Reading Ender’s Game

In the airport right before Christmas I found a copy of Ender’s Game in the book kiosk next to my departure gate. I hadn’t brought any books with me, an accident of packing too quickly. My copy of War and Peace was in the trunk of my car, where it would be ferried around Brooklyn by my friend Porochista, who took care of my car while I was gone. So that plan for my break was a non-starter.

I thought of how a number of former students over the years had told me they thought this novel was amazing, so I decided it was time and picked it up. On the plane, with a Tor paperback in my jacket pocket, I felt like I was 15 again.

I don’t know what I expected exactly, but as I ripped through the pages, determined to know what happens to Ender, I found it to be an increasingly prescient book: Children are raised in environments where they are monitored very closely, with little or no free will expected of them, and with no expectation of privacy; the government is accused of using war against a distant, implacable enemy to keep the populace under control and to excuse any number of civil rights violations; and, without calling it such, because it didn’t exist yet, everyone blogs and it matters. The story first appeared in 1977, and then as a novel in 1985.

In his intro, Card is quite open in his disdain for what he calls the tricks of literature–style, for example–and talks of wanting the novel to be as accessible as possible. The timing is interesting, as he was publishing this at a time when literary fiction had taken plot out, and had become very inaccessible. In 1991, most young writers thought it was very chic to say “Everything I write doesn’t really have a plot.” But by 1995, the writers I knew in New York would confide to me, “I’m working on a literary thriller.” What they meant was, “I envy genre writers their audiences.” I feel like literary writers lost a great deal of power when they abandoned story for style, and so I’ve been going to books like these to understand what it is people are really responding to in them, and why.

Card was never interested in fiction without plot, and he’s been richly rewarded. Ender’s Game has gone through 25 printings, and has sold, over the years, more copies than probably all of the plotless literary fiction published in the 80s combined—millions of copies—and it has affected generations, much like the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, whose work inspired Card, in part, in writing this: he has a communications device from one of her novels, the ‘ansible’, in his book, and refers to it as a device inspired by ‘some old book’–a tip to any of LeGuin’s fans. The novel follows the life of Ender Wiggins, a child raised to be the perfect general in a war against an alien race that seems hell-bent on destroying human life because it doesn’t know humans are a life form—we are too alien to even be recognized as an intelligent race to them. Ender accomplishes their destruction, and the end of the novel, before he’s of age to finish high school. The novel follows his training and the various ways he’s manipulated, as a gifted child, into becoming what his planet’s government needs him to be.

The novel has many, many flaws. Dramatically, for example, the fight scenes that make up much of the novel lack sufficient descriptives to be intelligible. We have to take what happens for granted. Throughout, in fact, very little is described. I never felt like I knew what Ender or his friends looked like, or the way their uniforms looked–I can’t draw them for you, say, like I could draw what Anna Karenina wears the night she meets Vronsky. I didn’t have access to much of what I read or watch space opera for, and I found that frustrating–I was a child who loved books about space ships and space exploration, and I never understood the ships shapes. I’m the exact person to love a book like this, and I didn’t love it.

I also join the book’s many critics who find the ‘gifted child’ characters unbelievable– I was a ‘gifted child’, I spent a great deal of time with precocious children as a child and I still do, as an adult. Most of Ender’s friends and Ender himself act like pedantic adults, and their moments, scene to scene, are not memorable for being the acts of prodigies. They’re memorable because at each point Ender ends up where he’s supposed to be, to do what he’s supposed to do. The novel offers no resistance to his path. And worse, we’re asked to take Ender’s accomplishments on faith.

To argue briefly for the use of style in science fiction, if it even needs arguing, Julian May, a writer I think of as being a major influence on me, writes science fiction that is both brilliantly imagined and written with style. Julian May can handle a multi-plot, multi-character narrative over several novels and she lands it on a dime, dramatically and linguistically. I don’t feel Card has these kinds of chops from reading this, despite being otherwise her peer (they wrote their major works at much the same time, though she is his senior by many years).

Near the end, the novel becomes much like sitting in the room while someone plays a video game–this I can’t quite call prescience, though there are Korean television channels that broadcast professional gamers gaming. In the case of Ender, he’s playing a game that turns out to have been altered so that all of his troop movements, his battalions, are all real soldiers, and he’s fighting a real war against the aliens that he doesn’t know he’s fighting: when he kills, he kills real aliens. When he finds this to be true, I experienced it as a big “so what”. The structure of the novel is such that you more or less expect this to be true by then, and as nothing in the novel has defeated your expectations, when this doesn’t either, there’s a distance that grows between you and the action on the page. If he’s so gifted, you wonder, why hasn’t he figured this out? Also, the alien race was trying to communicate with him, but he isn’t aware of it, and it seemed a flaw in the novel to me afterwards that there was no way made for the reader to know what Ender did not know, in advance, through a structured dramatic irony. I was profoundly unmoved, and what’s worse, as Ender’s histrionics grew more intense, I knew I was supposed to be moved and I was not.

I didn’t want to be a killer, he kept saying. I didn’t want to be a killer. I couldn’t quite believe him.

In the end, though, the novel has my respect. The way in which Ender is a killer against his will is in some ways the most prescient of all of the novel’s aspects: Ender’s video game with it’s real results seems to me a metaphor for being a private citizen today in the US. At the time of the novel’s writing, our tax money was covertly funding wars in Central and South America, setting Iran and Iraq against each other, and training resistance fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the Soviets, fighters who now fight us in a very different war. Our production went overseas, setting up the flight of the American blue collar job and the sweatshops that would then move, country to country, each time workers demanded more than a few cents a day. It might not be a great novel at the level of the writing, and it might be about aliens and space ships, but Ender’s Game is one of the few novels that really describes what it is like to be an American consumer. As I think about the limits of literary realism, I’ll think of Ender’s Game.

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17 comments

  1. koreanish

    I’m hearing he’s a homophobe, which is odd, given the intense queer subtext in the novel—Ender falling in love with one of his friends after his friend kisses him, that kind of thing. If anyone else has heard this or has proof, even, please pipe up.

  2. Mike

    Yeah, I’ve heard he’s a homophobe, too. Maybe I’ll ask him. He’s doing a book signing at the bookstore where I work this weekend after he talks at a sci-fi convention at Harvard.

  3. dearJ

    Well, I’m sure you know that Card is deeply religious — he spent his mission in Brazil and there’s a fair amount of Portugese-language influence in the follow-on novel Speaker for the Dead.

    I read Ender’s Game when I was in high school, after having resisted my friends’ recommendations for a few years. I liked it at the time, but find myself re-evaluating it in this new era of government secrets and extraordinary rendition, of wiretaps and profiling. My favorite science fiction is full of alien world-building and implausibility, and it feels like the world’s caught up to Ender’s Game in a way it hasn’t to, say, Lord of Light or Bradbury’s Mars.

    For what it’s worth, if you’re still a spaceships and star travel guy, I can recommend the Terran Trade Authority books — as I understand it, essentially a collection of 60′s and 70′s sci-fi covers with a loose plot connecting them; of all the books at my local library, it’s the one I probably checked out the most between seven and seventeen.

  4. rjmarch

    I had a conversation today with a graduate of the UT writing program. He’s one of our baristas and he’s very heady (with a 400 page draft of a novel as a thesis) and we had a conversation about Amy Hempel. I felt the same sort of out-of-my-league-ness then as I did with this– your– entry. Very heady, the two of you. I had earlier this afternoon convinced myself that Amy Hempel didn’t talk about this stuff, this thoughtful stuff about writing. Why would she? is what I had in mind. She talked, instead, I imagined, about animal shelters and volunteer programs.
    What I’m wondering is this: Is this what comes from academic experience?

  5. koreanish

    RJ: Maybe. But, maybe not.

    Most fiction writers, really, are literalists. We do the opposite of what philosophers do. Or as Joan Didion and Christa Wolff both said, more or less, we don’t do abstract thinking. Thus, stories.

    I’m not like those kinds of writers, exactly, though I am quite a literalist. I’m not interested in fiction only–and I might not even be very good at abstract thinking and analysis, but I’m very interested in it. I just keep getting drawn again and again to the idea that art “doesn’t do anything”, when, I think it does a great deal. The activist part of me is very interested in a confrontation with people who want to believe art can’t intervene meaningfully in people’s lives. I believe otherwise, and I want to prove them wrong.

    I think I would still be like this, whether or not I taught writing, is what I mean. I know many writers who manage not to think like this, and some of them teach and some don’t. So I don’t think it’s a function of being inside academia. I think it’s just me. Which, of course, makes me worry for my soul as a fiction writer.

    Activism is about fairness, you see, and art isn’t. Art actually is never fair, as a friend said to me recently.

    DearJ: I just heard tonight that he’s a Mormon, which is what I think you’re referring to by a Brazilian mission, and which is interesting. Because Mormons are intensely homophobic.

    Thanks for the recs.

  6. Chris

    Well your posting enforces my trepidation of reading Ender’s Game, even though it’s been recommended to me by many scifi/fantasy fans over the years. Card actually had an early novel that had a male/male relationship in it, but from the synopsis it sounds more like pedophilia; Card himself apparently calls it an “examination of a destructive relationship,” in a long article linked on the book’s wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songmaster
    One of my favorite scifi/fantasy authors, China Mieville, had an interesting variety of gay relationship in his latest adult book, Iron Council, where the character Cutter, has an worshipful love, obsessive passion towards the character Judah Low (a messianic leader of a revolutionary group,) even though he knows Low sees him only as a fond follower, to consumed by his leadership. It wasn’t really a love story, but an interesting look at all consuming one sided passion, with the fact that both of them being men not an issue.

  7. koreanish

    Chris: You should definitely check it out—it’s a classic, is the thing. I read it because its such a huge cultural reference. The Wikipedia entry suggests actually that Card was defending his characters as queer to social conservatives, and it makes me want to read the book.

    Mike: I guess it would be in the questioning—over time, I’m less in favor of open confrontations, more in favor of subtlety? So I say. Maybe read Ender’s Game and see if you see the queer subtext, and if you do, maybe ask him about it.

  8. dearJ

    Now that I think about it, I remember he wrote a story, then a novel — much like Ender’s Game‘s development — either called Treason or A Planet Called Treason — exploring the life of one of the aristocrats who suddenly becomes stricken with the outcasts’ disease called radical regeneration. In his case, he finds out by sprouting a female chest overnight; not sure how that ties into Card’s overall view, but the character is portrayed sympathetically.

  9. Chris

    I’ll have to put Ender’s Game on my to-read list, and I did just reread the wikipedia entry for Songmaster; after searching for more information on it, I found this part of a larger article Card wrote on his views of homosexuality: ” It is quite possible for me to regard homosexuality as a temptation toward a difficult sin, much to be avoided by members of my religious community, and at the same time recognize that others feel differently about it — and that even those homosexuals within my religious community (which means most of those I have known in my life) are people of value, as they either struggle to control their desires or, despairing of that, leave the religious community that requires of them what they no longer desire to do. The only people I have contempt for are those who try to remain inside Mormonism while denying the validity of guidance from the prophets, and I oppose them, not because they live as homosexuals, but because of the hypocrisy of claiming to be Mormon while denying the only reason for the Mormon community to exist. If they prevailed, it would destroy our community. Homosexuals themselves pose no such threat, provided that those who are Mormon admit that a homosexual act is a sin as long as the prophet declares it to be so, while those who do not accept the prophet’s authority refrain from pretending to be Mormon.

    Given my personal feelings about the individual homosexuals I have known and, in some cases, have regarded and still regard as dear friends, and my religious beliefs about what God requires of those of us who take upon ourselves the commitment to be members of the Mormon Church, it is hardly likely that Songmaster would be either “for” or “against” homosexuals. What the novel offers is a treatment of characters who share, between them, a forbidden act that took place because of hunger on one side, compassion on the other, and genuine love and friendship on both parts. I was not trying to show that homosexuality was “beautiful” or “natural” — in fact, sex of any kind is likely to be “beautiful” only to the participants, and it is hard to make a case for the naturalness of such an obviously counter-evolutionary trend as same-sex mating. Those issues were irrelevant. The friendship between Ansset and Josef was the beautiful and natural thing, even if it eventually led them on a mutually self-destructive path. And both of them were cruelly used by the society around them, being regarded as expendable or exploitable. ”
    The whole article- http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-hypocrites.html

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  13. susanamai

    My explanation for why Ender doesn’t realize he was actually killing aliens is because he tries to see the good in people, because he has too much trust and faith in the authority. In the sequels, you find a disillusioned Ender, one disgusted by how blinded he was. Meanwhile in the companion novel, Ender’s Shadow, told from the perspective of Bean, we see that Bean knew all along what was going on, but that because he is a largely analytical, unemotional being, he doesn’t care. Therefore it is Ender’s compassion that prevents him from using his brain.

    • koreanish

      I’d be more on the side of that interpretation if I didn’t remember how much of the story was about Ender finding people to be selfish toward him, threatened by his abilities and trying to manipulate him. I can appreciate his disillusionment, but his illusionment, the time he begins to have faith in people, I never see that. I only see him increasingly believing in just himself.

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