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Classic Reads: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

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“Human beings are free except when humanity needs them.”

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a classic—full stop. It’s been read by almost every science fiction fan as well as by those who read only one or two genre titles in their lifetime. The year it was published, 1985, it won the Nebula award for best novel and the Hugo the following year in the same category: two of the most prestigious honors in the field of science fiction and fantasy. There’s a reason for this mass audience and wide-ranging appeal: it’s really freakin’ good.

Andrew Wiggin, a.k.a. Ender, is a 6-year-old boy when we first meet him. It’s the day he has the special monitor removed from his head. It’s not clear in the first few pages who’s been observing him, only that doctors performed the procedure and that it meant he had failed some sort of test. Ender is sent back to class, monitorless and woozy from medication, and faced with whispering students; they know what it means: Ender is no longer special. The school bully, Stilson, wastes no time swooping in on the now-unwatched third: a derogatory term for the third child in a family, something almost unheard of in a time of government-regulated births but an exception was made for the Wiggin family. This time, however, Stilson goes too far with his taunting. When he blocks Ender’s way out of the building at the end of the day the two come to blows and Ender fights expertly, dropping Stilson to the ground. Readers are privy to Ender’s reluctant, yet brutal, calculations:

For a moment, the others backed away and Stilson lay motionless. They were all wondering if he was dead. Ender, however, was trying to figure out how to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse.

Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that.

So Ender walked to Stilson’s supine body and kicked him again, viciously, in the ribs.

In the moment he did what needed to be done but after Stilson’s friends step aside as Ender leaves the building, there’s a sense of regret, a feeling he experiences regularly throughout the book: “Ender leaned his head against the wall of the corridor and cried until the bus came. I am just like Peter. Take my monitor away, and I am just like Peter.”Peter is Ender’s sadistic older brother and another gauntlet the 6-year-old must navigate. If it were not for the help of his loving sister, Valentine, younger than Peter but older than Ender, the violence would most certainly be worse. Although Ender had hoped failing the program, as both his siblings had done before him, would mean that Peter would put aside his jealousy and exhibit some brotherly love, he quickly finds that without the observational monitor, he’s more vulnerable to his brother’s threats.

“Well, now your guardian angels aren’t watching over you,” Peter said. “Now they aren’t checking to see if you feel pain, listening to hear what I’m saying, seeing what I’m doing to you. How about that? How about that?” . . . He lifted his foot, took a step, and then knelt on Ender, his knee pressing into Ender’s belly just below the breastbone. He put more and more of his weight on Ender. It became hard to breathe.

“I could kill you like this,” Peter whispered. “Just press and press until you’re dead. And I could say that I didn’t know it would hurt you, that we were just playing, and they’d believe me, and everything would be fine. And you’d be dead, Everything would be fine.”

Peter wouldn’t have long to torment Ender; the next morning during breakfast Colonel Hyrun Graff of the International Fleet shows up at the Wiggin household to offer him a chance to go to Battle School, an elite training center where the best go to become starship captains, flotilla commodores, and fleet admirals. Ender had proven himself to be bright during those monitored years but it was the fight with Stilson that showed he could be brutal when necessary—something Peter had too much of and Valentine not enough.The reason, we learn, that the government monitors genius children is the impending invasion of Formics, or Buggers as they’re more commonly known, an enemy race from far off planets who twice tried to exterminate humans. The previous generation had Mazer Rackham, the legendary military hero who led the army against the invaders, but now the military is looking for someone this time around and they believe Ender could be the one.

Ender accepts the offer even though it means he may never see his family again. What follows is his path to becoming a leader, civilization’s savior. The reader gets a front row seat to Ender’s trials and tribulations: the often manipulated interactions between him and his peers—some just as violent as the brother he escaped—the seemingly hopeless tasks put forth by adults, and the mental and physical tests he administers to himself.

Each chapter begins with the adult officers in charge of Ender’s education discussing strategy. These vignette’s offer a look inside the intentional psychology behind Ender’s military training.

“With Ender, we have to strike a delicate balance. isolate hm enough that he remains creative—otherwise he’ll adopt the system here and we’ll lose him. At the same time, we need to make sure he keeps a strong ability to lead. . . .”“. . . Sometimes I think you enjoy breaking these little geniuses.”

“There is an art to it, and I’m very, very good at it.”

Ender’s Game is an example of military science fiction, a subgenre that, as Andrew Liptak points out on SFSignal.com, has a slippery definition. There are a number of elements that could land a book in this category but Liptak includes Ender’s Gameon the basis that it’s “a story that bridges the gap between understanding how militaries function in theory, but also looking at some of the extreme moral issues that come up as a result of warfare.”

Given Ender’s Game unmatched readability and the subtle way it peppers the mind with philosophical questions, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s on the United States Marine Corp’s Reading List, complete with discussion guide. Since the book’s publication date they’ve suggested it to soldiers because of its “lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics”. Topics for discussion include “followership, leadership, training and team-building, maneuver warfare and tactics, and inflicting and handling stress” with notes that offer insight into what the military takes away from a book such as this one. The discussion guide asks the readers, presumably military personnel, to think about on the indispensability of competition between both individuals and teams, technical mastery, different forms of leadership, and the difference between training and hazing—all of which are richly illustrated within the pages of Card’s book.

The moral and ethical questions raised by Ender’s schooling reaches well beyond the walls of military institutions. For example, in his post on the DISCOVER “Science not Fiction” blog, Kyle Munkittrick, Program Director for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, uses the moments of collaboration that takes place between Ender and his fellow schoolmates in training sessions to refute the notion “When everyone is super, then no one will be,” a quote from Pixar’s The Incredibles. Making a case for cognitive enhancement by way of safe, reliable, and affordable means, Munkittirck explains that mass intelligence benefits all.

“Take intelligence, for example. In Ender’s Game, it initially seems as though the competitions and training missions are designed solely to see who is the best in battle. The best individual will then lead the attack. That, however, is not the purpose of the test,” he says.

He goes on to ask, “what is the purpose of the games in the battle arena?” and answers “The training process Ender goes through accomplishes two things. First, the school allows him to explore and hone his military skills so that he can be at his absolute best. Second, it allows him to determine who is the best and most intelligent among his peers. Ender never wins a single battle by himself. . . . Because his teammates are so intelligent, Ender can focus on the strategy of the entire war, not on micromanaging every little battle. The conclusion seems obvious, more intelligent people is better. Intelligence within a group is cumulative, not competitive” and that “. . . Ender’s intelligence is not only not reduced by having intelligent peers, but it is amplified.”

For the layreader, Ender’s rigorous, often abusive, training will satisfy a general interest in questions related to warfare, human nature, code of conduct, and children’s rights.

As with most far-future oriented science fiction, the author’s imagining of new technology can be fascinating when read in retrospect. Nearly 30 years later, the parallels of Ender’s Game to today’s gadgetry is eyebrow-raising. Most striking is the computer desk the students use, ostensibly an interactive LCD screen resembling an iPad. In moments of comic relief, Ender shows himself to be a hacker, finding revenge by breaking into other student’s systems and displaying embarrassing messages for the rest of the class to see. Aware of the weak security system, he safeguards his own device by creating stronger firewalls. Meanwhile, in 1985, Dell released its first computer, Nintendo just hit the market with Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros., Oregon Trail became available on Apple II computers, and AOL did not yet exist. A personal computer that could fit on one’s lap and be of use without a keyboard or mouse (or at least that’s how I envisioned Card’s creation), along with the simulated games the students play in Battle School, seemed to me an impressive display of forward-thinking.

I’m reluctant to mention it here in fear of tainting the book for others as my preliminary research did for me but overlooking disagreements with author’s personal opinions is an ongoing dilemma in the literary world. There are times when a reader must decide whether to ignore an author’s personal point of view in order to, at best, enjoy their work or, at the very least, get through it. Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger were anti-Semites, many of the Beats were philandering misogynists, and I’m sure there are more than a few racist authors included in those lists of beloved classics.

As a fan of quotes, I searched Orson Scott Card’s entries for words of wisdom only to find that he’s an outspoken critic of gay marriage: “Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books” was one of the offenders. Given my own socially liberal thoughts on the topic, Card’s views made it difficult to pick his book up out of my  “to be read” pile. I even sneered in its direction on more than one occasion.

It turns out I‘m not alone. In February of 2000, Salon.com ran an interview entitled “My Favorite Author, My Worst Interview: I worshipped militaristic Mormon science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card — until we met,” conducted by journalist Donna Minkowitz, a self-described “Jewish lesbian radical”. If it weren’t obvious from the outset, it went horribly awry. After a few contentious back-and-forths, Card tells her, “I’d really hate it if your piece wound up focusing on the old charge that I’m a homophobe,” in which I would have been interested in hearing his defending argument if the statement hadn’t followed, “I find the comparison between civil rights based on race and supposed new rights being granted for what amounts to deviant behavior to be really kind of ridiculous. There is no comparison. A black as a person does not by being black harm anyone. Gay rights is a collective delusion that’s being attempted.” In the end, I put aside my personal feelings and grabbed the book off my shelf and I’m glad I did.

Written in sparse, flowing language, peopled with simple yet strong personalities, and loaded with imaginative visions of the future, Ender’s Game is the kind of book that makes you forget you own a television. The world Ender inhabits is fodder for moral contemplation and the whole of the story will make those who believe that science fiction is a beach read, purely meant for downtime after a long day of mental taxation, rethink their prejudices.

::[Links]::
Ender’s Game at IndieBound
Describing Military Science Fiction by Andrew Liptak
Possibly the worst interview with Orson Scott Card at Salon.com
The United States Marine Corp’s Ender’s Game discussion guide
Ender’s Game Proves that Every Child Deserves to be Gifted and Talented (DISCOVER magazine)

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Written by Gabrielle

August 16, 2011 at 6:19 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

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