Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game is a book about children in adult situations, and for that, Card has evidently been heavily criticized.

I recall a letter to the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, in which a woman who worked as a guidance counselor for gifted children reported that she had only picked up Ender’s Game to read it because her son had kept telling her it was a wonderful book. She read it and loathed it. Of course, I wondered what kind of guidance counselor would hold her son’s tastes up to public ridicule, but the criticism that left me more flabbergasted was her assertion that my depiction of gifted children was hopelessly unrealistic. They just don’t talk like that, she said. They don’t think like that.

That’s from the author’s introduction that appears in my “Author’s Definitive Edition” of Ender’s Game, and it’s evidently typical of the criticism the novel has received. But Card is unapologetic.

Thus I began to realize that, as it is, Ender’s Game disturbs some people because it challenges their assumptions about reality. In fact, the novel’s very clarity may make it more challenging, simply because the story’s vision of the world is so relentlessly plain. It was important to her, and to others, to believe that children don’t actually think or speak the way the children in Ender’s Game think and speak.

Yet I knew--I knew--that this was one of the truest things about Ender’s Game. In fact, I realized in retrospect that this may indeed be part of the reason why it was so important to me … to write a story in which gifted children are trained to fight in adult wars. Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along--the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective--the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.

I’ll give Card props for sticking to his vision. Despite its critics, Ender’s Game remains one of the seminal works in all of science fiction. My delay is getting around to reading it is evidence more for my neglect of the genre than it is a commentary on its merits.

But whatever Card’s intentions for writing the book, having now read it I’d have to say that Ender and the other major characters in the novel have to be children, not to honor any intent expressed by the author, but simply because Ender’s Game, ultimately, is a book about growing up.

Ender Wiggin is six years old when the novel opens--a gifted child just as Card promised in his introduction--and he is recruited into Battle School, where children are trained to fight their society’s generations-old interstellar war. He’s recruited by a character named Colonel Graff, who, strangely, believes that Ender might be the only person in the universe that can actually win the damn thing. To test that belief, he subjects Ender to tougher and tougher challenges, risking both Ender’s life and the lives of the child soldiers that come to “fight” under Ender’s command. In this process, Graff is guided by a simple philosophy.

“Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way. He must believe, to the core of his soul, that he can only do what he and the other children work out for themselves. If he does not believe that, then he will never reach the peak of his abilities.”

And Ender’s story is very much one of waffling back and forth across the spectrum Graff and thus defined. Sometimes he is frightened and frantic for comfort.

He awoke in darkness, and he was afraid. Then he calmed himself by remembering that the teachers obviously valued him, or they wouldn’t be putting so much pressure on him; they wouldn’t let anything happen to him, nothing bad, anyway. Probably when the older kids attacked him in the bathroom years ago, there were teachers just outside the room, waiting to see what would happen; if things had got out of hand, they would have stepped in and stopped it. I probably could have sat there and done nothing, and they would have seen to it I came through all right. They’ll push me as hard as they can in the game, but outside the game they’ll keep me safe.

And sometimes he is stoic and resigned to his fate.

There was no doubt now in Ender’s mind. There was no help for him. Whatever he faced, now and forever, no one would save him from it. Peter might be scum, but Peter had been right, always right; the power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can’t kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you.

And it is in this waffling that Ender conducts his journey toward adulthood. He comes to understand the way society actually works, and it is neither the way he was told nor the way he would have designed it.

What am I doing? My first practice session, and I’m already bullying people the way Bonzo did. And Peter. Shoving people around. Picking on some poor little kid so the others’ll have somebody they all hate. Sickening. Everything I hated in a commander, and I’m doing it.

Is it some law of human nature that you inevitably become whatever your first commander was? I can quit right now, if that’s so.

No, Ender. You don’t inevitably become whatever your first commander was, but the Game (or life) has rules, and those rules dictate certain behaviors, and those behaviors provide the key to the finite and predictable ways of winning.

Over and over he thought of the things he did and said in his first practice with his new army. Why couldn’t he talk like he always did in his evening practice group? No authority except excellence. Never had to give orders. His informal practice group didn’t have to learn to do things together. They didn’t have to develop a group feeling; they never had to learn how to hold together and trust each other in battle. They didn’t have to respond instantly to commands.

And, understanding it, he comes to master it and bend it to his own will.

And he could go to the other extreme, too. He could be as lax and incompetent as Rose the Nose, if he wanted. He could make stupid mistakes no matter what he did. He had to have discipline, and that meant demanding--and getting--quick, decisive obedience. He had to have a well-trained army, and that meant drilling the soldiers over and over again, long after they thought they had mastered a technique, until it was so natural to them that they didn’t have to think about it anymore.

By then he had finally accepted Graff’s conditions and all of its ramifications--even those Graff does not expect and cannot visualize. His journey complete, Ender, then only thirteen, is totally and irrevocably a grown-up.

But there is another way to understand Ender’s journey. Not a developmental journey but a spiritual one, where Ender grows out of his dependence on a belief in an all-powerful entity (God, fate, the universe, take your pick), and comes to rely fully on his own will and ability. In this interpretation, Ender’s older brother Peter comes to take on new metaphorical role. Always an antagonist to Ender, in this spiritual realm he comes to represent the forces of darkness and choas.

“Peter tortures squirrels. He stakes them out on the ground and skins them alive and sits and watches them until they die. He did that for a while, after Ender left; he doesn’t do it now. But he did it. If Ender knew that, if Ender saw him, I think that he’d--”

“He’d what? Rescue the squirrels? Try to heal them?”

“No, in those days you didn’t--undo what Peter did. You didn’t cross him. But Ender would be kind to squirrels. Do you understand? He’d feed them.”

“But if he fed them, they’d become tame, and that much easier for Peter to catch.”

Valentine began to cry again. “No matter what you do, it always helps Peter. Everything helps Peter, everything, you just can’t get away, no matter what.”

In line with the metaphor of a spiritual journey, Peter’s actions can first be ascribed to conscious, diabolical intent, but, as the novel progresses, slowly, Ender and those that surround Peter comes to understand that they are simply a manifestation of the entropic principle of the universe. Chaos reigns, and the wise (or mature) person will lose both his fear and his desire to conquer it.

On these two levels I found Ender’s Game an interesting read. But that doesn’t mean I liked it. I didn’t. A lot of it felt forced, and the fact that Ender, his friends, and his antagonists were all children was pretty much lost on me because they simply didn’t act like any children I knew, despite Card’s constant reminders that they are, in fact, children.

Here’s how it breaks down, as simply as I can say it. Ender et. al. are children in the sense that they are young, six, seven, eight years old. But, as Card frequently points out, they are gifted children. Not just bright and precocious for their ages, but literally geniuses--smarter and better at everything than everyone else, even the adults. This, to me, is one of the staples of fantasy and science fiction--the gifted youngster, with powers beyond his own understanding, slowly coming to grips with the reality that surrounds him and then mastering it. We’ve all seen that movie before. But in Ender’s Game, it’s not just Ender who fits this mold, but his brother Peter and his sister Valentine, and all the children who lead him and who he comes to lead at the Battle School. They are all superheroes, struggling to understand themselves.

And none of them have my sympathy. I don’t care about any of them, because none of them seem very real or vulnerable to me. They’re all, in the end, bullies.

Early in the novel, when Colonel Graff first comes to recruit six-year-old Ender into the Battle School, Ender reflects on how he doesn’t want to be a soldier.

Ender didn’t like fighting. He didn’t like Peter’s kind, the strong against the weak, and he didn’t like his own kind either, the smart against the stupid.

Well, speaking as a member of the weak and stupid people, I’d have to say I don’t like Ender’s kind either.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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