Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Berkley, 1994 paperback revised edition of 1985 original, 352 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-812-55070-2

It’s hard to overstate the prominence of Ender’s Game as one of the major novel in the Science Fiction genre. It swept the major awards of the field upon initial publication in 1985 and hasn’t stopped selling in the three decades since then. It’s one of those rare SF novels that nearly every serious fan has read, and it has found a substantial audience outside the genre. It’s a perennial favourite of SF academics, a part of the US Army course curriculum and has been translated in nearly all major languages. Now that it’s a movie, it’s likely to replace Dune as my perennial favourite for demonstrating the reach of media SF compared to written SF. (As in: In any given room, more people will have seen the averagely-successful movie than will have read one of the best-selling SF novels of all time.)

And with that success has come a substantial backlash, reinforced by the widely held perception among the most progressive wing of SF fandom that author Orson Scott Card has since become a conservative right-wing homophobe. (Vulture has a nice timeline of the controversy.) There is now a vigorous number of essays criticizing the novel from various points of view: John Kessel’s Creating the Innocent Killer remains a landmark, but for a comprehensive look at the various self-contradictions and outright puzzlers of the novel, I can’t recommend highly enough Will Wildman’s vastly entertaining and insightful Ender’s Game read-through. And I’m sure that there’s plenty of accumulated wisdom somewhere in the 7643 reviews that the book (merely 179 of them one-star) has accumulated so far on Amazon.

I first read Ender’s Game as an older teenager, and it’s fair to say that almost exactly twenty years later, I don’t quite have the same perspective on it than I did back then. I picked up the book shortly after seeing the movie adaptation, and unlike my mid-nineties read-through, I immediately started second-guessing the basic premise of the novel. Ender’s Game appeals to smart teenagers because it tells them that they are special, and so are inevitably ostracised by normal people, and that being so exceptional gives you the right to kill your tormentors as long as you feel bad about it. This is the kind of power-fantasy that explains the book’s success… and that seems toxic once you graduate from high school. Given my life’s journey so far, I’m increasingly dubious (and headed toward repulsion) of fantasies of exceptionalism. The bedrock of Ender’s Game plot machinations are that the end justify the means, that it’s OK to systematically abuse a boy if he’s the only chance that humanity has at surviving. But that only works as a narrative conceit. The real world doesn’t require such harsh premises: smart people are everywhere, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where a single exceptional person could save the world. In reality, many people are suitable for even the toughest assignments, and they usually succeed because of systems, teams, procedures and support mechanism that do much to distribute expertise among capable groups. (Yes, I work in an office.) Exceptionalism is a sure road to exceptions and abuses of power. We don’t need exceptional people to save us: We need structures so that we never get in a situation where we need saving by exceptional people.

But never mind that for a moment: Broad ideological objections aside, Ender’s Game does remain a highly enjoyable read. Card has a gift for prose narration that remains easily readable while hitting ambitious emotional targets. His handling of incluing is as good as it gets (as you can see from the use of technology that is never explicitly explained, but fits the plot naturally while surviving twenty years of innovations) and he manages to render a compelling internal monologue for his characters. As strange as some of the novel’s plot points can be, their handling feels right –the sequences where the teams of soldiers-in-training go in combat are exhilarating, and there is some strong emotional material in the conversations that Ender has with his sister.

It’s also worth underlining how ironic the novel seems to be from beginning to end. Ender may be a savior of humanity, but he needs to be made alien to everyone in order to do so. His greatest triumph remains his biggest mistake, and for an entire novel thirsting for xenocide, Ender’s Game seems positively devastated when humans triumph over their opponents. Ironies pile upon each other in a rich blend that makes it hard to dismiss the entire novel as being much of this and some of that.

Still, Card’s contemporary reputation as a right-wing homophobe being what it is, it’s amusing to spot in a 1985 novel the various kernels of what would later define him among a certain audience.

  • Sexism? Try the bit where girls are said to be less aggressive than boys due to centuries of evolution:

“All boys?” “A few girls. They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them. (Chapter 3)

  • Jingoism/religionism/birthism? I was gobsmacked by the bit where the French (in their “arrogant separatism” ) are bashed for daring to speak French rather than “common” language –in the same novel where the Poles are praised for chafing against anti-Catholicism (and, more importantly, anti-birth-limits) restrictions. Have a look at this:

His name, Ender quickly learned, was Bernard. He spoke his own name with a French accent, since the French, with their arrogant Separatism, insisted that the teaching of Standard not begin until the age of four, when the French language patterns were already set. (Chapter 5)

versus

Your father was baptized with the name John Paul Wieczorek. Catholic. The seventh of nine children. (…) Your father denies his Polish ancestry, since Poland is still a noncompliant nation, and under international sanction because of it. (…) [Your parents] haven’t really given up their religion. They look at you and see you as a badge of pride, because they were able to circumvent the law and have a Third. (Chapter 3)

  • Zionism? There’s a few paragraphs dedicated at explaining why Jews make the best generals (and this despite a Jewish character called by a slur and demonstrated to be not very good at the stuff.): it starts with

“Since the I.F. was formed the Strategos of the military forces had always been a Jew. There was a myth that Jewish generals didn’t lose wars. And so far it was still true.” (Chapter 8).

  • Racism? There’s a bit where the kids trade the n-word and then laugh about slavery, which ends with

“Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”
“My great great grandpa would have sold him first,”
. (Chapter 6)

[This bit apparently isn’t to be found in the latest editions of the novel.]

But there’s something even more amazing (not) to be found in a contemporary reading of Ender’s Game: For an author often accused of homophobia, you’ll find quite the opposite in the novel. In fact, it doesn’t take much imagination to read protagonist Ender as a gay, and the events showing him his true preferences in bonding with other boys while having ambivalent non-romantic feelings about girls. In a better universe, a slightly-revised version of Ender’s Game has become beloved for showing a positive role model for young gay teenagers. In this world, oh well. Moving on.

Perhaps my biggest reaction to a second reading fifteen years later is how rough the novel can feel at times. The world-building is a bit shaky around the edges, the plots points handled more arbitrarily than needed. A close reading of the text reveals astonishing contradictions, and push buttons that readers may develop later in life. I still think (as documented in my big list of Alternate Hugo Winners) that Ender’s Game is one of the novels from 1985 that everyone should read, but I now have to temper this assessment with a few warnings (and maybe move Sterling’s Schismatrix to the top spot). This, too, feels like the passing of the years more than any change in the novel itself: I’m not the same reader than I was twenty years ago, and my then-tendency to see it through uncritical fannish lenses has been eroded away (and even more so lately that I’m reading far less SF and am so not as completely immersed in its privileged assumptions.) So it goes; much like the plot of Ender’s Game requires an innocent ready to be molded into a destroyer of worlds, it strikes me more than ever that Ender’s Game is deliberately optimised for less-jaded readers. Which may very well explain its massive appeal: there are far more innocents out there than stone-cold readers.

[April 2014: Reasoning that I’d never get as good an opportunity while the original was still fresh in my mind, I re-read “parallax” novel Ender’s Shadow, which explores the same rough timeline from the perspective of ‘”Bean”, a minor character in Ender’s Game. Here we see Card’s attempts to patch the holes in Ender’s Game with fifteen years’ insight and second guesses about the first novel. Nearly every dicey plot development in Game is explained in Shadow as part of a masterful plan by someone even smarter than Ender. It often reaches ludicrous levels of disbelief (especially once you factor in Bean’s age) but there is some compelling material here and there, especially in getting another, better hit of the same kind of excitement about Battle School training. There are some major contrasts between both novels, though, and some of the issues in the previous novel simply can’t be explained away. My advice: If you’re going to read Ender’s Game, have a quick look through Ender’s Shadow while events are still fresh in your mind. Browse quickly over the parts with Sister Carlotta and Achilles, and focus on the parallax view of Ender as from other viewpoints.]

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