Sunday, November 27, 2011

An Intense, Crowd-Pleasing Game

Sometimes it becomes nigh impossible to give a book an unbiased read. Take Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Though I had scant exposure to Card's prose before picking up the novel, I knew that he was considered a master in the field, that Ender had won a Hugo and a Nebula, and that the director of the Oscar-winning South African film Tsotsi was directing a big-screen adaptation. With such praise littering my RSS feeds, I found it difficult to approach Ender's Game with the requisite blank slate that a good critic ought to have. Opening to the first chapter, I found myself hoping for narrative greatness -- and fearing my lofty expectations would let me down.

Earth's inhabitants call the menacing alien race the buggers. The insectoid marauders have another name, sure, but two hard-fought wars made the crass moniker stick. Humanity has nursed a grudge ever since utter disaster was averted in the second conflict through the daring of Admiral Mazer Rackham. But the buggers are still out there, and a military genius like Rackham only comes along once a generation, if at all. Humanity can't hope to stumble on a savior the third time their fleets come calling. So the rulers of Earth's tenuous alliance government hatch a plan to find the sharpest young mind possible and imbue it with tactical brilliance. No danger or depredation could prove excessive if it resulted in another Rackham. After all, the human race is on the line. Eventually, the authorities find their subject, one Ender Wiggin, a youth who's all of six years old.

I'm tempted to say that Ender's Game didn't live up to my expectations, but that sounds too negative. Card's debut novel doesn't disappoint; it's too well-written for that. Where lesser writers would have turned the book's child geniuses into flat ciphers, Card makes them well-rounded, engaging people in their own right. The plot keeps the pages turning, even if the twist ending doesn't exactly surprise. And the themes Card addresses have plenty of profundity. In fact, those very themes made me think twice about the novel. For a title that's supposed to be a crowd pleaser, it sure does focus on cruelty. Ender suffers through agony after agony, from a sociopathic, animal-torturing sibling who threatens to murder him to thrashings from intellectually inferior peers to a military bureaucracy that intentionally lets such things happen in order to hone their star pupil's strategic mindset. Card places readers in the uncomfortable position of simultaneously acknowledging the horror in such crimes and seeing how they eventually make Ender into Rackham's equal. Other ethical dilemmas unfold, too, such as the rightness of seeking to utterly annihilate an implacable foe or whether it's justifiable for politicos to manipulate the populace in order to achieve peace. Weighty stuff, and it makes for an intense Game indeed.

(Picture: CC 2004 by tomswift46)

12 comments:

Aidan Fritz said...

One of the interesting things I find about the way Orson Scott Card approaches stories is the way he iterates. Ender's Game was initially a short story that was expanded into the novel form (I've most recently read the short story from one of his compendiums). However, it was rewritten yet again when Card chose to concentrate on Bean's point-of-view.

In some ways, each of these distillations concentrates on different themes creating different stories.

Scattercat said...

It gets a little less awesome when you realize that a lot of SF fans tend to be above-average in intelligence and get picked on a lot, and thus the story's enduring popularity likely owes a debt to the fact that it's a revenge/glory fantasy for socially ostracized nerds.

Mind you, the sequels are each about half as good as the book directly before them and rapidly approach unreadability, which soured me on the series as a whole. And then much of the (somewhat troubling) subtext in "Ender's Game" gets a lot weirder when you factor in OSC's absolutely bugnuts attitude toward sexuality. (This is without even getting into Ender's platonic romance with his sister and a robot who lives in his head in the later books.)

I loved "Ender's Game" when I first read it, as an angry and clinically depressed "gifted" student in middle/high school. I think it still holds up as a text even now, but I find it a lot more of a mixed bag when I reread it from the point of view of a more-or-less psychologically healthy adult with a stable family life.

Loren Eaton said...

Aidan,

I remember reading in the intro that Card originally planned Ender's Game as a lengthy intro to Speaker for the Dead, but it grew into a proper novel in it's own right. A good friend tells me that he much prefers Speaker over Ender's Game. I might have to check it out.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have always meant to read this one. Perhaps it needs to be read without any preconceptions.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

Yeah, I'm guessing that the book would've had more resonance with me if I hadn't read it for the first time while married and with a family. I mean, I enjoyed it, thought it was an entertaining read. But it didn't rock my world.

Regarding Card's attitudes towards sexuality, I haven't heard anything except his opposition to homosexual marraige, which hardly surprises given that he's Mormon. Does he have some weird beliefs I don't know about? Surely he can't be as odd as Robert A. Heinlein.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

I'd be curious to hear what you think about it. I saw a copy for cheap in a used bookstore and thought, "It's about time I read this one."

Aidan Fritz said...

@Loren, Speaker for the Dead comes across as a separate novel. I haven't read it since I was a teenager, but remember liking it.

@ScatterCat, Ender's Game was included in my Honor's College English course that included books that had "changed" people's lives. I think the course took a survey before deciding which books would be included. Your discussion on it's popularity casts an amusing light on that episode.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Wow. This has been an enlightening discussion.

I read Ender's Game while single, admittedly, but in a particularly stable and balanced place. I never thought of it as a book to change people's lives, and haven't recommended it as such. I have, however, considered it the prime book to give to someone new to the SF genre, because it seems to have a bit of everything. Breathtaking fantasy world--check (in the computer program, which may be OSC's best gadget.) Disturbing ethical questions--check. Adventure with a single, likable character--check. Interesting alien race--check. Thrilling climax--check. Card does a few things exceptionally well, but he seems to do everything with a fine sense of professionalism.

For this reason, while it doesn't actually reside on my bookshelf of recommendations, I often give it to people who definitely didn't grow up as nerds, and find I have had great success getting them to thoroughly enjoy it, when they wouldn't enjoy, say, Dune. If they tell me their favorite part, I feel I've got a pretty good shot at telling them what they might enjoy next.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'll also echo Aidan: Speaker is nothing like Ender's Game. The Shadow series (Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, &c.) does a much better job of capturing the fun of Ender's Game, but isn't as thought provoking. They do, however, establish Bean as a much more fascinating figure than you ever thought he was.

Loren Eaton said...

Aidan and CR,

I'm quite interested in reading Speaker for the Dead. It sounds as though it has a very different tone than Ender's Game. I liked Ender, sure, but it didn't set my world on fire as I expected it to.

Scattercat said...

It's specifically that he seems to believe that all heterosexual men secretly long for the healing power of someone else's penis, and that social ostracization and rigid laws prohibiting such behavior are the only things keeping the species reproducing normally. He writes about this at length.

Dude's got issues, is all I'm saying. This goes way deeper than just agreeing with culturally received wisdom regarding sexual morality.

Loren Eaton said...

That sounds ... most unusual. Like combining the viewpoints of a gender critic and a social conservative. And, you know, those two camps don't normally find a lot of common ground.

I don't really know what more to say about that.