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October 2002
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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OSC ConJose Signing 08/31/02 (photo: ernest lilley/

SFRevu Feature: Orson Scott Card Conducted by Ernest Lilley

Feature Book: Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card

Be sure to visit the Official Orson Scott Card Website:

Visit for a video of OSC talking about Shadow Puppets


SFRevu: When did you discover SF?  What was the first SF you read?  Were you hooked? 

Orson Scott Card: The first science fiction I read was a series of stories about a space alien who hung out with a couple of Boy Scouts in Boy’s Life magazine. (editor's note: he wasn't an alien, he was a kid from the far future...yes, I read those too.)  Nothing serious — the fiction that really engaged me at the time was historical: Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series, as well as Joseph Altsheler’s young adult novels set during the Civil War and the French and Indian War.  Compared to these, those spaceman stories didn’t mean much.

But the day came when I had read all the Thanes and Twains at my house and all the Altshelers in the Santa Clara, California, Public Library.  In fact, I had read everything that was remotely interesting to me in the children’s section.  So, screwing my courage to the sticking place, I found my chance to sneak into the grown-up section and soon found myself in front of a couple of shelves labeled Science Fiction.

In those days — about 1960 — there were very few science fiction novels available.  But there were a couple of best-of-the-year anthologies edited by such lights as Groff Conklin and T.E. Dikty, and I pulled one off the shelf, then headed for a table in an out-of-the-way corner.

There were stories that were so far above my head that I couldn’t figure out what was going on.  But a couple of them were unforgettably powerful.  Of course, being eight years old, I didn’t bother to learn the names of the stories’ authors.  In later years I was able to identify a couple of them, though — two of the three most moving: “Tunesmith,” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., and “Call Me Joe,” by Poul Anderson.

I read what science fiction my local library had to offer, and then ... read something else.  I remembered the science fiction had been challenging and interesting and sometimes deeply moving, experiences that I valued having in my memory.  But I didn’t run into sci-fi again until I was in junior high, and my school library had most of Heinlein’s and Andre Norton’s juveniles.

Citizen of the Galaxy and Tunnel in the Sky were the two Heinleins that gripped me deeply and never let go.  It was Norton, though, whose entire oeuvre I devoured as quickly as possible — Galactic Derelict, Time Traders, The Stars Are Ours, Starborn, Catseye, and others — even Huon of the Horn.

And then, once again, having exhausted the library’s supply of sci-fi, I went on to read other things and didn’t look back.  It was not until I was in my last year of high school that my brother and his fiancée gave me Foundation.  At this point I finally had a little money and had caught on to the fact that when you buy books, you don’t have to give them back.

I was never, in other words, a “science fiction reader.”  Indeed, it was only after I began selling science fiction that I felt the need to catch up and read through The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Dangerous Visions series and Partners in Wonder.

But even though I went on to read many more science fiction books, science fiction never made up more than a quarter of my leisure reading or book buying.  When I joined a book club, it was Book-of-the-Month, not Science Fiction Book Club.  I never heard of science fiction conventions and so never went to any; even if I had known of them, however, I doubt I would have gone.  I had other interests — I was actively involved in theatre, and therefore any need I had to hang out with likeminded people was fully satisfied.  My crowd dropped names like Albee and Sondheim, and while the fads of the day — Tolkien, Bradbury, Ayn Rand, Stranger in a Strange Land — swept through the student theatre crowd just as through the rest of the university community, it meant no more (and no less) than Joni Mitchell and Peter, Paul, and Mary and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  I enjoyed them, but I didn’t take my identity from them.

I was never, in other words, a “science fiction reader.”  Indeed, it was only after I began selling science fiction that I felt the need to catch up and read through The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Dangerous Visions series and Partners in Wonder.

It was sci-fi editors, in other words, who gave me my course in science fiction.

But to this day, it is not sci-fi that I “belong to.”  Science fiction is, rather, an extremely powerful and versatile tool set for the writer, and an extraordinarily open and accepting and intelligent audience.  I write science fiction because there is no contemporary genre that provides as many tools and as open-minded an audience as science fiction.  However, when I have a story to tell that does not lend itself to science fictional treatment, then I use a different tool set and write within the conventions of a different genre, and hope that some, at least, of my readers will step outside the boundaries and read something else.

SFR: Who were your favorite writers?  Who were the most influential?  Were you a fan of Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai?

The Dorsai seemed to be military sci-fi, like Starship Troopers, and I never read that either ... I did my military reading in the history section, not fiction.

OSC: I have never read any of Dickson’s work apart from a short story or two.  The Dorsai seemed to be military sci-fi, like Starship Troopers, and I never read that either.  When I was ten I had read Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and after that, military fiction seemed empty and hollow to me.  I did my military reading in the history section, not fiction.

By the time I was in junior high, I had learned to pay close attention to the names of the authors of the books I enjoyed, because I learned that it was the author, not the topic, that was the best predictor of whether I would like a book or not.  During the era when I was reading Heinlein and Norton juveniles, I also was reading Nordhoff and Hall, and standalone novels like Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur.  I read everything by Lloyd Douglas and Mary Stewart that I could get my hands on.  I was also reading Book-of-the-Month Club selections, getting a sense of what contemporary literary and commercial fiction were all about.  I read through all of Irving Wallace while also reading John Hersey.  I read Louisa Mae Alcott and Jane Austen and Gone with the Wind.  James Michener and William Goldman’s early work and The Godfather and Portnoy’s Complaint.  And all of these authors were, at one moment or another, “favorites.”  Most important of all, however, for a budding playwright — for that was how I saw my future as a writer — was Shakespeare.  I read through all the plays, many of them several times over, and mentally directed them and read the lines aloud.  My early plays were often in blank verse, in open imitation of Shakespeare and in an attempt to find a modern way of doing poetic theatre.  All the other playwrights I admired at the time — Albee, Ionesco, Shaw, O’Neill, James Goldman, Neil Simon, Kaufman and Hart — were lined up behind Shakespeare, and all the fiction writers were lined up behind them.

Most of these writers remain bright in my memory; a few have faded as I became a more sophisticated reader.  Sometimes only a particular work of an author remains: Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together, for instance, and John Hersey’s White Lotus, and Michener’s The Source, and Rand’s Fountainhead.

When I got back into science fiction with my reading of the Foundation trilogy, however, I finally began building up a pantheon of favorite science fiction writers.  I was lucky to catch a few more Heinleins before he faded into irrelevancy — Glory Road, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.  I discovered how much more powerful Bradbury’s work is when read aloud, and his cadenced writing set me free to use blank verse techniques in my fiction.  Ursula K. LeGuin and James Blish showed me that characters facing intense moral dilemmas could be at the center of science fiction — it didn’t always have to be a scientific idea.  Larry Niven, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke — I discovered each in turn and binged on their work until I had read it all.

At any given moment, the writer whose work I was immersed in was the favorite of the moment.

But now, upon mature reflection (that’s a laugh), I have to say that Asimov and Bradbury were and are the most influential on my work, at least in terms of conscious influence.  (Of unconscious influence, of course, by definition I cannot speak.)  Asimov’s utter clarity, the way he made the implied author invisible and kept the focus on the story; Bradbury’s language-that-scans, his unabashed sentimentality that demanded emotion from the reader without ever seeming to beg for it — these were standards I strove consciously to meet.

At the same time, my theatrical background has at least as much to do with my current work.  There’s far more Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  and The Odd Couple and Richard II in my work than there is Foundation or I Sing the Body Electric or Citizen of the Galaxy.  I’m still a barestage playwright for whom dialogue is the most powerful tool (especially if you include internal dialogue as well as external).

SFR: It doesn’t seem right to call Ender’s Game “military science fiction” — but what is it?

OSC: It’s fiction about people facing choices that have terrible consequences no matter how they choose, and yet they must and do choose and live with the consequences.  Like all my stories.

SFR: I was delighted to find out, while reading Howard Mittelmark's interview (Published in Inside Books, January 1989) that you are the source of the comment about SF being Fantasy with Rivets on it. Do you still feel that way? Isn't SF more constrained than Fantasy by the possible?

...the difference between them is that science fiction has rivets, and fantasy has trees. This is demonstrable by merely looking at the book covers.

OSC: My actual statement is not that SF is fantasy with rivets, but rather that the difference between them is that science fiction has rivets, and fantasy has trees.  This is demonstrable by merely looking at the book covers.  It’s the commercial division, which is the only one that matters, since it is the division that readers see.

Good science fiction and good fantasy must both be strongly mimetic, never straying too far from what we know about human behavior and the natural universe.  Because both genres stray from the known, the writers of both genres must be far more keenly aware of the boundaries of reality than the writers of other genres.  Bad sci-fi and bad fantasy, of course, have no such restraints.  But that is also true of bad literary and bad historical and bad romance writing.

SFR: How did you get involved with the Abyss?  Did you get to work with James Cameron at all?

OSC: Cameron invited me to write the book.  The script was powerful — with the kinds of dilemmas I like in my own stories.  The publisher met my price (which was considerably higher than the low fees that novelizers are usually paid).  And Cameron and the publisher gave me extraordinary freedom — I worked from the rough cut, not just the screenplay, so I actually knew how the actors said the lines and where they were standing and what they were doing when they said them.  Cameron allowed me to invent the alien society and to write three chapters prior to the beginning of the movie, so that my characters actually had a life.  With that kind of support, I think I was able to do better than most novelizers have a chance to do.  (Working from screenplay alone must be hellish.)  I did meet Jim Cameron for a couple of short meetings while he was shooting the movie in Gaffney, South Carolina, but he was shooting a movie and most of the time I worked with Van Ling, his magnificently talented assistant.

SFR: Ender's Game is in production by Warner Bros. and I'd think you have to be happy with Wolfgang Petersen (Perfect Storm, Air Force One, Outbreak) as choice for director. In your interview with BYU Journalism Student Jon Madsen you said that the book terrifies studios: A child lead, no roles for stars, very expensive without following standard blockbuster-movie "rules."" Do you think the Harry Potter phenomenon softened them up? (Ironically, both Ender's Game and Harry Potter have both won Hugos)?

OSC: Ender’s Game — with a screenplay based equally on Ender’s Shadow, by the way — is not in production, it is in development as a movie.  Production is still a long way off.  I’m writing the script in close consultation with director and producers.  Harry Potter definitely made a movie starring an unknown child actor seem more do-able — though of course Ender’s Game, despite selling very well in many countries, was never the global phenomenon that Harry Potter was.

SFR: What kind of involvement will you have with the film project? Will the film make sense to non-SF readers? How long should we expect to wait for the film?

OSC: The film had better make sense to non-SF readers, or it will be a big fat failure.  But since the book is completely accessible to non-SF readers (as are almost all my books), that’s a non-issue.  Since Wolfgang Petersen is shooting another movie in 2003, I would be surprised if Ender’s Game were released to the public before summer of 2005.  But schedules are unpredictable — there are too many variables to be sure of anything.

SFR: Are you now, or have you ever been...a gamer? What kinds of games did you like growing up, and do you find time to play games now?

OSC: I was a Risk player as a kid, and still love table games like Acquire, Trivial Pursuit, and backgammon.  On computers, I used to love the arcades when the games weren’t all adolescent fantasies of manly personal combat.  (In other words, my reflexes have slowed down with age and I don’t win enough for them to be fun.)  My pattern is to have one game that I play seriously — for years it has been Civilization II, but before that it was Colonization, Civ I, Railroad Tycoon, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the early Ultimas — and then a bunch of nuisance games that I use to delay the start of my working day, like Tetris, Freecell, Cruel, backgammon (Microsoft’s version cheats, by the way, reading the situation and coming up with the worst roll for you, the best for the computer opponent), Jezzball, Taipei, Wordzap, Minesweeper, and Hearts.

SFR: What would you like people to get from reading the Ender's Game books? Is there a different message to be had from reading Bean's story?

OSC: I would like them to get from the stories something that feels important and true to them.  I am not so arrogant as to think I can prescribe what is the right thing for each reader to find.  I have no plan, no “theme,” going in.  When I have a meaning to get across, I write an essay.  When I tell a story, I follow my instinctive sense of what feels important and true to me; then I hope the story will also feel important and true to readers.  But if I try to analyze it while writing, I kill it.  So I don’t.  I consciously use techniques I’ve learned to make the story effective, but the actual what-happens-and-why of the story I trust to my unconscious.

SFR: Which do you think people need to study more of, science or history?

People need to study history, and think scientifically..

OSC: People need to study history, and think scientifically.  The former gives us enough background to have some idea of how the world works; the latter will make us critics and skeptics of received wisdom in every category.  Of course, this is partly a cheat, since a thorough study of history will also include science along with everything else.

SFR: I hope this question isn't either too intrusive or inane, but how do feel religion and SF get along? Does your faith show through in your writing? Are there any books or authors that you feel deal with these themes especially well, or poorly?

OSC: As long as sci-fi writers pretend they’re not writing about religion, they can deal with all the issues that religion deals with far more effectively than any other genre — and do.  In a sense, most science fiction is fundamentally, if unconsciously, religious.

...hostility to religion is both silly and dishonest, if only because there is no such thing as a human being without profound faith in a set of religious beliefs.

OSC: But that is at a subtle and philosophical level.  Overtly, sci-fi does not differ one iota from mainstream fiction in its treatment of religion.  With few exceptions, contemporary writers in the West depict most religious characters as either duped or duplicitous.  When, as in the movie Contact, a storyteller wants to create a sympathetic religious character, it is done by making the character follow none of the discipline of the professed religion and believe none of the doctrines — in other words, a religion that even an atheist can embrace.

This hostility to religion is both silly and dishonest, if only because there is no such thing as a human being without profound faith in a set of religious beliefs, along with a strong desire to proselytize — to win converts to that faith.  Those who claim not to have any religious faith are simply so blind in their faith in their doctrines that they are not aware of them as beliefs.  Their attitude is, “What you believe is a religion; what I believe is simply ... truth.”  That is the language of fanaticism, and those who have that attitude invariably become persecutors of those who dare to thwart them in their proselytizing efforts.  Most contemporary fiction, in other words, is proselytizing for a particular set of religious views that are at least as homogeneous as, say, “Christianity” — lots of differences, but lots of overlap, and a sort of shared reality.

So, obviously, contemporary literature tends to be hostile to some religious beliefs and communities, while promoting others and while pretending to be “above religion.”

Being committed to at least some standard of mimesis, I report the world as I see it — full of people with religious faiths of many kinds, who are often ennobled by their faith, and who rarely measure up to the highest ideals of their religion — but who are better for the attempt.  I think fiction is more truthful and therefore more useful if it reflects the reality of human life, including the full range of religious beliefs.

As for those who claim to have no religion — all you have to do is start challenging their dearly held beliefs.  When they start getting angry and break off the discussion, you have found their religion.

SFR: In Howard Mittering's interview (see above), he attributes the importance of community in your writing as an outgrowth of your Mormon faith. Why is community important? is where and how we live, except for moments during the (usually) brief period of adolescence.

OSC: Humans live in communities.  We have no identity without a community.  We have no self without a community to accept or reject the role or roles we try to play.  So my fiction stresses community because I try to write mimetically and community is where and how we live, except for moments during the (usually) brief period of adolescence.

But my personal experience of community is strongly colored by the intensely involving Mormon community.  Because I grew up bi-cultural — Mormon and American, passing easily back and forth between both very different cultures — and then had the experience, as a Mormon missionary, of immersing myself in Brazilian culture for two years in my early twenties — I have experienced many different degrees of allegiance to communities, and communities with many different levels of demands, requirements, and rewards for participation.  Just as someone who learns a foreign language begins to see aspects of his native language that were previously invisible to him, so also passing from one culture to another makes features of both cultures stand out in sharper relief.  Thus the contribution of the Mormon community to my fiction is to help me see it more clearly.  I don’t write of humans in communities because I’m a Mormon, but because I’m a Mormon I write it better.

SFR: Where do you think civilization is going?

OSC: If the dark ages don’t get us, the ice age will.

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