Pax Wiggina

It's amazing to me how one can read a really good book so many times and miss little things on every reading, so that each time you re-read it you notice something new. (With a poorly written book this does not seem to be the case -- read it once, suck everything you can from it, discard husk and walk away. I pride myself on not assigning that kind of book unless absolutely necessary; it's sometimes necessary when I'm teaching disciplinarily-based IR courses, because there are badly-written books which are nonetheless important to have read, but not in a course like this ... but I digress.) Of all the books we're reading this semester, Ender's Game is probably the one I've read the second-most times over the course of my life. (Yes, V for Vendetta would the the one I've read the most.) I remember first hearing of Orson Scott Card in about 1986 when the novel won the 1985 Hugo and Nebula awards, although I don't precisely remember from whom I first heard Card's name; I do distinctly remember reading the novel in my room at boarding school, having that same experience that so many bright kids did when reading this novel: wow, that's my life! Thereafter I became a Card fanatic, hunting down obscure little novels like Hart's Hope and Hot Sleep, and generally waiting with great anticipation for the man's next work. Remember, this was in the old days, before the InterNet; there was no Hatrak River online community to join, and it was rare to meet another geek like myself in person . . . so I re-read novels. And re-read novels. And re-read novels.

I must have read this novel about twenty times -- and that's just in high school.

So it's safe to say that I've probably gotten everything out of this book that I'm likely to get out of it, right? Wrong. The words on the page may not change from reading to reading, but I sure as heck have. So has Orson Scott Card's corpus of work, both fictional and -- I was about to say "non-fictional," but some might question whether his political commentaries are in fact works of non-fiction, so I'll just elave it at that. Both of those changes, I think, alter the book in subtle ways: points previously seen but not grasped rise to the fore, significant scenes lose their significance, sudden reveals and plot twists are no longer as surprising (but I think Card'a good enough writer that even if you know what's going on when Ender is working with the simulator on Eros and commanding his battle school buddies, you still feel Ender's gut-wrenching outrage on pp. 296-298. That even I, who have read this more times than is probably healthy, can still feel that is a testimony to Card's skills as a writer.

So, in brief, what's changed? I'm not going to go into biographical details about myself, but suffice to say that in high school I didn't care all that much for or about politics, so I kind of breezed through the bits about Peter's plans for world domination -- the idea of kids being taken seriously based on their arguments and not on their ages appealed to me, and the obvious parallels between the root ability of the three Wiggin children (to know the other, and to know them completely) which set up a series of moral dilemmas (is Ender like Peter? would Valentine be able to kill if the situation required it?) made sense. But the actual content of Locke and Demosthenes's programs? Never paid it a second thought. I know I read those words, and I've checked my earlier editions to make sure that Card didn't slip things into the present Author's Definitive Edition -- and no, they were there all along. But literally, this is the first time I actually noticed that Peter Wiggin was striving for "a Pax Americana through the whole world" (p. 132).

There are other examples, like the fact that I never remembered that Ender's mother was established as a Mormon in this novel; I thought that was a new addition in the parallel Ender novels that discuss Peter's rise to power. But the Pax Americana thing really struck me this time. In part I think it's because Card's subsequent political commentary -- unapologetically, even brashly, pro-American -- makes me more aware of those moments in his novels where characters say and do things that involve praising America and American liberal democracy (even when, in extreme situations, the civil liberties usually associated with that liberal democracy have to be set aside in order to ensure survival . . . gee, does that sound familiar). In part it's because Card's triumphalism, like Peter's, doesn't really give reasons for the superiority of the American system; it just relies on oppositions (America/terrorists in Card's political commentary, or America/Warsaw Pact in the novel) and clearly steers the reader towards the first term rather than the second one. No one, least of all Peter, questions whether a Pax Americana would be the best way of spreading the human race into the stars -- this despite the fact that the most impressive focusing of human effort for the previous eight decades or so has been through the virtual dictatorship of the I.F.! Given that evidence, why wouldn't a more authoritarian system of governance be more effective than a liberal-democratic one at moving people off-planet into space? Peter, and I think we can infer Card, doesn't even regard this as a question worth asking.

Card used to be my favorite living science-fiction author. But his most recent novels kind of turned me off, especially his re-writing of key moments in Ender's Game through the parallel novel Ender's Shadow, a book I rather liked up until the end when Bean, not Ender, is the one who figures out how to win the final battle with the buggers, and figures out that it's actually the final battle with the buggers. Then there was his criticism of Star Wars, pretty much an unforgivable sin in my book. And then there came along Iain M. Banks, and I had a new favorite to replace the old one. But still I marvel at his talent -- his talent as a writer, if not his talent as a political scientist.


Poor Reflection

In class last week I made several disparaging comments about the film version ofV for Vendetta. Upon reflection it it clear to me that I ought to have been more careful -- I can't speak ill of the film as a film, simply because I can't (in the sense of "am incapable of") see that film as just a film. For me it will always, always be a poor reflection of the graphic novel -- and since the novel came first in my experience, the film is basically doomed from the start.

I was actually quite excited when I first heard that the Wachowskis were planning to direct the film version. I was pretty sure that the guys who'd made the Matrix trilogy -- and especially, the guys who had made the second and third films of that trilogy, going for philosophical consistency over populist appeal -- would really grok what Moore and Lloyd had been up to. And I thought that Amidala, er, Natalie Portman would make a good Evey, even if she was a little older than the character had been in the novel -- she had the right blend of innocence and determination. Instead, I was bitterly disappointed at the way that the Wachowskis changed the central themes of the story, and basically only retained some of the design elements and the names of characters. Everything else was either re-plotted or just modified beyond recognition.

Now, let me say again that I am not capable of giving an opinion on whether V for Vendetta was a good film or not. I can't watch it without thinking of the novel, so I have no idea whether what the Wachowskis produced is even decent. I do know that it's a very different product, and having basically memorized the novel from many, many years of close reading, seeing their changes was just uncomfortable. Let me just flag three:

1) the movie's tagline was something like "Freedom! Forever!" That's a very un-V-like statement, at least going by the novel. V believes that individuals are free when they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their ideals; the core of his insight is that the only one holding an individual in prison or bondage is, in the end, the individual her- or himself. [This is not a Marxist novel about oppressive structures.] That being said, freedom can't be given, and it's no one else's fault that freedom isn't presently much in evidence in England. V is many things, but he's not a conventional revolutionary, seeking to liberate by removing obstacles. Instead, V is a conductor or a director, and what he's interested in is less freedom defined as the removal of governmental constraints, and more freedom defined as existential selfhood. So the tagline is misleading.

2) along those lines, one of the most egregious modifications in the film -- spoiler alert -- is the provision of multiple "V" masks for the citizens of England. The idea that "we are all V" venerates mass democracy and populist control of government rather than existential selfhood; it places liberation in the hands of the masses, not in the hands of individuals. This seems an odd move for V, since history has shown time and again how easy it is to mobilize the masses behind the idea of abandoning their individual responsibilities and turning them over to some kind of leader who represents the people as a whole . . . unless one is very careful, the idea and even the physical presence of "the people" can underwrite all kinds of deprivations of liberty, especially when "national security" gets involved. But the film doesn't even broach that possibility, and instead we get a straightforward opposition of democracy and dictatorship.

3) but the really disappointing thing about the film, in my opinion, was how it ended the ambiguity about V's goals that animates the novel. Is V just out for revenge, or is he doing something else and using revenge as a means to get there? In the novel, that remains an open question, exemplified by Evey's final goodbye to V when on one page (p. 260) she gives both rationales together. The film, on the other hand, makes V entirely out for revenge, except for his odd and largely unexplained dalliance with Evey -- a dalliance which is also far less ambiguous, since the film makes it clear that their relationship is more of a Phantom of the Opera unrequited love kind of thing (only a bit less psychotic -- only a bit). In the film V is obsessed with Evey, clearly in love with her, and seems to want nothing more than for her to love him. This strikes me as a belittling of V, who in the novel clearly cares for Evey but is not simply trying to pursue a relationship with her! So the V of the film is the Phantom, out for revenge and out to claim his Angel of Music.

I was not at all surprised when I saw that Moore had taken his name off of the film. To these three issues, we could add the removal of the supercomputer Fate, the absence of Rosemary, the fact that V kills the Leader himself, and on, and on . . .

As I said at the outset, I can't say whether the resulting film was any good. But I can say that it is a thinner product than the novel. There have been good, faithful adaptations of complex novels, but thus wasn't one of them. I really hope that the Watchmen film is better -- we'll know in a year, apparently.