I think it’s about time to share another one of the books from my bookshelf. This one, actually, is a quite famous science fiction book, has won lots of awards, and is being adapted as a movie that is slated to come out at the beginning of November. I began reading it in middle school and haven’t stopped since… Have you guessed yet?
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
“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, that is, the world survives.”
Ender’s Game is, according to the general consensus, a science fiction novel. And that categorization makes sense… the book is full of science fiction-y things: that is, genetic experiments, spaceships, alien war, zero gravity battles, and so on and so forth. The trailer for the upcoming movie looks about as “war in space” as it possibly could be. It’s funny in some ways, and exciting in others, and just shiny enough to make it a universal favorite of middle school boys. But ultimately, I think that these facets of the novel were simply enhancements to a story that is more. And by more, I mean thoughtful, complex, emotionally- laden, and highly philosophical.
Each time I read Ender’s Game, I’m a little bit older. And each time, I grasp the psychological and moral (under)currents a little better. This book raises a thousand heavy, thought-provoking questions… most of which I have no answer to. It is an examination of utilitarian values, of the concept of “the other”, of leadership and war and family and manipulation and politics and loyalty and colonization. Simply trying to write a summary brings up a myriad of ethically-challenging issues.
Think about it: the book features a hero who was genetically engineered to be the perfect combination of empathy and brutality, so that he, and he alone, understands his enemy well enough to be able to kill them. But in an attempt to create a tool for saving the world, the world created a boy who, in understanding that enemy, begins to love them and hates his own purpose… and so Ender is constantly faced with situations where he forces himself to choose murder not in a spirit of malice, but simply out of an undeniable survival instinct. He wrestles with these psychological battles in the midst of impossible social and emotional situations- he is, after all, torn away from his family and placed as a commander in an army of brilliant (but still emotionally immature) children- and is manipulated and tested and monitored by adults throughout the entire book. And the ultimate purpose? Destroying an alien race that may or may not be a threat.
Card’s writing style is streamlined, characterized by unadorned prose and a straightforward descriptions. And, to his credit, he does a fairly good job of leaving the ethical questions unresolved: the ending leaves the readers sad, surely, but it does not take the liberty of approving or disapproving of the characters’ actions. Ender’s Game, therefore, is ultimately composed of nothing more than what people do, and the motivations that lead to those actions. Any philosophizing is left for the reader to do on their own time. If you choose to read it as nothing more than a fun and crazy story of little kids playing video games in space, you are welcome to do so. If you want more, well, it’s there in abundance.
In the words of a child:
“I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules. If you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly – I’ll beat you unfairly first.”