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The Homecoming Saga: Introduction and Overview

13 Apr

In the interest of giving credit where it is due, this project was inspired by (in no particular order):

Ana Mardoll‘s deconstructions
Something Short and Snappy (Will’s doing the Ender series, Erika did Fifty Shades of Grey)
Dragon Quill – especially Farla’s superb Hunger Games analysis
Jenny Trout‘s Fifty Shades of Grey recaps
Das Sporking (too many things to list)

If you like this sort of thing, check them out too.

The Homecoming Saga is a far-future SF (science optional) series written by Orson Scott Card in the early 90s. It is heavily based on/inspired by the Book of Mormon (sadly, not the musical; that obviously hadn’t existed yet), though I did not know that when I first read them in my freshman year at university. I picked them up from a used-book salesman who occasionally set up shop in the student centre lobby at my university, and paid eight dollars for a two-volume hardback omnibus edition. At the time I hadn’t the slightest clue what I was getting into; Card was a favourite author of mine in my teens (which I shudder to recall now; I had terrible taste when I was younger, as Loten is fond of telling me whenever I rant to her about how much I loathe some book I used to like [edit by Loten: you said it first!]), so I’d thought I was getting a fantastic deal.

How little I knew. I enjoyed them well enough at the time; I read them pretty uncritically and while I had a vague uneasy feeling about a lot of the moral and sociopolitical dimensions of these books, I had not yet begun to get involved with movement atheism (and, later, feminism) and my consciousness of related issues had yet to be raised; I didn’t really have the terminology to articulate what was bothering me. (That would change shortly afterward; I discovered PZ Myers and Pharyngula when the ‘Expelled from Expelled’ fiasco happened in early 2008 and the rest, as they say, is history.)

Why am I, an avowed atheist who loathes religion, planning to reread and analyse these books? Good question. The short answer is that the very thought of many things in them absolutely enrages me. The slightly longer answer is that these books, while they aren’t nearly as well-known or popular as Card’s other works (e.g. the Ender series), are the literary equivalent of poison. They consist, primarily, of religious propaganda and patriarchy apologia. They are fantastically sexist and homophobic. They promote child marriage and pregnancy for girls as young as twelve. They are a morass of protagonist-centred morality and Designated Hero issues. And as a fun little bonus, many of the things Card says about computers in them offend me deeply as an engineer. I also expect to find many more things in them than listed here, it’s been some years since I read them.

They are also what I can only call “idolatrous”. This is a word I don’t particularly care for, because it’s primarily seen as a religious term and is usually used to demonise religions the person using it doesn’t like. However, I’m not sure what else to call it when the characters worship a superintelligent supercomputer as a god – really, as God, with all that entails including an endorsement of divine command ethics – and the narrative seems to look on this approvingly. What’s interesting is that at times Card seems to forget entirely that this god is a computer; I find that telling, actually, and quite instructive, because the relatively ordinary religious behaviour in which the characters engage seems utterly nonsensical when you remember that fact. (Also, Card has no fucking clue how computers work.)

I’ve often thought that despite being Mormon Card really worships religion itself, looking at the way none of his books that I’ve encountered actually refer to Mormonism explicitly (though there’s plenty of it in this series and others implicitly) and he can often be seen praising other religions to what I find a puzzling degree (witness, for instance, the Ender series; some of the later books have characters seriously speculating that a Catholic saint granted actual miracles and while the narrative doesn’t confirm it, it never offers any alternative explanation). Whatever else he is, Card is a “religionist” in the strongest possible sense of the word.

None of this is particularly surprising for Card, who is in some places refreshingly honest about this aspect of his writing. For instance, he has said this:

“There’s always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won’t reflect the storyteller’s true beliefs, it will only reflect what he BELIEVES he believes, or what he thinks he should believe or what he’s been persuaded of.

But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don’t even think to question, that you don’t even notice– those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.”

(source)

Wonder of wonders, something Card said that I agree with! (Well, sort of.) I think it’s entirely true that there can be a disconnect between the moral views we express intellectually and the moral intuitions people tend to use in actual decision-making. This is, in fact, one major consideration in moral philosophy as it is practiced: if a moral theory conflicts with lots of people’s moral intuitions, that is an important piece of information and one which needs to be thought hard about (with the understanding that the correct conclusion may be that the intuition is wrong, and must be consciously disregarded – many forms of consequentialism in particular argue this, for instance, but they still take moral intuitions seriously in deciding whether to reject them). I agree with Card that a person’s views on morality and ethics are an important part of their worldview and will undoubtedly influence their writing. I emphatically DO NOT agree with him that everyone’s consciously expressed morality disagrees with their unconscious beliefs (which seems to be a variant of a very religious “we are all sinners” message), though if I read his statement charitably as a denunciation of heavy-handed preachiness (what he calls ‘deliberate moral machinations’) I find that aspect of it entirely unobjectionable.

Regardless, however, I read that quote as giving me express permission to disregard Death of the Author and assume Card is explicitly advocating the morality these books express. Every moral failing in them, therefore, reflects directly on Card’s character, and trust me it’s not going to look good for him by the end of this. To paraphrase something Will Wildman said early on in his Ender’s Game deconstruction (which I highly recommend, in addition to everything else he and his blog-partner Erika write): my grievance is not necessarily that Card is stupid, but that he is evil. (Or in slightly more polite terms, repugnantly regressive and an impediment to moral progress). These books and the views they promote are utterly disgusting.

Card seems to view all literature as a sort of moral Trojan horse (side note: apropos of nothing, why do we call it the “Trojan horse”? It was built by Greeks as a dispenser for Greek soldiers, after all; shouldn’t it have been a Greek horse? [edit by Loten: the Greeks themselves just called it the Wooden Horse, and historians keep arguing about whether it was a horse at all; make of that what you will]), and I’m actually not sure he is wrong – stories are powerful things and entirely capable of shaping people’s thinking. The power of narrative is easy to see in, for just one example, the fact that people tend to be more easily convinced by anecdotes than statistics (despite that clearly being an awful heuristic). I see no reason to assume, therefore, that people are not influenced by the moral views in fiction, especially when they are presented subliminally by the narrative focus (e.g. what the narrative condones and condemns, which characters it deems noteworthy, etc) rather than explicitly. There is real value in thinking about fiction in this way.

It’s also a convenient excuse to discuss issues I care about, but that’s neither here nor there.

I will admit there are some things in these books that I like – for instance, some of the worldbuilding in particular I think shows genuine craftsmanship. I don’t hate absolutely everything in these books, and not everything I say about them will be furious ranting (just most of it). Also, I have no plans to deconstruct the Book of Mormon parallels specifically (though I will make note if I notice them) – I am not and have no desire to become familiar enough with that mess to do so competently. I will address religious themes in the work as I see them, but no more.

My goal is to update this weekly, but we’ll see if that’s a pace I’m capable of maintaining (for all we know I may also decide it’s too slow!). I am not quite sure what dosage of Card my mental health will be able to tolerate.

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2 Comments

Posted by on April 13, 2014 in mitchell

 

2 responses to “The Homecoming Saga: Introduction and Overview

  1. Ani J. Sharmin

    April 17, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    I read the first of the series (The Memory of Earth) years ago, but I only have a vague memory of the story. I apparently wasn’t impressed enough to continue reading it. I do remember feeling that there was quite a bit of questionable stuff going on with regards to gender (that seemed unquestioned in the book). I tend to like stories which portray some sort of fictional religion, but I guess I didn’t find the one in this book interesting enough to continue reading it. Looking forward to your future posts on the series.

     
  2. mcbender

    April 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

    To be honest, my memory of a lot of it is pretty vague as well (and I’ve sadly read the entire series); a lot of it really was rather forgettable. Though I do remember quite a few bits and pieces in vivid detail, and the bits I remember are infuriating. It only gets worse as the series goes on, too; you had quite the lucky escape, if you ask me (though no need to take my word for it, I’m hoping to get through the entire series here eventually).

    I’m of two minds about stories that portray fictional religions, myself. It can be very interesting when done well, but when done badly it can completely ruin a story (if I never encounter the Flat Earth Atheist trope again it will be too soon, to name just one egregious example). Though actually now I think about it there’s a difference between stories that feature (fictional) false or dubious religions and stories with explicitly true religions, and I’ve generally found the former tend to be much more interesting and much better written (to make a hasty generalisation I’ll probably regret). I’ll have to think more about that distinction, there’s probably at least an essay or two there.

     

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