Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Book Review - Ender's Game

For some reason I thought I had read Ender's Game shortly after it first came out. I have vague memories of talking about it excitedly with classmates. Yet as I picked it up and started reading the book recently, it quickly became evident that I either never read the book or I read it so quickly that most of the details had fled my memory. I suspect that I just never read the book. What I do "remember" about the story are small whisps of general plot points which I'm sure I simply "remember" due to various conversations with friends and family over the years. Essentially I knew the very basic plot of the story…that we are sometime in the distant future. Earth has fought of two attacks from an alien threat and they are preparing for what could be the final war of humanity. As part of the preparation, they have created a "Battle School" populated with young kids and training them in strategy, tactics and combat. Ender Wiggins is one of these young children and the story follows his adventure through Battle School and the training games that happen there. That bit of plot is laid out in the book synopsis and was the extent of my "memory" of the novel.

Whether or not I read this previously, I came to the book with fresh eyes. I quickly found myself intrigued by the future Earth presented in the book. The world was comfortable and familiar in many ways. We start the story in middle class America observing a family with sibling squabbles. We're presented with the stress and anxiety of a distant enemy who threatens peace and tranquility from afar. There are some futurific sci-fi elements, but they are simple and well integrated and described in such a way that everything feels very natural. We learn a little about the political unrest both on the planet Earth and across the Galaxy as the world tries to figure out a way to deal with the "buggers."

As we get to know about the family structure of the Wiggins family, we learn about Ender's place in the family. We get to know his violent (almost psychopathic) older brother Peter and his loving older sister Valentine. Ender is picked on mercilessly by his brother. Because Ender is being considered for Battle School, he is constantly monitored. In spite of the monitor, Peter finds devious ways to torture him physically and psychologically. After a time, Ender is told he has been denied for Battle School and his monitor is removed at which point he is subjected to even more physical violence.

Shortly into the book, Ender is summoned to Battle School. It's a surprise to everyone since they'd figured he'd been passed over and didn't have a chance. Due to the current state of affairs, neither Ender nor his family are given any choice in the matter and he is quickly shuttled away. Upon arrival at Battle School everything seems to be stacked against him. Even on the shuttle to the school, Ender is thrown into a situation where he is picked on and forced to defend himself. Once at the school, he is taunted and discriminated against because of his age, his size and his status. He is put into groups where it feels everything is against him. Teachers and leaders refuse to assist him and seem to be proponents for his ostracizing.

The book was structured such that many of the chapters began with a conversation (either written or spoken) between some unseen adults. It's apparent that these adults are leaders of some kind in either government or military capacity. We read as they make plans for Ender and for the coming war. We are never given full insight into their character and the conversations are usually very short and don't show any specific action or motivation. These conversations serve to provide the reader with insights into why Ender is being treated the way he is. We find that Ender's life and situations are being manipulated at a higher scale. Some higher power is working to keep Ender isolated and lonely, to present him with as many difficulties and obstacles as possible. They speakers seem convinced that Ender is the hope for humanity and they have determined that the best "training" he can receive is that of hardship in order to stoke the fire within.

Ender progresses through Battle School frustrated and alone. He slowly makes progress but constantly feels like he is being pulled back just when he should be getting ahead. He slowly associates with some kids who could become his friends but finds that obstacles continue to get in the way of any true friendship. Ender's life is one of endless frustration. And yet, as hoped for by the invisible adult speakers at the beginning of the chapters, Ender's confidence and abilities grow as a result of this forced self-reliance. As time progresses, he shows himself capable again and again. More than capable, he forces himself to excel in defiance of the struggles heaped upon him.

In Battle School, there are two "games" that Ender plays.

One is a direct part of their training and consists of two teams of 'soldiers' entering a field and fighting to make their way either through their enemy's portal or disabling all of the enemy team. The game is played in a zero gravity chamber often cluttered with various walls or other objects. The players are in "flash suits" which become hard and "frozen" when shot with a laser gun. This game serves to teach the students how to work together as a team, follow orders and deal with the tactics and strategy of combat in the form of a game. From a high level, it was organized like a sporting event like Football or Soccer but to me it sounded more like sci-fi capture the flag. Sounds pretty fun actually.

The other game presented to Ender is an adventure style video game. The game is very much in the style of the adventure game of the 70s and 80s when this book was initially released. The player drives an "avatar" through the game and interacts with the game world to try and solve various puzzles and progress through different game areas. Partway through the book, we learn that the game program is dynamic. It changes and adjusts to the player based upon what the game feels the player can learn from. I've always been a fan of the adventure game genre and I could picture myself wandering through the game world trying to figure out what to do next. As the book progresses and the game begins to adapt to Ender, the game becomes a sort of psychological look into what may be going through Ender's mind. By the end of the book, this is very true.

While Ender's up at Battle School, his brother Peter has grown power hungry down on Earth. Still barely a teenager, he's devised a plan to show off his intelligence and to influence the political situation of the world. He manipulates Valentine into helping him and they do actually begin to have political influence on the world. They do this through a 1980s sci-fi version of the Internet. Valentine and Peter layer themselves behind the anonymity of multiple user accounts and begin posting their ideas and essays out into forums for the world to discuss. I really loved the prophetic view that the author had of the Internet. At the time of the book's release, computer networking was still fairly infantile and the concept of a fully accessible World Wide Web was still a decade or more away. And yet, Orson Scott Card saw the potential of this technology and made it a major player in his novel. Not for the overall "Ender" plot line, but it was pivotal for Peter and is remarkably true to our current implementation of the Internet. Even Ender's plot line had some bits of computer networking. Each student in the school has a "desk" which seems to essentially be a tablet computer that's attached to a network. As a computer nerd, I found this "fiction becomes reality" to be very cool.

For those who haven't read the book before (or like me, who maybe "think" you've read it…but haven't), I don't want to spoil the way the plot unravels. The day-to-day training routines and conflicts at school are really pretty interesting. I especially loved the way we see Ender's thinking and behavior evolve and adapt to the obstacles presented him and the trials he endures. As his training nears its climax, I was able to guess the end trajectory but the execution still caught me off guard and pulled at me emotionally as I saw the toll wrought on Ender.

I think my biggest complaint about the book was that Ender didn't really feel as young as he was supposed to be. I know part of that is just the situation of the thing. If you throw a young kid into extreme situations, he will either completely fall apart or he will step up and mature faster than you might expect him to. Even with that in mind, I really had a tough time envisioning him as a 7 or 8 or even 10 or 11 year old kid. It really felt like a stretch to me. I've known some very smart kids in my time and I've known some kids who were pushed to learn and know things far beyond their years. But even when talking with those kids about advanced topics or having them try new things, it was still evident that they were kids. Yes, they could recite information. Sometimes they could even have some deep thought and analysis. I've seen some kids who could do things physically that their bodies didn't seem old enough or strong enough to do. But those instances felt isolated and sporadic. I have a hard time picturing a group of young children who can reach and maintain the level of intelligence, reasoning and physical capabilities presented in the book. Most of the time when I was reading, my mind pictured a group of older teenagers. It was only when someone explicitly called out the ages of the characters that my mind pulled back and tried to make them into children again. It's a cool concept. It just fell apart too often for me.

Besides the story, the book exposes a number of ethical and psychological themes that are often at least on the periphery of political or military discussions. Probably the biggest theme for me is the idea of "ends justifying the means."

The goal of the leaders is to mold Ender into their ultimate commander. To transform him from a young boy into a hardened soldier with the ability to be lethally decisive when called upon. Putting aside the strange concept of having the training start when he's only 6 years old, the methods of training are arguably unethical. Similar arguments come up from time to time when dealing with military training or sometimes even sports training. I remember stories in recent years of kids being hospitalized in critical condition after being "forced" to run for hours in summer heat in their football gear. Similar hardships are sometimes reported from other sports trainings or military boot camps. Coaches and military leaders are usually envisioned as harsh, unmerciful and over-demanding.

Ender is berated verbally and constantly pushed by his commanders. He is forced to train and train and train in ways that leave him physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. And then rather than allowing him to rest and recover, he is forced to continue beyond the breaking point. Each training exercise is harder and more brutal than the last.

In addition to the harsh regime of training and learning, Ender is subjected to hazing and harassment from fellow students. Rather than coming to his rescue or even providing some sort of ground rules for his protection, the adults seem to either ignore the harassment or perhaps even encourage it. Already at the point of breaking down simply from the harsh training, Ender feels himself breaking apart from attacks on every side with no hope of help or relief.

And yet, at the end of the story, the results are positive. Ender learns what they hope he will learn and becomes the commander they hoped he would become. Nevermind that he's a broken husk of a human being. The "ends justify the means." In the final chapters of the book, this theme is discussed a bit but no strong conclusion is outlined. Some of the events of the concluding chapters of the book seem to suggest that "life goes on" and that in spite of the harsh "means", the "ends" were justified. But below the events at the end of the book, we get to go inside Ender's head and gauge his reactions. We are also taken on an interesting journey with Ender as he picks up a new quest to bring his life meaning.

This new twist in the plot struck me as strange since it makes you consider the "ends and means" argument again, but from a new perspective. Perhaps the "ends justify the means" can be applied in certain extreme situations. But who has the authority or knowledge to be the judge of which situation is appropriate for extreme measures? Who has absolute knowledge to determine that the "ends" we seek are the "ends" that are correct?

From a pure entertainment perspective, I really enjoyed Ender's Game. I admire the vision and foresight of Orson Scott Card to create a future world that is so real and true to the trajectory of humanity. In addition the pure "story" element, I enjoyed the detail and depth and truth of the cultural, political and psychological elements of the situation. I've never been in the military or experienced that degree of training, but the presentation of the Battle School and the military leaders seemed realistic and appropriate for the given situations. I read a note somewhere that says some US Military organizations actually encourage their people to read this book in order to gain insight into the psychological and mental aspects of military training. Kind of interesting.

I'm really glad that I finally read this book. I'm excited to know that Card has written additional books in Ender's world and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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Brian Miller said...

ha you realize this was just in my poem yesterday...i am discussing it with a high functioning autistic kid in the mornings....

Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

Okie said...

@Brian - Fun coincidence. And fun to discuss books with kids. :)

@Steve - um, thanks... :)

Phoenix said...

Being a lover of Sci-Fi, I get a lot of crap from friends that I haven't read this yet. But it's on my to-read list, I swear! Great review, it just makes me want to read it that much more.