Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I read Ender's Game a long time ago, back when I was in high school. When I think back and remember the science fiction and fantasy books that shaped my childhood years, that is one of the few that I can remember. One of my friends would send me the latest news on the Ender's Game movie for the past decade or so. It seemed we waited forever for the movie to be made.

Well, the movie has been made and I saw it a week or so ago. I'm not a movie critic, but while watching it I kept thinking back to the book. About how much I'd forgotten, and how much I'd remembered. It had been so long I decided to go back and re-read the book.

Read on for my review of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Overall Impression
It can be very interesting to re-read a childhood classic. You get a fresh new take on something you enjoyed (or not) back when you were young. I'm glad to say that Ender's Game has withstood the test of time for me, though some of the fears about the Russians are clearly outdated. Then again, it was written in the 80s (technically 70s if you count the short story version) and is a product of the times (though updated in 1991). The characters, plot, and setting are all memorable and bring back a sense of nostalgia of back in the days when I was lent this book and read it for the first time.

A particularly interesting aspect was actually the introduction, where the author talks about the story and its reception. The book, though receiving many awards and praise, is clearly not loved by everyone. One of the major criticisms is the depiction of children. The children in Ender's Game are geniuses and behave very differently from what normal people do. Interestingly enough, the book mentions this explicitly within the story, so it's not an oversight by the author. And some of the praise that Card explicitly point out has been from children who identified with the characters. In the end, you'll just have to decide if you believe children can be as smart, talented, and cruel as those Card writes. Remember, though, this is science fiction: it doesn't have to be true.

The story of Ender's Game revolves around the military training of gifted children in preparation for alien attack. The world has suffered under two invasions by a race called the Formics, or more colloquially: buggers. The reflexes and flexible minds of children are desired as these are far superior to the rigid complexities of the adult mind. Not everyone is cut out for this program, however. They want only the best of the best of the best. Ender Wiggin is one such kid and together with others like him they travel to a space station and train in military games to defeat the buggers.

The story is simple and sometimes feels like a mix between a military sci-fi, a coming of age story, and a school drama. It's a very interesting blend and some of my favorite parts are when Ender is training in Battle School and striving for recognition or acceptance of his peers. We may not all be military geniuses, but we can all identify with the particulars of school life and the desires of friendship.

The main character is, not surprisingly, Ender Wiggin. He is a genius, but suffers a lot throughout the book as the teachers isolate him and bullies torment him. Despite his brilliant mind, he is human and the reader can identify with his struggle. He also has a brother, Peter, and a sister, Valentine. Both are also very smart and are key to his story as well, but in very different fashions. Peter is someone Ender will always fear and Valentine someone he will always love. The siblings are unfortunately a bit stereotypical. Peter wasn't good enough for the program because he was too violent, Valentine because she was too kind.

There are many other gifted students in the school and Ender either becomes good friends or mortal enemies with them. Alai, Bean, Petra, and others are familiar names, both from the movie and from my distant memory. Ender's Shadow, and the subsequent 'shadow' books, tells the story of Bean. The first one is particularly good as it parallels and overlaps with the story in Ender's Game.
Petra is effectively the only woman in the whole program! I find it harder to believe that women can't be effective commanders than the idea of brilliant children behaving like soldiers. Still, it could be a product of the times as other old, classical works tend to have similar ideas about women's place in society.

Setting / World Building
It's interesting that after so many years, the story remains plausibly futuristic. Tablet computers are predicted as both resources for learning and entertainment. The importance of the web and blogging, particularly in Locke and Demosthenes's arc of the story, is also recognized. Of course, we aren't yet into the stage where we can manipulate gravity or build space fighters, but it's still cool to see where Card takes things technology-wise.

The ansible is one particularly cool piece of technology. It's a device that allows instantaneous communication regardless of distance (ie, faster than light). The interesting thing about it is not how it works, but where it comes from. In the book, it's mentioned that it came from an old novel, and indeed: Ursula K. Le Guin coined the term in 1966 (Rocannon's World) and then described it further in 1974 (The Dispossessed). It has since become popularized by many other authors, though some use different words for it. I'm curious to read her work and see the first instances of this word.

The setting is somewhat stereotypical in the sense that we've seen many alien invasion stories throughout time. Card manages his own take on it, however. The Formics are an interesting alien race, though we don't get to see them really until the later parts of the novel. More is explored in the subsequent novel (Speaker for the Dead), but enough is explained in Ender's Game for us to understand the hows and whys of their actions.

Final Thoughts
I enjoyed reading this story as much as when I was a young high schooler. Ender and his gang feel like old friends I had almost forgotten about. Sure, some of the concepts seem implausible, but I don't let that stop me from enjoying a good story. It is an old young-adult book, as may be evident if you read through it. This book is about war and what it does to intelligent children fighting in it. It's certainly a well-recognized classic of science fiction and I highly recommend it.

The movie is quite different from the book and glosses over a lot of details to compress the story as well as add more action, particularly near the end. I would recommend the book over the movie any time. The movie received a bit of negative press recently given Card's unpopular views on marriage equality.
In the end, it's up to you, the reader/viewer, to decide if an author's personal opinions will affect your enjoyment of the novel/movie.

1 comment:

  1. Loved Enders Game as well. Wondering if you would like to give my novel a try that discusses Enders game and could possibly give me some pointers.