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)