Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ender's Game

Over the past couple years, I've gotten the impression that this novel by Orson Scott Card is one of the "classics" of science fiction. This, and the fact that several people have told me how good it is, made me curious enough to pick it up while we were doing some shopping a few weeks before Christmas. And right off the bat, the premise seemed pretty interesting.

In the distant future, humankind struggles against a number of daunting challenges. Aliens -- a race humans call the "buggers" -- have been shown to exist, and two major wars have been fought in space against them. The earth is also overpopulated, to the point where couples are prohibited from having more than two children lest they face some steep tax penalties and generalized social stigma.

Ender Wiggin, the protagonist of the novel, is a third child. He was "authorized" to be born because his older siblings were so genetically promising, and because humankind is in search of a savior: the last bugger war was won only because of the brillance of General Mazer Rackham, who managed to defeat the enemy fleet against all odds while vastly outnumbered. Now, more than a lifetime later, a new commander is needed to do the same.

The International Fleet, aka the IF, is a global military alliance (albeit a shaky one) formed by all the nations on Earth to deal with the extraterrestrial threat. Children are trained to be soldiers from a very young age, fighting practice battles in zero gravity at a space station known as the Battle School. Near the start of the book, Ender, at age six, is selected to enroll in the prestigious Battle School after severely beating a bully named Stilson.

From the beginning, there's something a little weird going on with the narrative structure of this novel: every chapter begins with a dialogue between IF personel who are apparently watching Ender's every move and striving to manipulate him from a distance. These dialogues are presented in a different typeface, with zero expository detail, while everything else that happens in the book is told from the point of view of either Ender or his sister Valentine.

On a whole, these dialogues bugged me. Aside from disrupting the flow of the novel a little, the manipulation they engaged in just struck me as extremely implausible. Here are these army officials pulling a six-year-old's strings like a puppet, intentionally isolating him from other children and knowingly putting him in life-threatening situations, all for the "greater good" of training him to eventually save humankind from the buggers. I just had a hard time believing that (a) this was really the best way to achieve what they wanted, and (b) that ostensibly sane adult human beings would behave this way even if it was.

But despite the disproportionately difficult challenges he faces compared to the other children, Ender excels at the Battle School, soon rising to the top of the score lists for their zero-gravity practice combat games. And once he's made commander of one of the 40-person teams the children are organized into to play this game, he doesn't lose a single match.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Ender's sister Valentine teams up with his sociopathic older brother Peter in a scheme to take over the world using the internet (or the Nets, as they're called in the book). Using the aliases Demosthenes and Locke, they start posting controversial messages on forums, eventually getting the attention of political leaders and garnering wide support among the population at large.

This stretched the limits of believability for a couple of reasons. First, Valentine and Peter are children, aged 10 and 12, at the time they begin this scheme -- and yet somehow this fact isn't evident in their writings. Second, the idea that I could get thousands or millions of people, including the politicians in Washington DC, to listen seriously to my ideas -- no matter how brilliant those ideas may be -- simply by writing this blog or posting messages on forums is frankly laughable. There's just too many voices competing for attention, too many crazies and attention-seekers and trolls, all drowning each other out -- leaving little hope that any one of them will receive any special amount of notice.

But that second part seems a bit more excusable to me: Ender's Game was first published in 1985, in the days before the internet as we currently know it, as a massive global phenomenon, even existed. It seems that Orson Scott Card was envisioning something more like Usenet in this story, and I can understand that it might be difficult to predict precisely how a technology will manifest itself in society.

Anyway, Ender winds up defeating the enemy buggers by destroying their homeworld in what he believes is a computer simulation, when he is in reality controlling distant human ships using a fictional faster-than-light communication technology. When he realizes what he's done, he feels guilty about it, and this was yet another thing that seemed unrealisic to me: he'd been trained from a very young age to combat this inhuman race, and all indications were that he'd have done more or less the same thing even if it wasn't a simulation.

But then again, Orson Scott Card seemed to be doing a sort of Christ-like "love your enemies" thing with Ender's character; in addition to being the savior of humankind, Ender is also "good" to the core no matter how ruthless his actions. This leads me to something I discovered a while ago that examines the moral subtexts woven into this novel -- a fascinating essay entitled Creating the Innocent Killer by John Kessel.

In short, Kessel analyzes the one-sided and sometimes manipulative ways that Orson Scott Card sets up events so that the reader sympathizes with Ender and never questions his moral purity. The most interesting part of this essay dealt specifically with Card's own statements on the role of intentions in morality:

Goodness is not a matter of acts, but of intentions, an inherent quality independent of what one does. "I don't really think it's true that 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Card stated in a 2002 interview. "Good people trying to do good usually find a way to muddle through. What worries me is when you have bad people trying to do good. They're not good at it, they don't have any instinct for it, and they're willing to do a lot of damage along the way." The import of this statement is that there are some people who are good before they act, and some others who are bad before they act, and that goodness or badness is exhibited in their actions. These "bad" people can't do good, and "good" people can't do bad.

... Card thus labors long and hard in Ender's Game to create a situation where we are not allowed to judge any of his defined-as-good characters' morality by their actions. The same destructive act that would condemn a bad person, when performed by a good person, does not implicate the actor, and in fact may be read as a sign of that person's virtue.

The whole essay is worth a read. Morality in general is a subject I find to be absolutely fasinating, and it's something I may end up blogging about in greater detail in the future.

But getting back to my review: despite the believability issues I've described above, and some weird things going on with respect to moral questions, this was actually a pretty fun book to read. I tend to enjoy reading about intelligent characters doing brilliant things in genuinely difficult situations, and so seeing how Ender responded to the various challenges he was placed in -- believable or not -- was entertaining for me. But your mileage may vary.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book mostly on the grounds that it's one of the classics, and that it has decent entertainment value, rather than its overall quality.

Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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