Monday, July 12, 2010

"Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

This is a post about about a book I read for SF book club. If you are interested in SF book club, come along to the ILAC library at 6.30 pm on the second Tuesday of the month.

Warning: Here be spoilers.

The book's set up is in some respects similar to that of Starship Troopers, with humanity locked into an interminable war with the Buggers - insectoid alien sodomites*. The main character is a small child called Ender Wiggins** who is sent off to the star fleet school for promising youngsters. The high command reckon that, on the basis of his genes and his test scores, he could potentially be turned into the genius commander they need to win the space war. The story then follows Ender as he goes through his training. Much of this focuses on the playing of games, with Card impressively having him play electronic games far beyond on anything on offer when the book was written (in the early 1980s, based on a short story from the previous decade).

As the book goes on, the space war games Ender plays become more and more complex. From playing against the computer, he is now up against the great commander of the previous Bugger wars. He has several of his pals from the school to help him, but the games keep getting harder and harder, with more and more Bugger ships to fight in each battle. The final game seems to be his final test, with various star fleet big wigs coming in to see how he does in a simulated battle where his ships are outnumbered a thousand to one. When he still manages to triumph, he is struck by how the watchers' reactions seem a bit over the top, but then he realises the truth – he was not playing games, he was commanding the actual star fleet. The war is now over because he has exterminated the Buggers. He is thirteen years old and has committed genocide.

That is the book's big twist. I gather that Ender's Game started as a short story, so originally there probably was not more to it than the twist. If that was all there was to the novel then it would be a bit slight, but fortunately there is a good bit more. One whole strand involves Ender's (slightly) older sister and brother. Like him, they are hyper-intelligent, but unlike him they were not deemed suitable for battle school. Back on Earth, they manage to use an analogue of the Internet*** to manipulate world politics.

What really raises the book up to another level is the sequence from after the Buggers' annihilation, where Ender joins a colony on one of the aliens' former planets. The Buggers were somehow able to sense Ender as the agent of their destruction, and they manage to leave behind a psychic message for him. In a few pages Card throws us this incredible impressionistic picture of a profoundly alien psychology and form of social organisation. Ender learns that the war with the Buggers was a tragic mistake – the Buggers invaded our solar system without realising that humans were sentient, while humanity's genocidal assault on the insectoids took place when the aliens had realised their mistake and decided to leave us alone. Ender finds himself with a preserved but fertile egg of a Bugger queen – it is in his gift to bring the creatures he exterminated back into being.

And that is how the book ends. Has anyone ever read anything else by Card? I notice that he seems to have a lot of books out there with "Ender" in the title, suggesting that he has spent the rest of his career recycling and further exploring the ideas in his most successful book. I am tempted, but I fear that diminishing returns would rapidly set in.

The one thing I never really bought with this book is how young the characters are meant to be. Ender is something like six when the book starts, twelve or thirteen when it ends. But for all that he is meant to be hyper-intelligent yadda yadda yadda, he never really seems like someone that young. The same is true of the other children at Battle School, who all come across as being at least late teens (in fairness, maybe they are? Ender is meant to be younger than they are).

One other thing I had heard about Card is that he is right-wing, or conservative, or whatever reactionary Americans call themselves these days. I was wondering whether this kind of mindset would infect his writing, but I did not see too much sign of it here. The book is ambivalent about the military, rather than revelling in a Heinlein-style Starship Troopers fascism. The book seems to be broadly against genocide and in favour of non-violent solutions to conflict situations, for all that it does not preach at us about the military people who turn Ender into a weapon of mass destruction. Maybe the one thing that puts the book on the not-liberal side of the map is how it treats religion: when the religious backgrounds of characters are mentioned, it is not to scoff at them or to have the usual SF thing of a religion just being a front for some kind of cynical and manipulative clergy.

*they are not actually sodomites.

**a name that could only have been conjured into being by someone called Orson Scott Card.

***Card was writing when the Internet barely existed and the World Wide Web had not yet been conjured into being.

An inuit panda production


Ray said...

Some people (eg. Nicholas) like the immediate sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, but they didn't do much for me.
Ender's Game is a constant source of arguments in SF criticism, there's an interesting essay here

William said...

I liked Speaker for the Dead too. Ender's Game bored me; the twist that the games were for real was obvious and wouldn't have been interesting even if it was better hidden, and the Federalist Letters bit was reasonably interesting but I don't remember it being tied in well dramatically to the rest of the book. I don't even remember the epilogue that clearly made such an impression on you -- maybe I'd tuned out by then.

I think the impact relies on a kind of sentimentalization of childhood, such that "he is thirteen years old and has committed genocide without knowing it" is supposed to carry a greater punch than "he has committed genocide without knowing it". In so far as it does carry that punch, it's a cheap trick and I don't think the book says anything particularly interesting about childhood to justify using it.

ian said...

Ray, interesting link, though I think yer man goes a bit overboard.

William (and Ray) - I think the way the book deals with childhood is a bit strange and unconvincing. Ender never really seems to be as young as the book paints him, even allowing for him being a child prodigy etc.. I suspect also that children that young are not capable of the kind of violent acts he is - not morally, but physically. I doubt that six year olds have the muscle strength to kill someone in the way he does towards the book's beginning.

The book's basic premise - that star fleet was launching an invasion of the bugger systems that had no chance of succeeding unless they could conjure up a military genius the like of which had never before been seen - is plainly insane.

So I am trying to think about why I liked this book. I think the battle school stuff - all the games and their escalating difficulty and so on - cracked along well. Maybe it's that, the Locke and Demosthenes stuff, and the end.

I don't think I will ever bother with the sequels, with the possible exception of Ender's Shadow (I like the idea of telling a story again from a minor character's point of view).