Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ender’s Game: Still Visionary

Ender’s Game, a best-selling sci-fi tale by Orson Scott Card (left), was visionary when published in 1985, and it remains visionary today. The perennial best-seller anticipated the World Wide Web, which came into its own as a commercial marketplace and information resource only in the mid-1990s. It also features advanced computer gaming.  (Back in 1985, I was playing Pong on my first Macintosh, and my all-time gaming favorites, Warlords and Railroad Tycoon, were still five years away.)

If Ender’s Game only anticipated future technology, it would be smart. But this book is wise because of the way it anticipates and interprets us. The “civilization” of Ender’s Game is ours today—one of lonely, overgrown children who look out through video screens into a threatening universe while haunted by nightmares.  

When the tale begins, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a six-year-old genius with a heart of gold recruited for Battle School in outer space. Here he leads platoons of children in zero-gravity war games and becomes a wizard at computer-simulated interstellar combat, giving orders to unit leaders from a central digital console. A subplot involves the “nets,” regional subsystems of what we know today as the internet. Ender’s sadistic brother Peter and loving sister Valentine assume false on-line identities and, by writing what amount to blog posts, become anonymous international opinion-makers while prepubescent.

These two plots—that of Ender fighting simulated aliens in outer space and preparing to fight the “buggers” who are planning an assault and that of his siblings impacting geopolitics back home on earth—converge in the final chapters. Until they do, the book is quite humdrum. If Ender’s Game were merely prescient about today’s technology, there would be little to talk about.

What struck me was the terrible loneliness of Ender, a particularly unhappy hero. Out in space, he is force-fed strategy in isolation from friends and especially from family. Graff, one of the faceless military mentors watching over him, explains the training strategy: “His isolation can’t be broken. He can never come to believe that anybody will ever help him out, ever.

The plot of Ender’s Game could be summarized as “Adults use a child to save the world,” with emphasis on the verb use: “Despair filled [Ender] again. Now he knew why. . . . He had no control over his own life. They [adults] ran everything. . . . The one real thing, the one precious real thing was his memory of Valentine, the person who loved him before he ever played a game, who loved him whether there was a bugger war or not . . . ”
“Adults use a child to save the world”—though whether the world of Ender’s Game is saved is another question altogether. Children here are forced to grow up far ahead of time. And their minds are filled with competition and killing. Meanwhile, the culture has suppressed religion, and the family is under attack. Parents must limit their output to two children; Ender is a “third,” making him an outcast from the start. A sensitive boy and very good one, he is quickly programmed to fight, fight, fight: “He was a soldier, and if anyone had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wouldn’t have known what they meant.”

There are surprises packed into the final pages of Ender’s Game. And there are some remarkable ideas and plot devices. (One device, the Speaker for the Dead, led to a sequel; it also struck me as the worthy subject of a second post, which I plan to write.)  But for all the surprises, techno-wizardry, and ideas in Ender’s Game, there is only one thing that redeems it: Ender’s heart. Until the bitter end, the boy yearns for family, connection, fellowship, until the last ounce of desire is drained out of him.

At the end of the book Ender realizes that he literally can never go home again, and he begins to suspect that even his beloved sister is using him. She doesn’t dissuade him: “I know what you’re  thinking, Ender. You’re thinking that I’m trying to control you just as much as Peter or Graff or any of the others. . . . Welcome to the human race. Nobody controls his own life, Ender. The best you can do is choose to fill the roles given you by good people, by people who love you.”

“I’ve lived too long with pain,” Ender says near the end. “I won’t know who I am without it.”

What a sad hero for a young-adult novel! Only the hope of connection between humans keeps the end of this Game from devastation. Valentine consoles him: “You think you’re grown up and tired and jaded with everything, but in your heart you’re just as much a kid as I am. We can keep it secret from everybody else. While you’re governing the colony and I’m writing political philosophy, they’ll never guess that in the darkness of night we sneak into each other’s room and play checkers and have pillowfights.”

Ender’s Game quickly found a wide audience beyond the YA market because of what it says to adults young, middling, and old, about loneliness, mind games, and the need for human connection. A young friend recommended it to me twenty years ago. I’m glad I finally read it.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Ender Wiggin had a great heart but even as a very young child, he was capable of committing brutal acts of violence against others. One of the reasons he is such a compelling character is that throughout the books, even though he feels compelled to great acts of violence (even to committing genocide), he always maintains he humanity and his core of goodness. In later books, he struggles to find forgiveness, redemption and peace.


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