Ender's Game

By Orson Scott Card

Reviewed Jul 2, 2017 on The Litt Review.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have read Ender’s Game. I generally read it around once a year, at least - it is a short read, for me, generally around four hours. I haven’t reread it since I read some of the other books - Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide - follow-ups which build on Ender’s Game and which are, in their own right, great books. This one was originally just a short story, a kind of prequel to the themes spoken of in Speaker for the Dead. It shows Card’s talent that he was able to so fluently make it a stand-alone book.

I love Ender’s Game. All things considered, this is not a book about emotional development, or about coming of age. It’s not about taking on the weight of the world. (You’ve no excuse for not reading it so far, as it’s a common enough book, so I’m not going to avoid the plot in this book review. Stop now and go read it if you haven’t.) Rather, this is a book about strategy. I think that more happens in the gaps between the pages than in the chapters themselves - taking the time to figure out how Ender worked out an advantage in a game room, and how you would have done it, is an incredibly rewarding experience. Every now and then, there is a wonderful feeling of ‘Damn, I wish I had done that! So smart.’ And, as Card notes in the prologue:

Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.

So, you’re able to share in Ender’s cleverness, too. That’s what makes this book a fun read.

During my reading this time, I took heavy annotations and notes. There were three main themes I kept coming back to. I’ll leave my fascination and agreement with the concept of a Speaker until my review of Speaker for the Dead (The next time I read it), and focus on happiness as being a secondary trait to human existence, the treatment of gender differences by Orson Scott Card, and the underpinning of a controversial evolutionary theory to the general plot. There’s also a comparison I’ll draw to The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, which I think is interesting enough to comment on.

On Happiness

In the introduction, Card acknowledges that some people may have not read his book, and yet still have “full and happy lives.” This seems to be at ends with what he espouses in the books - not because people ought to read his writing, but because happiness as most people entertain the idea may not be possible. The great general Mazer Rackham states:

I am not a happy man, Ender. Humanity does not ask us to be happy. It merely asks us to be brilliant on its behalf. Survival first, then happiness as we can manage it. So, Ender, I hope you do not bore me during your training with complaints that you are not having fun. Take what pleasure you can in the interstices of your work, but your work is first, learning is first, winning is everything because without it there is nothing.

First, I disagree that humanity asks anything of us, or even of the fulcrums upon which society and fate swing in the book (the brilliance of Ender and Mazer). And it’s unclear here whether Mazer is talking to the audience, or specifically to Ender - is he asking everyone to be brilliant, or only the generals? But if we assume the latter, we come to the same conclusion, since to everyone, survival is the first thing that is important to each person’s wellbeing. Our conclusion must be that happiness is not primary in human life. It’s a byproduct. Don’t go searching for it, don’t seek it out. Do what you do, and you’ll find happiness in how that works.

A problem arises when what you do precludes happiness.

Graff had isolated Ender to make him struggle. To make him prove, not that he was competent, but that he was far better than everyone else. That was the only way he could win respect and friendship. It made him a better soldier than he would have been otherwise. It also made him lonely, afraid, angry, untrusting. And maybe those traits, too, made him a better soldier.

If we view happiness as the antithesis of loneliness, fear, and anger, then Ender cannot do his work and also be happy in it. The nature of soldiery is to be suffering, which is most often viewed as orthogonal to happiness. But we know it isn’t - otherwise, marines wouldn’t love the military, and trail running as a sport would not exist. “I love to be out there, suffering”, says Killian Jornet, who climbed Everest twice in one week without oxygen a month ago.

The concept that happiness is a poor goal, because it comes through suffering, is about as sobering as Zizek talking about happiness. It isn’t something that people actually want - they want an illusion, but would be unhappy if they got. What would happiness be for Ender? Floating on a raft in North Carolina, “among these trees, under this changeable and heavy sky” (as Card puts it)? But you must imagine Ender happy, when commanding soldiers in the games, when being clever. It is hard to imagine him otherwise.

So, we come back to the beginning, where I stated that it seems that happiness, as most people entertain the notion, is impossible. This is because proper happiness must be not a state, but a contentment in the utility of an act. It is the result of functioning well.

I like this definition, more, but it is easy to forget. Card gets this right.

On Gender

What he gets wrong is his representation of gender. There aren’t many girls at battle school. When asked why not, someone responds:

“They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution working against them.”

This is an odd statement. It may be that a lack of excessive testosterone may lead to a preference against certain offensive military leadership styles. Men are probably more suited to aggression, which may have a crucial role in this particular type of military fighting. However, by stating it thus, and by providing only a limited set of war options, Card has completely shut down the conversation about what sorts of military or civilian engagements might be particularly suited for women. This also leads to the excessive machismo of Battle School, which is frankly unpalatable at times.

But this is Card’s story. So why do I have an issue with it? Because of the way he portrayed women, in general. Valentine is brilliant, admittedly - but consistently described as too soft, and too caring. And Petra, the only girl of note in Battle School, gets the short end of the stick later on when she has a mental breakdown.

She was not there for the next few practices, and when she did come back she was not as quick as she had been, not as daring. Much of what had made her a good commander was lost.

Why couldn’t Card have used a different character?

Interestingly, there are strong female characters in the book - not as much as the next few, but here nonetheless. The buggers are female. Their language is, as well, when spoken through Ender:

Come into our home, daughters of Earth; dwell in our tunnels, harvest our fields; what we cannot do, you are now our hands to do for us. Blossom, trees; ripen, fields; be warm for them, suns; be fertile for them, planets; they are our adopted daughters, and they have come home.

I don’t understand why Card has to write the only truly strong women as aliens, but I suspect it has to do with how he imagines women. I wish this was not the case.

I also wonder: what if Valentine had gone to battle school? Not once, in any of the battles, did Ender and the other teams pursue non-violent agendas. They could have allied and sat on the stars in the middle of the room. Wouldn’t that have been a more effective protest than Ender’s little smirks?

The Jerks and the Creeps

Card also subscribes to the jerk theory of human evolution. This isn’t rare - Chomsky is one of the biggest jerks out there. No, not that kind of jerk. My old professor of Evolutionary Linguistics used these two terms to describe a pair of theories at end with each other: one in which humans advance by having a brilliant specimen be born, who has superior DNA or who is able to transmit a concept culturally that helps everyone else up in the future, and one in which humans advance by exaptation and adaptation, slowly, over millennia.

Exaptation is the process of backpacking on some trait which evolved for a specific use, and then using it for another entirely. A good example is bird feathers; they most likely evolved for temperature regulation, but later became very useful at catching updrafts and putting running creatures into trees. Many evolutionary linguists follow this theory instead of Chomsky’s jerk theory (my own school, Edinburgh, was full of creeps). This means that we don’t need brilliant people - we just need more time. Culture will slowly grow.

Card tells us which side he’s on over and over again.

Humanity doesn’t want to die. As a species, we have evolved to survive. And the way we do it is by straining and straining and, at last, every few generations, giving birth to a genius. The one who invents the wheel. And light. And flight. The one who builds a city, a nation, an empire. Do you understand any of this?”

But while Card seems to subscribe to the jerk theory - one person changing everything, jerking evolution along with them - he doesn’t seem to put much emphasis on cultural evolution.

The world is always a democracy in times of flux, and the man with the best voice will win. Everybody thinks Hitler got to power because of his armies, because they were willing to kill, and that’s partly true, because in the real world power is always built on the threat of death and dishonor. But mostly he got to power on words, on the right words at the right time.

For the Wiggins, it’s all about single people with exceptional genes managing to control the world through their cultural expression. But that’s not really how culture works. For instance, a redditor named HanAssholeSolo just made a .gif of Trump beating up a WWF wrestler, where the wrestler’s head was replaced with the CNN logo. I don’t think this is likely to be an example of a particularly genetically gifted human. But his message has gone far and wide. Actually, for that matter, look at Trump.

The Wiggins are repeatedly mentioned as having been successful because they were so brilliantly gifted, genetically. But what if it’s more about context and culture, than genes? What if where you were and who taught you was more important than your parents chromosomes?

Of course, language may be the wrong place to start when looking for Card’s evolutionary theory.

Human beings didn’t evolve brains in order to lie around on lakes. Killing’s the first thing we learned. And a good thing we did, or we’d be dead, and the tigers would own the earth.

Free Play and the Giant

Ender isn’t trained in Battle School by many teachers. Rather, the main instructor for the students are the games. Not only the big game in the cube room, where they shoot each other with mock lasers. But also the computer.

It was private study time and Ender was doing Free Play. It was a shifting, crazy kind of game in which the school computer kept bringing up new things, building a maze that you could explore. You could go back to events that you liked, for a while; if you left one alone too long, it disappeared and something else took its place.

There are other simulations that are used - for instance, the arcade games he uses when he first arrives at the station, or the large War-Games-esque simulations he uses when training with Rackham. But the Free Play game is almost a character to itself. It matches Ender’s moods, teaches him to love his brother (after a fashion - Ender mainly seems to love others directly before he kills them), and reminds him of his sister. It helps him learn to think laterally.

Another book I read recently, also as part of the awesome-scifi reading group, has a computer game feature prominently. I’m talking, of course, about Diamond Age. There, a young lady is trained by her book to think laterally, to move, to plan. Both of them learn about the world while looking down at their hands.

As far as I know, games have not gotten to this level yet. It’ll be interesting when they do, when they can properly react to human input. I’m looking forward to that, as much as earlier scifi authors looked forward to flights in space or visits to the moon.

Of course, the game is a giant metaphor for reading, itself. By reading, we expand our knowledge of the world. A virtual game in a book is just separate enough to be novel, whereas writing a novel about someone learning from a novel would at times doubtless be a bit boring. If anyone knows of an author who has done this, I’d be curious to read their work.

Finally

There’s more to say, largely about military theory. But for now, I want to end on a light note. I’ve always empathized with Ender immensely. I’ll admit, part of that is completely circumstantial and arbitrary.

That night, Demosthenes published a scathing denunciation of the population limitation laws. People should be allowed to have as many children as they like, and the surplus population should be sent to other worlds, to spread mankind so far across the galaxy that no disaster, no invasion could ever threaten the human race without annihilation. “The most noble title any child can have,” Demosthenes wrote, “is Third.”

As the third Richard Littauer, and also the third child my parents had, I couldn’t agree more.


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