Sunday, November 2, 2014

“So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.” - Ender's Game

Just a few days after I finished Ender’s Game, I ran across an article in the Colorado Springs newspaper (The Gazette) about how some people were trying to get the book banned from use in a Mesa County school district language arts program.  They didn’t succeed, but the reason a particular parent wanted the book banned was that she “was appalled to read swear words and passages about characters renouncing religion and killing each other.”  (Where has this parent been all her life?) 
The article goes on to state that the book is “an anti-bullying tale.”  I found this a little befuddling; I would have never characterized the book in that way.  It oversimplifies the themes to a really naïve level.  For one thing, when the book was written in the 1970s and ’80s, bullying wasn’t a big topic of interest, and in any case, I don’t think murdering the bully is a valid way to deal with the problem.  The article does also go on to say “Reviewers also called it a message about tolerance, empathy and coping under pressure.”
Some of those statements are true, but I think they miss the point.  And honestly I don’t think the book is particularly appropriate for 10 or 11 year olds, not because of the reasons the parent gave above but because I think it would terminally bore them.  
For me the essential point of the book is how terrible things can happen when communication is non-existent.  People seem to have little interest in the buggers, who are an intelligent species looking for a new place to nest and not nearly as evil as they are portrayed in Earth’s future social context.  The irony is that the buggers weren’t even intending to attack again, and the lengths Earthers went to in order to destroy them says something about humanity – paints a really bleak picture, actually.  Perhaps this point gets de-emphasized because it is made so late in the book.
Most of the book deals with the training of the six-to-eleven-year-old Ender to be the commander who is going to save the world from the next bugger attack.  Personally, I have trouble suspending disbelief that young children could do what Ender and his siblings did, no matter how carefully genetically engineered they were.  This training consists of game-playing.  I am not a game player, so I found the endless dwelling on the “game” of warfare to be quite tedious at times.  I can imagine, however, that this would appeal to inveterate game players.  It’s a very masculine book – it has only three female characters (not counting the bugger Queens, of course) and of those only Ender’s sister filled an important role (a kind of token female).  I think if you’re a guy and you’re a gamer and you think warfare is cool, then you would eat up all those training sequences.  The view and use of gaming was amazingly modern to have been written in the ’70s and ’80s – I thought the use of the “desk” (like a modern laptop computer or tablet) and the sophistication of the games held up well against the evolution of modern technology. 
The one part of the gaming sequences that I found fascinating was the psychological game that Ender played for “recreation.”  This was totally a computer game, not the physical workouts of the Battle Room.  I’m always interested in psychological interpretations of character, and the way this fed into the conclusion of the book was brilliant. 
On the whole, however, I found the story to be gloomy and downbeat, with almost no humor or comic relief.  (I do like some humor in my science fiction.)  To me, it feels unbalanced and depressing.  And the pace of the story is uneven – we have all those endless training sessions and then at the very end of the book we suddenly accelerate into covering several years all packed into that final chapter.  I think the author lapsed into telling and not showing at this point because he had a lot he needed to cover.  The plot suddenly becomes filled with exalted idealism as major revelations are rapidly detailed.  I’m sure Card was preparing the way for the second volume.  In spite of the change of style and pace, however, I found the sequence revealed on p. 321 (where Ender speaks for the annihilated buggers) to be most satisfying and exhilarating part of the book.  It wouldn’t have hurt to shorten the earlier parts by about half.
I did have a couple of other problems with the end of the book.  It seemed all the Queens of the buggers were on one planet, and all of them were killed.  Now even though the buggers could read Ender’s mind, I don’t think they could read the future, so how did they know which planet he would colonize and so where to leave the game recreation and the egg?  Maybe they left a recreation and an egg on all their planets?) Also, it’s stated that the buggers cared for their offspring as they were working their farms.  But if the Queens were all on one planet, why were the offspring on different planets?  I would think they would be kept in nurseries near the Mother until they matured.  I don’t think Card thought this out totally.  However, I was reading the end pretty fast and I might have missed something.
I want to remark on the use of the term “ansible” for a device that allows for rapid communication across light years.  I thought it was pretty neat that he borrowed the word from Ursula K. LeGuin, who invented it.  Here is how the term is explained to Ender: “Somebody dredged the name ansible out of an old book somewhere and it caught on.” (p.249)  Isn’t it nice to know your books will still be around a number of centuries from now?  In fact, LeGuin coined the word ansible in her 1966 novel Rocannon's World, and her 1974 novel The Dispossessed narrates how the technology happened to be invented.  According to Le Guin states she derived the name from "answerable," as the device would allow its users to receive answers to their messages in a reasonable amount of time even over interstellar distances.  Fascinating stuff!
Of course, since I write about giant insects, I’m especially interested in the buggers, and the way things turned out only makes me more interested in them.  My purpose in my books is not only to show that giant insects don’t have to be evil – my purpose is also to show the importance of learning how to communicate with the extraterrestrial lifeforms we are sure to encounter one day.  And of course that’s the most important theme of Ender’s Game as well, even though it seems to get lost in the shuffle.  One of the most important pages of the book is p. 253, where Col. Graff finally tells Ender how the buggers communicate mind-to-mind instantaneously, in a way we can never hope to de-code.  And Ender says, “So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.”  That sums up the theme of the book in one sentence.
         [References above are to the mass market paperback edition, published by Tor Books in 1994.]

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