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Ender’s Game (thoughts)

March 12, 2009

scifiexp09200I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game as part of the wonderful Carl’s Sci Fi Experience 2009 (I wrote this review in February, but it got pushed to the back burner-whoops! -Eva) because of Chris. It’s my third Card read, and my first foray into his sci-fi. I also think it’s a great selection for the Sci Fi Experience, since it won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards and is one of those books that even people who don’t read the genre (like myself) have heard of.

I’ve already mentioned my issues with the introduction, so today I’m going to focus on the story itself. It’s written in a no-frills way that focuses on the plot and characters without much worry over style. Not to say it’s poorly written, it’s just that the language itself doesn’t feel important. Like everyone told me, it’s a fast read: pretty short chapters and a fast-moving plot draw you through the book effortlessly.

In the near-future, Card has created a mildly dystopian version of Earth. People are penalised for having more than two children or being religious, and humanity is worried about another invasion of ‘buggers’ (yep: you read that right), which has allowed what seems like a mildly totalitarian government to take over. The book follows Ender, a preternaturally talented child who is taken at age six to a military school, where he’s expected to become the genius general that will finally defeat the buggers (who outnumber humans by a large majority). With this in mind, the military leaders make Ender’s life difficult in the hopes that ‘suffering will make him stronger.’ The reader is constantly watching Ender come up with solutions to new problems and attempting to overcome long odds to finish his military schooling-which mainly consists of role-playing games-successfully. I thought this was the strongest part of the book; it was thrilling to see how Ender handled all of his challenges, and it was always neat to see what the leaders would think of next. While the plot was my favourite part, this is also a book about ideas.

There are several big questions at the heart of Ender’s Game. What is true power, and how do people achieve it? How does society convince certain members that it’s ok to kill? Is the adult-child relationship one of pure manipulation? None of the issues dealt with in the book are cheery, that’s for sure. But I also felt that they didn’t get a truly *fair* exploration. It was quite clear, from the way the book progressed, where Card fell on all of these issues. And I didn’t feel as if I was being allowed any space to make up my own mind, which annoyed me as much as Ender is annoyed by the continual problems his teachers throw at him. And while the whole books revolves around ‘grey’ morality issues, I can’t help thinking of it has a stark, black-and-white moralistic one (I know this doesn’t make sense considering what happens to several of the key characters…but while they deal with moral ambiguity within the novel, it felt to me as if the reader wasn’t really presented with the same dilemmas). Oh, and I had a serious issue with this passage, from a conversation between Ender and the man who runs the military school:

“All boys?”
“A few girls. They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution working against them.”

Pardon my French, but what the hell is that supposed to mean? I know sometimes authors give characters racist or sexist ideas that they themselves don’t believe, but this was almost a throwaway line, and the guy isn’t shown as sexist anywhere else, so it makes me wonder. And then there was this thought by Ender about Petra (the only girl at the school Ender meets):

Petra still looked like a boy, it was a stupid rule.

It just had me confused. Most of the students hang out naked in their common rooms, which is what this is talking about. But even before puberty, a naked girl does NOT look like a naked boy. Topless, sure. But not completely naked. It didn’t bother me the way the earlier dialogue did, but it definitely snapped me out of the story.

Like in many idea-driven books, the characters really suffered. Ender’s the only one that feels like a real human being; while we also occasionally slip into the head of his sister Violet, I didn’t find any of those passages convincing. It’s one of the drawbacks I had with the book; I wasn’t particularly worried if the buggers destroyed Earth, because I didn’t value any of the characters enough to care about their survival (except for Ender).

This review is turning out to be more negative than I expected; while I was actually reading the book, I enjoyed myself (I tend to suspend all disbelief when I’m reading and surrender to the author, unless the writing’s so terrible I can’t handle it). But the more I think critically about it , the more things bother me. The ending felt rushed, and some of the little details (like Ender being a Third in a society that frowns upon more than two children) that grabbed my attention were later dropped. It feels like Card tried to cram too much into the first quarter, later realised what his real focus was, and didn’t bother editing out the extraneous material.

Would I recommend reading this book? Yes, if you’re curious about sci-fi. There’s a reason it’s a modern classic, and it brings up important issues. But at the end of the day, I think it fails to give them the treatment that they deserve. I’m going to read Speaker for the Dead (the sequel), since Chris told me to (hehe), and since Card says in the introduction that this book was all really a set-up for Speaker. I’m glad I read this one, but I definitely haven’t found a new favourite book.

Notable Passage
“Human beings are free except when humanity needs them. Maybe humanity needs you. To do something. Maybe humanity needs me-to find out what you’re good for. We might both do despicable things, Ender, but if humankind survives, then we were good tools.”

27 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2009 12:44 pm

    I know what you mean about feeling that the moral ambiguity was there without REALLY being there for the reader. A lot of those things crossed my mind after I read this… but with Card, I can’t help but wonder if I’m seeing those things in the text, or if the fact that I know certain things about him and his social/political positions is messing with my perception, you know? So to avoid seeing too much into the book, I possible end up not questioning it enough. I wonder how I’d react if I knew nothing about him. Anyway…I thought that Speaker for the Dead was much better. I hope you enjoy it too.

  2. March 12, 2009 1:00 pm

    I’m a huge fantasy/sci fi reader, but I’ve never touched Orson Scott Card. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I managed to run into his anti-gay and sexist writings (opinion pieces largely, not fiction) before getting to his fiction and now I can’t seem to look at his books without feeling disappointed, much less read them.

    Does that ever happen to you- that an artist or actor or fiction writer’s real-world actions affect your ability to enjoy their fruits? I’m torn on the issue: on the one hand, I want to believe that art can stand alone. I want to believe I can (and perhaps should) judge based only on the merits of the art and not the artist. On the other hand, the art is born of the artist and often can reflect those behaviors and views (like the Ender’s Game throw-away line you reference full of so-called evolutionary psychology, the science that wasn’t), not to mention supporting the art supports the artist and his or her issues.

    Right or wrong, I haven’t been able to take a Tom Cruise movie seriously in ages and doubt I’ll ever pick up a Card book on my own.

  3. March 12, 2009 1:21 pm

    I’m not much for sci-fi, but my son read this one in middle school or high school and loved it. He read every Orson Scott Card book he could get hold of after reading this one.

  4. March 12, 2009 1:24 pm

    What an excellent review. I never really thought about what you pointed out before (even though I’ve read this book numerous times) but yeah, there should have been way more girls in the battle school. And Petra was one of my favorite characters. I thought he treated women a little more fairly in Pastwatch but there was still some heavily sexist sentiment running through it. Ender’s Game is my favorite of all the Card books I’ve read. I didn’t like the sequels nearly as much. Eager to hear what you think of Speaker and all the rest.

  5. March 12, 2009 1:48 pm

    I think Card is much better at writing short stories than novels. Ender’s Game is based on a short story that leaves a lot more room for interpretation and critical thinking than the novel does. I’ve read other Card books (Lost Boys, Enchantment) that seem like short stories stretched out and embellished unnecessarily. That’s why my favorite Card work is actually Maps in a Mirrors, a collection of his short stories (including the original “Ender’s Game”).

    Card’s personal views confuse me, but I didn’t find them that pervasive in the works I’ve read. I haven’t read anything by him in a while, so maybe that’s no longer true.

  6. March 12, 2009 2:07 pm

    This is one of my all-time favoritist books, although I had trouble with the mysoginistic elements too. I have a feeling that Card kinda dislikes wimminfolk (although I could be wrong about this).

  7. March 12, 2009 2:17 pm

    I read this before I knew anything at all about Card’s offensive views. I think I will probably be a lot like Nymeth should I read more of his work…wondering if I’m reading too much into things. I tend to think his writing will make me angrier more easily. And maybe that’s not fair, but nonetheless, I suspect it’s true. Hey, if he’s entitled to his views, we’re certainly entitled to view them with disgust, right?

    I thought that quote you shared about evolution working against females was hilarious. Because in actuality, it’s a whole heck of a lot more likely that evolution will get rid of males. Look at the parthenogenic species out there…they don’t need males to reproduce, and they give birth to all females, not all males. I know that’s not exactly what Card was saying…but frankly, I’m not going to worry about what evolution is going to do to women.

    As always, Eva, your very thoughtful review was a delight to read. (Even though I actually loved the book when I read it.)

  8. March 12, 2009 2:32 pm

    I read probably 12 years ago. this long before I knew anything about Card himself, and I loved it. If I noticed the sexim at the time, I may have just chalked it up to being annoying scifi conventions about women.

    I have heard that Card’s views have gotten more extreme in recent years. So it is entirely possible that someone approaching the books today for the first time would be seeing something that isn’t there. Nymeth’s question is an especially good one in this case. We know what he thinks now. What did he think then?

  9. stacybuckeye permalink
    March 12, 2009 2:57 pm

    This was one of my favorite books last year. I listened to is on cd’s so it wasn’t exactly the same, but I truly enjoyed it. You do bring up good points about the views on women, but I guess I just didn’t think that was what the book was about. It just endeared me to Petra all the more.
    And it may have helped that I did not know anything about Card’s personal views until after I read the book!
    Very nice review. Too bad you didn’t enjoy it more :)

  10. March 12, 2009 3:39 pm

    Nymeth, I’m glad I’m not the only one! While I’ve only read Card knowing his personal philosophies, I really think I’d have the same issues with the book regardless. It was unsophisticated writing pretending to be subtle and complex, which always annoys me a little. The story itself ws neat though!

    Corvus, I usually avoid learning about the lives of my favourite authors for just that reason. ;) I’ve mainly read Card, because I have a ton of respect for Chris.

    Bermuda Onion, I can see why your son would love it!

    Jeane, thank you. I was a little nervous posting it, since almost everyone has a great reaction to this book!

    Lily, I’ve read Lost Boys and Enchantment too! lol I don’t know what a lot of Card’s personal views are (as far as I’ve never read his nonfiction), but I felt like Ender’s Game whacked me over the head with his philosophies!

    Chartroose, that line about women sent off a whole bunch of PG-13 language in my head! Thinking about it, I haven’t loved any of his women characters.

    Debi, I hope I’m not reading too much into it. When I was actually reading the book, I had my moment of anger and then kept going, lol. It’s funny how sometimes my reviews are way different than I would have expected them to be!

    Teresa, I read his intro to the book (that was written quite awhile ago) after reading the novel itself, and let me tell you, that was a bad idea for me!

    Stacy, I enjoyed the actual reading experience. And I certainly don’t think that the book was about ‘girls suck, boys rock.’ That was just a small part of my issues with the book upon reflection.

  11. March 12, 2009 4:27 pm

    I read this when I was a teen (I think) and I enjoyed it but it wasn’t a favorite. I think most science fiction (from my very limited experience) is pretty male-dominated and fails to completely develop any characters.

  12. March 12, 2009 4:55 pm

    I love Card’s books but I would agree they are full of stereotypes. The other interesting thing I found out about him is that he gets ideas now from his website from bloggers. In general, I think he’s better off ignoring them!

  13. March 12, 2009 5:34 pm

    Eva could you please fix or delete the website I typed in above? I am on a different computer and I accidentally put in my email address…..

  14. March 12, 2009 6:04 pm

    I read this many years ago, before I knew about Card’s extreme mormonism and anti-gay attitudes; after I learned about them, I found that there were plenty of other authors I’d rather spend my time reading.

    I don’t always avoid authors because of their attitudes, and I’m not sure their attitudes always come through, but in this case I think you’re seeing what’s there. Myself I was shocked when I started reading your thoughts to see that the invaders were called “buggers”! I wouldn’t have realized at the time that it’s British slang for homosexuals, but it’s rather obvious now.

  15. March 12, 2009 6:30 pm

    Eva: That’s interesting about the introduction. I think the version I had didn’t have one or I ignored it. Sounds like that was a good thing. I tend to not avoid authors I disagree with, unless they get preachy about it in their books. If I can read the book without seeing it, which is mostly the case with the Ender books I’ve read, then I’m fine with enjoying what I do see in the book.

  16. March 12, 2009 10:04 pm

    Great review Eva! You bring up so many good points in this review and like many others, since learning of Card’s personal beliefs/opinions, I’ve started to read his books with a more critical eye…and he’s dropped down a notch on the favorite authors list. But i still think he tells a great story. Like I’ve told you before, this is by no means my favorite book of Card’s. That spot is held by Speaker ;) Though I was angry about Speaker too after learning from Nymeth that he didn’t even bother to translate the Portuguese correctly! Sheesh! That quote about evolution is just stupid…totally missed that when I read it. Why would he even say that? If you liked the last chapter(s) of this book then you should enjoy Speaker…IMO, the last couple of chapters have more of a feel of what I like so much about Speaker for the Dead.

  17. March 13, 2009 4:13 am

    Rebecca, I haven’t read enough sci-fi to notice a pattern, although the short stories I read for the Out of this World challenge had some definite awesomeness to them. They were almost all written by men, though. And I fixed your website address. ;)

    Rhapsody in Books, interesting!

    Jeff, ohhh-I hadn’t even thought about that aspect of ‘buggers’; I just thought it was a child-like, silly name, lol. And I lived in England for seven years! I’m glad you agree with me re: the attitude.

    Teresa, I’m with you on fiction by authors I disagree with (nonfiction, I consciously try to seek out other points of view, but I also strenuously avoid polemics).

    Chris, he definitely tells a great story! And I’m glad you’re not mad at me. :) I have no clue why he would say that about evolution-it’s so random and silly, lol. Can’t wait to see what Speaker for the Dead is like!

  18. March 13, 2009 10:44 am

    And I can’t wait to see what P&P is like :p

  19. March 13, 2009 1:00 pm

    I am one who was completely blown away by this book and frankly still am. I was even more taken with Speaker as it is, in my opinion, a much stronger and more well written book. I didn’t know much about Card’s personal opinions before reading the work but, up to this point, that hasn’t changed the fact that I think he is a talented author, at least in regards to Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. I tend to think that all of our favorite authors have things about them and their beliefs, personality habits, etc. that we would absolutely abhor if we were to know them. It is simply because we are all human beings and there are a wide range of issues to take up positions on and many of us fall on on side or the other, and sometimes in the middle. It just makes us who we are. That being said, I prefer not to find out these kind of things until after I’ve read an authors work because I too would probably have been reluctant to read Card had I read some of his statements earlier on. It is just really hard to do. Authors may want us to believe that any work of fiction is just a story being told and does not necessarily reflect their belief system, but I’m not sure that can be entirely true, and once you find out something that an author thinks that pisses you off or deeply offends you, you cannot help finding passages in their books that seem to support their views, whether it is a fair assessment or not.

    I hope you enjoy Speaker more. I do think it is a better story by far, and kudos to you for deciding to go ahead and read it!

  20. March 13, 2009 8:28 pm

    Chris, I’m so curious about whether you’ll like it or not!

    Carl, I have no idea about whether Card has ever said anything about women in general. And I went into this book expecting it to be incredible, so I was really surprised that I didn’t feel that way. As I wrote in my review, I really enjoyed the reading experience; however, I don’t think it’s strong enough to support the kind of deep thinking Card tacked on. He kept too tight of a control over what the reader is supposed to think, imo. And I probably couldn’t help feeling the line about girls jumping out at me because I am one. I didn’t say that the whole book was a crazy, misogynistic rant. But I think in any fair assessment, sentences like that, which I’m sure most women readers would notice, should be mentioned. (I also didn’t point out that later in the book, the only graduate to ‘break’ under the pressure is the only girl. Which annoyed me too.) The only thing I know about Card’s personal views that I don’t agree with is his anti-homosexuality agenda, which I didn’t think really came up in Ender’s Game.

  21. March 17, 2009 1:07 pm

    I’m sure those sentences would have jumped out at me too if I was a girl. Even later, it being pointed out, the idea is really an annoying one, especially given that we all hope the future is one in which men and women are given true equality in their opportunities, choices, etc. It may not have been meant to be sexist, but that is the kind of thing you also would hope a good editor would pick up on and point out the risk of alienating a huge core audience. I guess I expect too much of editors! :) I don’t know about Card and women’s issues either. I too have really only read about his position on homosexuality.

    I’ll be really curious as to your thoughts once you read Speaker. I wonder if you will think it is as tight and controlled as Ender’s Game. It has been long enough now since I’ve read it that I just don’t remember if it is or not. I am also wondering if Ender felt more controlled because Card went back to write it after conceiving Speaker. I wonder if that made it fit more of a tight mold because of where he was trying to get the story or not. Again, you will have a more clear comparison since you’ve just read Ender’s Game. My opinion is that Speaker is a much better book and I know others who feel the same way, but I also have friends who like Ender’s Game much better. Just like anything, one’s preferences, mood, expectations, etc. have a lot to do with the experience. And I think it is hard not to have high expectations when several people like something AND when it has won awards that are prestigious within the genre. I think you naturally expect a book that has garnered that much praise to really make you stand up and take notice, and that is unfortunately not always the case.

  22. uenohama permalink
    April 19, 2009 8:24 am

    I love Ender’s Game.

    I also agree with most of your post. Funny that.

    The author isn’t there to write a thinly disguised opinion piece; unless of course it’s a dialectic novel. It’s like when someone finds a character morally reprehensible, they begin to rant and rave towards the author. For me, a good author is completely distinguishable from his/her characters. The characters are not the author.

    To be honest, OSC does tend to drop in or even write entire books based around his own opinion. I’m not saying that authors’ shouldn’t have any opinion, but the questions, the discussion a book has should come from the story and the characters. (Is that too vague?)

    Science-fiction isn’t male-dominated, yes, the over-whelming majority of sci-fi writers are male but it isn’t a “boy’s own” world. I suppose you could say that many sci-fi books featuring rockets and whatnot are phallocentric in nature etc etc but really, a good sci-fi writer, regardless of their gender, writes a story that makes us think and wonder. There are loads of wonderful sci-fi written by women. Just because a genre is mostly written by men doesn’t make it worse than if it was written by women.

    In fact, sci-fi is one of the best places where a writer can question gender roles in literature and in the world.

    • doctressjulia permalink
      November 11, 2011 2:42 am

      Science fiction is TOTALLY male dominated. Orson Scott Card sucks. I don’t read his screeds-disguised-as-stories anymore. There are tons of great feminist sci-fi authors out there… Google that shit! It’s better than Card’s pap…

  23. April 19, 2009 8:36 am

    I actually meant “didactic” instead of “dialectic”

  24. Victor Velazquez permalink
    March 10, 2010 1:35 pm

    If you think this is outrageous about sexism and Petra you won’t believe what he does with her character in the spin off series about Bean. She marries Bean because his DNA is superior although her and Dink are in love. Then she has Bean’s kid through implantation, gets captured by Achilles, and has a relationship with him. Then Bean saves her and goes into space. Then Petra marries Peter Wiggin and they have five more kids.

    So out of character it’s unbelievable. I always pictured her not liking Bean and getting with Dink. But in the sexist world of Card the only female has to get with every guy and have all of their kids. Because she’s only good for having kids with good DNA and getting captured. This this what seriously turns me off from his books. And I LIKED Ender’s Shadow. At least Bean doesn’t paint himself off to be a martyr like Ender, who is loved by everything that moves.

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  2. Monthly Reading: March 2009 « Books Worth Reading

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