In the airport right before Christmas I found a copy of Ender’s Game in the book kiosk next to my departure gate. I hadn’t brought any books with me, an accident of packing too quickly. My copy of War and Peace was in the trunk of my car, where it would be ferried around Brooklyn by my friend Porochista, who took care of my car while I was gone. So that plan for my break was a non-starter.
I thought of how a number of former students over the years had told me they thought this novel was amazing, so I decided it was time and picked it up. On the plane, with a Tor paperback in my jacket pocket, I felt like I was 15 again.
I don’t know what I expected exactly, but as I ripped through the pages, determined to know what happens to Ender, I found it to be an increasingly prescient book: Children are raised in environments where they are monitored very closely, with little or no free will expected of them, and with no expectation of privacy; the government is accused of using war against a distant, implacable enemy to keep the populace under control and to excuse any number of civil rights violations; and, without calling it such, because it didn’t exist yet, everyone blogs and it matters. The story first appeared in 1977, and then as a novel in 1985.
In his intro, Card is quite open in his disdain for what he calls the tricks of literature–style, for example–and talks of wanting the novel to be as accessible as possible. The timing is interesting, as he was publishing this at a time when literary fiction had taken plot out, and had become very inaccessible. In 1991, most young writers thought it was very chic to say “Everything I write doesn’t really have a plot.” But by 1995, the writers I knew in New York would confide to me, “I’m working on a literary thriller.” What they meant was, “I envy genre writers their audiences.” I feel like literary writers lost a great deal of power when they abandoned story for style, and so I’ve been going to books like these to understand what it is people are really responding to in them, and why.
Card was never interested in fiction without plot, and he’s been richly rewarded. Ender’s Game has gone through 25 printings, and has sold, over the years, more copies than probably all of the plotless literary fiction published in the 80s combined—millions of copies—and it has affected generations, much like the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, whose work inspired Card, in part, in writing this: he has a communications device from one of her novels, the ‘ansible’, in his book, and refers to it as a device inspired by ‘some old book’–a tip to any of LeGuin’s fans. The novel follows the life of Ender Wiggins, a child raised to be the perfect general in a war against an alien race that seems hell-bent on destroying human life because it doesn’t know humans are a life form—we are too alien to even be recognized as an intelligent race to them. Ender accomplishes their destruction, and the end of the novel, before he’s of age to finish high school. The novel follows his training and the various ways he’s manipulated, as a gifted child, into becoming what his planet’s government needs him to be.
The novel has many, many flaws. Dramatically, for example, the fight scenes that make up much of the novel lack sufficient descriptives to be intelligible. We have to take what happens for granted. Throughout, in fact, very little is described. I never felt like I knew what Ender or his friends looked like, or the way their uniforms looked–I can’t draw them for you, say, like I could draw what Anna Karenina wears the night she meets Vronsky. I didn’t have access to much of what I read or watch space opera for, and I found that frustrating–I was a child who loved books about space ships and space exploration, and I never understood the ships shapes. I’m the exact person to love a book like this, and I didn’t love it.
I also join the book’s many critics who find the ‘gifted child’ characters unbelievable– I was a ‘gifted child’, I spent a great deal of time with precocious children as a child and I still do, as an adult. Most of Ender’s friends and Ender himself act like pedantic adults, and their moments, scene to scene, are not memorable for being the acts of prodigies. They’re memorable because at each point Ender ends up where he’s supposed to be, to do what he’s supposed to do. The novel offers no resistance to his path. And worse, we’re asked to take Ender’s accomplishments on faith.
To argue briefly for the use of style in science fiction, if it even needs arguing, Julian May, a writer I think of as being a major influence on me, writes science fiction that is both brilliantly imagined and written with style. Julian May can handle a multi-plot, multi-character narrative over several novels and she lands it on a dime, dramatically and linguistically. I don’t feel Card has these kinds of chops from reading this, despite being otherwise her peer (they wrote their major works at much the same time, though she is his senior by many years).
Near the end, the novel becomes much like sitting in the room while someone plays a video game–this I can’t quite call prescience, though there are Korean television channels that broadcast professional gamers gaming. In the case of Ender, he’s playing a game that turns out to have been altered so that all of his troop movements, his battalions, are all real soldiers, and he’s fighting a real war against the aliens that he doesn’t know he’s fighting: when he kills, he kills real aliens. When he finds this to be true, I experienced it as a big “so what”. The structure of the novel is such that you more or less expect this to be true by then, and as nothing in the novel has defeated your expectations, when this doesn’t either, there’s a distance that grows between you and the action on the page. If he’s so gifted, you wonder, why hasn’t he figured this out? Also, the alien race was trying to communicate with him, but he isn’t aware of it, and it seemed a flaw in the novel to me afterwards that there was no way made for the reader to know what Ender did not know, in advance, through a structured dramatic irony. I was profoundly unmoved, and what’s worse, as Ender’s histrionics grew more intense, I knew I was supposed to be moved and I was not.
I didn’t want to be a killer, he kept saying. I didn’t want to be a killer. I couldn’t quite believe him.
In the end, though, the novel has my respect. The way in which Ender is a killer against his will is in some ways the most prescient of all of the novel’s aspects: Ender’s video game with it’s real results seems to me a metaphor for being a private citizen today in the US. At the time of the novel’s writing, our tax money was covertly funding wars in Central and South America, setting Iran and Iraq against each other, and training resistance fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the Soviets, fighters who now fight us in a very different war. Our production went overseas, setting up the flight of the American blue collar job and the sweatshops that would then move, country to country, each time workers demanded more than a few cents a day. It might not be a great novel at the level of the writing, and it might be about aliens and space ships, but Ender’s Game is one of the few novels that really describes what it is like to be an American consumer. As I think about the limits of literary realism, I’ll think of Ender’s Game.