genetic annihilation, as long as they resist their sexual desire and conform to a certain code of behavior. All it takes, we are assured, is will power. Zdorab from the Homecoming series offers a case in point. Though gay, he is compelled to marry a woman (Shedemei) by the dictates of the theocratic society of which he suddenly finds himself a member. Despite this unpromising beginning, Zdorab discovers unexpected joys in his new roles as a husband and later, a father:
Indeed, Zdorab is so dedicated to the heroic project of child-rearing that his declining sex drive brings him nothing but relief:
By the time the children are grown and married and have children of their own, Zdorab is so thoroughly dedicated to his wife that he does not want to leave her: “Don’t you know, Shedemei, that I love you? Don’t you know that I don’t want to live without you?” (Earthfall 354). This is “success” of a sort: even with the job of parenting complete, Zdorab has so thoroughly quashed his homoerotic desire that he willingly chooses to remain in celibate, fraternal camaraderie with his wife, orbiting the Earth alone together in a space ship for the rest of Zdorab’s life (zero chance of running into an attractive young man up there!). Zdorab is a hero of sexual repression: his place in society assured, his genes restored to the common pool. It is Card’s vision of a happy ending, the only one that he makes available to gay men. It corresponds to the policy that Card expressly advocates in his non-fictional writings on the subject of gay sex. In the Sunstone article cited before, Card writes that “we can only help others overcome these ‘genetic predispositions’ by teaching them that we expect them to meet a higher standard of behavior than the one their own body teaches them (…) Those who would be members of a community must sacrifice the satisfaction of some of their individual desires in order to maintain that community.”
Repent, repress, and all will be well, in other words. Yet there are signs within Card’s works that this renunciation and sublimation of desire does not succeed as well as expected. Frequently, the narrative itself undercuts the very “solution” that Card tries so hard to impose. Josif from Songmaster offers an example of this conflict between desire and will. Initially he resists his infatuation with the teenaged Ansset, using the approved methods of marriage and fatherhood:
Of course, Josif’s uncontainable desire is, ultimately, contained by the alternative method of arrest, detention and forcible castration. Interestingly, Card claims to oppose violence and government sanctions as a method of eradicating homosexual behavior from the Mormon community in general and the American community at large (from the Sunstone article: “No act of violence is ever appropriate to protect Christianity from those who would rob it of its meaning. None of us is without sin—the casting of stones is not our duty or our privilege […] the goal of the polity is not to put homosexuals in jail”).
The case of Ender Wiggin offers an exemplary staging of the conflict between will and desire. Indeed, Ender uses, at different times, both of Card’s methods for combating dangerous desires: both ultra-violence and idealized fatherhood come together in this same figure, to meet the same goal. We have already seen how Ender contains the bugger threat through mass destruction. But even before the end of Ender’s Game, the narrative begins to back away from that terrible act, to turn towards the other, kinder alternative. First: Ender was manipulated into killing the buggers; it is not really his fault. Then: Ender didn’t in fact kill all the buggers; one cocoon survives. Most recently: they aren’t even “buggers” anymore (now they are known by the less loaded term “formics.”). Even more importantly, it is Ender himself who rescues that last cocoon and restores the bugger species to the universe, protecting and nurturing the new young queen and her brood.
By participating in the propagation of a sentient species, Ender is re-made into Card’s other ideal solution to the gay menace: the bugger-killer becomes the good father figure. And not just a good father, but a “pure” father in the sense that Zdorab uses the word “pure”: one whose parenting is unpolluted by sexual desire for the mother. Indeed, Ender plays a “pure” father to not one but two sentient species, as his sister Valentine observes: “Three thousand years. All of humanity was his family for most of that time; he was like a father away on a business trip, who comes home only now and then, but when he’s there, he’s the good judge, the kind father” (Children of the Mind 186). The female figures who share Ender’s parenting responsibilities (his sister Valentine, the supercomputer Jane, and the last bugger queen) are intimate friends and co-parents but not sexual partners. It is an immaculate conception of fatherhood, a “pure” act of the will unsupported by the animal instinct to copulate: the ego completely divorced from the id.
Ender does finally marry a flesh-and-blood, sexually mature human woman named Novinha. But even here, his decision to marry (and presumably to end a three thousand-year-old virginity) has little to do with sexual desire. Novinha, recently widowed, already has six children of her own—six children suddenly in need of a father. As Ender contemplates one of Novinha’s sons, he feels a curious “hunger”:
Not a world about Novinha herself in this rhapsodic contemplation of her offspring; she is almost an afterthought, a necessary but not-very-interesting factor in the domestic equation. How Ender succeeds in winning the trust of these six diverse children is a feat that occupies a good portion of Speaker for the Dead; in contrast, his (remarkably cold and dispassionate) courtship of their mother receives little narrative attention. The description of the wedding itself is characteristically terse: “Bishop Peregrino married them in his chambers. By Novinha’s calculations, she was still young enough to have another six children, if they hurried. They set at the task with a will” (ibid. 632). This is a honeymoon with all the romance of a task grimly undertaken with one calculated goal in mind—and note, too, the significant use of the word “will” in this passage. Will power is the dominating force behind Ender’s marriage. Even the children are aware of this. Novinha’s son Miro observes, “What Ender is to Mother, so loyal, so patient—is that how I feel toward Val? Or no, it isn’t feeling, is it? It’s an act of will. It’s a decision that can never be revoked” (Children of the Mind 66-67).
An act of will, not a feeling: these words summarize the marriage all the way to its bitter end. When Novinha’s children are grown (she and Ender never produce biological children together, in spite of all their will), she leaves Ender to join the monastery of an obscure Christian sect: the Filhos de la Mente de Cristo (Children of the Mind of Christ). Ender’s tremendous sense of marital duty compels him to join her there. The reader will not be astonished to learn that Filhos sectarians are all married couples who take a vow of sexual abstinence together. Ender does not seem to mind; he comments only “I’m your husband. As long as I’m not having sex with anyone, it might as well be you that I’m not having sex with” (Children 39). Indeed, why should Ender mind? At this point, he perfectly embodies Card’s ideal of sexless fatherhood: now even God is on his side to keep him celibate.
Ender should be perfectly happy. But he is not: his subconscious desire to be free of this stifling marriage overrides his conscious loyalty to his vows. The “decision that can never be revoked” is revoked; the narrative conspires to free Ender by mobilizing a science-fiction deus ex machina. Here’s how: Ender has, in fact, produced two offspring of his own—not through having sex, of course; they are mental projections somehow made into flesh, literally children of Ender’s mind. Ender’s life-force or mental energy is not sufficient to maintain both his mind-children and his own body. Therefore his energy diverts into the channel that his subconscious is most interested in: one of these children, the Peter-figure. This leaves Ender/Peter free once more to roam the universe doing good for all sentient species—in a healthy, young male body—while Ender’s old body crumbles and dies. In other words, he gets to have the cake and eat it too: he gets his freedom, yet remains loyal to his vows, literally until the end of his life. Another character provides him with a fitting epitaph: “He wouldn’t leave his wife or let her leave him; so he was bored to death” (Children 138).
Heterosexual marriage is boring the way Card figures it here (it is a relief when Ender finally escapes). And yet Children of the Mind insists that this bleak portrait of duty without desire, parenting unaccompanied by any shred of romance, is the universal norm, not just the compromise of “reformed” homosexual men, or the willed choice of idealized, sexless father-figures such as Ender. Ender’s sister Valentine makes the following astonishing proclamation:
The cynicism of this statement is jaw-dropping, mind-boggling. No married woman values her husband except as a father? Women get no satisfaction, other than parenting, out of married life (what assumptions about women’s sex lives are being made here?)? Anyone who says differently is lying? Perhaps Valentine, as a married woman and mother, might speak credibly of her personal experience. But to presume to speak for all women, at all times and on every planet—it is a staggering failure of empathy on her part. And Valentine is a character who used to be noted for her empathic qualities.
Valentine’s failed empathy, Ender’s failed effort to want to stay with Novinha: what are the implications of Children of the Mind’s multiple failures? How credible is an ideal that even the narrative itself seems unable to believe in?
3. Edge Literatures
Perhaps it is not quite fair of me to harp so long on Children of the Mind. Far from Card’s best work, this novel bleeds with a bitterness of spirit that most of his other novels do not share. And I have not given equal time to other novels of Card’s in which heterosexual romantic attachment is figured as happy and loving (for example Enchantment or The Tales of Alvin Maker series). But however extreme Children may be, it still holds to the core principles that regulate Card’s fictional universe. The basic image of human sexual relations that one deduces from this composite reading of Card’s works might be summed up as follows:
This repeating cycle of homoerotic desire and the attempted suppression or destruction of that desire seems to me to resonate very clearly with Card’s self-described interest in “edge literatures,” cited above. By “edge literatures,” Card means his Mormon literature and his science fiction: both genres that lie outside a certain literary mainstream. It seems to me, however, that the same model of edge and center, outsider and member, applies equally well to his fictional representations of homoerotic desire. Images of this desire return and return from the marginal edge where characters try so hard to keep it, uneasy converts to a restricted vision of the human community.
I should perhaps emphasize one point in conclusion. I am not trying to diagnose Orson Scott Card’s sexual identity through a reading of his fiction. Mr. Card’s sexuality is his own private business. He is likewise entitled to his religious convictions, his expressed opinions on homosexual “deviance,” etc. What I am trying to do is to prompt readers of Card’s fiction to ask themselves whether they find his model of sexual outsiders and repressive insiders an accurate (or even a believable) representation of the human community. Might the lines separating edge from center be re-drawn? Finally: do the “buggers” really represent a threat to the community? Surely they do not pose as great a threat as Card’s ideal community, with its fears and its prohibitions enforced by violence, presents to them?