Fantasy magazine

From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

From Troubled Times, Magic: Spotlight on Orson Scott Card’s “Sandmagic”

Orson Scott CardIn August 1977, Analog Science Fiction and Fact printed Orson Scott Card’s first published work of science fiction: “Ender’s Game.” Like the novel, which came later, “Ender’s Game” is a story about the collision of innocence, technology, and war, a story of children who (inadvertently) become killers.

The timing was perfect for “Ender’s Game”: 1977 was a year of exceptional breakthroughs in American technology—and exceptional violence in American streets. January saw the first personal computer, the PET, on demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. July brought a New York black out that set off riots and arson; the city was already in a grip of panic due to the steadily escalating violence of the Son of Sam killer. Son of Sam (real name: David Berkowitz) was arrested August 10, just ten days before the launch of Voyager Two. At the intersection of technology and violence, “Ender’s Game” hit home like a ton of bricks. It won Card the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer.

But he was not finished with the topic of violence. In 1979, Orson Scott Card published the story “Sandmagic.” Like “Ender’s Game,” the piece is about people at war and how war affects children. Both are about innocents who become weapons. And both pieces focus on how a tool—technology, in the case of “Ender’s Game,” and magic in “Sandmagic”—can distance people from the violence they release in the world, with horrifying repercussions.

Beyond their thematic similarities, these two early pieces also proved to be seeds of inspiration for future works. The story “Ender’s Game” morphed and grew into the novel, which has spawned nine related novels and several short stories set in the universe. The world of “Sandmagic” had to wait a bit longer before Card tapped into it again. In 2008, Subterranean Press released Stonefather, a novella that returned to the land of magecraft.

Why the long gap?

In a recent interview Card did on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, Card suggested that working in fantasy was not only a bad business choice (and as a man with four kids to raise, money was no light matter), but unexciting to a young author at his peak. He told hosts John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley: “Fantasy sucked back then, as a general rule … I became quite cynical about it.”

Times have obviously changed. As authors have pushed fantasy’s boundaries, the genre has exploded. Now, Orson Scott Card has created his first full-length novel set in the universe of “Sandmagic”—the Mithermage universe. The novel, The Lost Gate, is the first of a promised trilogy (although Card warned Adams and Kirtley that he expected the Mithermage universe to produce stories for a long time after the trilogy wraps up). Critical response has been favorable, with Publisher’s Weekly calling the book “well crafted, highly detailed, and pleasantly accessible.” The Mithermage world has arrived.

It’s hard to believe, looking back at “Sandmagic,” that Orson Scott Card could ever have doubted the power of fantasy or resisted working within the world he had created. From the forests to the deserts, the places Cer Cemreet visits are remarkable and fully developed. It’s easy to see that Card spent his early years living in the American Southwest: Arizona, California, and Utah were all his home states before he served as a LDS missionary in Brazil. The desert’s lazy hunger is a palpable presence within the tale.

Of course, the undercurrent of “Sandmagic” is the violence in Cer Cemreet’s life and heart. It’s a theme growing up out of the times in which the piece was written, and a theme Orson Scott Card has handled deftly in other works. In many ways, violence is a theme in the piece because violence is the perfect mirror for morality. Our responses to violence reveal the moral skeleton that holds up our selves. Cer Cemreet’s moral bones have been fractured.

To read works like “Sandmagic” is to wonder: Would that violence break me? Would I let myself wither and die?

Just to wonder is to strengthen your own moral bones.

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Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy WagnerWendy N. Wagner grew up in a town so small it didn’t even have its own post office, and the bookmobile’s fortnightly visit was her lifeline to the world. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Beneath Ceaseless Skies,The Lovecraft eZine, Armored, The Way of the Wizard, and Heiresses of Russ 2013: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. Her first novel, Skinwalkers, is a Pathfinder Tales adventure. An avid gamer and gardener, she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her very understanding family. Follow her on Twitter @wnwagner.