In fifth grade my friend Steve gave me a copy of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It was the first science-fiction novel I’d ever read and it changed my life. I loved it. I read it again and again that year and the next. In junior high I discovered its sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, and those books became a guiding light for me during a troubled time. Later, Steve took his own life and I couldn’t read them anymore, couldn’t even keep them on my bookshelf. It’s been twenty years now and it’s time to stop hiding.
Steve and I were friends in grade school. Even though he lived in the house behind mine, the move to junior high brought an unintentional and inexplicable end to our friendship. I never knew Steve as a teenager or an adult. I don’t remember the names of his parents. I only barely recall his older brother, who was always too cool for us. I can’t serve as his speaker for the dead, but now, reading these books again for the first time in twenty years, I can tell you about my childhood friendship with Steve and about how much I owe to him and to this one simple gift. This is my eulogy for Steve. It’s long overdue, but I hope it’s not too late.
Steve intended for Ender’s Game to give me something to do on the long flight to France where I would live for three weeks as part of an exchange program. I remember the flight vividly, not because Kevin had managed to smuggle candy for all of us beneath the watchful eye of our chaperones, not because Bob had brought a book of terrible jokes and was determined to read all of them aloud no matter how many other passengers it annoyed, but because as soon as I clicked my seatbelt and opened the covers of Steve’s gift I was transported to a world that seemed more real than this one.
My first day back at school, Steve and I spent our morning recess huddled together in an icy corner of the playground talking about Ender and his friends and Battle School. We continued the conversation at lunch and then again in the afternoon, thinking together about what it would be like to be a Bugger, to be part of a hive mind. We appropriated the parlance of Battle School – it became a secret language that only we knew, and “gold-plated fart” was our favorite term for the sixth graders who monopolized the coveted kickball field at recess. Our friendship really grew up around this story, around our shared love for it, and for two years we never tired of having the same conversations over and over.
The start of junior high was a lonely time for me, as it is for so many. No one from my grade school was in any of my classes – there wasn’t even anyone from church, or little league, or scouts. Yet it seemed that the other kids all knew each other. They clung together in groups of four or five, speaking their own secret languages about their former teachers and bad field-trips and hilarious birthday parties. I sat alone at lunch for a few days, but early in the second week of school, walking through the lunch-room, I saw a Dragonlance novel resting on a table. I stopped in my tracks. I had just read the first Dragonlance trilogy over the summer. I didn’t know the kids at the table, but I knew these books and, more importantly, I had learned how to talk about books through my friendship with Steve. I hesitated, unsure if I should crash their lunch, but if there was one thing that I’d learned from Ender it was that it’s important to take charge of a situation before the situation takes charge of you.
Because of what I had learned with Steve, these kids became my best friends in junior high and high school, and one of them has remained among my closest friends even into middle age. All through our early adolescence we drank too much Kool-Aide and played Dungeons & Dragons in our parents’ basements, we rode our bikes around town, and we caused mischief at school. I felt like I was on the same journey as Ender: I had found my Battle School army – I had found my home.
But reading Ender’s Game again now as an adult and discussing it with friends, I’ve discovered that this feeling was based on a gross misreading of the text. Much of the book is about just how lonely Ender is in Battle School, and especially in Command School, where the instructors intentionally keep him in isolation. It’s right there in the text, as clear as it could be. But when I read the book on that airplane, and when I read it again and again in grade school, I didn’t even notice this aspect of the book. I couldn’t. I wasn’t really reading the book from Ender’s perspective, but was imagining myself as a background character in Battle School, an unnamed member of Ender’s Dragon Army, someone who hung out with Bean and Alai and Petra. For me, Battle School wasn’t a place of exile from a loving family, it wasn’t a dangerous place where I would have to fight for survival. Battle School was an inviting place where I bunked with my best friends and played games and found ways to subvert the expectations of stupid grown-ups. It was the space boarding school of my dreams. It was home. And I wanted to make it real.
And I tried very hard to do just that. At the beginning of sixth grade, I organized a daily afterschool game of Kick the Can. As soon as the school day ended, most of our class would march to a nearby forest preserve and play until dark. And we were serious about it. We had teams and we kept score. During school we talked strategy and tactics. Much like Ender’s game-changing tactic of freezing his soldiers’ legs, our game changed when someone (it might have been Steve) came up with the idea of swapping clothes with each other, making it harder to properly identify us and thus to call us out. Soon all the teams were doing it and we had to make adjustments, and then adjustments to the adjustments. It was my Battle School.
Later, when college became a financial impossibility for me, I joined the Army. It wasn’t my idea. An older friend mentioned it as an alternative to the retail-job-plus-community-college life so many of my friends were living. But I didn’t need any convincing. As soon as I heard the idea, I wanted to do it because I thought it would be fun. And it was fun, all of it. Basic Training is meant to be terrible, you’re meant to cry and feel broken and exhausted, but for me it was awesome … because I thought it was a game. I knew it was a game. I knew it because Dink Meeker had told me so when I was ten. If Battle School was really about the students struggling against the teachers, basic training was a game of mental fortitude played against the drill sergeants. And my squad won. We laughed a lot during our two months together.
This attitude, this quest for a found-family composed of friends and comrades, has been a hallmark of my life wherever I’ve lived and it’s the greatest thing I took from Ender’s Game and from my friendship with Steve. But Card was exploring something else, something dark and disturbing, and I wonder now if Steve saw all these things that I was blind to. I found something hopeful and aspirational in Battle School, but what did Steve, whose family was falling apart, find there? Comfort that he wasn’t the only miserable kid?
When I think about sixth grade now, I think about Kick the Can, playing Dungeons & Dragons with Steve, and finally being able to lay claim to the kickball field at lunch. But early that year my little sister Molly died from a brain tumor.
I was deeply troubled by the religious implications of Molly’s death. What kind of god would kill a child? The answer, surely, had to be: none. And if there isn’t really a god, what are we doing here, what is the point of existing? Did the adults already know there is no god and that everything is arbitrary and pointless? Were my pastors and teachers just lying to me about what the world is like? What else were adults lying to us about?
These aren’t the most sophisticated questions, but church had been important to me and to my family for so long, and these doubts seemed gargantuan at the time. I was angry. Assuming that I would just be lied to, I never went to anyone at church with my doubts and questions. Instead, I just quit going as soon as my parents permitted it.
The Christmas of eighth grade I received a gift-certificate for our local bookshop with enough money to get three new mass-market paperbacks. Of course I was there as soon as the doors opened the next day. Prominently displayed in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section was a book by Orson Scott Card that I’d never read before: Speaker for the Dead.
Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (which came out the following summer) didn’t answer my religious questions, but they legitimized those questions and the very act of my questioning. In Xenocide especially I was introduced to new ideas and new questions that I hadn’t encountered before. The idea of naming a chapter “Free Will” seems on-the-nose to me now, but when I was fourteen it was electrifying. Moreover these books showed me where my questions were acknowledged and addressed, discussed and debated: science-fiction books.
Science fiction was where I could go to ask if there is anything that makes humans special, if reality is really real, and whether anything we do matters. I read and I read, and by the time I was in the Army it seemed that I was living entirely on books about Space Jesuits. A Case of Conscience and The Sparrow, of course, but also A Canticle for Leibowitz and books by Robert J. Sawyer and Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick and on and on. This was also the capacity in which I discovered Gene Wolfe, whose work has become so important to my life – another debt I owe to Steve.
On my days off, I would wander around Denver going from church to church and talking to priests and ministers about the ideas I was encountering in these books. One afternoon I came home to the news that Steve had taken his own life. I had more questions, of course, more grief and guilt. I’m not sure how much Denver’s clerical community enjoyed my questions, but these conversations mattered to me. They helped me come to terms with my anger and they helped me think about who I wanted to be. Of course who I wanted to be was Andrew Wiggin, but speaker for the dead isn’t a real job yet, and so by the end of my military service I was considering becoming a Jesuit myself. I didn’t, but my life has taken another path that was revealed to me in Speaker for the Dead and through my friendship with Steve.
Eighth grade was the last and worst year of my parents’ marriage. Fantastical cultures provided a much-needed escape for me – they helped me tune out the shouting in ways that my Walkman never could – and I loved my Dragonlance novels and The Lord of the Rings for giving me someplace else to be. But Speaker for the Dead showed me that there was more to these new worlds and new civilizations than just refuge for a troubled teenager. The novel begins from the perspective of a xenologer – what Star Trek would call a xenoanthropologist – someone who studies the culture of another sentient people, and this was the first time that it had occurred to me that other cultures weren’t just “other” but were interesting – moreover, they could be studied and appreciated.
Card’s emphasis on language played a large role in this. Right from the start I was fascinated by the use of Portuguese on the planet Lusitania. Card doesn’t just tell us that his characters use Portuguese, he writes whole conversations at least partially in Portuguese and then supplies us with English translations. Of course, a reader can just ignore the Portuguese and read the English … but I compared every sentence. I loved that it was possible to figure out how Portuguese functioned, to realize which words went with which even when the English word didn’t come from Latin, and even more so that Card’s translations weren’t always literal. Sometimes he changed an important word, translating for sense rather than literal meaning, and I spent a lot of time wondering why and what it signified.
I’ve gone on to a career studying another culture – not a strange, new one but a strange, old one. As a historian, I work on the Fall of the Roman Empire, studying the ways in which local cultures, societies, and institutions changed in response to militarization and endemic warfare. I write about religious leaders in times of crisis, how bishops and priests and monks took on new roles to navigate the chaos of a violently disintegrating state and in doing so transformed the culture and institutions of their cities.
There is a direct line from Speaker for the Dead (and therefore from Steve) to my research interests, but it wasn’t just the content of these books that shaped my career choice. My first attempt at scholarship was about Orson Scott Card. Junior year of high school we had to write a research paper for English class. The idea was to write twenty pages or so about a single American author, largely biography but also some literary criticism. We were supposed to choose someone like Faulkner or Steinbeck, but I wanted to write about Card.
My teacher discouraged me because science fiction isn’t real literature. The result was a long treatise about how wrong she was. I wrote about Card’s discourse on tyranny, his celebration of cultural diversity, and his emphasis on free will. My objective was limited to proving there is more to science fiction than spaceship battles and I hardly even attempted to do justice to any of these themes. The writing is dreadful and my inconsistent comma usage makes me cringe now, but I’m proud of that work – the only high-school assignment I remember.
When Card came to our town to promote Children of the Mind, I brought a copy of this paper with me to have signed. This event was a big deal for me, and I’d arranged to have the night off from my pizza-making job months ahead of time. But I didn’t bring Steve with me. I didn’t use this as an opportunity at the end of high school to remember something of our childhood friendship, to stand in line and strategize about turning the book store into a battle room and joke about gold-plated farts. I wish I had.
I owe a lot to Steve. But more than anything I owe him a life devoted to building community around books and learning. At an age when so many kids choose their interests to suit their friends for fear of being isolated, Steve taught me to choose my friends based on our shared loves. It’s a lesson I’ve taken with me through every stage of my life. And now I’m lucky enough to spend my days talking with students about ancient and medieval books and the dead languages in which they are written, writing scholarship and stories of my own, and podcasting about speculative-fiction with my best friends.
I owe a lot to Steve, but it’s not a debt I can repay. I missed my opportunities. Even after we drifted apart, even after we wound up at different high schools, we still went to sleep each night separated by only half a football field. It would have been so easy to invite him to our role-playing games or ask him to go to a book-signing with me or even just to stop by his house after work with an extra pizza. But I never did. I had other friends and I assumed he did, too, so I never knew how bad life had gotten for him, how lonely he was, how in need of a friend.
Now that I’ve read these books again, the beginning of Speaker for the Dead haunts me. The book opens with Pipo contemplating the life of a child whose parents died years ago. Pipo knows that he should have done more for her when she was orphaned, that although her material needs have been met and she’s done well in school, she has lacked the love of a family and it’s hurt her. Pipo could have given that love to her, but he was too preoccupied with his own grief to see the living person in front of him. He failed this child and it’s his greatest regret.
Card could have written this passage about me and Steve. Like Pipo, I was blinded by my own trauma and failed to see that someone needed my help. Of course, it’s all right there in the story. Card wants readers to empathize with Pipo, to pause and think about how they might be ignoring someone who needs them. Reading Speaker for the Dead now I recognize that regret is one of the central motifs of the story. Not just Pipo, but Ender, too. Ender is full of regret about his complicity in the slaughter of billions of people. It haunts him and he can’t undo it, he can’t bring those people back. But he can choose now to be a force for good in the world, to love the people around him, to care for the people in his life.
It’s a hopeful lesson. I wish that I’d understood more of the emotional arc of the book when I read it as a teenager, I wish it had spurred me to ring Steve’s doorbell. I missed this lesson as a teenager, but I won’t forget it now.