I was a diehard fan of Orson Scott Card from maybe 1987 until the time I got to the end of his novel Treasure Box, sometime after 1996, and then I suddenly wasn’t. I gave my reasons in a previous blog post, which you can search for if you like, but this post isn’t about that.
It’s about what it was like to be a reader of his work between 1987 and 1992. In 1987, I was in high school, living in Utah as a non-Mormon with mostly Mormon friends. Utah, well . . . back when the Mormons first settled it, it was supposed to be a theocracy. The State of Deseret, with the church and business leader Brigham Young at its head. By 1987 a lot had changed, of course, but the LDS church had quite a bit of influence over business and government.
Non-Mormons were (and still are) in a strange place culturally. I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the world. If you want a little taste of it, see this review of the play Saturday’s Voyeur, a parody of Mormon culture and politics that has been put on by the Salt Lake Acting Company since the late 1970s.
Part of the strangeness was that we were a minority culture subordinate to and in opposition to another minority culture. In many places outside of Utah, Mormons were looked upon skeptically. In Utah, though, they were the political power.
Another part of the strangeness was that many non-Mormons were ex-Mormons. They had belonged to the Church, and maybe their whole family and all their friends belonged to the Church, and then they had left it. That meant leaving a whole community, but still living in the same place.
Our family was kind of like that. My mom had been Mormon and had left the church because of, well, some stuff. And my dad had some Mormon roots as well. I am the descendant of Mormon converts, polygamists, “Jack Mormons,” ex-Mormons, and anti-Mormons. There’s a history. And a complicated cultural divide. My parents had their own stories to tell, and the occasional frustrated “Oh, those Mormons!” comments.
Orson Scott Card bridged the cultural divide, and he did it well. He was enjoyed and respected by Mormons and non-Mormons alike — including my dad and me. He put out quality work.
What did we read? Well, everything we could find. We blazed through the Ender’s Game series. And we read the Alvin Maker series. And the novel Saints, which had as its protagonist a polygamous woman from the early days of the church. We both felt she had done a good job of conveying a woman’s point of view and that the historical information was really compelling. On my own, I also read and loved his novel Songmaster and his short story collection Folk of the Fringe.
Around that same time I had an on-again, off-again Mormon boyfriend, also a big fan of Orson Scott Card. He told me stories about how the top leadership of the church would come to him saying, “Well, we heard about such-and-so in your book, and we’re concerned about it,” and he would point-by-point defend his works. I was duly impressed.
Within the broad science fiction and fantasy community, outside of Utah, I would have guessed that his Mormon identity would be a liability. But I don’t think it was. Actually, he was pretty mainstream.
How mainstream? Well, check out this list I found while going through old papers. (I’m tidying.) It’s an article that appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1989, titled “Books to Look For” by Orson Scott Card.
I only have the first half of the article, but here were his selections:
- Cyberbooks by Ben Bova (TOR)
- Imago by Octavia Butler (Warner)
- Nemesis by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday/Foundation)
- On My Way to Paradise by Dave Wolverton (Bantam)
- Tourists by Lisa Goldstein (Simon & Schuster)
- Eva by Peter Dickinson (Delacorte)
- The Golden Thread, Suzy McKee Charnas (Bantam)
- The Jedera Adventure by Lloyd Alexander (Dutton)
- The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson (TOR)
- The Divide by Robert Charles Wilson (Doubleday/Foundation)
- Castleview by Gene Wolfe (TOR)
Back then, I looked at this list and thought, “Wow, what a lot of great books!” I didn’t see then what was obvious now: only three of ten of the authors are women, and only one is black. I didn’t think much about the gender of authors or protagonists, and I didn’t think about race at all. (I probably wouldn’t even have noticed that Octavia Butler was black, unless I had read her book and looked at her picture.) That was the mainstream, or maybe to the left of it. Those were the kind of demographics you’d see even now from a lot of reviewers.
Well, that was then. A lot of things happened in the meantime. I took eye-opening feminist theory courses from Katherine Stockton, learned a lot about racism and sexism, joined the Mormon church, left the Mormon church, left Utah, went to graduate school, and learned more about racism and sexism, and then found Octavia Butler (WOW!), then learned more about systemic racism, misogyny, rape culture, collective liberation, and intersectional feminism.
I’m an entirely different reader.
Meanwhile, the science fiction and fantasy community is different, and so is the publishing landscape, and the demographic makeup of authors and readers. There are some people who have made the same journey as me, and some people (supporters of Theodore Beale, for instance) who have moved in the opposite direction.
And then there are the people in the middle. People who think, as I used to think, that demographics don’t matter, that there is some universal standard that makes a book excellent or mediocre. Such people can change. They can go in one direction or the other, or they can stay put.
If I were to start fresh, right now, and reread all those same books for the first time, I would probably say they were damn fine books with some seriously problematic elements.
The same, though, could be said about quite a few of my best beloved books. Rereading favorite children’s books to my daughter, I have to gag and skip over some of it. Other parts I have to explain. (“Well, it used to be considered acceptable to hit children.”) Or (“Well, back then, some people thought black people weren’t human.”) Or (“That’s because women were considered men’s property.”)
Would I ever reread any of Orson Scott Card’s books? Likely not, with the possible exceptions of Songmaster, Saints, or Folk of the Fringe. But I am going to give him cred for recommending Octavia Butler.
Here’s what he says:
“Butler caps the series that began with Dawn and Adulthood Rites with this story of human beings struggling for species identity in the face of a genetic challenge from ruthless-yet-compassionate aliens. Which is more important, asks Butler, what we were or what we are becoming?”
Onward to the future.