Gwen Perkins examines the disconnect that can occur between civil obedience and individual morality.
Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.
Gwen Perkins is a fantasy author and museum curator with a MA in Military History from Norwich University. Her interest in history fueled the creation of the world of The Universal Mirror, to be released in 2012 by Hydra Publications. Her website is located at http://gwen.ironangel.net.
From Antigone to Ender: Civil Law versus Sacred Law
Among the oldest conflicts in fiction and science fiction alike is the choice between doing something that the protagonist knows or believes to be morally right and following the law. While several recent science fiction and fantasy novels have focused on young heroes challenged with this obstacle, these works bear witness to a much older tradition.
One of the earliest examples of this conflict is the Greek drama Antigone. A young woman of Thebes, Antigone's brothers have both died fighting for the throne but only one is permitted an honored burial. Her rebel brother is sentenced to lie unburied on the battlefield. Antigone, knowing that his burial will result in the death penalty, accepts this challenge and buries him regardless. She makes the knowing choice to do what is right in the face of the law.
Orson Scott Card's Enderverse stories play out the same conflict in reverse. In Ender's Game, Ender attends Battle School, a children's training ground for war run by the government. At the end of this novel, Ender realizes that all of the simulations he has played were actual battles and that his unwitting choice to play these games resulted in the genocide of a race of people. The series deals with his guilt for having disobeyed his own moral imperatives to act at the behest of the government. Rather than confronting his government openly, Ender allows himself to be sent away from Earth to prevent problems for those he loves back home. It is a moral choice but not on a grand scale.
It is also not a choice that he makes himself but rather, one that is made on his behalf. It brings us to this question--does modern fiction present heroes, even children, as being capable of making moral decisions on an epic scale? If the answer is no, is this due to societal shifts that give children responsibility at increasingly advanced ages? Or is it a reflection of a society in which we, as readers and citizens, feel progressively more disenfranchised and without the capacity to make decisions that will impact many others?
The choice that both Antigone and Ender are presented with, in the end, is whether or not to confront the question of what is right. Antigone makes that decision while Ender, throughout the course of the series, is never truly able to do so. Which is correct--to follow the path of civil authority or to follow one's own heart, whatever the consequences for society? As writers and readers, it falls on us to cast the final judgment.
Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.