Sunday, February 13, 2005

First, a little heresy.

I'm taking Young Adult Literature and Resources this semester. We have to write a certain number of Reading Responses to the stuff we're reading; this week we had two books, and one of them was Ender's Game. Like most of the folks probably reading this blog, I've been reading science fiction since I was a young'un, but I'd never read Card until now. Below is essentially the response I just sent off to my prof:

"I missed Ender's Game when I was younger, and by the time I started hearing about it I was less absorbed in genre fiction. I had also begun hearing things about Card's politics which I didn't agree with, and while I don't think it's necessary to like an author to enjoy his or her work, I was skeptical that I would find anything in Ender's Game that I liked.

I was wrong about that, at least initially. Card wisely makes Ender into a classic underdog, always smaller than his enemies, always outnumbered by them, always forced to defend himself with his wits and his skills. The story is tightly paced and suspenseful; always there is the feeling of danger around Ender, the awareness of new obstacles to overcome. The heightened violence and stakes of his surroundings make his retaliations seem justified and inevitable, despite the fact that the reader knows while Ender does not that his calculated acts of violence have ended in murder. Ender even fights an interstellar war believing it to be a game, and unwittingly commits genocide on behalf of Earth and its colonies.

It was in the aftermath of these events that I felt Card utterly failed his audience. Ender is at first despondent that his actions have resulted in the complete destruction of the "Buggers," but Card's aliens leave Ender a message in which they forgive him for destroying them and accept full responsibility for the conflict between their species. The numerous deaths which the Earth fleet suffered under his command are apparently not worth mention. When Ender learns that he is a murderer, his reaction is barely recorded. He goes on to live happily ever after, with no symptoms of anything similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In essence, Card has written a story of war without guilt or casualties, of violence without consequence or remorse.

Looking at the text with this in mind, the fact that so much of Ender's training is virtual in nature, i.e. based on video game-like simulations, is a further chilling reminder of the nature of many soldiers today, who have grown up playing first-person shooter games in which pain and death are distant and temporary. I often listen to NPR's Morning Edition, which runs an occasional series profiling American soldiers who have died in Iraq; in an overwhelming number of stories friends and family mention the deceased's love of video games like Navy S.E.A.L.s and films like "Black Hawk Down." This sort of disconnection with the reality of violence and its consequences is a dangerous thing, and Card is only contributing to that with his naïve view of war's aftermath."

Ender's Game has bothered me so much that I'm rereading it so I can review it for one of my other classes. What's striking me on the reread is the subtext that Ender is, in fact, not just smarter and more skilled than his peers, but that Card actually seems to believe that he is better than the other children. Ender himself, while for the most part quite likeable, takes quite a bit of smug satisfaction from being smarter than his enemies. This, along with the depiction of the alternatingly harsh and special treatment which Ender receives from his teachers, seems calculated to appeal to the persecution and inferiority/superiority complexes of gifted children in particular. The novel is telling them what everyone and everything around him is telling Ender; "They treat you this way because you're better than them." (quotes are mine) I'm not going to throw the f-word around (and I don't mean the four-letter one), but I have been thinking it.

Of course, Card wants us to understand that Ender doesn't have it easy. At the opening to every chapter Ender's teachers remind each other that they are going to "screw him up" and "destroy him" so that he can put himself back together. But in the end Ender wins the war, sleeps through the unrest that follows, and is remarkably, miraculously whole. At "The End of the World" which his teaching game has promised him, at the end of the fighting, he is able to "go to one of the villages and become one of the little boys working and playing there, with nothing to kill and nothing to kill [him], just living there." (p.74 of my edition) He isn't broken and he isn't insane, and he has the unbelievable luxury of making peace with those he has killed. So what have we learned about violence? That when we have to fight, when we are pushed beyond the limits of our endurance, the enemy will understand if we destroy them? That killing isn't fun, but you get over it? That the smartest ones will survive, and that's how it should be?

Probably I'm not saying anything all that new; I'm waiting to look back at the critical response to Ender's Game until after I've written my own review. But I'm curious to hear what any of y'all think, if you're inclined to speak up . . .

5 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Run, don't walk, and dig up a copy of Foundation to read Kessel's essay on "Creating the Innocent Killer."

9:00 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

See, I knew I was late to the party. Going to have to find me a copy of that . . .

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are three more books about Ender -- Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind -- which deal largely with the personal and emotional consequences of Ender's genocidal act. They're very different books from Ender's Game, but may address some of your concerns about Ender's reactions.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Thanks; I was aware of the sequels, though I haven't read them. I neglected to mention in the post that I felt it was important to discuss those issues in the context of this novel, since there are always readers who don't read on. My feeling is that for the novel to stand on its own, it should address the major issues it raises; to leave something like this for the sequels feels like cheating to me.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Jkessel said...

I just recently posted "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality", my essay that appeared in Foundation in 2004, at my website http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi. Feel free to pass it on to anyone who might be interested, whether or not they agree.

10:56 AM  

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