Friday, August 13, 2010

Orson Scott Card: Ender's Game

The winner of a 1985 Nebula Award and 1986 Hugo Award, Ender's Game is widely regarded as one of the seminal works of science fiction, and personally regarded as one of my favorite works of fiction. I recently found a near-pristine copy at a used-books store, and was surprised on re-reading it how differently it impressed it compared to my first reading. After an interval of several years, I still found the book dazzling but saw its flaws a bit more clearly. I was somehow left cold by the realization that it had come so close to (but failed to attain) true literary excellence.

For those who have not read the book, this will be one of the few spoiler-free (or limited-spoiler) reviews I write. There is a delightful twist at the end that I would not care to ruin for anyone. That said, here is a brief summary of the plot.

Many years ago, aliens tried to colonize the solar system, then attempted to invade Earth when they discovered it was occupied. This Second Invasion was beaten back by a then-unknown pilot named Mazer Rackham. Since then, the three great powers of Earth -- the Hegemon, the Strategos, and the Polemarch -- have been united in preparing for the Third Invasion. They select Ender Wiggin from a young age to train at Battle School, and realize that he is their best prospect for a super-intelligent military commander to lead their combined armies against the Formic alien race (alias "Buggers"). The majority of the novel is spent in Battle School as Ender trains in null-gravity "battle rooms" and navigates the more personal battlegrounds in his dealings with the other children. A significant subplot deals with his brother and sister, Peter and Valentine, as they try to apply their own native super-intelligence and gain influence among the powers on Earth.

The single greatest issue with this book revolves around its tone. It is a novel of bifurcated moods and personalities, and they do not sync well in the grand scheme of the story. On the one hand, we are treated to a portrait of military and political genius, both with Ender in Battle School and with Peter in his maneuverings on Earth. On the other hand, a considerable amount of time is spent describing Ender's slow descent into exhaustion and near madness, as he is driven to the breaking point by his teachers desperately preparing him for the impending war. These twin impulses are demonstrated much more clearly in the sequels to the book: one set of sequels follows Peter in his attempt at world domination, while the other set of sequels follows Ender as he seeks redemption for his crimes against the alien race.

I felt quite a bit of whiplash, being driven between these two very distinct styles of writing. The first is hyper-rational, as if the book were a drawing by M.C. Escher; the second is directionless and ethereal, as though the book were a world imagined by M.C. Escher. The scenes in the battle room itself are instantly recognizable and awe-inspiring in scope; the sections in which Peter and Valentine move towards influence and power are a delight to read. It is these scenes which defined the novel for me, which cemented my impression of its excellence and (in my mind) made it the classic it has become. The scenes depicting Ender's growing morbidity, of him playing the computer game Fairyland (especially after he passes the Giant's Corpse), visiting briefly with his sister Valentine on Earth-vacation, and recovering from the catatonic state in which his Command School experiences had left him -- these are the decidedly weaker entries in the plot of Ender's Game.

Perhaps it is a merely personal preference, to appreciate the one side but not the other, but the flaw remains: it is, after all, possible to appreciate the one without the other, and that is only because the two moods are so thoroughly disconnected from each other. Perhaps it was a deliberate artistic choice, to give readers the same bifurcated experience that Ender himself was enduring, but that would still not qualify it as good literature. We want to be immersed in the story, not immersed in a character within the story; we want to feel the atmosphere (yes, including the internal atmosphere of each character), but with enough distance to keep our wits about us. I do not agree that the best stories as always the most immersive. We must ask, what is the point of immersion, and how can it be achieved.

Sometimes the best method for telling a story is in cookie-cutter shapes, relying on broad archetypes (Jungian psychology might come into play here). Sometimes the best way for a story to be told is with simple vocabulary and straightforward narrative. When C.S. Lewis first imagined a faun with an umbrella, he realized that the best way to convey that image (and the story that followed) in the form of a fairy tale, a fantasy for children. He was a respected Oxford don and a master of Medieval and Renaissance English, a writer who could speak definitively of Milton and Chaucer, and he chose deliberately the simplest and most child-like of literary forms in his endeavor to create the world of Narnia. The form must reflect the purpose of the story.

To return to Ender's Game properly, there is little else to be said. It is a delightful read, full of detail and meaning, and overflowing with imagination. The story is well-told, and we are given enough information throughout the book to appreciate the final twist, and to make re-reading this work worthwhile. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has even a cursory interest in science fiction. It is certainly worth the effort.

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