Old School Review: Ender’s Game

A quick admin note: we’ve shifted some things around over here. It shouldn’t disrupt your reading in any way, but the review blog is now found at active-voice.net/books. Okay, carry on.

Ender's GameBy Orson Scott Card [LibraryThingGoodreads]

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. Brilliant young Ender Wiggins is the best solider the school has ever seen, with skills that make him a respected leader in the battle room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. But growing up in battle school isn’t easy, and Ender is under so much pressure he might snap at any moment… and if he does, will anyone else be able to stop the next alien attack?

(Massive unhidden spoilers behind the cut.)

So first, let me say this: I avoided reading this for a few years, because I found out that Orson Scott Card is a deplorable human being before I started actively seeking out YA scifi (and it wasn’t one of the books I’d actually picked up as a kid). But since 1) Ender’s Game is definitely a genre classic; and 2) people with terrible opinions can still be extremely good writers, I borrowed a copy from a friend and will try to be as fair as I can.

So the good: the writing of this book is compelling as heck, and it uses (…created?) some tropes that I love. No, really. Love. Fun fact, my first real trunk novel featured a protagonist who was a runaway from a creepy military school that trained kids from birth to be soldiers. So I tore through the book in about a day and a half and genuinely enjoyed it, on a pure reading-for-entertainment level.

I also generally liked Ender himself, and appreciate the idea that his greatest strength was, actually, empathy. And okay, I wasn’t totally sold on why the military insisted it needed an actual kid — like, a pre-teen — to destroy their enemies (because kids are more spry? I guess?) but I was more than happy to handwave that away. (Kids/teens saving the world is basically my favorite thing ever, as evidenced by, oh, every review here ever.) But that said, based on sheer preference as a reader, I get bored by Chosen One narratives. The very first thing we learn is that Ender is the most special kid of all time ever, and everything in the book revolves around that fact. Can he turn his scrappy band of underdogs into the most elite unit at the school? Of course he can. Can he take on multiple armies at once in challenges specifically designed to destroy him, and still win? Sure thing. Does he notice weaknesses in the enemies that no one else can see? Naturally.

My complaint with this is twofold: first, that we’re handed the idea of Ender as the greatest of all time, not sold on it by the narrative. We don’t see him earn the tough time he’s given by his teachers, we’re just told it’s because he can handle it; we don’t see him emerge from the pack as the strongest, he’s just the strongest from the get-go. I simply like reading stories about heroes earning their way better than stories about someone who’s the greatest ever from the moment the story starts — but like I said, that’s just preference. My other issue is that none of the hurdles Ender overcomes feel organic. It seems like there’s always a built-in escape for him, that for whatever reason, no one else has ever noticed. And while that’s not bad for something like the initial school scenario, where he’s actually dealing with simulated wargames that are, in fact, designed to test him and see what he can come up with, it feels a lot less genuine when he’s examining actual enemy strategies. He’s one of two people ever who noticed the alien villains (buggers) functioned like insects, even though they look exactly like insects. No one else believes this crazy theory! But Ender can use it to defeat everyone.

And speaking of the buggers… well, here’s where we get into the parts of the book that made me genuinely uncomfortable. (Also, the most spoilery bits.) Ender spends his childhood training for an upcoming war — the third war between humans and buggers. The buggers are a looming threat that we never really see, but we’re told humans only just barely escaped annihilation in the previous war, and that they need to be prepared for when the buggers return. Okay, sure. But then it turns out that, after surviving the second war, the human military decided to launch a fleet towards the buggers’ homeworld, and not just take the fight to them, but to commit genocide (or rather, xenocide, which I have the impression is the term Card created specifically to refer to wiping out an alien species). And… whoa am I uncomfortable with that. It’s posed to Ender as the only solution, because the two species can’t communicate and thus can never coexist, and evolution demands that since we can’t coexist we must wipe them out entirely.

It’s just too extreme for me, and nearly ruins the book, largely because it’s not particularly nuanced, and we never see any of the decision making that’s led to this. We never see any of the first two wars, we don’t know anything about the buggers at all until the last third of the book, we never get a sense of impending doom or terror from them because they aren’t at all present. If there were alternate solutions proposed, they’re never mentioned, and the rationale given (about evolution and communication) doesn’t feel nearly thorough enough for me to buy that an entire planet, which still has international rivalries and struggles, actually came together and agreed to destroy an entire species without even being sure that they would return to pose an ongoing threat. After the (fairly obvious to an adult reader) Big Reveal near the end I was legitimately angry and horrified. But luckily, that’s not actually where the book ends, and Ender’s own horror at the way things play out saves it — a bit.

Here’s the thing: on the one hand, Ender is angry and depressed and nearly unable to function when he realizes the full impact what he’s helped the army do. On the other hand, at the very last moment, the book gives him an out from feeling bad: not only did he not really kill all the aliens, it’s cool, because the aliens understood that he didn’t mean to and preemptively forgave him. Which… what? Okay, so I get that the rest of the series deals with all of this and that in greater context, that’s all kind of the point. But I haven’t read the greater context, and within Ender’s Game itself, it feels very much like backtracking, giving the character an easy out from living with what he’s done and making it feel like maybe genocide isn’t really all that bad or unforgiveable. Also: it’s totally cool to commit genocide in order to expand and take the land/technology/etc of the culture you’ve just wiped out, which human colonists do in the book’s last section. No big, right?

Um. Yes it is kind of a big, awful thing.

So. That’s my big beef with the book. There are other things — none of the supporting characters really have much actual character to them, and also really, the smartest, most brilliant, greatest strategist ever couldn’t figure out that his simulated battles were OMG REAL? But as I said, it had its high points, too, and it wasn’t overall irredeemable, just conflicting — and I can certainly understand why it’s become a classic. But, given my many qualms, it ends up at three cupcakes.


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