Friday 23 March 2012

Book Review | Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

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In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race's next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn't make the cut--young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender's skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers, Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender's two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If the world survives, that is.


Isn't it funny, how classics come to be? How some consensus arises that this story, rather than that one, will live on? Will be as or more meaningful decades or even centuries hence as it seemed upon its release?

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is one such success story: a classic in both the critical and the commercial sense. You might think that last an insignificant point, moot in many ways, but glowing reviews do not necessarily beget stellar sales, and only rarely do questions of quality play a part in the bestseller charts. Ender's Game, however, has remained in print for nearly 30 years, shifted many millions of copies, and spawned untold prequels, sequels and side-stories. There's an ongoing comic, an authorised companion to the Enderverse, and a movie adaptation in the making; next summer's genre blockbuster, by all appearances.

Add to that - on the other end of the equation - the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1985, the Nebula the next year, and a host of other prestigious proclamations of its general excellence. As one of its wiser characters asserts, "In all the world, the name of Ender is one to conjure with. The child-god, the miracle worker, with life and death in his hands." Ender's Game, then, is a known quantity of sorts. Or you would think it thus.

For my part, I came to Ender's Game with almost no knowledge of its plot... with not a notion about its characters, its conceptual concerns, its central narrative elements. All I brought to the table with me were my mixed memories of Card's last - namely The Lost Gate - and a rough recollection of the disturbing debacle over Hamlet's Father: ostensibly a retelling of the Shakespeare which went out of its way to expose, and I quote, "the dark secret of homosexual society." So perhaps not the most positive predisposition, but nevertheless, I expected Ender's Game to be tremendous. It's a classic, after all.

Now I'm in no position to dispute that, but were I... well I would, and I wouldn't. I'm in two minds, truth be told. Even now. I did enjoy Ender's Game. It's an interesting extrapolation of the prototypical super-soldier story, recast with innocent children in place of the usual convicted criminals or military guinea pigs. It asks some important questions about violence, retribution and responsibility. Its morals may be a bitter pill, but not an impossible one to swallow, and this is of course in keeping with the best sf.

Saying that, all the business in the battle room is basically space quidditch. Insipid stuff in other words. And then there's this, which I had to asterisk up just to get it into the system:
Alai cocked an eyebrow. 'Oh?'
'And Shen.'
'That slanty-eyed little butt-wiggler?'
Ender decided that Alai was joking. 'Hey, we can't all be n*ggers.'
Alai grinned. 'My great great grandpa would have sold him first.'
'Let's go get Bernard and Shen and freeze these bugger-lovers.'
The saving grace of Ender's Game is that the bigotry by the numbers above isn't in evidence altogether too often, but when it is, it's enough to make one wonder: is this really the sort of thing we want to expose generation after generation of potential science fiction fans to? Why do we hold up this, and not that, as representative of the best newcomers can expect?

Ender's Game is a product of its era in another sense as well. In terms of its ideas, however visionary they may have been in 1977, when the short story Ender's Game is based on was first published in Analog, they were surely less so in 1985, when the book proper was published, and less again when Card "updated" it in 1991, revising out some (but not all) of its political incorrectness. In the here and now, having had more than thirty years to mix with the stuff of contemporary sf, these ideas seem... tame. Stale, I dare say.

But that's the trouble with tribbles, isn't it? By today's standards, sure, Ender's Game feels for the larger part unremarkable, but to dismiss a classic because of the impact it's had is equally indecent. So I won't dispute the touchstone status of Card's supposed greatest... I'll only assert that the revelatory last act, around which every other element of Ender's Game is oriented, is astonishingly flat. I won't take the piss out of the twist - I didn't see it coming - but the unwieldy infodump which follows paints the pace of the tale to date in pedestrian shades, robbing this pivotal moment of much of its power.

On the one hand, I'm glad to have read Ender's Game at long last, and however dated it may be - and indeed, uneven - I enjoyed the experience enough that I might yet soldier on with one or another of the sequels, but never mind Orson Scott Card's recent fall from grace: I do not know that this dark parable is one for the ages in any case.


Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card

UK Publication: December 2011, Orbit
US Publication: July 1994, Tor

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1 comment:

  1. A part of me is very glad that I'd gotten to read Ender's Game (and Ender's Shadow, which I have come to think of as a companion novel) long before the newer revelations of the author's character came to light. I feel like the experience I had with the books was pure, colored with the shades of youth and the identity issues that come along with it.

    Were I to have been presented with the book today, I'm almost certain I wouldn't have given it a chance to make such a profound impression on me, through either willful or subconscious influence of those aforementioned douchebag-author factors.

    As it stands, Ender's Game remains one of my favorite books of all time (tied with Pride and Prejudice, bizarrely enough. lol) Funny how that works.

    Glad you got the chance to read the book, Niall. You mentioned a willingness to perhaps pick up one of the other books in the series. So I've got to mention that the remaining books in the Ender's Game series take a drastically different turn in tone and focus (major emphasis on philosophical musings). I'd say the Ender's Shadow series is closer in nature to the original Ender's Game, in that war strategy figures heavily into the plot, and the unique abilities of the protagonist--Bean--are...well, still unique.