Jan 28 2008
Today’s review is by NatCh who helps run MobileRead. MobileRead is one of the best sources about ebooks, ebook hardware and software on the internet. The site has over 3,000 public domain books in ebook format hand coded by its members and freely available.
By: Orson Scott Card
A review by MobileRead’s NatCh
Note: if you haven’t read this story, and you don’t want to be know what happens, please don’t read this review. I’m not engaging in wanton plot revelation, but there are a few spoilers, some of them important, which have squeaked by. I haven’t given away the ending, but even so. You have been warned.
At first glance, Ender’s Game appears to be just another “smart-aleck young man saves the world” story. Perhaps with a younger than typical hero, and perhaps he’s not as smart-aleck as all that when you get down to it, but still. However, closer examination reveals that it’s a great deal more than that, and perhaps that’s not what it is at all.
The story originally began as a novella written for a science fiction magazine (Analog Science Fiction and Fact) in 1977 and was later developed into a full novel published in 1985. It won the Hugo and Nebulas for Best Novel in 1985 and 1986, respectively, and has been adopted as required reading by a number of schools around the world, including the United States Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia (a Masters Level institution).
The story takes place mainly on and around Earth at some point in the somewhat near future. A hundred years after Humanity has (barely) survived two invasions by an intelligent, advanced, and highly organized insectoid race, is now bracing for a third one that “everyone knows” could come at any time. And “everyone knows” that it will be nothing short of a struggle for the very survival of humanity.
During that century a world over-government has evolved to coordinate the defensive efforts. It has instituted strict population controls (presumably to husband resources for the defense effort), and begun a lengthy, concerted and subtle program of seeking and evaluating Humanity’s children in hopes of finding one person capable of commanding Humanity’s forces when the time comes. An entire system has grown out of that effort, including monitoring the very thoughts of specific candidates, asking for particular children to be born, and an extraordinarily elaborate training program once the candidates have been selected. To make things just a bit more interesting, some of the polities functioning beneath the over-government are starting to prepare to resume their empire-building once the war ends.
Our hero, six-year-old Ender Wiggin (his sister couldn’t pronounce “Andrew” when he was born) is one of those requested children. He is a “Third” – that is, a third child in a world where two is the government mandated limit – and faces the social stigmas attached to that unusual status. His brother Peter is brilliant but a borderline sociopath – judged far too ruthless to be put in charge of Earth’s forces. His sister Valentine is similarly brilliant, but judged to be far too empathic to wreak the destruction necessary for Humanity’s survival.
So, the government requested a Third Wiggin child, hoping for someone between Peter and Valentine. Someone ruthless enough to destroy Earth’s enemies, brilliant enough to pull it off, and empathic enough to understand the enemy well enough to do so.
Here is where the true story of Ender’s Game lies: in Ender’s struggle to find himself between the half of him that he sees as Peter and the half that he sees as Valentine. He is caught between the part of himself that understands even enemies deeply enough to truly love them, and the part that uses that understanding to utterly destroy them. The bitter irony in this, is that even as he understands his enemies, often better than they understand themselves, Ender harbors so fundamentally fractured an understanding of himself that he can’t even see himself except in terms of fractions of others. He mostly misses recognizing the part that is unique to him, the part that just wants to be left alone to be who he is, without demands that he fight anyone or anything.
The novel uses several vehicles to explore this uneven trichotomy. Some are simple, such as the way Ender deals with a group of grade-school bullies the day his monitoring device is removed. He sees that he must win the confrontation in such a way that preempts his having to fight it again and again every day from then on. This sort of “win it for good” concept is reinforced again and again as Ender enters Battle School (where Earth trains its future officers) and the teachers and administrators of the school actively conspire to never let him believe that he will ever be rescued by an adult. The reason for this? Because there won’t be anyone to rescue the commander of Earth’s defense fleet, so that commander can’t ever believe that rescue is an option, and time is running out. The demands of Humanity’s survival simply won’t allow for anything else.
Of course the packaging of this internal story is very engaging in and of itself. The variable concept of “gravity” is one that I still toy with twenty years after I first read the book. The entire system of the Game in which the characters train for space combat is very well developed, with premises of operation for the technology that disappear seamlessly into the narrative, except when specifically discussed. There isn’t a lot of carrying on about this gizmo and how it interacts with that energy field to accomplish whatever the heck it does. This is not that sort of Sci-Fi, but rather focuses mainly on the story of Humanity as it interacts with technology, rather than the other way round.
There is a great deal more to the book, of course, but that is the core of it. The details of the training program, and the real lessons Ender learns (I don’t mean the ones in classrooms) are fascinating in themselves, and have real potential to make the reader think about them. The secondary plot in which Peter and Valentine conspire to take over the world over-government (they’re fourteen and twelve at the time) by itself is an intriguing view of how people react and interact in groups, particularly anonymous groups.
There are a few jarring moments in the story, however, but to some extent they are unavoidable, and Card does a good job of turning them around. The most glaring one is that the USSR was still very much a going concern when the book was written, so the Warsaw Pact plays a significant role in the latter parts of the book when the over-government starts to get a hot-seat from some of the polities it governs. That’s not something that could really be avoided, however. Any reference to real-world nations is going to get dated very quickly, even if it’s not a reference to the Balkans.
The second such point that comes to mind is the way the Battle School students talk amongst themselves. The age ranges involved are from six to about fourteen, yet the characters largely conduct themselves as you would expect adults to do. Card actually addresses this within the story, having two characters discuss why they’re so … not children. What he does with it is one of the more satisfying moments in the story, however, so I won’t give that away, only let you know to look for it.
Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. It’s also one of the purest examples of SciFi I’ve ever encountered in the sense that Science Fiction is fiction in which some non-existent technology is needed for the story to work, not in the sense of being fiction about some non-existent technology. When someone who “doesn’t like” Sci-Fi asks me for a book suggestion or (more often) when I’m offering an unsolicited suggestion to such a person, this is the book I recommend. I do so because the story itself is so compelling, and so very human.
This book can be purchased in mass market. No ebook format.