Saturday, September 3, 2011

Orson Scott Card/ENDER'S GAME

Two and a half years ago, when I put together my Fill-in-the-Gaps list, this was one of the first books. For the sci-fi-fantasy community (on whose fringes I skulk) it's a staple; not to have read it is embarrassing. Plus, my dad, who has always greatly informed my reading list, read it a couple years ago and kept nagging me to get to it. I'm very glad to have read it, because I feel like it's become a cultural touchstone and now at least I can be part of the dialogue.

Premise: in a near-ish future Earth, the most promising of child-geniuses are sent to train in the Battle School, where they learn to fly fighter spacecraft in preparation for a coming war with the Buggers, an insectoid alien race who nearly destroyed the earth 80 years ago. Ender Wiggins, a six-year-old boy, has been identified by government agents as special--a genius with the capability to become commander of the fighting fleet when the war comes. He leaves his family forever (no contact at all until a family visit that's allowed once the kids turn 12) to face the rigorous, often merciless training at fight school, where he is stalked and monitored and presented with challenges the other students are not.

Themes: The book's biggest questions have to do with the nature of humanity (do the aliens have less right to life?), goodness (is Ender a bad person, because he's been hardened by his teachers into taking life opportunistically? is his brother Peter a "bad seed" type?), and education (is it right to design children through such rigorous training? what about if that's the only way to save the world?).

My personal reaction: like I said, I'm really glad I read this book, because not I can be part of the conversations that include it. I hear it referred to pretty frequently. I can't say I loved it, although I enjoyed the story and found myself caught up in it. Certain elements feel dated. For example, outside of the Bugger-Earth conflict, humans are divided in violent political factions that probably felt more plausible during the height of the Cold War than they do now. I also liked Card's writing of the battle training sequences and student interactions better than I liked the more allegorical and discursive parts of the story (long "telling" passages about his sister back home and her clandestine political campaigns, or the highly metaphorical and, in my opinion, not always interesting video games Ender plays to decompress). I also wish the story hadn't been so forcefully gendered. The reader only meets one female student in the Battle School, and she ends up cracking under pressure at one point. The narrative blithely explains that women have evolved differently and aren't as likely to be suited to the Battle Academy way of life. I find that to be another element of the story that seems falsely anachronistic (like the Iron Curtain feeling). But anyway.

Overall take-home: glad I can say I've read it. Didn't love it. Would like to talk more about it.


Jonathan Dalar said...

Here's my take on it:

I wrote that not long ago, even though I first read the book a number of years ago, and have read it many times since.

To me, it's one of the best science fiction books of all time, and the reasons are laid out in my post.

If you're glad you read Ender's Game, you certainly have to check out Ender's Shadow - a pseudo-sequel, that follows Bean through the same timeline as Ender during the story. Maybe even better, and certainly cooler because you know what's happening from Ender's point of view when you read Bean's story.

moonrat said...

thanks, Jonathan. my dad (who first recommended this book to me) feels the same way. interesting to me that your review focuses on cross-generational appeal.

Jonathan Dalar said...

Even more interesting is how the book has "shifted" genres over the years. It was first marketed as pure science fiction for an adult market. Now, if you look for it in a bookstore, you'll find it with a brand new cover, marketed as YA in the kids' section. The foreword to my copy speaks to that, as many of the biggest fans (and unintentional at that) were kids.

It makes sense when you look at it to market it as YA, but adults identify with it just as well, which is why it holds the cross-generational appeal in my opinion.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Ender's Game started life as a short story probably in the era when those issues you found existed - Cold War and "weak" women. I did find his sister to be cunning in her own way and a nice contrast to the battle school types. She didn't want to participate and failed herself out of it, but then became an excellent hacker and political pundit. She played the system within the constraints she was given. A situation a lot of women found themselves in years ago.

Although Ender's Game is one of my favorites, I found more to love by continuing with Speaker for the Dead which follows on the heels timewise of Ender's Game. It brought a lot of the philisophy full circle for me and makes for a more complete story.

I do not recommend the third one. I think it's called Children of the Mind? I may have blocked the title from my memory. It's not bad, per se, it just wanders down philosophical alleys and dead ends throughout the whole book.

There are several offshoots in this series that follow other characters after the fact and during the time, etc. I have not read them all yet.

I actually found his navel gazery while playing the video games to be interesting. And the fact that the Buggers were sending him a message through the video games which the human watchers didn't realize was happening to be of more interest.

Layers. It's all about the layers.

Was Ender good or bad? He destroyed (almost) an entire alien race. Peter was supposedly bad, but all he wanted was to rule the world, and he did. Valentine was caught in the middle and understanding and disliking of both sides which meant she both disliked and understood herself.

I've read this one more than a dozen times. It's an old friend.

moonrat said...

Sarah--thanks for the thoughtful response. And for talking more about Valentine--I debated, while writing my review, whether or not I should talk about her plot thread. I decided not to because it wasn't my favorite part of the story (that's the more discursive "And then they did this, and this happened" part). But yes, I'm glad for her character as a contrast.

angelle said...

i really love this book. all the things that bothered you for some reason never bothered me... and i've read it several times through the years.

JES said...

Coincidentally, this summer I read Ender's Game for the first time, too. (Ditto several other books whose reviews I've been procrastinating on *scuffing feet, pretending not to be embarrassed*.)

I read science fiction like crazy when I was young (well before EG's publication, cough). And like you, I'd noticed the high esteem in which it's held.

It was a lot of fun to read. I'd brought it with me on vacation, and I flew through it. While it had many strengths of its own, it reminded me of so much space-action SF which I'd liked so much years ago.

The descriptions of the video games dragged for me, too, but not quite as much as they seem to have done for you, Moonie. When Card wrote the book in the early/mid-'80s, a lot of what we take for granted now was entirely speculative; I could see the joy in Card's imagining of the possibilities. But eventually that wore off for me.

More interesting for me were the descriptions of the non-video "battles" at the school -- the zero-G considerations, and Ender's instinctive mastery of them.

THE game -- the last one: I thought that a terrific twist. Hard to discuss without spoilers... Part of me wishes I could say I saw it coming, but I didn't. Not at all.

I liked the shadings provided by the family relationships. In fact, if anything, I wished that Card had lingered over them more; the whole "...and then years later they grew up and became famous and powerful in their own right" felt rushed and incidental. You could argue that it was setting everything up for later books in the series. (I don't know if any of them are about his brother and sister more than about him.) I'd say, though, that any later books would have been better served in EG by hints, rather than the quick, brushstroke summaries they got. If NO later books focused on them, I'd have preferred to see more of that story laid out here. Personal taste maybe.

Two things hurt my appreciation of the book:

(1) Something about Ender's size and age bothered me. A favorite SF trope is a physically weak protagonist who secretly harbors some enormous intellectual and/or psychological strength. A lot of X-Men out there, y'know? But Ender came across to me as almost freakishly non-threatening in stature, and correspondingly freakishly powerful mentally. The more dangerous and brutal a given antagonist, the more dangerous and brutal -- however unintentionally -- Ender became.

(2) For anyone who hopes to read EG and leave it behind as a fan, eager to read the succeeding book(s), I implore you: do not read the same Author's Note included in my (Kindle) edition. I'm dumbfounded that Card's agent/editor let him include such a bombastic, defensive "response to my critics." It doesn't matter at all to me that he may be RIGHT in his defense; it matters a great deal to me that its rightness seems to matter so much to Card. Even worse: the Note appears at the beginning of the book. All my love of Ender's modesty and unaggressiveness was shaded by my knowledge of how unlike him his creator seems to be, in at least that respect. (He came across as a petulant beginning author with no fans at all. 100% unappealing to me. And yes, I'm making allowances for how you can't judge a book's character by its author's lack of character. It's just that bad.)

[OMG this is a long comment...!]

moonrat said...

JES--I have read a lot of sci fi, and tend to enjoy it. But some of the tropes (unapologetic allegory, for one--who cares about world-building when we have a message?! etc) mean that I end up LIKING a lot of books but never LOVING them.

I agree re: the twist at the end: I didn't see that coming, either, and really the last quadrant of the book redeemed any misgivings I might have had about the story arc or how interested I was in the book as a whole.

I also loved the battle/training scenes. I agree, very well done.

Aaaand I deliberately skipped the author's note (I had a feeling I wouldn't want to know what it says)--but now I might have to go back and read it! Ha. so much for your reverse psychology there.

JES said...

If you do read the Author's Note, I'd be interested in your take on it (here or elsewhere). All I could think was, I would HATE to be in a crit group with this guy...!

Sarah Laurenson said...

About Ender's size and age. I believe he was threatening physically, but the teachers downplayed it and therefore it was downplayed in the overall story. He killed two kids but they never told him those kids died. He sort of knew on the second one when he talks about looking into the guy's eyes.

Maybe he came across as non-threatening because he was under Peter's heel. He was bullied by his older brother and rescued by his sister, setting him up to be a bully target in his body language.

One of the better take aways from this for me was the idea that you had to really know your enemy to defeat him and in knowing him that well, you came to love him.

jjdebenedictis said...

Okay, I read this book as a child or young teen, so I'm utterly fuzzy on the details, but it was memorable enough that I know I did read it.

I enjoyed it, but like you, I didn't quite "get" why it was so revered by others.

I think this book is one that resonates with people who feel/felt persecuted for being brighter than average.

I tend to not get into Neil Gaiman books, and I think it's for the same reason. Mr. Gaiman's books also tend to resonate with people who feel/felt outcast for their positive qualities.

I certainly was an outcast due to my positive qualities, as a child, but it perhaps didn't bother me as much since I was a bit of loner naturally.

And on a barely-related tangent, I also think this is why Ayn Rand's books grab some teenagers really hard and leaves others cold. Her philosophies would also resonate with someone who has been thinking, "Y'know, I shouldn't get picked on for being better at this stuff than most people are."

moonrat said...

JJ--oo, interestingly put. I have an Ayn Rand on my Gaps list as well (I've never read any of her stuff). I'll check back in on that point :)

Lydia Sharp said...

This has been on my to-read list forever. Thanks for reminding me. :)

Jennifer Ambrose said...

I loved Ender's Game! I didn't read it until a few years ago, so it was a noticeable gap in my otherwise dutiful study of my father's bookshelves.

Curt would call this one of those books/movies that has been so influential, it now feels dated, like Bladerunner. The desks at Battle School are basically ipads.

What I think appealed to me and probably many other fans, was that Ender was written as a person--not a child. And forces us to question when we can be held responsible for our actions, when violence is justified (if ever), and how someone can continue living after being forced to perform a horrible task.

Collins' Katniss could have gained some insight from a nice long conversation with Ender, in my opinion. At least he finds a way to keep living and to try and make amends for what he did.

Kelly A. Harmon said...

I read EG many years ago and loved it. All this discussion makes me want to pick it up and read it again. :)

Coincidentally, it's sitting on the top of a pile of books (which had to be moved due to rain-like conditions inside the house. (sigh)

So, I just might get to it.

I read the book long after many of the series had been written, and received the first five (? - can't remember now).

I plowed through the first two and came to a screeching halt with the third. So, imo: don't go there, it's just not worth it.

Like Jonathan, I enjoyed watching the relationships unfold in EG. The story really isn't original, but Card tells it in a compelling way.

JES has me very curious to know what Card says. I'm tempted to go buy the Kindle version just for that!