Review of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
by Orson Scott Card
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Books can be like old friends you haven't seen in a while. Your friendship has lapsed, and there's always the fear that when you do resume contact, things will be different and you'll have changed too much to remain friends. Sometimes that's true, and the two of you go your separate ways. I've mostly found, however, that it feels like no time has passed at all. As with friends, books like that feel comfortable the moment you begin turning pages. Reading them just feels right. Emotions begin to wash over you, tinged familiar but ever so altered by the passage of time, for you are not the same person you were when you first read this story. You bring to it new insights and ideas, new prejudices and preconceptions. The experience is different, new, but its power over you remains the same. Books can be like old friends, if you let them back into your life.
I don't remember when I first read Ender's Game. I know I read the novella first, in Orson Scott Card's enormous Maps in a Mirror anthology, and sometime thereafter I read the novel and at least Speaker for the Dead. It was long enough ago that I could recall the plot but not the emotions it had evoked, aside from the fact that my opinion had been positive. Time enough, then, for a re-read.
Before I knew it, I was forty pages in, then a hundred, then over halfway through the book. The plight of Ender Wiggin may be a timeless one, but Card crafts the particulars with enchanting skill. He has a scary ability to make me love him and then hate him: one minute, I'm enjoying his description of Ender's clever new tactic or a victory over a bully; the next minute, I'm reading a sobre conversation between Valentine and Peter or between Valentine and Colonel Graff.
Because that is Card's ultimate treachery. He takes the sublimely cool concept of the Battle Room, and turns it into something twisted: a training exercise for child soldiers. At times, this uncomfortable fact is difficult to remember, because often the characters don't act like children. They are "gifted," and as such are more intellectually developed then their peers. Look deeply enough into their actions, however, and you see the psychology of a child. It's there when Bonzo tries to kill Ender, and when Ender confronts the Game. In fact, it's omnipresent in Ender's case—even as he excels at his studies and at battles, Card constantly reminds us that the military is training a boy (he's six at the beginning of the book and eleven by the end) to become a killer. Is this a justified action, considering that humanity's survival may well depend on Ender's ability to defeat the Buggers?
I don't know.
Maybe I'm the only one. Maybe everyone else who has read this book has a firm opinion on the morality of Ender, of the International Fleet, of Valentine and Peter, etc. For me, however, my ambivalence is another sign of how powerful Ender's Game is. I don't mean to assert that the best books are ones that leave you indecisive. On the contrary, I laud most books for their ability to impart a persuasive philosophy (even if I don't agree with it). Ender's Game does not do this in the sense that I think it's arguing for or against the necessity of training Ender. It's dark, in such a manner that, like Lilith's Brood, it made me feel uncomfortable with myself, made me see what preconceptions I have that I'm not sure I like. So when I say, "I don't know," what I might mean is that I do know, subconsciously, but I don't want to admit the answer to myself.
Card offers a potential justification, if we want it: Ender is a child being manipulated by adults who know the real score; he doesn't know that the simulations are real battles against Bugger fleets; he doesn't know his unorthodox strategy is actually xenocide. We don't have to accept this, however. I get the strong impression that Ender does know what's going on, even if he doesn't know the particulars. He recognizes what many characters say throughout the book: "The teachers are the enemy." He has no control over his life, and the conflict in this book is not human versus alien; it's individual versus society. He worries that he's too much like Peter, perhaps even worse than Peter, hence the irony when his attempt to fail, to wash out even if it means he won't save the world, turns out to be his most crucial success.
And after that success, what then? The world has an eleven-year-old hero on its hands, a symbol so easily manipulated. And a person so empty. Regardless of its morality, the aftermath of Ender's Game underscores the tragedy of the book's premise, and whether or not Ender is culpable, he is a tragic hero. He is broken. He is alone, because he was never close enough to Peter, and while he was once close to Valentine, we see that they can never share what they had as children. They still love each other and look out for each other, but Ender's singular experience has separated him from his sister just as it separates him from the children he commands: Bean, Petra, Dink, and the like. Card strips away the glamour of the hero and shows us the burden and loneliness of being a legend. It reminds me of Dune in this respect.
The power of Ender's Game lies in its perception and its presentation. Ender is trying to save the world from aliens; Peter is trying to save the world from itself; Valentine is caught in between her siblings, ruing the fact that events have conspired to deprive the three of them of childhood innocence. This book is not reassuring, portraying humanity as innately good and capable of triumphing over all adversity. Nor is it pessimistic, portraying humanity as something inherently unstable. It is realistic—maybe an unusual word to describe science fiction, but there you go. To borrow imagery from the novel itself, Ender's Game takes away the gravity and forces you to re-orientate.