Orson Scott Card: Mormon Literary Pioneer

Quick: What author has arguably done more than any other to explore multiple ways of being Mormon, across multiple genres and audiences? Answer: Orson Scott Card.

Which you already knew, because you read the title of this column. It’s a point well worth making, particularly now when he’s returning once again to Provo next week to be part of Life, the Universe and Everything this coming Feb. 13-15.

You can’t read around for very long in Mormon literature without stumbling across Card’s name. As a young playwright, he was the author of several well-regarded plays on Mormon themes, including Stone Tables and Father, Mother, Mother & Mom. He also started a repertory theater company which experienced popular success but (as so often happens in endeavors of this sort) had to close because it ultimately failed to pay the bills. As an author of historical fiction, he was awarded the 1985 AML best novel award for Saints (originally published as A Woman of Destiny), featuring a composite female character from the early days of the Church, and more recently, he has authored several historical novels based on the lives of Biblical women. His stories have appeared in LDS church magazines (back when they used to publish fiction). He wrote scripts for scriptures on tape and revamped the script of the Hill Cumorah Pageant. He even tried his hand at an epic poem based on the life of Joseph Smith, though I don’t know if that was ever published.

All this aside from the science fiction and fantasy that he’s best known for — which, from a Mormon literary perspective, I think includes some of his most interesting work.

Take, for example, Card’s Folk of the Fringe stories, which deal explicitly with Mormon characters and culture in a post-apocalypse setting featuring a collapse of the United States, persecution of Mormons, a return of the State of Deseret, and resurgence of native American polities in a frightening alternative interpretation of the prophecies from Third Nephi: you know, the ones about the descendants of the Lamanites treading down the Gentiles if the Gentiles don’t treat them right. All written for a mainstream sf&f market. I remember reading the story “West” for the first time, and realizing that Card was writing a Mormon conversion story for the national sf&f market. And getting away with it. Or “America,” in which a virgin Mormon boy struggles with forces that ultimately make him an unwilling tool in fulfilling prophecy. These, frankly, are stories I thought couldn’t be written, or at least not written well — until Card wrote them.

There’s Lost Boys, in which Card tells a ghost story with a redemptive message within the setting of a modern suburban Mormon ward. His success in writing about what it means to be a modern Mormon father in this work seems to have been largely neglected, perhaps because of its genre setting — which is a shame, since it’s one of the more successful examples I’ve seen of showing modern Mormon life.

On the level of narrative parallelism (or at least inspiration), there are the tales of Alvin Maker — Seventh Son, Red Prophet, et al. — which tell an alternate history version of the life of Joseph Smith, in a way that translates elements of the mission of Joseph Smith into a framework for fantasy novels. And the Homecoming Saga, which (less successfully in my view, but still entertainingly) translate the first part of the Book of Mormon into far-future science fiction.

As much or more impressive from my perspective are the stories in which Scott explores themes which, while not exclusively Mormon, resonate in particular ways with Mormonism’s ways of looking at the universe. His early Worthing stories include several noteworthy examples of this, focusing on the question of what it means to act ethically if one has godlike power — including the power to remove human suffering — and whether a destroyer, a Satan if you will, can act for the good of humanity. (Oh, Abner Doon…)

And these are only examples. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you can analyze fruitfully pretty much any of Card’s stories for Mormon elements on the levels of plot, character, theme, and/or style, as Michael Collings did in his 1990 study In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card — and come up with something worth saying.

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All of which, in my view, makes Card an interesting and even an important case study for the discussion of Mormon literature.

Back when I first joined the AML conversation in the 1990s, it was my perception that study of Mormon literature was dominated by ways of looking at works that were culturally Mormon: set in Mormon communities, addressing the lives of Mormon characters. That bothered me. To my way of thinking, culture represents only one of several — perhaps many — ways of being Mormon, and not necessarily the most important way. Orson Scott Card’s work illustrates many of those ways.

I also think the corpus of his work presents a powerful counterargument to those who describe Mormon literature and literary criticism as zero-sum games in which production and discussion of one literary flavor comes at the expense of other kinds. Does anyone really think that Card could have made a greater contribution to Mormon literature if he had confined himself to more specifically Mormon themes and genres? If nothing else, it’s hard to see how he could have managed to support himself as a full-time writer working purely as a Mormon writer. We almost certainly have more specifically Mormon literary production from Card-the-sf&f-writer than we would, say, from Card-the-truck-driver.

More to the point — because I think Scott Parkin is right that many of these arguments have largely sputtered away by now — looking at Card’s career, I consider him an important inspiration, not only to aspiring Mormon sf&f writers but to would-be writers of every stripe. Across multiple genres, audiences, and stories, I can’t help but be impressed by the evidence of his lifelong love affair with Mormon religion and culture. It’s a lesson in creative engagement — and not being bound by existing categories. As such, I think it provides a positive message to us all, writers and critics both.

About Jonathan Langford

Hi! I'm the coordinator for the AML blog, a critic and reviewer of Mormon literature and sf&f, and an aspiring creative writer with one published novel. To contact me about the AML blog, email jonathan AT langfordwriter DOT com.
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3 Responses to Orson Scott Card: Mormon Literary Pioneer

  1. Thom Duncan says:

    I think “inarguably” would have been a better adverb to use in your first sentence. I can’t think of any other LDS writer, alive or dead, who has had as much influence across multiple genres as Orson Scott Card.

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    You say “He even tried his hand at an epic poem based on the life of Joseph Smith, though I don’t know if that was ever published.” At least the first part was. He wrote it in Spenserian stanzas; it won the Utah Original Arts contest in poetry for, I think, 1984 [sorry, but I can't check it right now], and I published it in a review article for Sunstone called “Mormon Poetry Now.” I can find the citation later, when I can get at my copies of the magazine.

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