Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Note About the Literature

So it’s pretty obvious that I enjoy science fiction. I would go so far as to say it’s probably my favorite genre. It’s certainly the one I read the most. I just wanted to make it clear that this isn’t a science fiction blog. This is a blog about good books, and that’s the only criteria to be included. In the future you will see books from all different genre discussed on Findsight.

I will say, however, that there is probably correlation between science fiction and profound literature. Science fiction writing is in the perfect position to critique society while still creating a good story.  Sci-fi often casts its eyes in to the future, and therefore can easily discuss the consequences of our choices today. So I would be lying if I said that sci-fi won't be well represented in this blog.

Speaker for the Dead - Orson Scott Card

I was inspired to read Speaker for the Dead after reading Ender’s Game. Speaker is a sequel to Ender’s Game even though it is set 3000 years after the Bugger Wars. Despite the long time lapse, however, Ender is still alive. I’m not going to go into the plot summary, because I would highly suggest reading it for yourself. I will say, however, that I liked Speaker for the Dead even more than Ender’s Game, and I really, really enjoyed Ender’s Game.

A lot of the same themes we saw in Ender’s Game are continued in Speaker. At the forefront of Speaker for the Dead we are presented with the idea of intentions being more important than results. That is essentially the whole point of having Speakers for the Dead. Ender explains that, “No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one's life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.” Speakers follow the idea that to truly understand and love someone you must know their motivations and desires, for it is the desires that truly determine someone’s worth. Ender explained this by saying, “When it comes to human beings, the only type of cause that matters is final cause, the purpose. What a person had in mind. Once you understand what people really want, you can't hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can't hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.” Ender is the perfect example of his own philosophy. He became Ender the Xenocide, the most hated person in the universe, because of the destruction of the Buggers. His intentions, however, were not to destroy the Buggers but to protect humanity. He didn’t understand that they were one in the same.

This leads us to the other great theme in Speaker for the Dead. It’s the question of humanity. What makes someone human, or ramen? This was touched on briefly in Ender’s Game, but was really expanded on in Speaker. Throughout a lot of the book Ender, and almost everyone else, was trying to discover if the Piggies were ramen (a different species that is human) or varelse (strangers from another species that are not able to communicate with us). While the Piggies were obviously capable of talking to humans, the question was more whether they were capable of understanding us on a moral and philosophical level.

            The question becomes by what criteria do you judge ramen, and if humans really have a right to do so. Demonsthenes explains this well, “The difference between raman and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.” By declaring another species ramen we have to acknowledge that killing them would be murder. We then face the challenge of learning to cooperate and trust them. We can no longer kill them unless we are willing to commit xenocide to do it. The action of xenocide is one that would push us farther from ramen and closer to varelse. Homo sapiens, after all, are not the standard by which humanity is judged.

            Jane further challenges the definition of ramen. She was born from the connections in the ansible, and is in a sense, a super computer.  Can you be alive and human, if you don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep and have no physical body? Jane has feelings as poignant as any human, and thoughts more complex than any human could possibly achieve. She is human in every sense but the conventional one. However, I heard through the grapevine that the ansible is discussed more in the third book. I’m assuming that Jane reappears in that book, so I’ll save discussion of her for later. ((If you like super computers you’ll love Mike from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.))

            In a lot of ways I feel like Speaker for the Dead was more educational and eye opening than any textbook or lecture I’ve experienced. It’s surprising that such feeling and humanity could be so eloquently expressed by a computer or a Piggie. I didn’t expect to relate to them so easily and deeply. I can say, without a doubt, that Speaker for the Dead is an important piece of literature. I only wish it was required reading in school. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Edible Woman - Margaret Atwood

As I became more and more listless reading The Edible Woman I realized that it was a real testament to Margaret Atwood’s skill. The foggy overtone to the whole book reminded me a lot of The Bell Jar. It took me a while to realize how similar the books are. Both are about women sinking deeper into depression as they struggle in a male dominated world. But, more importantly, the women’s decline is subtle and slow. By the time you realize what is happening you’ve already been sucked down with them.

I have since learned to treat both Plath and Atwood with a wary caution. It’s strange that I, a willful, happy, and often liberated young woman could so easily adopt the hazy and muted reality of The Edible Woman and The Bell Jar. It could be because every woman at some point will feel consumed by society. It could also be because Atwood is such a talented writer. There is no escaping the mood she sets. It’s probably a bit of both. Regardless, I have decided to give myself some time to recover before attempting another statement on women’s liberation.

I think the most intriguing part of The Edible Woman was the switch from first person in part one, to third person in part two, and then back to first person in part three. Once Marian got engaged, Atwood started narrating in third person. We come to understand that Marian herself is no longer thinking of herself as an “I” but a “she.” You see this in the way that she no longer gets offended when people say something rude or dissmissive. She stops taking an interest in her own life and becomes a passive observer. Once Marian takes control and breaks off the engagement, she starts thinking of herself as an "I".

            The food issue is something I had to give a lot of thought to before I could come to any kind of decision. I’ve heard a lot different interpretations of Marian’s inability to eat, and mine is slightly different. I interpreted it as Marian’s switch from a consumer to a consumable. After her engagement she saw herself as an object, she became something for everyone else to consume. Only when she symbolically consumed herself at the end, was she able to make the switch back to first person and become a consumer herself.  

            I also found Ainsley’s dynamic interesting. She was essentially the exact opposite of Marian, and yet somehow was remarkably similar. Ainsley would say that she was striving to fulfill her femininity while Marian was denying it. Marian got into trouble by being a passive observer in her own life. Ainsley, on the other hand, calculated and planned until it blew up in her face. I think both women were frustrated by their gender's place in society, and both longed for fulfillment. Their desires and struggles were the same; they just went about it in very different ways. You could go so far as to say that all women are faced with the same battles, and need to learn to juggle their views of themselves with the social pressures they are presented with.

            The Edible Woman is still a bit of a mystery to me. I have this strange feeling that I understand it perfectly, but that it can’t be that simple and I must be missing something. Maybe if I was getting an MA in Literature instead of an MPH in Public Health I would understand it better, somehow I doubt it. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

As I read Ender’s Game I was struck by two main themes. These ideas seem to be the focal point of the book, and all the events and underlying topics boost these two ideas. They are as follows, and will furthermore be referred to as Focal Point One and Two:

1)   The idea that the whole is more important than the individual.
a.     Underlying that assumption is the question, “Do the ends justify the means?”
2)   Can intentions nullify results?

These ideas are played out over and over again in Ender’s Game. Focal Point One is first, and most obviously, seen in Graff and the Battle School’s treatment of Ender. Every move they make is to mold Ender into the best solider, but by doing so they make him desperately unhappy. The point in this is obvious, humankind comes before Ender. Ender must by unhappy and alone so humankind can survive. We see the exact situation played out again in Mazer Hackman’s sacrifice. He left his life behind to travel in space with the sole purpose of being alive to train his successor. Mazer very astutely noticed that, “Humanity does not ask us to be happy. It merely asks us to be brilliant on it’s behalf (277).”

            Focal Point Two is a question commonly asked in literature. I immediately thought of Dante’s Inferno, where the dead were punished for their crimes despite their innocent intentions. In Ender’s Game this question is first seen in Ender and Peter’s relationship. Or, more importantly, in Ender’s fear of being like Peter. Peter is ruthless and cruel, he hurts people to get his way, but he also enjoys it and it does it on purpose. Ender can also be ruthless. We saw this when he fought Stilson and Bonzo. While he was fighting in self-defense, we later learned that he ended up killing both boys. Ender didn’t fight just to end that battle; he fought to end all future battles. He may not have meant, or wanted, to kill the boys, but he did use more force than was strictly needed at the time. Peter, on the other hand, wants and means to hurt people. Is Ender a more morally valuable person just because he doesn’t mean to hurt people? In there is death, so does it matter that Ender feels badly and Peter doesn’t? Throughout the whole book even their sister calls both Ender and Peter killers. Is an accidental and unwilling killer like Ender still a killer?

            Mazer Hackman and Ender discuss Focal Point Two on page 270. Mazer says, “Just because they didn’t know they were killing human beings doesn’t mean they weren’t killing human beings (270).” Mazer is essentially saying that intentions don’t matter. It didn’t matter that the Bugger’s didn’t mean to kill thinking beings, only that they did.  By that logic you could say that Mazer would believe Ender and Peter to be the same person, or as Valentine would say, two sides of the same coin.

            Focal Point Two is again played out in Ender’s defeat of the Giant’s Drink game, the wolf children, and the Buggers. When Ender finally defeated the giant Anderson said, I’ve always thought the Giant’s Drink game was the most perverted part of the whole mind game, but going for the eye like that – this is the one we want to put in command of our fleet (66)?” Ender defeated the Giant by doing something ruthless, cruel and perverse, yet it produced the desired results. It was the only way to win. The same was true of his defeat of the wolf children. The wolves didn’t know any better, but still Ender had to kill them. Finally, when Ender destroyed the Bugger’s home world he used the same tactics. Do the unthinkable to win, to defeat the enemy. Each time Ender didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but each time he killed ruthlessly and without second thought. Can his good intentions excuse this?

            Yet, finally, Ender’s results match his good intentions when he becomes Andrew Wiggin, Speaker for the Dead. Interestingly enough, Peter decides to try and make his amends as well. Once again the brother act like two sides of the same coin with Valentine in the middle. I was left wondering about Peter. He ended up doing good for the world despite his selfish desires. Essentially, he did good with bad intentions. Just as Ender could be called a bad person despite his good intentions, Peter could be called a good person despite bad intentions. Logic can be a tricky thing.


Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. New York: Tor, 1991.
Dante, Alighieri, and Mark Musa. Dante's Inferno. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971.

About Findsight

I have always loved to read. Therefore, I didn’t mind reflecting on what I had read. What I realized, however, was that I was only reflecting when I was asked. In some way I’m sure I was making connections and noticing symbolism subconsciously. But regardless, I had plateaued. I wasn’t challenging myself as a reader. I was coasting. I was eating up books without really thinking about them. This blog is my attempt to change that. I want to read actively like I did in high school and college, but this time I want to do it on my own terms, with books I choose.

So here are the rules. I will actively update my blog in accordance with the books I read. I’m not going to discuss, just those I believe to be espessially important and noteworthy. Sometimes I will write one entry per book, sometimes it will be more. I’m reading books that I consider to be important, but that doesn’t mean everyone will think so. That doesn’t mean other books aren’t important. Just remember that I am not an expert! Everything I say is my own opinion. Maybe you’ll agree with me and maybe you won’t, but either way we both will do some good thinking. That in it’s self is a victory.