Superhumans on the Rise – Orson Scott Card and Ayn Rand

Really, this should be a review of my latest read, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow. After thinking about it for a while, though, I realized any review would be meaningless if it didn’t look at things from a broader perspective. I changed the scope, changed the title, and you know the background.

Over the years, I’ve met plenty people that were fervent enthusiasts, passionate about Orson Scott Card’s novels or Ayn Rand’s own ones. Oddly enough, there was little of the typical polarization that usually goes hand in hand with passionate fervor. Instead, the majority of people I spoke with remembered both or either writer as an also ran.

I started looking at patterns that fit both writers, started reading their books, and couldn’t come up with much. Now that I read Ender’s Shadow, I finally have a theory about the whole thing, a way to reconcile two radically different writers with their at times eerily similar audience.

Ayn Rand was a philosopher first and foremost. She was a woman philosopher at a time where women were still struggling to be allowed to vote, so we get a clear idea of what kind of resistance she encountered. She chose to write about her new creation, Objectivism, whose fundamental tenet seems to be that we are all alone in this world, and that we need to make things work for ourselves, without relying on others.

Mrs. Rand chose to write novels that became quite famous, and remained so over the decades. She mostly writes about people that are subjugated by a collective that tries to sap them of their volition, making them parts of a dystopia that reminds you at times of Animal Farm, at times of 1984, George Orwell’s infinitely more famous dystopic novels.

Obviously, the ideas presented in these books appeal to those that feel creative, that feel that their success is diminished by those that surround them. As an example (cogent to my environment) I could cite startup captains that are annoyed with the lawyers they have to feed for no good reason, with the board members that never "get it", and so on. An interminable ennui of the gifted that would give much to get rid of these entrapments of society.

Of course, as soon as their fortune vanes, the startup captains are faced with the realization that their creativity and success were merely environmental: anyone in the same position would have done just as well, and that’s an ugly message to recieve. Once you fail, it seems, Ayn Rand’s objectivism looks much less appealing. When the only option left is collecting unemployment benefits, a philosopher that preaches self-reliance is as dead-on as a Chevy Tahoe hitting a deer on the road to Tahoe.

Indeed, Ayn Rand fanatics after 2001 were about as scarce as Bush fanatics in 2008. All those guys that had been vocal about their predilection in the heyday of the craze now didn’t want to hear about their former idol.

Orson Scott Card is much more resilient to environmental change. His best-known novel, Ender’s Game is a science-fiction saga on the surface. Deep down, though, it’s a story of a child that has problems growing up in a hostile environment and is left to his own devices by parents and adults in general. Bullies are everywhere, love is scarce, and friendship precious, but sporadic. Ender is a genius, but that makes the bullying just so much worse. And the boy’s intelligence will ultimately carry the day.

The lucky of this world love Ayn Rand, because she gives them an easy way to focus their impression of the world. She gives them a name (objectivism) and a reason for their superiority, and makes their innermost impression of the world a philosophical discourse instead of a guilty assessment.

The unlucky of this world love Orson Scott Card. Evidently, lots of children feel left alone by adults, feel bullied by their environment, feel emotional insulation and high demands. Interestingly enough, those that love Ender’s story latch onto the gift the child has, even if they didn’t have a particular gift themselves when young.

One of the things that amazed me in college was how everyone there had the impression they had to be the smartest in town. They all had come from environments where they felt superior, and had started their career as physics majors thinking they had something that others didn’t. This is one of the central ideas of the book, as well: all the children that show up there are particularly gifted, but only one, Ender, is more gifted than the others.

It seems that lots of children reach a local maximum where they are bullied and lonely, but forget about the times when they are then going into the next environment where they are nothing special. That’s then recruiting ground for Orson Scott Card.

You have a writer that appeals to the successful, another that appeals to the gifted. Does it surprise anyone that the same set of people is attracted to both writers? I certainly wouldn’t be too surprised.

Now, to Ender’s Shadow. This book narrates the same story as Ender’s Game, but instead of telling it from the point of view of Ender, it takes up a minor character in the earlier novel called Bean and weaves a story around him.

It’s never easy to write the same story twice, especially from a different angle. Asimov did a spectacular job with his The Gods Themselves- but then multiple angles was what he was going for from the get-go. Writing a second novel without having the parallel option in mind when starting the first one is even more difficult. With this premise, Card actually does a quite credible job of creating a story that stands on its own but runs in parallel. 

Unfortunately, the more the story is far from the events narrated in Ender’s Game, the more it captures the imagination. Parts that are strongly tied to the earlier novel tend to flatten easily and give the book an uneven arc from the compelling to the unnecessary.

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