I was more familiar with Orson Scott Card for his outspoken Mormonism and membership in the National Organization for Marriage—they of the hokey and dishonest “Gathering Storm” commercials—and his views that homosexuality is an artifact of sexual abuse as a child1. There are a number of reasons why I could argue why Card is, in fact, kind of a douchebag, but they are (mostly) irrelevant to a discussion of his writing and I’ll eschew them.
Besides, Card would hardly be the first good science fiction writer whose social or political views are either strange or entirely antithetical to my own. Heinlein was a bit of an odd duck, after all, and the man’s canonical. One of my favorites in Dafydd ab Hugh, who’s a proud conservative in just about every way.
The more pertinent question is to what extent—if any—this ideology permeates Card’s writing, and if it makes for a decent book. Ender’s Game, though nowadays marketed to young adults, is a classic piece of science fiction, and manages to make it onto most lists of influential scifi. I’d heard the name for years through various media until I decided that I could no longer avoid reading the damn thing to see what all the fuss was about.
Ender’s Game is the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a precocious six-year-old who, in the first chapter, beats a fellow student to a pulp. Ender has just gotten his “monitor” taken out, which is a recording device used to keep tabs on children who may eventually be drafted into the International Fleet, the only military institution that matters; now that he is no longer being looked after by interested IF brass, the other children decide to target him, and Ender’s decision—as a six-year-old, mind you—is similar to that of a new prison inmate: beat the instigator so bad, so much more than necessary, as to preempt any further trouble. This makes a certain twisted sort of sense, but it’s deeply unsettling, and it will become a recurring theme in the rest of the novel. It also became one of the major criticisms of the book—but more on that later.
Ender does get drafted to “Battle School,” leaving his parents, his evil brother Peter, and his adored sister Valentina behind. “Battle School” is essentially a space station peopled with children (between the ages of 6 and 13) and training staff; the entire purpose of the station is to train young children how to be soldiers via the use of a battle simulation game played in freefall. Surprising no one at all, Ender turns out to be a brutally effective tactician, and rises in the ranks, so to speak, despite the typical stresses that young boys typically have to face. Along the way, he deals with a number of bullies, either humiliating them or beating the crap out of the them, and by age 9 Ender is picked for Commander School, an elite training facility where the book’s climax takes place.
On one hand, Ender’s Game reads like a Jerry Spinelli or Gordon Kormon novel—locker room teasing and the brutality of young men. On the other hand, it has definite overtones of classic space opera in the vein of Heinlein or Asimov. Sometimes these two disparate styles blend well, and at other times they make the reader’s mind revolt: “He’s six!” you want to yell, almost spilling your coffee, “Why is he beating the shit out of older boys with the strategy of a military general?” Card’s world is slightly different than our own, it’s true—sort of a quasi-dystopian collective following a series of intergalactic wars with a race known colloquially as the “Buggers”—but there’s nothing to suggest that all these young children should be showing the traits they do. It strains the bounds of credulity because there’s nothing in the narrative to explain it. When Ender does resolve situations through some form of violence—which is relatively often—it is usually explained away as being a terrible-but-necessary step in order to preserve his own safety or security, and this same explanation also applies to the book’s climax, which I won’t reveal.
Ender’s Game explores the “nuclear option”—the horrific but precise kind of violence which supposedly prevents much more terrible outcomes by its overwhelming effect. Card simultaneously appears to endorse it—or at least his characters do—and to reject it, based upon Ender Wiggin’s actions at the end of the book. I was a little astonished to find John Kessel’s “Creating the Innocent Killer” excoriating both Card and the Ender series for its justification of violence. Reading through that essay, I have a hard time squaring Kessel’s criticisms with my impressions of the book, but perhaps the later entries in the series—which I have not read—give more weight to his claims. In any case, I won’t turn this review into an analysis of Kessel’s essay, since it’s tangential to my impressions of the book. Science fiction, after all, doesn’t seek to be normative—that’s part of its appeal. It’s a sandbox, used to explore ideas without necessarily proposing them as canonical (the epigram to Kessel’s essay notwithstanding).
Part of the appeal of Ender’s Game is the very fact that it’s written mostly from the perspective of children; the adults in the series are all nefarious, either complicit to violence or occasionally explicit executors of physical or psychological abuse. They are also good for nothing, since they are apparently incapable of fighting an intergalactic war without using children2, which produces an odd contradiction that I haven’t been able to resolve. The adults in question are capable of creating and executing an elaborate and extraordinary psychological trick on Ender, but they are incapable of commanding a battle fleet? Why do they need to teach Ender to be a heartless strategist when their own actions prove them already capable of being such? In the end, I attributed it to a glib oversight on Card’s part in order to move the story forward. Were the story peopled entirely by adults, it might still be interesting (if generic) science fiction, but it would not have any interesting moral components: behavior we consider normative in adults suddenly becomes abhorrent when practiced by children. The pertinent question is not “Why is Card having children do these things” but rather “Why does anybody do these things?”
Its minor problems and narrative artifacts aside, I understand why Ender’s Game is considered part of the science fiction canon. I can’t say that I’m chomping at the bit the read the rest of the series (I might, eventually), but Ender’s Game is a solid work that has the capability to create a lot more conversation about its meaning and implications, which is the really the ultimate goal of any good book.
- Also, homosexuals “flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior” and therefore “cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society”[↩]
- Mazer Rackham, the genius general of the previous war, says he needs Ender because he [Razer] is “not fast enough”—this despite his being fast enough to kick the crap out of Ender when they first meet.[↩]