Thursday, December 6, 2007

Ender's Game: A review

Although I'm not a big science fiction fan, I've heard some good things over the years about Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and recently I found the audio version on the shelf of my local public library. Today I finished listening to it on my commute home from work and was not disappointed (sidebar: Audio books rule. Turn off your radio). Published in 1985 in novel form, it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the two highest prizes awarded in the field of science fiction.

I don't read books for the "surprise" factor, which is probably why I have no interest in mysteries. But even so, it's always nice when an author can spring something on you from left field that you never expected. Suffice to say that Card in Ender's Game scored a looping left hand that made it past my guard and into my face. I won't spoil the surprise, but it comes near the end of the book and for me, at least, it was a doozy.

Ender's Game tells the story of Ender Wiggin, a six-year-old who is drafted into military service to help save the world from "the buggers," an aggressive insect-humanoid race from deep space. Humans have twice beaten back the buggers in massive interplanetary wars, the last a hundred years before Ender's time, but a massive third invasion is feared, and the perfect military mind is needed to beat the buggers once and for all. Time is running out.

Enter Ender. While all the children selected for battle school are the best of the best, Ender shows the most promise of all. Accordingly, he receives intense scrutiny and constant, behind-the-scenes survelliance by military commanders desperate to find mankind's savior. Ender is pushed constantly to excel, and has to not only learn tactics, science, mathematics, and military strategy at an accelerated pace, but also is asked to assume command of older, often hostile boys. The training is ultra-intense and nearly breaks him, but against the odds--and despite the fact "the game" is rigged against him by the adults--he succeeds, and surpasses all expectations.

Card's novel explores mankind's predilection for violence, which he portrays as a dark seed within us all that must be controlled. He's simultaneously critical of the brutal methods and conformity inherent in military training, while acknowledging the great heights to which it can elevate its soldiers and commanders.

Card also explores the themes of lost innocence and the morality (if there can ever be such a thing) of fighting a "just" war. From Ender's Game:

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 or no one will ever save you.

It's a frightening view of life, and I'm still never sure whether Card truly believes it himself. Ender is a fundamentally good person, but when push comes to shove he must strike hard and kill his opponent, and he never fails to do so.

Ender's Game isn't without some flaws (in my opinion, at least), and on my five-star rating scale I'd give it a solid four. In a few places it stretched my imagination too far. The worst offender was the extreme level of maturity and intelligence demonstrated not only by Ender, but his brother and sister and the other students in the battle school. Card made a point of stating that battle school students are the best of the best, but when a six-year-old can perform complex mathematics and demonstrate perfect tactics in high-stress simulated battles, all while isolated from friendship and essentially ripped from the arms of his family, it strains credibility.

Likewise, when Ender's siblings, 15-year-old Peter and 12-year-old Valentine, use "the nets" (aka. the internet) to launch sucessful careers as political commentators and influential newspaper columnists, I found it a bit hard to swallow. Although the book takes place in 2135, these are just humans, after all, and children at that.

Card also lets Ender off the hook at times. Although he never fails to provoke our sympathy, Ender is at times so manipulated by the military intelligentsia that his actions cannot be judged as moral or immoral--they're simply not his fault, and it's an easy out. Even the villains--the military minds behind the battle school--can't be blamed, as their actions are influenced by the omnipresent, existential, life-or-death war with the buggers.

Nevertheless, Ender's Game was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking read and I highly recommend it.

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