Monday, June 2, 2014

Monster Mike's Geek Reads: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game

No doubt you boycotted the film and you are probably ready to scream foul invective at me for giving that blankety-blank homophobe Orson Scott Card a nickel in royalties for the privilege of reviewing his book.  So before we go any further in this review, let's clear the air:

I stole this book.

We here at the Chippewa Valley Geek hold no truck with homophobia, racism, sexism, or any other sort of -ism.  Geeks come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  We recognize that geeks share their geeky love as The Force moves them, and we think that's awesome.  However, my purpose here is not to critique Mr. Card and the repugnance of his publicly stated views, but instead to review this important and influential work of science fiction that he wrote nearly forty years ago on its own merits.  So take some deep breaths, throw a few karate chops at the stuffed Pikachu next to you, and recite the Green Lantern Corps Oath until your mind reaches a Zen-like state of calm.  Then read on.

The story takes place in a hypothetical future where humankind has overpopulated the earth, space travel is becoming commonplace, and we have begun to get serious about expanding to other planets.  However, about eighty years prior, humankind was attacked by an utterly alien species known as The Buggers.  The first Bugger war forced all of the disparate human governments and cultures to unite and took all of humanity's resources and courage under the leadership of the legendary hero Mazer Rackham to drive the mythical beasties back to wherever they came from.

Eighty years later, Earth finds itself politically divided and desperately seeking the next Mazer Rackham to defend them from the inevitable second invasion.  Enter Andrew "Ender" Wiggin and thousands of other children like him that are identified for their intelligence and potential at a very young age and are sent to Battle School.  Ender is a "third" - an outcast third child on a world with a rigid two child per couple policy.  His older siblings Valentine and Peter are every bit as bright as Ender, but are deemed unsuitable:  his sister Valentine is too compassionate, and his brother Peter is too cruel.

The bulk of the story is about Ender's development as he progresses through Battle School and eventually moves on to Command School.  Battle school looks rather like a four-year long game of organized team laser tag in zero gravity, and Ender quickly proves to be brilliant at both the tactics and strategy of this game.  His keen observation, intelligence, and judicious ability to be violent in the right amount at the right times see him through all the challenges that the school can throw at him.  Since many chapters of the book are prefaced with a private dialogue between Colonel Graff and Major Imbu - the manipulative leaders of the Battle School -  discussing Ender's progress and latest challenges, the reader gets insight into the invisible hands pulling the levers in Ender's world.  And in the remainder of the narrative, a lot of the action takes place inside of Ender's head.  This gives the reader a clear view of the thought processes of the world's next great tactical and strategic genius.

By the time Ender is ten, he is moved to command school, representing the step up from leading a squad to commanding the strategy of a large group of squads.  Though the games grow increasingly intense, Ender also gains a mentor.  And I don't want to say too much more about the plot of the book beyond this point, because there are a few great twists at the end that should not be spoiled.  You'll just have to read it for yourself.

So what we have here is a story about the personal growth and development of one exceptional individual in a military society with the horrible bug alien space menace serving as the threat that lurks just over the horizon right up until the very end of the book.  In this sense, Ender's game very strongly mirrors Starship Troopers.  The writing is gripping, and the book is hard to put down.  At the same time, I could not help but feel a certain queasiness with the ironclad moral justification for every immoral action in the book.  For example, at several points in the book, Ender is forced to defend himself violently and does so, never learning that he actually killed his assailant.  The operators of the battle school are given complete moral justification for what amounts to psychological torture of children.  At the end of the book, Ender has to make choices with staggering moral consequences justified by his ignorance of what he is truly doing.  And the reader is left squirming uncomfortably, hoping that everything works out all right in the end.  Reading this book may leave you feeling rather squicky when it's all done.  Yet I also think this kind of boundary-pushing is exactly what science fiction is for.

out of 5.

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