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Ender’s Game Or, Sounds like Good Military Strategy

January 19, 2013

Now this is an odd sensation…I’ve been away from WordPress, and all of the sudden writing a review looks more like Tumblring. I almost fell into the temptation of posting a cute unattributed review. Then I remembered where I was. That’s in my desk, writing a review for the first time in eons. Literal eons. In the past few days I’ve finished two books, but I’d like to focus attention on Ender’s Game.

Yep, you guessed why: because they’re working on a film adaption, and I’m always curious to see how these things translate. (Though I also had interest in this novel via word-of-mouth, unlike my Watchmen experience.) My friends constantly recommended, so I had no reason to not pick it up.

This novel (the first of a series) focuses on Andrew Wiggins, a.k.a. Ender, a young child being monitored for potential use as a government weapon. In this future America, families are limited to two children, and a third requires a government waiver. Ender is allowed to be born because his two older siblings came come close, but didn’t cut it, as fighters. The G-men thought Ender Ma and Ender Pa did such a good job on the first two that The Third may be the Earth’s savior.

At age six, Ender reaches the end of observation and gets taken from his family to be militarily trained. He could give or take Mom and Dad; his older brother, Peter, holds resentment towards Ender because he himself failed as “the one.” Ender sees more than just resentment, though: he also sees the ability to kill in Peter, dangerous and angry. It’s a relief to be away from Peter, but the same can’t be said for Ender’s sister, Valentine. Valentine’s intellect was enough to make her the one, but she was too empathetic. There is pure love between these siblings, and it’s hard to see them part.

(Hmm, you say to yourself: children being trained to kill sure have good sibling relationships, if this and The Hunger Games are any suggestions.)

Ender’s start at school, to be part of the International Fleet, isn’t easy. He’s young, little, and teased. His intellect and quick-wittedness, not to mention freak physical strength, become the key to his survival (and ultimate success). In his training his leaders subject him to unfair trials to mold him into the commander they need: one with natural aptitude plus a nonchalant attitude about killing when necessary. So that’s our protagonist. Aside from the human antagonists—bullies, platoon leaders, teachers, brother—the main antagonist is The Buggers. This enemy is one humans haven’t directly communicated with but have engaged in two crushing wars with. In ways kids once played cowboys vs. Indians (ugh) or cops vs. robbers, kids in the future play “buggers and astronauts” (11):

Peter opened his bottom drawer and took out the bugger mask. Mother had got upset at him when Peter bought it, but Dad pointed out that the war wouldn’t go away just because you hid bugger masks and wouldn’t let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. The better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the buggers came again.

If I survive the games, thought Ender. He put on the mask. It closed him in like a hand pressed tight against his face. But this isn’t how it feels to be a bugger, thought Ender. They don’t wear this face like a mask, it is their face. On their home worlds, do the buggers put on human masks, and play? And what do they call us? Slimies, because we’re so soft and oily compared to them?

The third war is on the way, and the Earth needs a savior, which is where Ender comes in. What is the stuff of childish play will soon be the focus of Ender’s life, every day. Did I mention this kid is six years old when he first starts his training?

I enjoyed reading this novel. It was a little tough for me to believe Ender was six. Most six-year-olds I’ve interacted with projectile vomit in class and cry if you don’t acknowledge they’ve had their hand raised for five seconds. Anyway, this leads me to some questions about the film adaptation.

They’ve aged Ender by five years or so. Is this so he’ll be more relatable (which I can get behind), is it so they can introduce a love interest (boooo), or is it because the thought of kids going to war will slim down the audience? I suppose the success of The Hunger Games proves audiences can handle murderous children. On the other hand, Ender is subject to years of mental anguish by his teachers, and he isn’t told when he does kill. Maybe that’s the trick to succeeding militarily and defending our corner of the universe? I dunno.

A fabulous point made in this story is our (Americans’, humanity’s…) urgency to defeat an enemy we know little about. Some extremist dudes in ghutras arranged the destruction of a symbolic American building, killing about three thousand, so now we have to wage war on every brown person wearing a turban who might read the Quran…

I buy that we, humanity, would try to destroy an alien race. The buggers’ motivation for starting a war are unclear, given we cannot communicate with each other. (The buggers appear to communicate amongst themselves in a sort of ESP-way, thinking as one, following a Queen Bee’s directives.) But, hey, this universe is ours, dammit. Let’s blow them away!

I would definitely recommend reading this. It is a classic sci-fi novel that digs deep into our willingness to wage war; our willingness to absorb collateral damage; our willingness to use genius for bad. I won’t give anything away by parsing for you what the title means, but “gaaahhh” came out of my mouth many times while reading this. Gaaaaahhh. This book never made me tear up, but it did make me say, “I believe this could happen. We have children fighting in wars across the globe. Why wouldn’t we start them young, monitoring their potential, in such a ‘civilized’ country like ours?” Then I got mad.

So, please read. If you have read, let’s talk about this. The back cover includes a snippet from a NYT review, in which the reviewer describes the novel as one would an action-adventure game: “Aliens have attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed the human species…He is smart enough to know that time is running out. But is he smart enough to save the planet?” But I assure you there is much more depth to this novel than discovering if a child is capable of defeating a grotesque enemy.


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