Monday, July 03, 2006

Revisiting a Science Fiction Classic: ENDER'S GAME by Orson Scott Card

You're a child. The school bully has it for you no matter how many non-violent ways you avoid him or attempt to weaken or discourage him. When he comes for you, he comes for you hard. You get damaged. One day, he's really mad and gunning for you. You sense in every cell that this will be the day you will be badly broken or die. He's not just gonna hit you once. He's got a gang and he's gonna pound you to a bloody, maybe unbreathing, pulp.

What do you do?

Imagine that adults are of no use in this situation. You can't call the principal or the security guard or your parents or the cops.

You're alone, facing brutes who will happily turn you into human compost.

What do you do?

Now, what if those brutes are not just your brother, the school bully, or a military mentor? Now, what if the bully is alien, with advanced technology and perfect coordination of instant communication?

How much violent action does "surviving" justify?

Depending on how you answer this, you may or may not like or love or respect the classic, best-selling, rivetting, page-turner that is ENDER'S GAME.

Surely you've heard of it. Surely. Twenty-one years after its release, it's still in print and still a best-seller. It won the Nebula and Hugo awards. Its sequel also won both awards.

ENDER'S GAME is one of the most accessible of sci-fi classics. The straight-forward prose rises to something higher and magical only in spots, but its page-turning plot and rivetting boy-hero keep you reading. Card created a highly-sympathetic character in a horrible situation to which we, nevertheless, become addicted spectators.

It's not a novel that makes you stop and admire the prose, although I did go back, later, and see how he made me feel so strongly in some parts with such unvarnished writing. The storytelling skill and the narrative drive are such that if you aren't kept up into the wee hours, desperate to finish, something's not wrong with the story. It's wrong with you.

Yes, there you have it. You. Not the novel.

And I'm only half-kidding.

So, back to the bully question. How do you answer?

It's the question Ender Wiggin, our protagonist, must answer from the moment he's able to think and act. He is an extraordinary boy, six years old and so smart it brings him to the attention of the government, the same government that tested his elder siblings, his sister and brother, who are also remarkably gifted. Ender's life is a torment. His parents are ineffectual. His brother is a monster. His sister loves him, and mitigates some of his suffering, but she cannot guarantee he will not be killed. When Ender is approached to attend Battle School--effectively cutting him off from everyone in his family and on earth for years to come--the boy accepts. It is the way to save his own life. Perhaps the life of everyone on Earth.

And the crux of the novel: What does one do when bullies threaten one's life. . . and the lives of one's family?

What would you do?

Ender is faced with bullies in the home, in school on Earth, and then in Battle School in space, and then beyond, in Command School, and then at last in a place where the biggest, scariest enemy isn't human, but an ant-like creature termed a "Bugger."

What does one do to survive? How do we train the people who fight our biggest battles?

And is it moral to train people THIS way, and to fight THAT way?

I'm not big on militaristic novels. Battle strategy tends to bore me. In this case, I was eager for the next mock encounter. The zero-G battles between the "armies" of boys (and one girl) are exhilirating. And I was even eager for the next real confrontation between the bullies and Ender, because Ender is no ordinary boy and following his mental and emotional processing of his surroundings and options, and how he reaches his ultimate choices, is mesmerizing.

Ultimate choices. It must come to that.

I hear that the book is studied in some places specifically for the psychological insights into leadership. I'm not surprised.

ENDER'S GAME has one of the most sublime endings of any novel I've read in this genre. It's powerful and mystical and dark and hopeful. I wept.

But to get the pay-off of that beautiful ending, you've gotta live through what Ender lives through, and fear what he fears, and then know what he knows.

I recommend this journey highly for any reader, even those not usually drawn to speculative fiction, even those (like me) who avoid child protagonists.

If you're a writer who struggles with less than poetic sentences, you can learn from this how the power of a cracking good story brings magic to prose lacking in literary "artistic" levels and finesse. Card's prose gets out of the way of Ender's struggle, so that you can remain focused on the boy and his journey. And it works.

Note #1: Ender's siblings do some world-changing blogging in the novel. Remember, this was 20+ years ago Card wrote about it. It seems so. . . today.

Note #2: I was nineteen the first time I read anything by Orson Scott Card. It was 1979, and I had an issue of my then fave magazine, OMNI, and that included a story called "Unaccompanied Sonata." (The illustration featured a piano, I recall.) I was in my best friend's car while she ran an errand at the bank. I read that story in the car, and I was blown away. When you remember where you were and what was happening when you read a story, you know it was a special moment for you.

I mention that because that story also features a child prodigy, of a different sort than Ender (musical, not military), but whose choices lead to much pain all the same, and a dark and mysterious authoritative presence is also an element, just as in ENDER'S GAME.

Read that story if you get a chance.


Malia Spencer said...

I LOVE Orson Scott Card. I've read all the books in the Ender's Game series including the ones he's put out over the past couple of years.

Did you know he's been writing Biblical fiction too? I haven't bought any of it yet, but I intend to one day.

Beth Goddard said...


I picked up Ender's Game to get familiar with Orson Scott Card. I admit, there was something a little too dark in the writing for my tastes, so I didn't make it past the first twenty or so pages. I should probably revisit this because I know he's a recommended and awesome writer. But I probably have to be in the mood to read it. I'll try again:)

Elliot said...

I'm a big fan of the book. A friend of mine, though, really dislikes Ender's Game. He says it's too black and white, and caters to a distorted image of the self, the 'i'm a poor and utterly innocent brainy victim that everyone picks on so I'm entitled to take them out by any means necessary' self-image.

When I thought about it, I could see his point. It's a trap many of us (particularly the more geeky of us) fall into, and that kind of thinking has prompted a lot of sin and evil in the world - look at the Hutus or the Serbs, telling themselves that they're innocent victims who need to wipe out their evil enemies. Rowan Williams has an interesting critique of that sort of thing in his book 'Resurrection.' So does Gene Wolfe in his short story (if I remember correctly) Civis Laputus Sum.

Anyways, I guess what I'm saying is that it's a classic and very enjoyable, but there's also grounds to be a bit critical and suspicious of its message, particularly for Christians.

Anonymous said...

Must be something wrong with me. I read it and didn't really get into it. The Forever War is a more credible futuristic post-interstellar-travel war, and even Joe H. kind of mis-predicted the future by a lightyear.

By the time a species is able to visit the stars it seems likely that any military encounters will be lopsided/asymetric to the max (as they are on Earth today). The battle technology also struck me as not far if at all advanced of where we are now. I mean, certainly some sentient computer, some engineered virus could do a much more credible job than a bunch of hotshot kids in can.


PS. But your review rocks. And everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Mirtika said...

thanks for dropping by Malia, Beth, Elliot and Chris.

Beth, hope you like it better this time roung.

Elliot, your friend was right to find it disturbing. I think all people who try to live "in love" should find it disturbing. BUT...the character is not Christian, and the novel is a study of one person raised in a certain time under very difficult circumstances. What I find amazing is that Ender is not an all-out brute, given his character world and motivation. Anyway, it is thought-provoking, and moral discussions are bound to arise.

Chris, thanks for enjoying a stroll through my opinion. I read the Forever War ages ago, and I may need to revisit that. I've forgotten it, as I do a lot of stuff in the "middle parts" of my memory.