Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Importance of Being Ender: A Closer Look at Orson Scott Card's Modern Classic

If the awards given to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game are any indication, he has written a novel that may well become part of the canon of science fiction:
It’s been translated into thirty-three languages, ranked #59 on the reader's list of Modern Library100 Best Novels in 1999, and included on the Marine Corps Professional Reading List. Oh, and the movie (starring Harrison Ford) is opening in just a few weeks. 

If you enjoy analyzing stories such as Ender’s Game, there are a lot of excellent commentaries online.*  Rather than replicating their content, I would like to offer some thoughts on why I believe this story is so compelling. 

After the climatic battle that ends the Game, Ender discovers the Hive Queen has survived his accidental genocide. She communicates the story of her and her people to him, and in this knowledge Ender finds truth, empathy, and a path toward a form of redemption. As he records her story for all to know, he becomes the first of many Speakers of the Dead, people who speak the truth of a person’s life at their funeral.

Ender's story continues in Speaker of the Dead. He begins what will be (thanks to the quirks of space travel) centuries of searching to find the Hive Queen a new home, a new place to begin rebuilding the civilization he once destroyed. Meanwhile, he continues to "speak" the lives of those who have died as sort of a prophet in a new religion that seeks to bring truth, peace and honor to life in all its forms.

Ender's Game was the first novel in the Ender saga, but Speaker of the Dead was always meant to be the heart of the story. Card explains in the introduction to SOTD why this aspect of Ender's life is so important to him:
“I grew dissatisfied with the way that we use our funerals to revise the life of the dead, to give the dead a story so different from their actual life that, in effect, we kill them all over again. No, that is too strong. Let me just say that we erase them, we edit them, we make them into a person much easier to live with than the person who actually lived…To understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story – what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story we never know, the story that we never can know – and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only true story worth telling.”
Speaking for the dead wasn’t always pretty, but it was always powerful. Ender becomes passionate about telling “what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in.”

Not until I read Speaker did I begin to understand what I found so compelling about Ender's Game. The heart of the story of how a deceived, brainwashed, abused child accidentally becomes the bane of the universe became clear only in light of Card’s previously cited explanation about Ender himself. The only story worth telling cannot show merely what Ender meant to do, it must show what he actually did. 
  • Ender meant to stop bullies; he actually killed them.
  • Ender meant to stay strong; he actually became broken.
  • Ender meant to use superior force to bring peace; he actually used it to harm in ways he did not fully understand.
  • Ender meant to end a war; he actually ended a world.
  • Ender meant to win a game; he actually orchestrated the obliteration of an entire race of sentient being.  
  • Ender meant to end the threat to human life; he actually became the greatest killer of sentient life.
  • Ender meant to do what was right; he actually did terrible wrong.
  • Ender meant to record the history of the hive and the Hegemon; he actually started a new religion.
And on and on.  Ender’s Game strikes me as (among many other things) a cautionary tale about the ripple effect of unintended consequences. So many of the characters in the story had justified motives, but their means to achieve their ends brought about pain and destruction in ways they could not have predicted. Ender's Game shows what actually happened vs. what people meant to have happen.

It's the honest, unvarnished legacy of an innocent Xenocide. 

So why is this compelling? What is it that has caused this story to achieve such amazing success? I think it's because Ender's Game simply magnifies our lives on an interplanetary scale. So many influences in our life seem bent on corrupting us; so many decisions we make are well-intentioned but flawed; so many of our goals are noble even while our ability to achieve them with integrity betrays us.

Without an understanding of the proper means needed to blend vision with consequence, we manage to constantly do things that do not match our intent.**  The xenocide did not start when Ender pushed the button; it started with the failings of those fighting the war. It started in all too human hearts and minds.

If someone were to speak our death honestly, I suspect we would all provide a story of pain and hope, love and loss, nobility and despair, the desire to do great good even while we inadvertently cause great harm.  If we were known fully, people would applaud the intent of our heart while often cringing at the unintended effect of our hand. We, too, will be remembered for our life as it is, not just as we meant it to be.

Ender is neither hero nor villain. He is manipulated child, hardened slave, brilliant prodigy, fighter for peace, savior of our civilization and destroyer of other worlds. That's why Ender commands our attention. We long for him to rise above a legacy of unintended tragedy. If a killer of worlds can atone for his crimes, maybe a thief, addict or cheater can too.

If even the tragedy of Ender's past can become the soil which nourishes a new and better life, then none of us need to give up hope. Ender's Game is not a story of ultimate salvation, but in it one can hear the echoes of a much greater song of redemption.

*Suggested Reading

** A friend of mine has noted that the Buggers twice attempted to wipe out a race that they were unaware was sentient even though humanity was a space-faring, hi-tech race. The only way the Buggers could have failed to notice was because they were too proud to consider that there were other sentient races out there besides themselves. Furthermore, they had wiped out lifeforms on other planets previously. Perhaps Ender's success ended the life of a genocidal culture. If so, the story is more about justice than it seems.

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