Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter 1, part 1, in which Will inexplicably follows in the style of the terrible decisions that have gone before

A lot of it's about whether you can see the evil in yourself, I figure.

I've been playing with the idea of running a book analysis (like Fred Clark's Left Behind work or Ana Mardoll's Narnia and Twilight analyses or Eri's Fifty-Shades-related masochism for which I have yet to stage an intervention) but the question was what to read.  I considered James Bond, because James Bond is in a lot of ways Twilight for the stereotypical man, but more importantly it's one of the few stereotypical-man-approved things which I often enjoy--at least the movies.  And I thought it might be interesting to see just what the original books are like, except that I watched the first three James Bond movies over the holidays and sweet and sour pan-fried cyborg zombie raptor Moses the sexism is like a frozen turkey to the face.  It's only surprising in its extremity and it's subtle like a trebuchet.  It's just not that interesting to wallow in.

Ender's Game, though.  Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, is a sci-fi classic, a lauded masterpiece of worldbuilding and psychological intricacy.  But most importantly: it is a book for people who think they're smarter than anyone else, and that is far more tempting to me.  That's a deep and insidious satisfaction, and it can be used to justify a whole lot of stuff.  And, as I realised a while back while talking over at Ana's site, I Have Thoughts about this book.  It's zomg gender essentialist, it's in that twisty place of glorifying war while telling us how terrible it is; it's--well, it can either be read as homophobic or kinda gay but either way it's weird about dude relationships--and the whole story is basically about constructing a position where someone might perform genocide while maintaining a sort of blamelessness or at least sympathy.

The foreword to my edition includes Card saying that he thinks he received some harsh critiques because the book is straightfoward doesn't require literary expertise to understand.  I think I can be more inventive than that, but more to the point, does anyone else giggle when authors start to explain why those ivory-tower types were so offended by the author's just-folks approach that they couldn't judge the book on its actual merits?  That sort of thing delights me.  Also, I can only read this as Card confirming that we should believe the book intends to say the things it says and it's not some kind of reverse-psych double-pump retrosophical unmeaning.  Obviously that doesn't mean that every character's thoughts are meant to be objectively true, but if the whole book is saying that Men are This and Women are That, gender equity is probably not the thesis.

I'm saying there's a lot to parse in this tome. Let's squeeze the first page for all it's worth.

Ender's Game: p. 1
Chapter One: Third

(Every chapter starts with a bit of contextless dialogue, an exchange between two or more people without names or locations given--although in this book I'm pretty sure one of them is always Colonel Graff.  We'll meet him in a little while.  The point is that we open with the administrative powers that be declaring that Ender needs to be taken away from home for training.)
"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.  Or at least as close as we're going to get."
"That's what you said about the brother." 
"The brother tested out impossible.  For other reasons.  Nothing to do with his ability." 
"Same with the sister.  And there are doubts about him.  He's too malleable.  Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will." 
"Not if the other person is his enemy."
These are the opening lines and this is the entire summary of the book.  The government is searching for a perfect military leader and their training starts with little kids, and Ender's brother was too vicious and his sister was too sweet, so the government requisitioned his parents to make a third kid (in spite of the population control laws) in hopes that he'd be somewhere in-between.

So here's the first fact about how special Ender Wiggin is: he was made to order for the government to be a hybrid of the innate strengths of both Men and Women. This is going to be one of the core points of the story, so buckle in now: in the futuristic universe Ender Wiggin is born into, it is objective fact that women are predisposed to be compassionate and men are innately conquerors.  Scientific testing says so!  But the point is not that compassion is bad; it's in fact the key to Ender Wiggin being amazing at conquering.  He will weaponise his feminine empathy to be the deadliest commander ever, but Graff notes that the only way to make sure Ender does so is by putting him in a hostile environment to make him defiant and manly.  (Writing it out so makes it seem so outrageous that even I think I'm making this up, but it's seriously right there in the first lines of the book.)

There's a lot of determinism in this book, a whole lot of inevitability, which is going to be key to Ender's eventual fate as an innocent mass-murderer.  That first line, "I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one", refers to the military screening person whose job it has been to monitor Ender through a chip in his spine and decide whether this six-year-old boy is the greatest commander in history.  Apparently that's the sort of thing you can tell when a person is six.  Admittedly, they know he will need training, lots of training in very controlled environments and lots of prodding with sharp stimuli, but they know that this six-year-old is the only one with whom it can work.  Every other six-year-old in the world can't measure up; if you're not The One at six, you never will be.

It's not just about Ender's ridiculous intelligence, because we're going to meet endless numbers of improbably intelligent children, including Bean, the only one smarter than Ender himself.  It's all of his innate qualities: his depth of feeling, his rational solution to the fight-or-flight dilemma, his desire to be loved.  Let there be no doubt that scientific testing has proven that Ender Wiggin is born to be the perfect general.
"So what do we do?  Surround him with enemies all the time?" 
"If we have to." 
"I thought you said you liked this kid." 
"If the buggers get him, they'll make me look like his favourite uncle." 
"All right.  We're saving the world after all.  Take him."
'Bugger' there needs some explanation--the enemy aliens in this war are in fact giant insects, a point that will come up regularly and be  relevant in more ways than 'golly they're weird'.  It is not a slur against dudes who are attracted to other dudes.  The fact that the author decided to call the evil scourge of the galaxy 'buggers' and is also himself a colossal homophobe is probably just a complete coincidence.  (In the parallax novel Ender's Shadow, someone calls them 'buggers' and then corrects herself, calling them 'formics' and observing that people complain that 'bugger' is a bad word in English, even though the futurespeak language they're speaking is Not Quite English and so obviously that is just SILLY.  But eventually 'formic' becomes the normal in-universe term for them.  Just not in this novel.)

So yeah.  That's the rest of the first page, reminding us of three more things: the fate of the world is at stake, everything is justified by that, and that victory goes to the people with the willingness to destroy the things they love.  That last one is a clearer running theme in the Ender's Shadow series, but it'll be relevant here as well.  Ender's Game will suggest that loving something is in fact a precursor to gaining the power to destroy it.  Loving your enemies is vital, just like the religion underpinning this story has always said.  Unlike that religion, though, it goes on to say that loving your enemies is vital because then you can really effectively beat the hell out of them.  You have to see them like they see themselves, understand them like an omniscient god, before you can make with the smiting.

But in fairness to Card, I don't know if that's the thesis he wanted people to take out of it.  Ender will be celebrated before the end, but he will know why he is celebrated, and he will hate himself for his ability to love and destroy.

It's mostly about whether you can see the evil in yourself, I figure.

(For anyone who's wondering, future posts in this series won't quote every line of text and whenever possible I will try not to refer to events that haven't come up yet.  This is just an inaugural special edition.  Tune in next time for the first chapter proper, which is again gender-essentialist as hell and brims with self-satisfaction but is, in my opinion, actually really well written.  Weird, right?  I know!)


  1. Yay oh my gosh you guys I am so excited about this deconstruction hurray! Thank you Will!

  2. I am so looking forward to the rest of your deconstruction! This is a book that really needs it (actually, the whole series really needs it, but the first book especially does).

  3. I enjoied Ender's Game quite a bit when I read it in my mid teens, and I don't think it's a bad book. It may be that Card's awfulness colours it a bit.

    I'm egear to read more of your take.

  4. I wonder what this mysterious test at six is to determine if you're the savior. In my head, I'm imagining a contrived encounter with a dog. If you run from the dog, you're too weak, if you run up to hug the dog, you're too soft, if you attack the dog, you're too violent, but if you just command the dog, ands it obeys, you're the chosen one, congratulations.

    Or something totally simplistic, because, six year-old child, after all.

  5. I can't help thinking this is a case of failed psychology forever. I'm pretty sure people don't work like our anonymous voices think they do. (Also, I find the concept of "the One" bad enough in fantasy, but at least there's an excuse there - a wizard did it. In science-fiction? That's just funny. Or sad.)

  6. I am currently avoiding this book, just because the author is a gigantic douchecanoe. I've heard good things about the book, but I don't want to support the author. Reading your posts will allow me the best of both! And I get to support you, so yay!

  7. I've never heard of this book :/ I may have to look into it. I love sci-fi/paranormal stuff. This one almost sounds like one I read over a decade ago (god, I feel old writing that) called Violet Eyes. Special breed of human (forget if they're called something specific), very smart very physically fit and strong, and males and females are both equal in each regard. It's written for teens, and I don't remember the writing being particularly fancy... but there was one BITCH of twist that to this day i applaud. There was also one point where the girl with Violet eyes and the boy with Violet eyes go up against the enemy and she says that she should be the one to face him-- her logic being that because she's female he is prejudiced into thinking she'll be weaker, even though she's just as strong as the super-soldier men. I thought that was a very interesting bit of logic in a book designed for younger kids.

  8. I haven't read this book/series either but now I am completely intrigued and may just have to. Your inaugural blog is quite clever and I can't wait to read more.


    Please cross-promote this ALL OVER EVERYWHERE. Because I am so happy about it.

  10. Ana brought me here - looking forward to reading this!

  11. I look forward to reading this. I've read Ender's Game a few times, but all of them were before I learned what a massive douche Orson Scott Card is. I actually picked up the book again the other day, and just reading the introduction made me go "...wait." So it'll be interesting to see the book thoroughly deconstructed and examined.

  12. BridgetanachronistMay 7, 2013 at 7:05 AM

    You know that Ender's life reflects closely that of Hitler?

  13. I am familiar with these essays, and I find the first one much more convincing than the second--the Ender-Hitler connection is tenuous at best and while its coincidences are bizarre, I would expect to see a lot more in the way of intentional parallels if Card really intended to make Ender into a sympathetic Hitler. Themes like 'being the youngest of three can be rough' and 'military training can be abusive' and 'military strategists convince themselves that atrocities are necessary' are extremely popular in lots of scenarios.

  14. my ex loved the hell out of this book, but I never had the desire to read it. Now that I know what an epic douchenozzle OSC is, I have even less interest in letting his words live rent free in my head. But I just want to say that when you say, "it is a book for people who think they're smarter than anyone else" I knew exactly what you meant, and this goes to explain a lot why it was my ex's favorite...

  15. i like you deconstruction so far, I haven't read the books myself, and I can't wait to see what you make out if them. =)

  16. Ohaaaaaaaaaaaai :) As promised, I'm reading this analysis and I'm already liking it. That bit about the determinism and the way gender-essentialism 'fixes' Ender's aspects as Man-Woman - brilliant stuff. It didn't leap off the page at me when I read the book, but now that you elucidate it... :)