Sunday, February 17, 2008

Review of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I originally met most--okay all--of the "buds" from this book project in Slate Magazine's discussion group, the Fray. Over the past year or so, I've been weaning myself off of it, because even though I continue to enjoy the virtual company of many of its denizens (or keep meaning to anyway), the forum itself lost that feeling for me of being a fun place to visit. Partly, it was because of the games of status that a magazine of ambivalent quality kept playing with its network of forums (I've had crazy girlfriends that loved and hated me as much), partly there's the house brand of online malice that would occasionally bubble throughout the boards, there was a smidgen of annoyance at the habits of the local trolls too (but that's the same anywhere), and a big thing was the awareness of a bigger world out there, even for blogging dorks. Back in the day, nobody surfed the Fray as purposefully as did Ender, which makes him seem like an odd person to vocally mount a charge to break through its boundaries, but a year or so ago, that's what he did. These days, you can find him here, trying to parlay his online manipulation skills into something more profitable, evidently by writing about a giant mutant chicken or something. A book selection for this guy is too obvious a choice to ignore, and it led to some interesting speculations as to what he was once trying to do with the Ender persona. More about that shortly.

In the decades before he became known as a tendentious political whacko, Orson Scott Card wrote decent science fiction novels, and Ender's Game is, if not his best, probably his most well-known. It's not bad, delivering something in excess of my expectations anyway. I'm not the sort of reader to go in for barracks philosophies, nor for alien space battles, but this novel kept the interest up for its entirety, and contained characters that I cared about. It centers on a child, Ender Wiggin, who is lucky enough to get such an astounding grade on his career aptitude test that, at six years old, he's drafted directly into military school. It's not just any junior academy, but rather an intense and futuristic training program designed to identify and select kids with both incredible reflexes and that ineffable leadership quality that inspires tactical innovation, confidence, and obedience among the ranks.

If the premise looks silly (and it does--we're talking zero-gravity Laser Tag as the best hope to groom sophisticated military minds here), Card gets away with it in context. These aren't just any kids, but carefully-screened early prodigies selected for capability and maturity, and their environment is built to encourage those things. The school is regimented, isolated, and nearly adult-free, and the kids are given something close to the life-or-death authority of real soldiers, constantly exposed to violent propaganda and unforgiving decisions. It produces adult behaviors,* but their inner childlike sensitivities are still revealed to the reader by authorial exercise. History has ample evidence of children behaving as murderously effective bastards, and even though your horrible memories of middle school might seem like a starting point, children have been soldiers for as long as there has been war. The evil of it, at least from a more enlightened cultural perspective, doesn't negate the truth that kids can do this sort of thing, and certainly have. A different sort of writer (possibly a better one) might have analyzed these labyrinthine moral contexts for hundreds of pages, but Card moves this novel forward as three-quarters adventure story, and whatever doubts arise do so from Ender's own exculpatory point of view, and the briefly revealed conflicts of the administrators.

Child abuse isn't the only horror presented in this story; what they're training for is a civilizational war, a dishonorably pre-emptive one, with an ultimate resolution that is an abomination beyond description. The conflict itself is born out of the inability of two species to communicate with one another, and like most of the underlying ethical poses, it feels more honest for the brief spotlight that the author gives it. Card solves these dilemmas for the purposes of his story--every horror is conducted out of real necessary, every authoritarian abuse is verified as the lesser of evils, and every crime is repented, forgiven, inevitable, or committed without knowledge--but beyond the narrative, the ethical framework is left hanging, I think wisely, because exploring the depths of criminality here would require a much different sort of book. (The author, whatever political views he'd reveal 25 years later, deserves an ounce of credit for raising them.)

(Parenthetically, it's my opinion that the third-person omniscient view is a root of much of the world's evil. It legitimizes shoot-but-cry narratives, allowing the depth of thought to weigh equally with the depth of consequence. It pretends that the moral calculus in any heinous act is fully known. It gives us a template on which to write our many apologia.)

Old science fiction is sometimes trippy to read because badly predicted technology has a habit of growing absurd as time proves it infeasible, and the stuff that was spot-on has a tendency to become invisible to modern readers. Orson Scott Card gets some geek cred for being the first writer (to my knowledge--Ender's Game was published in 1977) to accurately guess what video games, simulators, and the internet would eventually look like. There's an entertaining subplot in which Ender's brother and sister (they're as precocious as he is) scheme to take over the world by gaining political influence through, basically, their blogs. It's funny, given the unpaid internet writer's place in the contemporary opinion heirarchy (sort of like the wart on the asshole of the American body politic--occasionally uncomfortable, but hardly life-threatening), especially considering the inflated sense of worth of, say, your average Daily Kossie. This subplot is of special interest in the context of this book review too, as the plan that these children outlined for global domination is strikingly similar to the one that Ender the poster would later use to gain power within the Fray, building anonymous nicknames, generating issue-driven contention, and gradually convincing the public of his credibility. Whether he succeeded is an open question. The Slate Fray, at least for a while, was better than many other interactive forums, competitive in a way, with approval awarded to good communicators and interesting posts. I'd always figured it was the editorial policy of awarding official brownie points that made it this way, but what the hell, maybe it was abetted by the internal subversion to a higher degree than I'd ever given it credit. Ender's Game as a manual to turn one backwater burg of the internet into the novel? Good times.

*Except cursing. Even though everyone says fart all the time, and the word "bugger" is mentioned in 1129 separate instances, nary a shit or fuck to be found.

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