Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

When I first read this book in the 1980s, the message that adults do not respect teenagers decisions or feelings as important in comparison to theirs, resonated with me.  Adults ruled my world back then. Ender Wiggins was a kindred spirit who didn't have control of his world any more than me. Like Ender, I too, wasn't always protected by adults when dealing with school bullies, siblings, cheats, competition, and loneliness, to name a few. Ender's gig was more extreme - shoot his world was so messed up that the government had created an army of child-genius soldiers - but all the same, I could relate to Ender's story in a deeply satisfying way as a young reader. Also, my alter ego got to pretend I was a brilliant strategist who could do no wrong, could manipulate people because of great deductive skills on human nature, and never lost a battle. I've gushed for years to students how much I enjoyed this book, even though I have forgotten most of the plot and haven't read it in over 25 years. Time to revisit an old friend.

As an adult reader I appreciate this novel on a deeper level; how the main character, Ender, drives the story; how the underlying themes of innocence lost, human nature, leadership, military strategy, psychology (to name a few) are more clear as I filter my own life experiences in tandem with the storyline. This adult-child crossover book creates a unique experience that feeds my addictive reading habits like a box of chocolates. Say what you will, but Orson Scott Card writes absorbing stories that are good at getting me to think. He has a distinct writing style characterized by a directness in dialogue and interior monologues that at first seem to tell, rather than show. When you look beneath the story's surface he's showing much more than I realized when I first read it; he's delving into complex themes and nontraditional literary strategies that are not easy to explain. I will tackle some and try not to give away the story; the plot twists are part of the joy in reading this book. Some might find Card's style boring or preachy, but it was the right mix of action and dialogue for me.

Set in the future, Earth has been attacked in two wars by the Formics an alien race derogatorily called, "Buggers," because of their insect-like appearance. Earth is ruled by three parties, the Hegemon, Polemarch, and Strategos who are in conflict with each other, but currently cooperating in anticipation of a third "Bugger" invasion. The mediator of peace between these three political forces and the military defender of the world is the International Fleet (IF). Ender is to be trained in leadership and military strategy at IF's "Battle School," a place that recruits children with the best tactical minds to be a part of a rigorous program that launches their careers as commanders or pilots of spaceship fleets that protect earth from interstellar invasions.

Chapter one begins with a doctor removing a monitor that was surgically attached to six-year-old Ender Wiggin's neck as a three-year-old. The IF uses the monitor to determine if he will be a good candidate for Battle School. The doctor assures Ender the monitor detachment won't hurt, but it not only hurts, it is life-threatening, causing Ender excruciating convulsions and temporary memory loss. From the get-go, adults lie to Ender in order to hide the truth and protect him from pain. This literary device makes the reader sympathetic towards Ender and the other children in Battle School, drawing the focus away from the fact they are being trained as soldiers who kill others and makes them appear as victims of adults who control their destiny. This makes the story work. If the reader is not emotionally sympathetic with Ender, then the outrageous plot seems silly. Once the monitor is off, Ender thinks he's been rejected by IF; however, they are still watching him and analyzing his actions. They decide they do want him and he is whisked off by a Colonel to Battle School that resides in the Earth's orbit to save the world from the Buggers.

The author's outrageous plot makes another point besides the reader being sympathetic, it shows the irony of innocence lost and adults who purposefully don't protect students in order for them to learn how to fight. Let's recap the plot: a six-year-old is sent to training school to save the world from war and he sounds and acts like a mature adult. What a clever way to make the point of innocence lost by creating a futuristic world where the military is made up of children who train for war using video games and simulators in zero gravity so that war and killing look like a game. The adults mask the reality that students are killing other beings. They are just killing aliens. Buggers. The result is a lack of moral debate because their intentions are innocent; plus, using third person omnipresent gives the reader privy to the serious consequences that the characters do not know. Ender is manipulated more than any of them and is the target of bullies and jealous cadets. He does question and cry every time he must hurt someone. As the book progresses, the games become less fun and more all-consuming bringing out hatred, jealousy, and stress, as well as, creativity and teamwork in students. Even though children are smaller than adults, they have character voices that show, for the most part, a sophisticated inner monologue that sounds too mature and developmentally inaccurate for their age. The author does this deliberately. He even has the characters dialogue about it, "But we don't think like other children, do we Val? We don't talk like other children. And above all, we don't write like other children." This reveals that the children think of themselves like adults as do the adults. Even though the adults control the childrens environment, they often talk about the students superior mental capabilities compared to theirs and placing them in command of the fleet to save the world from war reaffirms this.

Ender is a third child, an exception to Earth's two-child policy per family. IF is hoping he will be a half-and-half personality of his older genius siblings who have been considered for Battle School before Ender. His sister, Valentine, was rejected because she was too passive and his brother, Peter, because he was too violent and psychopathic. Born for the sole purpose of being a commander, Ender's parents don't bond with him like normal parents; they know he'll be taken from them for the military at some point. Ender is close to Valentine and shows the empathy that was lacking in Peter; hence, the IF knows he has leadership potential to command their fleet.

Ender's siblings, are great manipulators who control adults, as seen when they set themselves up as political spokesmen for humanity. Ender only manipulates when he has too and uses leadership skills to inspire loyalty in others. Whereas Peter sees what others hate most about themselves and inspires fear and Val sees what's best in others, persuading them to her point of view; Ender understands how other people think and uses that information to his advantage. When he gets in tight spots with bullies, he exploits their weaknesses, whether it is pride or vanity, and anticipates ensuing actions circumventing the conflict or attacking it head on. He doesn't manipulate adults, because he has the same goal as them which is to save the world from the Buggers. At first he doesn't understand why the adults are isolating and singling him out, but he eventually realizes it is in preparation to lead a crew of soldiers for on the battlefield there will be no adults giving directions. At times he is broken, but like a tragic hero, he continues his lonely quest.

I find a character who agonizes over his actions more interesting than one that doesn't. When Ender cries after he hurts another person, it makes him more authentic. He isn't like many characters who kill and give it no thought. After he hurts someone, he is torn; even traumatized at times. Ender's gut-wrenching sobs and depression after hurting others shows a compassionate person who is on the one hand ruthless, and on the other, humane. This makes him sympathetic to the reader, which is critical in connecting with him even though he's a trained killer. This also shows military strategy. Ender is learning that he must destroy his enemy to show his superiority and prevent future fights. This mentality is deemed necessary to defeating the enemy.

This book reminded me of coaching in some ways and in other ways it didn't. In coaching you focus on improving skills and finding your best potential, not winning. Winning is an outcome. For Ender, winning is everything. Losing means at best, you are a prisoner of war, worst, you are dead. At first, Ender works on strategy and how to improve and improvise after each battle. He makes mistakes but they never cause him to lose.  He leads the others finding positions in the toon where they will be the most successful. He never laughs or banters with others so they know he is commander. They are not friends. He is harsh with them as a group, but patient individually, listening to questions and making "suggestions quietly." His military leadership forms a tight supportive group that works well as a unit.

In the introduction, Orson Scott Card, reveals the resources he used on military strategy and leadership as background research for this work of fiction. He also explains how he got the idea for "Ender's Game." It is quite fascinating and I recommend reading it. I hadn't intended to analyze this much, but as you can see, I find the story irresistible in terms of topics and craft. Guess I'll have to force myself to stop. But don't you. Get a copy at your library and see what you think. It's worth it.

5 Smileys

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