Interview with Orson Scott Card, Co-Creator of Extinct

Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card's latest project is the new sci-fi television series Extinct, exploring humanity's second chance.

Scene from Extinct

Orson Scott Card was the first ever author to win back-to-back Hugo and Nebula Awards with Ender's Game and Speaker of the Dead. With an impressive collection of books, plays, and short stories in his repertoire, in recent years Scott Card has expanded his Ender universe to the big screen with the 2013 film adaption of Ender's Game starring Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, and Ben Kingsley, and now with BYUtv's new sci-fi series, Extinct.

Extinct is brought to us by the minds of Orson Scott Card and longtime collaborator Aaron Johnston, who first partnered together on the Ender's Game film and later became co-authors for the First Formic War trilogy, a prequel series to Ender's Game, among numerous other projects.

Extinct takes place four hundred years after the extinction of the human race, where a small group of humans is revived on the earth by an alien civilization. The aliens claim they want to restore the humanity, but the "reborn" humans uncover new dangers, hidden agendas, and powerful secrets that challenge and threaten to annihilate the species once again.

In this exclusive interview on Futurism, Orson Scott Card discusses science fiction, life outside of Earth, second chances, and more.

Orson Scott Card. Photo by Terry Manier

Futurism: How would you define the term science fiction? How is it integrated into our society?

Orson Scott Card: Science fiction, or speculative fiction, arose during an era of spectacular and rapid technological change. Today, we have the illusion that we still live in such times — and, indeed, the advent of mobile phone, tablets, .mp3 players, downloadable audiobooks and movies and tv shows, along with video games and social media, can give us the idea that technological change is an ongoing and permanent process.

But the recent changes are nowhere near as transformative as the advent of the railroad, steam operated manufacturing machines, the steamship, steel ships, automobiles, canned food, refrigeration, mechanized agriculture, fertilizers, vaccines, antibiotics, insecticides, and the telephone and telegraph. These innovations radically transformed the way we live — our cities and suburbs, our transportation networks, our communications.

The mobile phone, even the smart phone, represents a trivial change compared to the telephone and the computer. It required good engineering and miniaturization, but the mobile phone didn’t allow us to communicate any faster or farther than the long-distance telephone line. The function of the transatlantic cable might have been replaced by relay satellites, but it doesn’t reach significantly farther.

The result of our virtual stagnation is not any fault of ours; when you look at all the areas of human enterprise, we’ve already developed technologies that may have taken us to the practical limits of innovation. We’ll go on having new models of this or that device, and, as with the addition of the eraser to the pencil, we may get fresh combinations that make our devices more powerful or convenient. But real transformations at the level of the 19th and 20th centuries may be unlikely...at the technological level.

The biological sciences, however, are just beginning to develop. The bio-revolution is at the spinning jenny stage, compared to the industrial revolution.

Up to now, science fiction has been following (rarely predicting) the technological inventions that so transformed us. Jules Verne paved the way, and H.G. Wells painted on the highway stripes, perhaps; but science fiction as we have long conceived it is no longer necessary.

Why? Because the penetration of science fiction ideas and tropes into the general culture is complete. Indeed, it has reached the saturation point, so that a movie like Kingsman: The Golden Circle uses dozens of sci-fi tropes without any implication that the movie is science fiction. Many literary writers now routinely do things that used to be strictly the preserve of science fiction. Many of them do it badly, since they’re unfamiliar with the actual art of writing science fiction — one thinks of Margaret Atwood’s clumsy The Handmaid’s Tale, a textbook example of the arrogance of trying to write in a genre you don’t understand — but most of the writers who use these sci-fi ideas and tropes have no notion that they’re writing inside the sci-fi genre.

Nowadays, movies do more to identify and delimit the science fiction genre than the written fiction does. It’s “sci-fi” if it feels like sci-fi — meaning that there are lots of plate metal, rivets, and stylish machinery, and a clear statement that the story takes place in a distant not-now era. It’s a visual definition, not a conceptual one. Few people understood that Being John Malkovich was pure science fiction, because it was so homey looking and weirdly smart. But in print, the story would have been a worthy competitor in, say, the Writers of the Future contest for science fiction writers.

Science fiction has not become mainstream; mainstream has become science fiction. This is one reason why sci-fi has shrunk significantly as a portion of our contemporary literature. Yet at the same time, fantasy has surged, filling in the gap. And science fantasy, like Star Wars, is now seen by the general public and by most genre readers as the epitome of science fiction, instead of the obvious throwback or homage that it really was: E.E. Doc Smith from the 1920s, brought to life on the screen.

Science fiction will still be a rewarding genre to write in — especially for those who move from physics and engineering to biology as a source of inspiration.

But there is no need for science fiction, as once conceived, because it has already triumphed. Instead of being a special niche, it now includes, or is included by, pretty much everything.

Here’s what science fiction (or speculative fiction) continues to offer to writers and readers:

  1. By taking place in the not-now, not-here, science fiction is free to explore important human issues by changing the rules of the world in ways that would not be plausible or even comprehensible in contemporary fiction. Ursula K. LeGuin’s exploration of gender identity in The Left Hand of Darkness still works, because it wasn’t tied to the 1970s as a contemporary-setting novel would have been. It became timeless. But because of the triumph of science fiction, this technique is now available to all writers, whenever it occurs to them to use it, without putting the fiction into the genre box.
  2. By choosing to write science fiction, writers can draw upon and carry with them the combined wisdom and experience of the writers and readers within the genre. Since all of science fiction remains an open book, those writers who join in the conversation can include references, explicit and implied, to the science fiction of the past. Thus all the ideas in Avatar, for instance, came from recognizable sources in the literature — most particularly, Poul Anderson’s seminal “Call Me Joe.” The movie wasn’t an adaptation of “Call Me Joe,” but it carried with it the echoes and reverberations of that and earlier works. We see the same thing when romance writers draw upon their readership’s familiarity with Jane Austen, Margaret Mitchell, and others; or when mystery writers expect us to recognize tropes that hark back to Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammett.
  3. The literary techniques developed within science fiction — the scientific rigor of the Campbellian era and the expository techniques of Robert A. Heinlein, for instance — continue to be valuable whenever a storyteller is taking us out of the here-and-now. That is why the best fantasy fiction today is written largely by science fiction writers or by newer writers who approach their fiction the same way. George R.R. Martin feels the same need to make his magic self-consistent and plausible in A Song of Ice and Fire as Isaac Asimov felt to make his science accurate and rigorous in his great sci-fi oeuvre, and his structure shows that he learned and mastered everything that science fiction had to teach.

The result, with him and many other fantasists, is fantasy fiction that straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy. Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns and its sequels are set in a future with clear markings of his awareness of science fiction; but the experience of reading the books is that of fantasy, not traditional plate-metal-and-rivets sci-fi. This is where the genre is moving — because real-world advances in real-world science and technology are no longer taking us where, as writers and readers, we need and want to go.

Official Trailer: Extinct, New Sci-Fi TV Series

Does science fiction predict change or merely present a possibility of change?

There is no such thing as unchanging societies, except in the mental delusions of people who have not made any deep study of history. It was in the dark ages and middle ages, for instance, that the stirrup, the windmill, the watermill, and the mechanical clock came into being. And even if the pace of technological change was slower, in large part because the populations were lower and less aggregated, there were also radical changes in individual lives from the constant fluctuations and innovations of nature. The Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age; sudden plagues shattered the social structure and wiped out whole villages, which also transformed the relationship between labor and management. People move into and out of cities, the former usually in pursuit of opportunity and a better life, the latter usually as refugees trying not to get caught up in the Mongol, Muslim, or Crusader invasions.

There is no place or time when human life and society were changeless, though we humans have a way of backdating our current culture so that we are able to believe that “we’ve always done it this way.”

Have science fiction writers ever predicted or invented technologies that proved useful? The example of Arthur C. Clarke’s invention of the communications satellite springs to mind. But so does Isaac Asimov’s willing admission that all of science fiction completely missed the transistor revolution: None of them foresaw that all those city-sized computers they thought of would, within a generation, be able to fit on a single tiny chip.

But did that mean that science fiction “failed” to predict miniaturization of electronics? Of course not. Why would a person with a typewriter be able to see that silicon wafers of a specific configuration would be able to do the job of countless vacuum tubes?

Our job is not to predict the specific changes that will come. Our job is to show how human beings adapt to whatever changes come to be, and how, in the midst of our adaptation, we find ways to remain what we already were — for good or ill.

And since change is inevitable (try to find the Soviet Union or the British Empire on a new globe; they were both quite obvious on the schoolroom globes of my childhood), reading science fiction amounts to a rehearsal for the future. When readers process the changes postulated in a sci-fi work, their brains are practicing what they’ll have to do when similarly drastic changes happen in the real world.

What in your novels, and in the Ender's series specifically, have you featured that became a reality?

Quite accidentally, I showed the interconnected world of the Internet in my Worthing stories, in which people could become celebrities by taking part in games and programs that could be seen by audiences on many worlds. My story “Lifeloop” has already become passé in the world of reality television, and “Breaking the Game” foretold the obsessive culture growing up around games like World of Warcraft.

But I have no sense that I “got it right” because these things came to be real. Quite the contrary, they provide me a chance to see if I got the social implications of such changes right. I think of how I imagined the death of my own child in my short story and then novel Lost Boys, and then experienced the death of two of my living children; years afterward, I reread the response of the parents in the novel, this time knowing, not just imagining, what such a death can mean, and I got the wan comfort of knowing that yes, indeed, I “got it right.”

Likewise, as I was winging it through the novel Ender’s Game, concentrating on military strategies and tactics that I had to write explicitly, I had no idea that quite unconsciously I was writing a fairly accurate treatise on what makes the difference between a good military commander (and business or religious leader, or parent) and a bad one. But when I saw how John Schmidt used Ender’s Game at the Marine University at Quantico, I realized that I had treated the social implications of life-and-death command fairly effectively, by sheer imagination, since at the time I had never led any group of people as effectively as Ender Wiggin led his armies and friends in Battle School.

Ender's Game

Ender is ultimately a deeply humanist story of the perils of war and prejudice. Do we see these themes in Extinct as well? 

Extinct isn’t about war, though there is plenty of fighting and even more struggle. Because the characters remember a previous life in our contemporary world, they constantly have to deal with how unprepared our world made them to survive in a situation where the surrounding culture no longer supplies anything they need.

In real life, people are often thrown into situations where who they used to be is no longer a useful guide to who they must become in order to thrive. Children whose parents divorce, or who have to move because of a change of jobs; adults who marry and find out that real commitment is transformative and the person you thought you knew is now a stranger; people growing old, who have to try to make their way in the world with a body and a mind that no longer is capable of responding in once-familiar ways: All of them must adapt and become someone that they did not know they were capable of becoming.

This is not a theme of Extinct, because I detest “themes” in fiction. Themes are for essays, and fiction should not be polluted with them. Rather, this necessity of becoming someone new and more capable is a necessary condition for survival in the world of Extinct. Aaron and I had to create characters with various strategies for dealing with this unavoidable situation because it was, well, unavoidable. It’s no more a “theme” than the need to find good day care for small children when both parents have fulltime employment is a “theme.” It’s just something you gotta do.

What are science fiction essentials that all fans and writers need to read and why?

Fans and readers and audience members have the wonderful freedom to follow their own desires and needs and preferences. Do the film promos for Rogue One look boring to you? Then you don’t have to watch it. Do your friends react with horror when they realize you’ve never seen a single episode of Fear the Walking Dead? No big deal.

We want our friends to read or watch or hear the stories that we love for several reasons. There’s the selfish one — the more readers there are of a particular book or series, the better the chance that more stories in the same world will be created.

But the real impulse that drives us is this: When we read or see a work of fiction, we are transported to another world, one that contains these people dealing with that dilemma. If we had a powerful experience there, one that left us feeling enlightened, exalted, wiser, stronger than we were before, then we want those we love and care about to have the same experience.

Once they’ve been to that place and come back again, we can talk to them about our shared memories. Because nowhere, except in the pages of a novel or on a movie or TV screen, do human beings ever communicate so clearly with each other, as a single intelligence guides the audience through a set of memories and experiences.

So by all means, when someone you trust urges you to read or watch a particular story, give it a try! This is how works of storytelling create communities, and how communities create cultures.

But if you’re a writer and you aspire to create new science fiction, then yes, there are a few authors and/or works that you should know well before you venture further:

Harlan Ellison, any of his story collections, but especially one containing “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” and “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.” His collection of collaborations, Partners in Wonder, is one of the best story collections ever made, as are the first two volumes of Dangerous Visions, in which, good as the stories are, the best pieces are Ellison’s introductions.

You will also be well-rewarded by searching out works by Ursula K. LeGuin, Brian Aldiss, James Blish, John Varley, Octavia Butler ...

And if you want to really immerse and educate yourself in the literature of science fiction, you should explore the 1987 Hugo Awards and start working your way through the list. Not every work that won a Hugo award is equally good, but they certainly give you a thorough experience of what is expected of science fiction writers.

Ender's Game - Trailer

What was the first science fiction film you ever watched? 

I honestly don’t remember watching an actual science fiction movie prior to Star Wars. I caught glimpses of several that were supposed classics, like Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but if they were marketed as horror (as most sci-fi movies were when I was growing up) I shunned them because I detest the horror genre for exactly the same reason that I detest roller coasters: I don’t like being afraid and I hate being manipulated.

Depending on your definitions, then, it’s possible for me to say that the first science fiction film I deliberately set out to watch was Star Wars. I was dragged into Close Encounters of the Third Kind (really, I don’t believe in or care about UFOs), and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was as shallow and manipulative as I expected. But in what order did I see them? I can’t remember.

Extinct is set 400 years after the human race has gone extinct, and follows a band of humans who have been revived. Given the choice, would you choose to be one of the people who are revived?

No, I would prefer to be one of the people who lived a completely uneventful life in which they had a reasonable amount of freedom, responsibility, pleasure, and learning, and then died quietly in the midst of people who liked them and whom they liked. Then, once I was dead, I would prefer to be left alone. Extinct is a story about people who are thrust into situations with enormous responsibility for other people. I prefer to be faced with no more responsibility than I can comfortably handle, and I can only be happy if I also know more or less when each responsibility is likely to end. I’m the congregational singing leader in my Mormon ward; that’s a happy level of responsibility for me.

Aaron and I don’t write fiction that we would want to live through. We write fiction about people who have to live through terrible struggles and find a way to carve out some happiness for others and, if possible, for themselves as well.

Must aliens always be malevolent? Or can they have good intentions? When viewing the alien as the "other", especially in science fiction, should we really see them as a commentary on our own humanity, society, and insecurities?

Aliens with superior technology (or biological superiorities) and a sense of entitlement will always be a danger to humans who cannot hide or defend themselves. If you’re a gazelle, then every cheetah is an alien invader, and with any luck, you’ll stay in the middle of the herd where a hunting cheetah can’t get to you. But the cheetahs aren’t malevolent. They don’t resent the gazelles. They’re not seeking revenge for past gazelle offenses against cheetahkind. They’re just hungry. And even when they make a kill, there’s always the danger of a leopard or a lion or a pack of ravenous hyenas taking it away from them.

To write aliens effectively, a science fiction writer must take into account all the biological imperatives that these aliens are dealing with, which is always reflective of their own evolutionary path. Just like human characters, alien characters are always the heroes of their own stories. By their own lights, all aliens are good guys. And a good writer will always let us see that aspect of the aliens — even if the human heroes have to blow them to smithereens.

On a more speculative note, do you believe there is life outside of Earth?

I think that it’s inevitable, from a scientific and probabilistic viewpoint. And from a religious viewpoint, Mormons like me are pretty much required to believe that there is life on other worlds, because we believe that God is a physical being who exists in a particular place in space and time — and that place isn’t Earth.

Behind the scenes of Extinct

Science fiction blends tensions between science, technology, and even religion. It often has the capability to present mankind's possibilities in a version of a future. How do you view religion - and even your personal religion - playing into the genre of science fiction?

By the rules of the genre, a transcendent god cannot be an active character in science fiction. It’s fine for characters to believe in and even pray to their god, but as soon as that god answers the prayer, then there better be a good sci-fi explanation of who or what that god-figure is. Think of Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.

However, because existing religions cannot be shown to be “right” in science fiction, sci-fi writers are thereby free to explore all the big religious questions. Some have argued that science fiction is the only venue for theological and cosmological speculation in fiction.

And on an unconscious level, whatever your religion is, it’s going to pop up quite inadvertently in your science fiction. That doesn’t mean that your fiction will demonstrate the religion that you believe that you believe in. Instead, it will confess the religion you actually believe in, at a level so deep it doesn’t occur to you that there is any other way of thinking.

Everybody has a religion at that level, especially the people who are most adamant about not having any religion.

If any world you have read, created, or seen on the screen could become a reality, which would you choose to live in and why?

I do live in, or did, in the world of Lost Boys. It shows the best and the worst parts of my life. I also live, metaphorically speaking, in the world of Zanna’s Gift, which may be my best work of fiction.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve already tasted most of the joys and sorrows of this world, the real world, and I’m content. Only in imagination do I go anywhere else, and I most certainly do not create or visit those places in order to “escape” or in search of some kind of Eden.

Here’s why all fiction can provide “escape”: We live in a world where causality and meaning are infinitely elusive. When we read fiction, causality and meaning are always implicitly present — even when the writers “think” they’re writing absurd, meaningless stories. So what we need from fiction, and what we get from the fiction that we like, is lives with meaning, even if the meaning is that it’s OK not to know the meaning while you’re living that life.

What would you like viewers to keep an eye out for while watching Extinct?

Keep your eyes on the characters, what they want, what they do and say, and how they are affected by the actions and words of others. That’s what storytelling is, and if you can take your eyes off the characters and start thinking about extraneous nonsense like themes and encoded meanings, it means that for you, at least, the story has already failed.


Follow Orson Scott Card on Twitter @orsonscottcard

Keep up-to-date via his website http://www.hatrack.com/

Watch Extinct https://www.byutv.org/extinct

Natasha Sydor
Natasha Sydor

French-born travel enthusiast. Musician, triathlete, Quidditch player, puppy petter. Maybe one day she’ll be an extra in a Star Wars film... 

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Interview with Orson Scott Card, Co-Creator of Extinct