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Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card

New York: Tor Books, 1991 (Revised edition); ISBN 0-812-55070-6; Pp. xxvi, 324

Review © Branislav L. Slantchev

I don't have nearly as much time anymore to read speculative fiction in the quantities that I really want to. In fact, I can barely squeeze fiction in my ever more demanding reading schedule. That's why it's such a pleasure to pick up a book at Barnes & Noble on a whim, read it breathlessly overnight, and then run right back to the store to get the sequel. This is the first of Mr Card's novels that I have ever read, and it will not be the last.

At fist glance, Ender's Game does not sound like something that would be my cup of tea. Although I weaned myself from childhood into adolescence on Heinlein's "juveniles," I never was persuaded by precocious children as protagonists, and I always found them a huge distraction that nearly tripped me every time I wanted to suspend disbelief long enough to get into the story. I cannot say that Mr Card's book was any more convincing because every time he reminded me of Ender's age, I winced and quietly filed away the information without really taking it in.

The problem is not that I don't believe that humanity could breed a genius (or many of them) through genetic engineering---heck, humanity has managed to produce a few of them by good old random mutation--- but that they can't be that good. I can believe a five-year-old can divide eight digit numbers in his head (John von Neumann) or that a ten-year old can discover how to add a finite number of terms in an arithmetic series (Carl Friedrich Gauss), but that a six year old kid could do physics, chemistry, astrogation, high mathematics, and simultaneously be exceptionally good in terms of physique, reaction time, and interpersonal relations just beggars imagination (and I think I have a good one).

That's really the major problem I had with Ender---his understanding what adults mean when they say one thing but really aim for another, his knowledge of how to bind people, how to make a team, how to deal with bullies (mind you, all of this is not presented as good instinct but as a rational calculation). It's the type of stuff that you can read all your life until you're blind and will never get you anywhere near comprehending what real people do, not in a way that experience would teach you. I would bet that interpersonal relations, empathy on a rational (rather than just emotional) level, and ability to catch nuance in behavior of strangers, all these things one can only learn by long, long practice. It does not matter how smart you are, this is just not one of those things with a shortcut to. Maybe one day we'll pop a pill to learn math (and why not, it's really about making proper connections in your brain cells), but I doubt that we'd be able to tell a sarcastic smile from a genuine one without having suffered being on the receiving end of the former. I have been with my wife for close to fourteen years now and I am a pretty decent observer and (I like to think) not entirely dumb, and yet her reactions still surprise me not that infrequently.

So while I can buy children sounding like adults (imitation will get you that), I do not buy them thinking like adults, and that's why for the most part I forgot that the protagonists were children. Understanding other humans takes a long time to master, and time is precisely what children, by definition, are woefully short of. I am sure that this means I misread the entire novel of course, for them being children is perhaps the point. It is a testament to Mr Card's writing and observation skills that this did not diminish the book at all.

Spoiler alert: The following reveals the end of the novel!

The setting itself is fascinating. Sometime in the future, ant-like aliens set up an advance post on Eros to prepare for an invasion of Earth. They are discovered by accident and repulsed after heavy fighting. The buggers return decades later, this time in force, and destroy the main terran fleet at the asteroid belt. Only a brilliant tactical move by an unknown local commander of a small force defeats them. Now the human race has put aside "local" squabbles and has empowered the International Fleet (I.F.) to prepare Earth for the desperate next war by acquiring every piece of military equipment they need and even breaking the law against having more than two children so they can encourage families with exceptionally gifted children to produce the next genius commander. Ender is such an offspring, the legal bastard, with his two older siblings being a "failure" for IF purposes (Peter, the oldest, is too cruel and Valentine, his sister, sympathizes too much). Ender is just the right mix: someone who would not hesitate to kill if necessary but who does not enjoy doing it. So the IF snatches the six year old Ender and puts him through the futuristic version of boot camp.

Except that the futuristic version of boot camp reads much like any other description of a plain old boot camp I have read, and that includes The Forever War and, perhaps more to the point, Starship Troopers, except for some reason I found Heinlein a bit more believable. (I should also probably list Suvorov's Aquarium, where he describes the training of Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) officers... brutal.) So we meet the stern but well-meaning officers, the inevitable jerks among the soldiers, the competitive but friendly ones, and so on. And there's lots of bonding, manipulation, and stuff. And oh yeah, our guy never fails, ever, ever. I guess that's new in a boot camp. So Ender's meteoric rise through the ranks of cadet school brings him to Eros and Command School, where he must master how to command an entire fleet. His assignments become more and more difficult in the simulation room, and yet he always emerges victorious. He defeats all the tricks the simulated buggers throw at him, and then destroys their home world in a final grand game completely stacked against him...

... and then it turns out that it had not been a game: ever since he came to Eros, he had been maneuvering the real terran fleet on its attack mission to the bugger's home world; he had been fighting real battles, and killing real men, women, and aliens; and that world he destroyed, it was real as well. He had killed an entire alien species. In the meantime, Peter has amassed enough power on Earth that he manages to get himself made ruler. (Funny you should ask: yeah, he did it by blogging.) So Ender goes to a planet with Earth's first colony. And there he finds one queen in a cocoon, so perhaps the species can be brought back to life after all! To expiate for his sin (of which he cannot be guilty since he did not know what he was going), he will wander the universe until he finds a planet where he can revive the queen. Gee, I wonder if she will thank him. Perhaps they should edit the slaughter part from the history books?

The one thing I really disliked---and that's just a personal bias---was that the whole war turns out to have been caused by misunderstanding, an inability to communicate. I have ranted against this in my review of the otherwise interesting The Forever War by Joe Haldeman but it bears repeating it here. Such a post-modernist view of war is naive and harmful. It's touchingly stupid in the sense that it says "If we could just talk, none of this would have happened." But guess what, it does not work that way, and it fails in this novel too. For example, we are told that when the buggers killed the crew of the ship sent to investigate why Eros was darkening, they did not know they were doing anything bad: to them the concept of an individual has no meaning, and so it was like "trimming one's nails." Yeah, perhaps. Except my nails do not fly around the solar system in ships. Any species smart enough to master inter-galactic travel would probably be smart enough to wonder about the intelligence of beings flying around the stars like they do. (I am reminded of the test for sentient beings in Star Trek TNG: humans would have easily qualified even from the collective persona of the buggers.) So their killing cannot be excused on these grounds. Their next move, the Second Invasion, certainly demonstrates that they knew they were dealing with sentient beings, and they still attempted to... it's not actually clear what they wanted to accomplish by colonizing Earth: turn humans into slaves? fodder? exterminate them? So I just don't believe this nice little story about the poor misunderstood aliens who suffered a terrible fate at the hands of the merciless humans. And that makes the ending a bit upsetting.

After looking over this review, it is not at all obvious that I actually liked the book very much. Perhaps I am being too critical of things that I really like, I don't know. But I did. I could not put it down, and I am ashamed to say that my eyes misted up a few times while I was reading it. Mr Card's story-telling is finely honed, his language is alive, his characters are alive, and the depiction of relations among difficult personalities is dynamic, apt, and nothing short of masterful. I don't know that I agree that great men are made by attempting to break them and forcing them to aspire to more than they would otherwise achieve, but then what do I know, I am not a great man. I can't wait to read the sequel.

October 11, 2005