Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘I know. She can undo it all, from the start. He won’t want to leave her.’

When I first read this in December 2001, I wrote:

Ender’s Game is a vivid and disturbing book. The most vivid part is its portrayal of the casual violence of childhood and the isolation of the gifted child. Much great sf literature appeals to readers who themselves were (or indeed are) gifted children, whose experience of childhood friendship was limited and whose attempts to strike out physically were often unsuccessful and almost always duly punished. (Card himself, in a lengthy introduction to the second, 1991 edition of the novel, spends more time on this topic than on any other.) The twist in Ender’s story is, first, that when he attacks other children physically, he is more or less rewarded rather than punished by the military elite who control his life; but second, it really doesn’t make him feel any better. Most child-genius-turned superhero stories at least let their hero feel good about what they have done at some point; Ender is denied even that luxury.

The most disturbing part is the military’s manipulation of Ender. On one level, given the universal perception that humanity is under threat of utter destruction, the use of Ender’s genius for winning battles, for, er, winning battles would have been portrayed as right and necessary by a lesser author. However, it becomes apparent that the manipulation of Ender began before his birth, and continues right up to the last chapter of the book. He has been genetically engineered to hold a middle point between the violence and manipulation of his brother and the empathy and compassion of his loving sister. (A weak area of the book is the rather extreme characterisation of the siblings, combined with the fact that their parents appear to be rather dull and yet produced not one but three genius offspring.) As a six-year-old Ender is taken to an asteroid along with other precocious children, in order to be taught how to fight and kill. In a series of war-games (described in somewhat excessive detail) of ever-increasing sophistication, where the odds have been stacked ever more against him, he finally passes what he thinks is the final exam – only to discover that (as the astute reader will have already suspected) in fact the last few battles have not been simulations, and he has utterly destroyed the alien threat.

Ender’s response to this revelation lifts the book beyond a well-told war story (à la Starship Troopers or The Forever War) and into a novel of redemption. He repents his genocide of an entire alien species, brought about essentially by a mistake in communications, and, in a hastily told last chapter which actually covers years of narrative time, resolves to atone for his crime on behalf of all humanity by telling the story of the aliens. Michael R. Collings has reflected on the parallels between Ender and Jesus Christ, and while he is wrong on some of the details he is clearly right on the big picture. (Unlike, I would add, the reviewer who became obsessed with the parallels between Ender Wiggin and Adolf Hitler – shades of Dave Barry’s suggestion that Moby Dick actually represents the Republic of Ireland – all the more so since I actually once read a Lit Crit paper attempting to prove the latter.)

One has to suspend one’s disbelief slightly to believe that not only Ender but his entire crew of prepubescent commanders are sophisticated enough to win a war. I don’t know what the statistics are correlating the brilliance of military commanders with their age, but I would be surprised if there is any real reason to think that children could be super-competent in this field. Similarly, the ease with which Peter and Valentine, Ender’s siblings, capture the political high ground through their skillful debating techniques, is simply not credible even within the parameters of the book. I look back on stuff I wrote when I am half my present age – I am now 34 – and cringe with embarrassment. (One such item, about Turkish opening strategy in the game of Diplomacy, is much more widespread than it deserves to be on the Web.) The gift of political argument matures slowly. My other big problem with the book is the portentous, mythic tone of the narrative, but there’s not much Card can do about that; it’s his natural voice, I think, and suits books like the Alvin Maker series perfectly, but sometimes irritated me here.

There are some great bits in Ender’s Game: the “fantasy game” which turns out to be a link with the alien minds, the difficulty of fighting in free fall, the character of Mazer Rackham, the delicate political situation of Earth, the way in which Peter and Valentine rapidly become experts simply through writing about stuff on bulletin boards under pseudonyms. The best single moment for me is when Ender is set up with his team of squadron leaders in the penultimate chapter, and discovers that they are all his friends from the earlier chapters of the book. There is a sense that all the collective suffering was worth something. I can understand why Card returned to that setting for the most recent of the sequels.

I still agree with most of that, but this time around, the things I didn’t like about the book annoyed me much more. Watching adults fighting desperately in Ukraine, as we have ben since February, it seems really tasteless to suggest that children might somehow do the job better. At the same time, watching how online political discussion has worked out in practice, the notion that people with good ideas and deep philosophical insights might consequently emerge as powerful political figures seems hilariously naïve. It’s also notable that almost all (though not quite all) of Ender’s classmates are white boys – this for a force that is supposed to represent the whole of humanity. It’s a quick read at least. You can get it here.

Ender’s Game won both the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel presented in 1986 for works of 1985. The novel version of Blood Music, by Greg Bear, and The Postman, by David Brin, were on both ballots. Also on the Hugo ballot were Cuckoo’s Egg, by C. J. Cherryh and Footfall, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle; I have read the latter but would not vote for it. Also on the Nebula ballot were Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, by Tim Powers, and Helliconia Winter, by Brian Aldiss, both of which I have read; and The Remaking of Sigmund Freud, by Barry N. Malzberg, and Schismatrix, by Bruce Sterling, which I haven’t. I think I’d have voted for Blood Music.

The other three fiction awards were split. The Hugo for Best Novella went to “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai”, by Roger Zelazny, and the Nebula to “Sailing to Byzantium”, by Robert Silverberg. Each was on both ballots, as were “Green Mars”, by Kim Stanley Robinson, and “The Only Neat Thing to Do”, by James Tiptree, Jr.

The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, by Harlan Ellison, and the Nebula to “Portraits of His Children”, by George R. R. Martin. Again, both were on both ballots, as were “Dogfight”, by Michael Swanwick & William Gibson; “The Fringe”, by Orson Scott Card; and “A Gift from the GrayLanders”, by Michael Bishop.

The Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Fermi and Frost”, by Frederik Pohl, and the Nebula to “Out of All Them Bright Stars”, by Nancy Kress. This time neither story was on the other ballot, but three stories were on both: “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll”, by Howard Waldrop, “Hong’s Bluff”, by William F. Wu, and “Snow”, by John Crowley.

There was no dramatic Nebula that year, but the Hugo went to Back to the Future.

Onwards to the following year’s joint winners, Greg Bear’s “Tangents” and Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game.