Science Fiction Retrospective 3: Ender’s Game

The battle between the IF and the Formics was witnessed for you by Hedgie, albeit a little later than usual

I first read Ender’s Game, the first in a long series of novels chronicling the futuristic war between the Formics, a race of insectoid aliens fondly known to humanity as buggers and the very human, International Fleet based both here on Earth and throughout our solar system, when I was fourteen and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t like it. I found the story interesting, but disliked the way Orson Scott Card wrote; it was dialogue heavy and lots of it went undescribed.

But in the interests of furthering my already amazingly well rounded literary experience I decided to give it a second shot. Also there is a movie coming out starring Asa Butterfield (AKA the only good thing about Martin Scorsese’s Fan Wank Oscar Bait Hugo) and Harrison Ford. So recently I re-read the first book on Kindle (I love that thing) and was pleasantly surprised.

Now, a caveat; I dislike Mr Card immensely. I think his personal politics are abhorrent, and his opinions on civil rights archaic. I also still don’t love the way he writes; he’s very reliant on dialogue, telling us things rather than showing us and some of his exposition is a little forced. That said, he’s still a better writer than Stephanie Meyer. Admittedly, that isn’t hard.

Ender’s game is the story of Andrew Wiggin, known as Ender, the third child of the Wiggin family in a world where two children is not only the norm but the legal maximum. Bullied for his size, his intellect and his status as a Third, Ender is also the host of a monitor, a device implanted at the back of his neck which allows the IF (the International Fleet, a sort of global military engaged in the war with the Formics) to see his every move and assess him for use in future projects.

You see, the IF uses children as soldiers; training them in space in the search for the perfect military commander. Children are more malleable than adults, of course, and more easy to manipulate and mould into the soldiers needed by a worldwide military force. The enemy are the Formics, called Buggers by the human protagonists, a race of insect-like beings who, upon first contact with humans, proceeded to slaughter them without mercy or, it would see, justification. And so, since then, Earth has been engaged in a perpetual war, and has sent several waves of attack ships to Formic Space, where they will eventually arrive and be commanded by the perfect officer, should the IF be able to find one.

Got it? Good.

The Monitor

This book is not perfect, but it’s still really quite great. Ender is at different times truly a sympathetic character – this bullied, unwanted, deceptively brilliant child who is manipulated by pretty much everyone he encounters – and a truly unlikeable one too. He resorts to violence only when pushed, but in those instances takes it to an extreme degree.

This novel has quite a bit of violence in it, and also a lot of underaged nudity. The children of the Battle School are treated not as kids and not even, not really, as soldiers but as weapons. Ender arrives at six, and none of the major characters (aside from the adults like Graff, Anderson and Ender’s later teacher) are older than about 15, and yet each of them is naked a great deal of the book. Which this may sound lewd, it never is and Card does a great job of making the violence and the nudity seem both normal and uncomfortable in the same breath.

I’m assuming the violence will make it to the big screen – just look at The Hunger Games which retained almost all of the novels violence to maintain a PG13 rating (I’m honestly not sure what rating Ender’s Game is going for but PG13 seems likely) – but the nudity probably won’t which, while obvious and necessary will diminish some of the books more striking scenes.

The moment where Ender faces his biggest rival in the showers, both of them wearing skin and steam and nothing more, is impactful because it demonstrates that even without anything, even stripped to his small, frail, bare body, Ender is better than the rest of them. While I certainly wouldn’t expect 15 year old Butterfield to strip down for the role, it’s a shame that by the very nature of making this a film, they’re going to need to lessen some of the books untempered brutality.

Perhaps they’ll surprise me.

Overall the book takes a hard look at the way our society treats its soldiers and its citizens, particularly children. Ender is calm, confident and extremely capable – more so than any of the adults in the novel. He is humanity’s last hope, whether he wants to be or not and his siblings on Earth, the strong, gentle Valentine and the brutal, megalomaniacal Peter, complete the trifecta to represent the three possible ways we perceive the worlds leaders. Ender is seen as perhaps the fair middle ground – compassionate like Valentine and able to see things from the Bugger perspective, but ruthless like Peter and willing to win at any cost.

By stripping away the children’s childhood: by making Ender and his comrades – Petra, Bean, Alai, Hot Soup and others – into mere weapons without shame or fear or want; by making Peter and Valentine the Earth’s foremost political minds, however surreptitiously, we show them for what they really are; humans just like any other.

Western society places children on a pedestal, out of harm’s way, wrapped in cotton, protected from strangers and dirt and sex and violence. We warn them about the dangers of the internet, without truly understanding it ourselves. We ban Snickers bars in schools, but give no responsibility for managing their own allergies. We pull them out of trees, prohibit them from the deep end of the pool, facilitate learning instead of teaching it and when everybody competes, everybody gets a trophy.

And while I don’t suggest that we go back to the days where the age of nine signalled a life in the coal mines and a family of your own to support, or that we should have all our young’ns running about in the nude all day, I suppose the biggest thing I took away from Ender’s Game aside from a genuinely interesting story was the sense that, just perhaps, children are more capable than we give them credit for.

Perhaps we should let them fail the test, and educate them about sex and love, and allow them to fall out of the tree and break their arm, and show them that if you lose something, you can always try again. Not everybody need a trophy just for showing up.

And there is also the aspect of our fight with the Buggers, which is one of the book’s other major themes and one that resonates fully in today’s climate of near-constant war. While not wanting to give away the end, the concept that perhaps understanding your enemy is just as important as training to defeat them is one that is not lost on me. In the current war with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and it’s migration to a war against an idea, rather than a people so much emphasis has been placed on defeating the “Muslim” threat that many people have forgotten that we’re actually at war with radicals and extremists and murderers seeking power and revenge; lashing out at a world they don’t understand.

As Ender seeks to understand the Formics, should we not seek to understand our enemy; rather than burning them into the ground? Should we not seek peace through discourse, rather than war? Of course this is a simplistic way of addressing the issue, but the novel raises valid questions in a modern era of warfare.

If you like good characters and a strong narrative, but don’t need heavy description and can handle inferring things on your own at times check this book out. It’s a great read and I’d be interested to hear what other people think about the violence, the nudity, the mature themes levelled at these young protagonists and the finale which although I saw coming, still has an excellent sting in it’s tail.

You can harass the author of this post via Twitter: @CAricHanley

Image copyrights Marvel and Summit Entertainment