The best way to distinguish a work of pornography from a conventional narrative is to look at its structure. All narratives, to some extent, are concerned with such things as character, plot, exposition, development, climax and resolution; but in pornography these are merely nods to propriety, threadbare garments which barely conceal the real purpose of the narrative: to deliver a particular kind of gratification again and again. Conventional narratives may head in any direction, but porn always orients itself towards its pet catharsis, and never strays far away.
Imagine, for example, that you were unaware of porn, and watching one of those softcore "erotic thrillers" on late-night cable. Within minutes you would notice that it was no ordinary thriller, that something about the storytelling was a bit off. You might wonder if it was strictly necessary, from a narrative standpoint, for the characters to disrobe and hump each other every five minutes. You might wonder why random, pointless characters are introduced just to be fucked, and why the plot is contrived in such a way as to allow all the leading characters to hook up in every combination a heterosexual male might care to see. To one expecting a conventional narrative, the porn narrative has a demented, obsessive appearance; it is static, repetitive, moves only in circles.
Such was my experience reading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, which purports to be a classic sci-fi novel, but is actually, I now realise, a work of pornography. Some readers might be deceived by the book's scrupulous avoidance of sexual content, but it just happens that sex is not the particular fetish of Ender's Game: it finds its gratification elsewhere.
The book in fact caters towards two related fetishes. The most obvious of these is geek wish-fulfillment. Ender Wiggin, the protagonist of the book, is a classic Mary Sue — a pre-pubescent boy genius who is simply the best at everything. Compared to his peers at the space battle school for gifted kids, Ender is wiser, more intelligent, more sensitive and loving, better at his studies, a better hacker, a better fighter, a better leader. He is better than all of them, and they hate him for it. They all hate him for it — all except the girls, of course — and they never let him forget it. They want to crush him, humiliate him, kill him, but Ender is better than them, and because he is better than them, he always wins through.
In the best traditions of porn, each chapter is simply a build-up to a catharsis. Ender proves he is better than everybody, and the reading nerd finds a vicarious release. The sequence of catharses begins with revenge over a school bully (whom Ender kicks to death); and then, just as the porn movie raises the bar with more exotic positions, more extended sessions, and more numerous participants, so the obstacles facing Ender become more difficult. The provocations become more extreme, the bullies become tougher, his mentors set him impossible challenges. But Ender always wins, no matter how hard or unfair the fight, no matter how much his enemies conspire to stack the odds against him. He always wins, and forces his enemies to acknowledge his brilliance and superiority — and if they don't, he eventually kills them.
There is no dramatic tension or genuine excitement about any of these encounters; the only tension comes from how long the inevitable catharsis can be delayed. It's made quite clear early on that Ender is the best, unbeatable, guaranteed to fulfil all your geek revenge fantasies; each chapter reliably delivers its load. In each chapter, as surely as the pornstar gets her tits out, Ender faces a terrible provocation; in each chapter, his eventual triumph is as certain as a cumshot, and just as undeniable.
To sustain this pattern, the plot is contrived to make sure that other characters always hate Ender. There is no obvious reason for him to be so despised, at every turn, by his peers: he's a confident guy who excels at games, the kind of guy who would typically be well-liked at school. And yet, people seem to hate him a priori. Every time Ender makes friends, he makes more enemies, and everything he does makes his enemies hate him all the more. This mass of hate is overdone and never convincing: it simply plays into the paranoia of the target readership. Its effect is to enhance the gratification, ratchet up the pornographic tension, make Ender's inevitable victories all the sweeter.
Geek wish-fulfillment is not the only fetish on display in Ender's Game: the other is self-pity, the lonely self-pity of the truly gifted and persecuted. Ender, you see, doesn't want to keep beating and humiliating and killing people. He is always forced into these actions, against his will, by the school governors who keep pushing him to succeed, and by his victims themselves, who just won't accept that he is the best. "Why wouldn't he leave me alone?" he wonders as he kills another bully. After every victory comes an equally cathartic bout of self-pity, as Ender wracks his soul in ecstatic remorse over his situation. Even in this area, he excels. No one can self-pity like Ender!
In the final one-man gang-bang of wish-fulfillment, Ender is tricked into fighting an alien fleet against impossible odds: he ends up destroying the fleet, the alien home planet and indeed the entire alien species. But all this time the aliens have been preparing a special message for him and him alone: it turns out they were nice after all and didn't mean any harm. This brings us to a final sustained orgasm of self-pity as Ender understands the message and realises the horror of what he was forced to do; he knows then that he must travel the galaxy with the aliens' message, pitying himself for all mankind. It's really quite breathtaking. If you get your jollies from self-pity, this must be the most arousing thing imaginable.
But then again, if you get your jollies from self-pity, you are sick and need help. The same goes for geek revenge fantasies. This is the real problem with Ender's Game: it's not just porn, it's sick porn. Whatever one might say about porn that fetishises sex, at least sex is a healthy and natural impulse, at least sex is usually a pleasant thing. The fetishes of Ender's Game, by contrast, are not healthy. We all feel sorry for ourselves at times, we all occasionally like to fantasise about being the best and proving it; but if you dwell on these feelings to the extent of the protagonist of Ender's Game, if you buy into the book's message of "everyone hates me because I'm the best" (which is delivered without the least sense of irony or introspection), if you see your life as a tale of unending persecution by your inferiors, then you either need to get some perspective, or get some help. Those who claim that Ender's Game truly captures their own childhood feelings are revealing a bit too much.
Jesus Christ is a well-known Mary Sue character for Christian geeks with a persecution complex, so given this and the author's well-publicised religious affiliation, it's no surprise that Ender is a blatant Jesus figure. The similarities are endless. As with Our Lord, Ender knows from an early age that he is destined to be the saviour of humanity; he constantly struggles with this destiny, wants to reject it, self-pitying like only the Son of Man can. Like Jesus, he spends his forty days in the wilderness (in this case, Florida) and survives temptation; like Jesus, he suffers a veritable Gethsemane of self-doubt on the eve of his fateful day.
The parallels run deeper. Ender's birth is a subject of mystery; his siblings are similarly gifted, and at an early family get-together his brother claims the gifts came only from the maternal side.
"'It was all your genes that made us geniuses, Mom,' said Peter. 'We sure didn't get any from Dad.'"
Perhaps "Dad" isn't Ender's real father: perhaps his real "Father" is someone else? Later, after his moment of glory, Ender effectively "dies" by being denied permission to return to Earth, but then lives again by becoming an administrator on one of the former alien planets. Finally, in his thirties, he ascends in a spaceship and preaches his message from world to world, effectively achieving eternal life thanks to the relativistic effects of faster-than-light space travel.
I'm sure many more similarities could be unearthed by people interested in such things, but in truth I tire of these cack-handed pop-cultural depictions of Jesus, from this to Narnia to The Matrix, which are often far too earnest for my liking. At least the Jesus metaphor in Paul Verhoeven's Robocop had an element of satire and irony: Robocop was an American Jesus, resurrected with all guns blazing. But there is no irony about the Jesus metaphor in Ender's Game. Instead, Card uses Ender to promote his own perspectives on Christianity.
For one thing, Ender is Card's attempt to reconcile the more ostensibly pacifistic Christian teachings with his own militarism and war obsession. Ender takes Jesus's instruction to "love thy enemy" seriously — "I love my enemies," he says, "then I destroy them." In fact, we are told, only one as loving and sensitive as Ender could be such an effective killer. Ender loves so much that he is one with his enemies, he thinks their thoughts, he knows their movements almost before they do. The apparent irony dissolves: beating your enemy is loving him: his defeat is sufficient evidence of your love, since it would not have been possible without it. As Ender shows, "love thy enemy" does not prevent Christians from engaging in combat — in fact, it's the Christian advantage in combat. Here we have a semantical conjuring trick worthy of the finest medieval theologians — if only the crusaders had thought of that one! In the hands of any other writer, such an idea would be played for laughs, the blackest of comedy, but here it's all painfully serious.
Card also uses Ender to push his intentions-are-everything concept of morality. It's okay, for example, that Ender beats two of his bullies to death. In each case, he is merely pursuing the most rational course of action: it is only by beating the absolute shit out of his opponents, to the best of his ability, that he can be certain the bullying will stop. Anything less and they will come back and hit him harder another day. He doesn't intend to kill the bullies: he doesn't even find out that he has killed them until much later, and in the meantime, his self-pity has cleansed his soul. (And besides, as he tells us, he loved them anyway.) Does Card use this kind of sophistry to justify his support for the Iraq War or other "pre-emptive" invasions? I doubt his good intentions, or his self-pity, or even his love, will be much comfort to the victims, even they do satisfy his Father in Heaven. (Notably, the feelings of Ender's human victims are never really dealt with in the novel — they are only mentioned when they factor into Ender's plans for victory. Otherwise, only Ender and his sister seem capable of suffering.)
To further illustrate his moral ideas, Card then dreams up something even more revolting: a genocide that is nobody's fault. The military commanders who planned the invasion didn't intend to wipe out the aliens: they were just executing a morally sound pre-emptive strike, like Ender with the bullies. Neither did Ender, who executed the invasion, intend to wipe out the aliens: he just thought he was playing a computer simulation. It's a wonderfully guilt-free massacre, mass murder with a clear conscience: the mind boggles at the kind of actions one could justify (and could have justified) with these arguments.
I find it hard to imagine a more objectionable novel than Ender's Game; perhaps the content of the Left Behind series or the standard piece of right-wing "milSF" trash would be more offensive, but fortunately the technical deficiencies of these books make them more or less unreadable. The disturbing thing about Ender's Game is that Card is a good craftsman of prose; he makes the pages turn, he's an effective manipulator. In the early chapters, he inhabits the child mind convincingly; Ender's bewilderment, his confusion with the adult world, his exaggerated fear of bullies, all seemed authentic to me, until I realised they were all too earnest and in the service of pornography. But still I kept reading, as though hooked by a nasty but compelling piece of propaganda. Just as The Eye of Argon is well-composed enough to bring home the awfulness of its prose, the prose in Ender's Game is good enough to bring home the horror of its content.
I wouldn't go so far as to claim the book is well-written, however. At times Card's skill with prose deserts him, especially when he drools over his battle tactics like a weekend paintballer. Sci-fi urgently needs to purge itself of the work of these gun nuts and armchair tacticians — there are few things more embarrassing than to watch a middle-aged man play with his toy soldiers. The structure of the narrative, as I've already mentioned, is lopsided, and the final plot twist is very predictable. Characters, Ender included, are generally blanks onto which the reader can project his own fantasies: Ender is every reader's stand-in, Valentine every idealised loving sister, Peter every nasty older brother, Bonzo every stupid big bully. The premise of the story — that children will fight future battles — seems plausible until you give it a moment's thought. I could buy it as satire, perhaps, but as with everything else in the book, it's played in deadly earnest, and comes across as very silly. (The side-plot of Ender's teenage siblings taking over the world is sillier still.) But Card can morally absolve himself on this note: the silliness is clearly unintentional. In fact, I can't recall a note of humour, wit or playful irony in the whole novel. It's one of the most poker-arsed things I've ever read.
In other art forms — music, painting, dance — it's more possible to draw a line between art and artist. These are more abstract arts, and since it is hard to tell what the artworks represent, it is equally hard to tell whether they represent the views or personality of the artist. But writers cannot hide behind abstraction so easily. Writing is always, in some manner or another, an expression of a particular human consciousness. Writing, more than any other art, is a measure of the human being who writes it. And on the evidence of Ender's Game, Card just doesn't measure up.