Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ender's Game - a deeper look

“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 genius. The one who invents the wheel. And light. And flight. The one who builds a city, a nation, an empire.... Human beings are free except when humanity needs them. Maybe humanity needs you. To do something.”
- Col. Graff to Ender on his first day of battle school.

I was 12 years old when I first read Ender's Game. When I finished, I felt like I had lived a whole other life, that I had been Ender Wiggin, or at least lived with him. I was only a child, but so was he, and I connected very deeply with what I read. It was breathtaking. Then I read it again. I absolutely loved that book, and I still find it impossible to put down once I start. But even after many times through, I am still realizing the fullness and richness of the tapestry woven by Orson Scott Card.

To set the stage, The book takes place in the near future. Aliens, nick-named "buggers" because of their insectoid appearance, have invaded earth and were barely defeated by Earth's infantile space fleet. Now Earth's governments have begun monitoring children to find the smartest and the best, so that they can train them to become commanders, and be prepared to fight the buggers when the next imminent invasion comes. They do so by placing them in a battle school, an orbital facility where the children are put into teams and play strategy games in zero gravity battle simulations. Ender is the best at these games.
(SPOILERS AHEAD - I am warning you now, if you haven't read the book before, go and do so, and then come back to finish reading this)

"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."

First of all, I think it's important to denote Ender as a superhero. His "super power" is his intelligence. He is a genius. The smartest kid in the world. Because of this power, he is chosen to be Earth's savior before he even knows it.

“I have to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse.”
- Ender

This is the problem that Ender faces over and over again. He ends up in a place where he can't back out. He has to use his power to win, or he will be destroyed. Sometimes figuratively, but sometimes literally. Probably the most important question for a superhero is: How does he use his super power? And part of what makes Ender a hero and not a villain is that he tries to use his power for virtue, not for selfishness. And some of the time, he doesn't even realize the full extent to which he uses his power over people. Like when his fellow student Bonzo Madrid challenges him and tries to kill him - Ender is only doing what he can to escape the situation alive, and to keep away any repercussions from other enemies at school. When he finds out he killed Bonzo, it destroys him emotionally.

“This was supposed to be a game. Not a choice between my own grisly death and an even worse murder. I’m a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me.”

One thing that I have only recently realized is that Ender's Game is a myth. It follows the conventions of mythological heroes as examined by Joseph Campbell, whose studies were inspirational to George Lucas in making Star Wars. 1) A miraculous birth - By law, parents are only allowed two children to avert overpopulation, yet Ender is born because of a special government decree. 2) A calling - Ender is called to save the world before he even knows it. 3) Ender is separated from his world, his family, everything he knows, and is taken away to be trained. Then he undergoes a series of trials and quests, which 'purify' him. 4) His training strips everything from him until he is practically dead, and must "descend into the underworld" - going back to earth, where he regains his purpose from his sister Valentine. 5) He rises again, back into space, where he must make his final confrontation with his enemy.

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them- ...I destroy them. I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again. I grind them and grind them until they don’t exist.”

Another interesting perspective is the way the characters shed light onto the human soul. As Plato might see it: Ender is the intellect, Valentine is the heart, and Peter is the appetite or the desire. Ender sees both of his siblings within him, and this both comforts him and terrifies him.

“I know what you’re thinking, you bastard, you’re thinking that I’m wrong, that Ender’s like Peter. Well maybe I’m like Peter, but Ender isn’t, he isn’t at all, I used to tell him that when he cried, I told him that lots of times, you’re not like Peter, you never like to hurt people, you’re kind and good and not like Peter at all!”
- Valentine to Col. Graff

...And what would a hero be without a sidekick? Bean is one of my favorite characters ever, and it's hard to call him a sidekick, because he has a whole spinoff series devoted to him. ...But for this book, that is the role he plays, and to the extent that he helps Ender, and makes up for Ender's weaknesses, his role is extremely pivotal indeed.

"There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do. ...I am your enemy from now on. From now on I am your teacher."
- Mazer Rackham

Finally, we have the mentor. ...And he's presented in such a way that I've never seen elsewhere. His stance and attitude are exactly what Ender needs - but not what he wants. Even when he has succeeded at battle school, Ender can never escape his enemies, or his calling. But the tragic part is that he hates what it is they are making him into. And as a reader, you are glad of it, because it means Ender is still human after all.

"Well, I'm your man. I'm the bloody bastard you wanted when you had me spawned. I'm your tool, and what difference does it make if I hate the part of me that you most need? What difference does it make that when the little serpents killed me in the game, I agreed with them, and was glad."
- Ender Wiggin to Mazer and Graff

There is so much more to unpack, but in the interest of keeping this blog post from becoming a novel in itself, I am going to end here. Needless to say, if a huge cigar-chomping studio exec ever offered me a bajillion dollars to adapt any book I wanted into a movie, Ender's Game would be it. No hesitation.

"The screen went blank, and words appeared. PLAY AGAIN?"

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