Ender's Game
Orson Scott Card, 1977, 1985, 1991

the fourth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested anonymously

This article assumes that you've either read the book or don't mind having the whole thing spoiled. If neither of these is the case, turn back now.

Ender's Game is the first book in the visitor recommendation series that I'd read before. Actually, to say that "I'd read it before" is an understatement — when I was sixteen, this was quite possibly my favorite book. But I hadn't read it in the eleven years I've been doing these writeups, so when it appeared near the top of the list I didn't send it down with the other rereads.

— 1a —

Why did I like it so much lo these many years ago? On the most superficial level, it was sort of the evolutionary version of what may have been my favorite book when I was ten, Interstellar Pig. Once again the action revolved around a kid who plays a space combat game over and over — learning the rules, then figuring out ways to exploit loopholes in the rules. It's all the fun of a lateral thinking puzzle in a computer game ("Wait a minute! Technically there's nothing in the rules that says I can't scrape the parrot…") without the frustration of having to think of the solution yourself. I found these sequences enthralling…

      …except this time around I could see that there was a lot of sleight of hand involved. It seems to me that a vignette that truly illustrated brilliant strategy would work as follows. First, we readers need to have a sense of the situation, enough that we automatically start thinking about what we'd do if we were in the protagonist's place. Then, when the protagonist's tactics are revealed, we should be struck by that "aha!" moment of realization that, yes, of course, that's much more clever than what we would have done. And lastly the strategy should work in reality and not just by authorial fiat. In Ender's Game these conditions don't quite hold. The descriptions of both the laser tag games and the actual space battles are pretty elliptical — as I suppose they kind of had to be, given that text isn't the best medium for conveying spatial relations. And Ender's innovations work brilliantly largely because Card says they do. Here's a strategy passage, chosen pretty much at random:

      Han Tzu, commonly called Hot Soup, was the leader of D toon. He slid quickly along the lip of the star to where Ender knelt. "How about flipping off the north wall and kneeling on their faces?"
      "Do it," Ender said. "I'll take B south to get behind them." Then he shouted, "A and E slow on the walls!" He slid footward along the star, hooked his feet on the lip, and flipped himself up to the top wall, then rebounded down to E toon's star. In a moment he was leading them down against the south wall. They rebounded in near perfect unison and came up behind the two stars that Carn Carby's soldiers were defending. It was like cutting butter with a hot knife. Rabbit Army was gone, just a little cleanup left to do.

See, brilliant! …except that this is all basically stratego-babble. If you had an "oh, of course! yes, that's the solution!" moment while reading that, I'm afraid I can't join you. Yes, Ender's commands are generally based on valid strategic principles — don't get locked into a single perspective, stay flexible, etc. — but the true test of a strategist is making judgment calls when the principles contradict one another. It's just as easy to write a valid scenario in which Ender's approach backfires:

[…] They rebounded in near perfect unison and came up behind the two stars that Carn Carby's soldiers were defending — only to find that the Rabbits were waiting for them. It was like cutting butter with a hot knife. Dragon Army was gone, just a little cleanup left to do.
      "That was a good try," Carn explained to Ender after thawing out both armies with the hook he'd been awarded. "I see what you were going for. The problem is that while the walls do keep you from having to worry about attacks from behind, they also limit you to one trajectory when you push off — just as firing from between your frozen legs limits your shots to one angle. In future battles you're going to want to make sure you're not telegraphing your moves that way." Ender would remember.

Note that this isn't really a criticism as such. I don't expect Card to whip up a complete sim of the laser tag game and test whether the tactics he describes really do work, any more than I expect a stage magician to use real magic. There has to be some sleight of hand. I'm just saying that I could recognize it more than I could twenty-odd years ago.

— 1b —

But as noted, "the game sequences were cool" is a pretty shallow explanation for why Ender's Game struck a chord with me way back when, so let's delve deeper. Stephen Bond says that "those who claim that Ender's Game truly captures their own childhood feelings are revealing a bit too much," but when I've made that claim, I haven't been talking about what Stephen calls "the book's message of 'everyone hates me because I'm the best.'" I've been talking about the way the book makes a big point of how much younger Ender is than everyone around him. "They were all much larger than Ender. The ten- and eleven-year-olds towered over him; even the youngest were eight, and Ender was not large for his age." Which at this point in the book is six. A few chapters later: "Everyone expected him to go commander early. Perhaps not this early," for he is nine. Then: "Bean grabbed Colonel Graff by the sleeve. 'No one goes to Command School until they're sixteen!'" — but Ender is eleven. There's a lot more of this in the unfortunate subplot about Ender's siblings taking over the world by being really good anonymous bloggers. "'I can't do a weekly column,' Valentine said. 'I don't even have a monthly period yet.'" "'Not bad for two kids who've only got about eight pubic hairs between them,' Peter said."

Well, the same was true for me. I graduated from elementary school when I was seven. The higher-ups wouldn't let me go on to junior high at that age, so they compromised by arranging things so that I would spend the rest of my school years in classes with people merely two or three years older than I was — a small enough jump that school didn't really challenge me and I continued to receive adulation from my teachers. Kids like me did not constitute a sizeable demographic, and there weren't a whole lot of stories out there that spoke to my experience. When I did encounter a child prodigy in fiction, it was generally in a bit part to round out an ensemble class of stereotypical nerds — someone to do a double take at, not to identify with — or, at best, the central figure in a story about how the weirdo has to learn to be more normal in order to be happy. But Ender's Game was different. Yes, there was the self-congratulatory "they're picking on me because I'm awesome and they're jealous" angle Stephen complains about, but that wasn't much of a draw for me — I don't think I was bullied more than was typical in any suburban school. The thing to remember is that I read this book not when I myself was Ender's age, but when I was sixteen — i.e., when I had just recently discovered that there had been a whole social world my high school friends had been part of and of which I hadn't even been aware. When Ender notices that the kids in what he thinks of as his group have exchanges that don't include him — "their friendship, remembered from the Battle School days, gradually disappeared. It was to each other that they became close; it was with each other that they exchanged confidences" — that kind of hit me where I lived. I'd been socially invisible to my classmates because I was so much younger, and completely invisible to kids my own age — I'd never even known anyone my age with the notable exception of Marie Martin, those few months I'd had classes with her before she was iced moved to Alabama. I knew the feeling of isolation that Card repeatedly hits in the novel. Hell, the very fact that someone with that experience wasn't invisible to Card, had been deemed worthy of having his story told, meant a lot to me…

      …except this time around that experience no longer constituted the entirety of my life. The last time anyone cared how old I was when I did something was before the turn of the century. I now know people a lot older than I am and people a lot younger than I am and people a lot smarter than I am. I've been part of a social group more than just peripherally. Girls have kissed me. Ender's Game may have captured my childhood feelings, but I no longer feel as strong a connection to them. And thus on this read other elements of Ender's character came to the fore and I couldn't help but notice how much Ender reminded me, not of myself, but of Stephen Ratliff's Marrissa. Both of them are children, thrust into top positions in a military hierarchy, with a support staff also composed entirely of children (in Marrissa's case, the "Kid's Crew"). Both are notable for their killer instinct (compare Marrissa's "I don't do half measures" game plan in A Royal Wedding to Ender's treatment of his enemies). Above all else, both of them are, by authorial dictate, the very best in the universe at everything and cannot be defeated by anyone even once. When Card starts rattling off Ender's Battle Room statistics there's little to distinguish it from Ratliff droning on about Marrissa's Kobayashi Maru records other than the prose style.

— 1c —

The prose style was another reason I loved this book when I was sixteen. Card has a distinctive style, the development of which he once cited as the breakthrough which made him a good writer. The key element of that style is this: the character interactions have no subtext. Everything that underlies the surface of what characters are saying, every unspoken nuance and allusion, everything they're thinking and feeling, becomes part of the narration. Here's an example, again chosen basically at random, a conversation between Ender and his sister Valentine:

      [Valentine:] "You beat them." For a moment she was not afraid of his understanding.
      [Ender:] "No, you don't understand. I destroy them. I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again. I grind them and grind them until they don't exist."
      "Of course you don't." And now the fear came again, worse than before. Peter has mellowed, but you, they've made you into a killer. Two sides of the same coin, but which side is which?
      "I've really hurt some people, Val. I'm not making this up."
      "I know, Ender." How will you hurt me?

I think what drew me to this style may have been the same thing I talked about above: this kind of access to someone else's thoughts and feelings constituted a sort of intimacy that was pretty much completely missing in my life. And that wasn't just a function of my limited social circle. While I am not quite autistic enough to qualify as a true Aspie, I am farther down the spectrum than most and am not the best at reading non-verbal emotional cues. Through Card's writing, I was able to experience that instant insight into other human beings that more empathic people take for granted, and I thought that was pretty awesome. I'm still not the world's biggest fan of what I've called "iceberg characterization," in which there's little more to the narrative than a game of "Can you figure out the hidden 90% of what the characters mean from the 10% they actually say?" This is particularly common in film, where it's not uncommon to see a long speech get cut on the theory that everything it says can be communicated by just the right crack in the voice or twitch of the eyebrow. These are the sorts of things I sometimes fail to register, and they're next to impossible to convey in text…

      …but it does now seem to me that Card goes too far the other way. One of my evaluative patterns says "Don't speak the subtext," and this is a textbook example. The first voice is Ender, the second Valentine:

      "The trouble with coins is, when one face is up, the other face is down."
      And right now you think you're down. "They want me to encourage you to go on with your studies."

I doubt there were too many readers who needed Valentine's assistance to crack that code. Look, I do believe in erring on the side of clarity. And I frequently happened upon favorite sentences from when I was sixteen and found that I still really liked them. I also really like things like the argot that develops at the Battle School: "The way I brain it," "Somebody eated your face." But I can no longer say that the language was a big selling point for me overall. Part of the reason is Card's reliance on abstract summary (e.g., "Ender had won something better than the adulation of the passengers. They knew him now, and he had won their love and respect. He worked hard on the new world. He quickly understood the differences between military and civilian leadership, and governed by persuasion rather than fiat." We never see any of this.) Part of my change of opinion is due to the over-explanation that I've been talking about. But a lot of it is that there's something that rubs me the wrong way about the novel's overarching voice. Card has said that prissy schoolmarms have scolded him for the coarse dialogue in the book, and it's true that the kids do sound like Beavis and Butt-head a lot of the time. But that's fine. It also didn't bother me that the kids sounded like adults a lot of the time. Bright kids do tend to adopt an artificially adult voice that they later grow into. What rang false to me wasn't that the kids sounded adult; it was that they often sounded like a specific kind of adult:

"[…] We only got three rules here. Do what I tell you and don't piss in the bed."
      Ender nodded. He knew that Rose wanted him to ask what the third rule was. So he did.
      "That was three rules. We don't do too good in math, here."
      The message was clear. Winning is more important than anything.
      "Your practice sessions with half-assed little Launchies are over, Wiggin. Done. You're in a big boys' army now. I'm putting you in Dink Meeker's toon. From now on, as far as you're concerned, Dink Meeker is God."
      "Then who are you?"
      "The personnel officer who hired God." Rose grinned.

Those aren't kid jokes, nor are they "kid trying to sound adult" jokes. Those are distinctly middle-aged jokes. "Taciturn but secretly witty engineer for a mid-sized firm in a red state getting a chuckle from his pals in the break room" jokes. Appropriate enough for the interludes between Colonel Graff and Major Anderson, I suppose, but not so well suited for Ender and company. And the less said about Peter calling Valentine "sweet little sister" and "little woman," the better. But speaking of Valentine…

— 1d —

The fourth reason I connected with Ender's Game when I was sixteen was she. If you had asked me back then what my closest relationship was, I might well have said it was my (wholly imaginary) bond with my long-dead sister. Valentine was a pretty good match for how I imagined her: vaguely angelic (emphasis on the "vaguely") but just down-to-earth enough to seem vaguely plausible (same emphasis). Consequently I loved Valentine enough that when a then-teenaged Elizabeth created a Sims version of me she had the Sim me name my own Sim daughter Valentine.

This time around I had a different reaction, but I'll talk about it in part three.

— 2 —

Having enjoyed Ender's Game so much, I went on to read several more of Card's books over the course of the early '90s. I read the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, but it was less to my taste. I also tried Card's other big series at the time, the Alvin Maker saga, but I couldn't get more than a few chapters into that. I even read Saints, his biography of a fictional plural wife of Joseph Smith. But the one that I most clicked with was Maps in a Mirror, a 1990 collection of Card's short fiction, focusing mostly on his work from 1978 to 1981, but with a few outliers. One of the oldest pieces was the original, skeletal "Ender's Game" novelette from 1977. One of the newest was a 1989 story called "Lost Boys." "Lost Boys" was a very odd project. Card told it as autobiography, using his own name, those of his wife and children, and the actual events of his life in the early '80s — only he gave himself a fictional eldest son. A couple of years after reading it I went to the brand-spankin'-new Barnes & Noble on Shattuck and Durant and discovered that he had expanded it into a full-length novel. When it came out in paperback, I read it. He had changed the names, but otherwise it was the same story about a thirtysomething Mormon who leaves a graduate program in Indiana to move to Greensboro and write about computers. It was also an encapsulation of a world view that is utterly, unremittingly, jaw-droppingly paranoid. Everyone in the world outside his small tribe of Mormons — and half the people inside that tribe — are trying to hurt this man's family. The schoolteacher turns the kids against his son and his work colleague tries to molest his daughter and the psychiatrist tries to undermine his religious teachings and the young man he's been assigned to mentor is a psychotic and the handyman is a murderer. It's a 500-page warning that they're coming in your windows, they're snatching your people up, so you need to hide your kids and hide your wife. And Ender's Game, I realized on this read, is undergirded by this same all-consuming fear.

There have been a fair number of studies recently suggesting that people's political leanings are determined to a great extent by their macroscopic neurological structure. A right-wing political orientation seems to correlate with a larger right amygdala, the part of the brain largely responsible for fear and the identification of threats. In 2001, al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center and proved that a determined paramilitary group could, if it got lucky, and if it were willfully ignored by the U.S. government, conduct an operation that killed 0.001% of the American population. It also proved that it could thereby provoke a reaction of sheer animal terror in the amygdalar segment of that population, who would wildly misconstrue the attackers as an existential threat that had to be eliminated at any cost. These people would then wreak damage that the original attackers never could have — destroying their own country's civic institutions, snaring its military in overseas quagmires, undermining its moral standing in the world, crippling its economy — and insist that it was worth it because the alternative was extinction. Now compare this to Ender's Game. The premise of the novel is that in the mid-21st century the earth was subjected to a pair of invasions by insectoid aliens, and humanity has spent the century since then on a war footing, frantically trying to train the next generation of military commanders for the final, kill-or-be-killed showdown that everyone knows is coming. Eventually we discover that the reason everyone is so sure it's coming is that we've launched a pre-emptive strike on the invaders' homeworld, and the imminent arrival of our counterinvasion fleet is why the urgency to find an invincible strategic mastermind has become so acute. This is all portrayed as grimly necessary, for we can't afford to be squeamish when our very survival is at stake. It is therefore perhaps not altogether shocking that when Slate did a survey in 2004 of whom American novelists planned to vote for in the upcoming election, one of the few the magazine could find who supported George W. Bush was Orson Scott Card.

Yet Card's explanation for his vote is not that of a completely gung-ho right-winger like, say, Allen Drury. Card begins, "I'm a Democrat," emphasizing that "from taxes to government regulation, I'm not happy with the Republican positions." But his support of the Bush Doctrine wars made him a one-issue voter. And while Lost Boys was merely a manifestation of his amygdalar view of the world, Ender's Game is actually about it — justifying it, working through his reservations about it. And I have to give Card this: he doesn't stack the deck.

On this read it seemed to me that one of the key scenes, possibly the key scene, was one that had made very little impression on me as a teenager. It's the one in which Ender finds Dink Meeker, an older boy who's earned his respect, meditating. They talk for a bit, and eventually have this exchange:

      [Dink:] "I can't believe you still believe it."
      [Ender:] "Believe what?
      "The bugger menace. Save the world. Listen, Ender, if the buggers were coming back to get us, they'd be here. They aren't invading again. We beat them and they're gone."
      "But the videos—"
      "All from the First and Second Invasions. Your grandparents weren't born yet when Mazer Rackham wiped them out. You watch. It's all a fake. There is no war, and they're just screwing around with us."
      "But why?"
      "Because as long as people are afraid of the buggers, the I.F. can stay in power, and as long as the I.F. is in power, certain countries can keep their hegemony. But keep watching the vids, Ender. People will catch onto this game pretty soon, and there'll be a civil war to end all civil wars. That's the menace, Ender, not the buggers. And in that war, when it comes, you and I won't be friends. Because you're American, just like our dear teachers. And I am not."

This is impressive! Here is an unafraid, non-amygdalar character, and Card has the courage not to cast him as a seditious villain or a feckless, naive fool, but as Ender's friend — who turns out to be right. The buggers, we learn, weren't invading again. The first two attacks were a tragic misunderstanding between two species so different that neither one understood how the other defined "life." And yet the novel isn't called Dink's Game and Ender doesn't come around to Dink's point of view. Ultimately, the novel takes this line of argument:

  • survival trumps all other concerns

  • when a potential threat presents itself, one must decide whether to eliminate it or not

  • the risk of a false positive (i.e., killing someone who turns out not to have been a threat) is that you have to live with having innocent blood on your hands

  • the risk of a false negative (i.e., not killing someone who turns out to have been a threat and kills you) is that you die

  • you can't take a middle course and try for a mix of false positives and false negatives, because even a single false negative means you die

  • therefore you must take the course that produces no false negatives, and eliminate all threats

Following this argument to its conclusion, we find that survivors will necessarily rack up a bunch of false positives, as Ender does with the buggers (and as the Neocons Card supported did when it turned out there were no WMD caches in Iraq). So how does someone live with that, Ender's Game asks? How can a person or a society claim to be moral after committing murder, or genocide?

— 3 —

Ender's Game now seems like such a transparent parallel for the events of the '00s that it's kind of disconcerting to realize that the book was written long before al-Qaeda was even a thing. Then again, it's not like 9/11 and the Bush Doctrine wars that followed were the first time something like this has happened. From its surprise-attack start to its ultimate-weapon finish, the Bugger War in Ender's Game is even closer to the Pacific theater of World War II. And then there's this.

I read another novel of Card's in the '90s. It was called Pastwatch, and concerned a group of time travelers in a dystopian future who trace back centuries of slavery and genocide and ecological disaster to a single pivotal figure: Christopher Columbus. Stop him, keep the people of the hemispheres apart for a few decades longer, and history surely takes a much better course. Except that when they try to identify the moment that Columbus decided to lead an expedition west, they are stunned to discover that he had actually been prompted to do so by another group of time travelers from a different future, one in which a Mesoamerican invasion of Europe had led to the spread of horrific human sacrifice across the globe. The world in which the peoples of the Americas were subjugated and, in many areas, exterminated, is in Pastwatch an improvement over the first iteration of history. A convenient excuse for those who live in that world. What's ours? Those of us who currently benefit from a history of genocide, who live in a wealthy country founded on the massacre of those who lived here before us… how can we claim to be a great nation and moral beacon to the world with that great sin in our past?

These are the issues Ender's Game wrestles with, and the answer it settles on seems to be twofold. First, to kill morally, the killer must have the proper motives. So much of Ender's Game is concerned with the question of whether Ender is "like Peter." It's the first thing the bigwigs in the military try to find out, for instance. They're very glad that Ender is an efficient killing machine — that's what they're looking for — but they need to know why he kills. Does he kill out of sadism? Is it part of a quest for dominance? If so, then he's "like Peter" and must be rejected. But if it's part of the clear-eyed pursuit of survival — if it's a calculated decision to eliminate threats and obviate the possibility of false negatives — then it's moral. On to step two. How does the killer feel after killing? Does he keen for his victims, and wail at the blood on his hands, and rage at the circumstances that have forced him into this awful position? Does he kick the asses that we need kicked, and then suffer our guilt for us as well? If so, then he's not just moral — he's a moral paragon. And it's Valentine's role to tell us so.

Ender "never did anything to be ashamed of," Valentine attests, not Ender "who was so good." But what does Ender do that's good? I'm reminded of another Valentine, the vah-lohn-TEEN Valentine from Three Colors: Red, who exudes goodness every moment she's on screen. I can rattle off a list of good things she does in the movie, right down to helping the old lady from the first two movies finally put her bottle in the recycling bin. But all Ender ever really does is coolly defeat enemies as thoroughly as possible and then feel bad about it — so bad that he needs to have the moral calculus of the book explained to him. So Card puts his message in the voice of the closest thing the book has to an angel:

      [Ender:] "I'm a killer no matter what."
      [Valentine:] "What else should you be? Human beings didn't evolve brains in order to lie around on lakes. Killing's the first thing we learned. And a good thing we did, or we'd be dead, and the tigers would own the earth."

What? For a supposed super-genius, that is a stupid thing to say. For one, the notion that there could be a "first thing we learned" as a species is to posit that there was some fixed point at which our species came into being, knowing nothing, and then learning things in sequential order. But more to the point — I'm no expert in neurological evolution, but my understanding from the psychology classes I've audited is that the current or at least recent consensus was that large brains proved advantageous largely in allowing humans to navigate complex social systems. E.g., to fold into groups and work cooperatively rather than to just kill everyone who comes near. But let's see what Valentine has to say about the way human colonists, in a clear parallel with the American story, took over the bugger worlds after Ender wiped out the buggers:

      [Ender:] "It's not my idea of freedom to go live in the house of the people that I killed."
      [Valentine:] "Ender, what's done is done. Their worlds are empty now, and ours is full. And we can take with us what their worlds have never known — cities full of people who live private, individual lives [...]"

Holy shit. This is Valentine's absolution for the eradication of a people? A blithe shrug that "what's done is done"? Along with a twist of cultural superiority — we're individuals, and they lived these weird communal lives that don't really count and therefore the land was wasted on them? Valentine is terrible! Valentine may be the worst thing in the book! There goes another piece of my adolescence.

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