Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Goodreads review, last updated April 17, 2013

Government drafts genius child Andrew "Ender" Wiggin to defend against alien Buggers, but rejects sadistic brother Peter and beloved sister Valentine. In orbiting Battle School, rigorous military training, skill and natural leadership elevates boy to isolated position, respected by jealous rivals, pressured by teachers, afraid of invasion.

Ender’s game… Holy shit!

Like many other books that are advertised as “must reads” and “milestones in insert-genre-here”, I am veeeeery late for the party. You might say that it’s a good thing, since I’m neither viewing this book through the nostalgia goggles, nor am I personally conflicted about OSC and his… ahem… equality issues. In fact, my biggest concern going into this, was that I might enjoy it so much that I’d have another Brandon Sanderson on my hands.

Obviously, that was not the case. Dodged that bullet!

Fair warning: what’s going to follow is a spoilerific review of the first book in the Ender cycle. If you haven’t read it and would rather go in blind (although, personally, I didn’t care if the ending was spoiled for me,) then click off. If you just want the cliffnotes - it sucks. Kinda telling from the one-star rating. If you’re a fan and think I deserve to be pelted with rotten tomatoes for daring to dislike this work - well, I can’t really say anything about that, can I?

Anyway, got all that? Let’s get nit-picky!

Now, the first thing you will learn in Ender’s Game, and the one thing you will be hearing all the time, is that Andrew Wiggin, aka Ender, aka Our Hero And The Indisputably Smartest Peanut In The Jar, is Awesome! No quotes, since my copy is in French, and I can’t be bothered to pick one, but if you head over to the big deconstruction over at Something Short and Snappy , you will find plenty (as well as Alex’s hilarious commentary.) The authorial bias is very prominent (view spoiler)

Ender Wiggin is smart. He is awesome. He is a badass. And he is, without any doubt, GOOD! And just to drive in the point that he’s GOOD, not a chapter goes by that some other character comments on his pureness of spirit, his inner goodness and his super-awesome empathy, which totes sets him apart from his sadistic brother Peter. That latter quality is the reason why he is the Best Tactical Genius in the History of Ever (nothing less than capitals for our Mr. Wiggin, here), but like many things in this book, what we’re told is oftentimes counterbalanced by what actually happens. Ender may be so good and kind that he farts rainbows, but the truth is, his actions are very, very bad.

But since Card is firmly on the Intent is Magic train, it’s no surprise that the book puts more value on how Ender feels rather than what he actually does. More on that later.

However, while we’re on the Intent topic, let me talk a little about author intent first. Usually, I don’t care for it - modern writers, at least, seem to have learnt that the further their voice is from the story, the better. Hence why omniscient third person is so rare these days - there is less of an opportunity for the reader to pick out the author’s own voice preaching to them through first or third limited. That’s not to say that authors don’t find ways to manipulate their readers - they’ve just gotten sneaker about it.

Ender’s Game does something different, and though Card is easily a more competent writer than half of the people that get published today, he still puts an inordinate amount of effort to make his protagonist seem sympathetic, going as far as to twist the logic of his own world to make Ender look good.

Early example: In chapter four, Ender gets on a shuttle that would take him and nineteen other boys to Battle School in space. They launch, and while the other kids are busy retching and doing everything six-year-olds might do when finding themselves in null gravity, Ender quickly adapts and amuses himself by imagining their Administrator, Colonel Graff, standing on his head.

Graff, who is on a mission to make Ender’s life miserable (no, literally) picks on him, and then, when Ender explains why he was laughing, Graff uses his adaptability to zero gravity to set him apart from the other children, praising him to the heavens and making everyone else hate Ender. One of the kids, Bernard, starts to bully Our Hero, hitting him on the head at regular intervals. Ender suffers in silence, then grabs Bernard’s hand and yanks, INTENDING to make him stop, but thanks to the power of null gravity, he ends up breaking Bernard’s arm instead.

Then Ender spends several paragraphs berating himself, telling us he never THOUGHT that he’d break Bernard’s arm, that he never intended to hurt him…

Except it makes no sense. Ender is, in case you have forgotten, the Smartest, Most Awesome Cookie There Is. The whole reason behind the brouhaha was the fact that he understood null gravity from the get-go. That means that he should have known that strength is relative and that a simple yank would have more dire consequences in space than it would on the ground. But, in a move that is trademark for the book, Card sidesteps logic with the help of his magical Intent and the snazzy excuse that Ender couldn’t possibly be expected to think under pressure (which is also false. Ender manages to lead the whole Third Invasion under pressure, the only thing he doesn’t do is see through the ruse.)

This passage is pretty much indicative of the problem with Card’s characterisation - Ender is so Smart, so Perceptive, he can tell when adults are Lying to him… except in cases where his precious ignorance needs to be preserved. The central premise of this book is that Ender needs to stay oblivious to the bigger picture, or else he would lose his determination, but the fact that Ender is a genius should mean that any ruse would be impossible.

But, I imagine with the author on his side, that’s fine.

There are plenty of other problems with this book - one, for example, being its obsession with American Hegemony, it’s disdain for other human cultures - Spanish Pride and Arrogant Separatism of the French (by the way, when Bernard (a French native) calls Ender maladroit (clumsy), the translator put in a note that goes: “The word was used in its original form in the English version. We’ll let the “arrogan separatism” comment slide.”) Arrogant separatism, you see, is insisting that people in your country learn their mother tongue before they start on the Almighty English. And on that note, Върви да си го начукаш, Кард.

Interestingly enough, Spain and France are among the countries who have made the greatest steps towards marriage equality and gay rights. Discuss.

It’s noteworthy, however, that alien cultures are not nearly treated with the same disdain. Why, Ender goes as far as to write the history of the Alien Buggers, the evil antagonist that turns out to be a helpless victim in the end! The fact that Ender would focus more on the aliens is understandable - he did, after all, destroy them - but the fact that Card would so blatantly insist on one nation’s superiority over others is a little baffling. (”Hey, I’m not a bigot, see how much I care about the buggers? The French and the Spanish are just being unpleasant.”)

I could also talk about the creepy incestuous overtones this book takes, but that would be too much effort. Besides, the Incest in Fiction trope is already flogged to death at this point - if you’re itching for a discussion, you can find plenty with City of Bones.

One final thing to end on: Even if you hand-wave the logic fail and the authorial bias, and focus on the book itself, Ender’s Inner Goodness still remains dubious. Oh, sure, he beats himself over the fact that he didn’t see through the adult’s ruse and that he committed xenocide, but if the epilogue is any indication, he’s not having it all that bad. Nor is Graff, even though Card tries to make us believe his effort wasn’t appreciated by us mean, mean humans.

Yes, Graff is disgraced and stipped of his rank, but I think his new position as Minister of Colonisation gives him solace. Ender too, in spite of the fact that people condemn him, gets a cosy starter job as a Governor of the first ever human colony (at the age of 12, no less), and travels the universe with his beloved sister by his side. He even finds a dormant bugger queen that would help him absolve himself.

But you know what Ender doesn’t do, for all of his supposed empathy? Look to make amends to the people he’s killed!

In the book, we’ve seen Ender personally murder two children - his bullies Stilson and Bonzo - and he also sent an unknown number of pilots and starship crew to their deaths during the Third Invasion. The fact that he did this is only touched on briefly - he didn’t know they were real, but Mazar Rackham explains that they (the pilots) knew it and accepted it as a matter of course. Oh, okay then! Let’s never mention them again!

I find it hard to believe that every single fighter pilot in the fleet calmly accepted that he might be killed because of the whims of an eleven-year-old, and that said kid wouldn’t even know he was gambling with real lives. Then again, someone who embarks on a 60+ year voyage, with no hopes to return to his family and friends, probably came to terms with their mortality and their role in the grand scheme of things a long time ago.

Still, that doesn’t mean Ender shouldn’t make a token effort towards their families, or even a token general effort, like setting up a fund for war veterans and their families, or maybe use his influence on Earth so make sure less people are murdered in pointless combat. But no. Ender’s only concern is to be finally left alone, and Ender’s Game isn’t so much about the horrors of war and genocide as it is about the protagonist’s own inner peace.

And that would be all well and good, if the work tried to be objective about it. But that’s not what Card wants.

What he wants us to do is sympathise with Ender, and think he’s good.

Dude, are you FUCKING kidding me?

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