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On Ender's Game
The Price of Our Inheritance
I was lucky enough to run into Orson Scott Card at a recent conference, and over lunch we discussed the nature of the essays coming in for the collection. He found it interesting, and often flattering that people felt compelled to reminisce about where and when they first read Ender’s Game, as if it were the memorable shedding of their virginity. I, of course, won’t go there. You’ll never catch me talking about my first time.1
My curiosity was piqued by the conversation, though, because it pointed to the interesting fact that people do remember details around their first reading of Ender’s Game, in the same way people remember profound, life-changing events. For instance, so many of us remember exactly what we were doing the moment we heard about planes hitting the Twin Towers, or—for those of us who are parents—where we were the day we first learned we were going to be a father or mother. In time, our lives become slideshows of events that have left an indelible imprint on us. They become larger than life in our memories—and reading Ender’s Game is quite often a larger-than-life event.
I’ve read many memorable books, but few of them have such gravity that the memory sucks in other events around it like a black hole. I asked a number of friends, and discovered that each of them had also experienced “The Full Ender.” They proceeded to give me amazingly specific details about the first time their minds were subverted into thinking about formics, Battle School, and all that went with them.2
A common thread was that everyone—everyone—claimed they had been kept up until four o’clock in the morning reading. I have determined that 4:00 am is the golden hour of great literature, because, let’s face it, anyone can stay up until three o’clock reading—and a book that keeps you up until 5:00 am? Well, that’s just annoying. But reading until the fourth hour—that is the sign of truly great literature. So, regardless of the facts, if your memory tells you that you were up until four o’clock in the morning reading, then it must have been a life-altering book.
The question is: What makes Ender’s Game a fourth-hour book? What is it that we find so compelling? Certainly it’s the strength of character and story, but I think it goes beyond that to a deeper, more primal place. In Ender’s journey, Orson Scott Card has tapped into a visceral human conundrum: the ambivalence of survival.
“If you can’t beat them then they deserve to win, because they’re stronger and better than us.”
Evolution is cruel. Life is constantly in brutal conflict. Species evolve only through the untimely death of the weak and the unadaptable. Homo sapiens, however, as the apex species, has the luxury of compassion and empathy. We humans care deeply for the less fortunate. We are charitable souls, helping the needy and the infirmed. We seek cures for congenital diseases, refusing to allow nature the vicious victory of killing off a gene by slaying its sufferers. Instead, we find courage and meaning in their struggle far more than the struggle of the hunter over its prey. To modern man, survival doesn’t mean eat or be eaten, kill or be killed; it means a regular paycheck, a retirement fund, and a mortgage that isn’t upside down.
But what happens when it’s more than our mortgage that’s upside down? What do we become if survival truly becomes about survival once more? We would all like to think that we are enlightened beings and, as such, will always find the moral high road. Wisdom tells us the path is more important than the destination. However, when survival is truly at stake, suddenly the destination is everything, regardless of the path we take to get there.
“No, you don’t understand. I destroy them. I make it impossible for them ever to hurt again. I grind them and grind them until they don’t exist.”
Tell me—would you ever kill your neighbor in cold blood? No, you say? Well, what if it was to save your life? Still no? Then what if it was to save the lives of your children?
A parent knows that that’s not even the right question. The right question is, How many people would you kill to protect the lives of your children? And every parent also knows the answer:
As many as necessary.
So…if the survival of your family, your race, your species depended entirely on the irrevocable destruction of another species, would you pull the trigger on Dr. Device?
The threat from the formics was spelled out clearly. They attacked twice. The first attack was an exploratory mission; the second attack was an attempt to colonize. On both occasions, it was clear that they meant to destroy humanity, and there was no reason to think that they would stop. So, how was humanity going to save its children? How many formics would we kill? As many as necessary. Even if it meant every last one of them.
“Killing’s the first thing we learned. And it’s a good thing we did, or we’d be dead, and tigers would own the earth.”
The real power of Ender’s Game is that it’s not just about Ender’s mission—it’s about each of us coming to terms with that basic kill-or-be-killed imperative that Valentine so plainly put forth. At its most primal level, Ender’s Game is about the decisions we make as human beings when faced with dire circumstances, and why we make them. It also lays bare the ugly truth that species survival sometimes trumps compassion and empathy. Ender becomes for us the embodiment of this unthinkable question: What if, for humanity to survive, we as a species must surrender the very things that make us human?
However, to embody the question, he must also embody the answer—which he does by being more than just a victor, but the ultimate game-changer. When he couldn’t win by following the rules, he found ways around the rules without actually breaking them. Part of what makes him so compelling is that he finds loopholes no one else is smart enough to find—and the greatest of these circumnavigations is that he performs the unthinkable act of xenocide without ever losing his humanity. Ender gives us a noble answer to the question: No, we do not have to surrender our humanity to survive. Ender keeps his humanity, so perhaps we can, too.
When I first read Ender’s Game many years ago,3 there was a single review quote from the back cover that stuck in my mind. It said, Ender’s Game was “a scathing indictment of the military mind.” It bothered me. I wasn’t quite sure why at first. I wondered if that’s what the author intended—because it felt “off.” Incomplete. I ultimately came to realize that the book was ambivalent like Ender himself. Ender’s Game is both an indictment and a vindication of militaristic thinking at the same time. It provides a quandary, not a position. Ender’s Game does not give us a moral neatly wrapped with a bow—instead it opens the drawstring on a nasty bag of questions.
Take Graff, for instance. Is he a monster or a hero? As a reader, Graff made me uncomfortable, because I couldn’t decide whether I liked or disliked him. Clearly he cared about Ender. He openly admitted it more than once, if not to Ender, then to others.
“He [Graff] can use anybody—below him or above him or complete strangers who’ve never met him—to accomplish whatever he thinks is needful for the human race.”
—MAZER RACKHAM(in Ender in Exile)
Graff’s motive was to save humanity. Does that justify taking a six-year-old genius, and putting him through a trial by fire to forge him into the greatest weapon mankind has ever known? Let’s see…a single individual born to bear the burden of mankind’s salvation…Well, to say the least, there’s a cultural precedent! Still, it’s an unsettling question—especially when the military is involved. We want to say that such an action is never justified, and yet our survival imperative says otherwise. It’s easy for the people of Ender’s world to call Graff evil or irresponsible in retrospect once the formics are gone, and humanity’s greatest threat is once more itself.
Not only did the world condemn Graff, they condemned Ender as well—the very hero who saved them. In fact, Ender himself had a huge hand in painting his actions in a negative light, having penned The Hive Queen. It was a powerful choice Card made when he decided to have Ender go down in future history as a villain despised by good people everywhere. “Ender the Xenocide.” Future history saw him as so evil, so iconic, that the action became the person. He became the embodiment of the very concept of species annihilation.
This was more than just an authorial choice, however; it was an epiphany. Of course the world would come to hate Ender! It had to! How else could humanity cope with the horrific cost of its own survival?
Who do we hate when a weapon of mass destruction leaves blood on our hands? When we dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, did we come to hate Einstein for coming up with the formula for nuclear fission? Did we hate Oppenheimer for building the bomb? Did we blot Truman’s name from history for using it even though it wasn’t necessary? No, because then we would be implicating ourselves as accomplices. So instead we hated the bomb.
When an act is perpetrated by us, rather than upon us, we tend to find a receptacle for our hatred that keeps our own consciences clean. We hate the weapon—and when that weapon is an individual, all the better.
“You had to be a weapon, Ender…functioning perfectly but not knowing what you were aimed at.”
In Ender’s world, it was very clear that “Dr. Device” wasn’t really seen as the weapon: Ender himself was. For the world to clear its conscience, and move beyond the formic extinction, there needed to be a scapegoat. Ender the Xenocide. With the blame cast firmly upon Ender, mankind was free to inherit the worlds and infrastructure left behind by the formics with impunity. To the victor goes the spoils of the stars.
If Ender’s world didn’t come to hate him, that would be a dark portent for humanity. It would mean that humanity approved of the xenocide. By distancing itself from what Ender did, humanity takes a step in the right direction. Were we as enlightened as the hive queen, we wouldn’t need a scapegoat. We would come to terms with our own actions, and accept the blame. But alas, we are not. So we blame Ender.
On the other hand, Ender does become more enlightened than his society. Rather than hating Graff for his many deceptions, Ender understands him, and even becomes his friend. In Speaker for the Dead and in subsequent books of the initial series, Ender even makes peace with his own vilification. He’s able to go on in spite of what he’s done and what the world thinks of him, mainly because Card offers Ender some mercy and a little bit of grace at the conclusion of Ender’s Game. A hive queen, whose spirit somehow resonates in his mind, forgives him totally and completely for annihilating her species—and he’s left with a formic pupa, the seed for rebirth. She feels no animosity, only an abiding sorrow that Ender can share.
What the hive queen felt was sadness, a sense of resignation. She had not thought these words as she saw the humans coming to kill, but it was in words that Ender understood her: The humans did not forgive us, she thought. We will surely die.
Yet forgiveness and hope is the gift given to Andrew Wiggin at the end of the book—and for Ender, that is the only forgiveness that matters. It ennobles him, and frees him to find a new destiny as a speaker for the dead: a religious figure of stoic truth and resolve, enlightened, sometimes tortured, yet finding a small measure of peace with what he has done, and the way the many worlds of humanity—worlds taken from the extinct formics—despise his very name.
Of course, we as readers don’t hate Ender because we know his heart every step of the way. For this reason, we love Ender. Not just for everything he is but also for everything he isn’t.
I am not a killer, Ender said to himself over and over. I am not Peter. No matter what Graff says, I’m not. I was defending myself.
He isn’t Peter. He has no ambition for himself beyond survival. He doesn’t take pleasure in destroying his enemy. His devastating victories against Stilson and Bonzo did not bring him any joy, nor did destroying the formics.
Ender himself had a powerful realization as to what he felt at the moment of victory: that what made him truly able to defeat any foe is that, at the moment of victory, he truly knew and loved his enemy.
To love your enemy is to suffer the pain of their defeat along with them. There is almost a divine aspect to that. In a sense, Ender sacrificed his soul so that mankind might live. Of course, he didn’t know at the time that his greatest battle was real, but it doesn’t lessen the power of the sacrifice he made. One can argue that he was just a victim of a duplicitous military—but never did he feel or behave like a victim. That refusal to be a victim elevates him to something of a saint. A martyr who became victory for humanity. Victory and shame.
Let everybody drink some of my sweat today.
Ultimately, Ender’s innocence is his most valuable asset, even more so than his keen intelligence. We can say he was jaded and twisted by his experience in Battle School, but that wouldn’t be true—because down to the end he maintained purity of spirit in the face of everything that was hurled at him. Ender, after everything, was still a child… and yet not—and therein lies the genius of Ender as a character. He enters the story at age six and completes his mission by age twelve, but he never sounds like a six-year-old, or a twelve-year-old for that matter. He doesn’t quite sound like an adult either. He seems both jaded and innocent at the same time. He and the child characters around him are so unique that they are ageless.
Orson Scott Card did something remarkable; he turned Ender into the child that we become in our dreams when we find ourselves back in the sixth grade reliving the most traumatic moments of our youth. We are at once the child in the dream, and the adult of our waking life. For that reason, we can’t help but deeply identify with Ender. He becomes for us not a real child but a mythic being very much like that dream-self, ageless yet eternally young. Wise, yet unjaded. Just as we identify with the Halfling whose simple innocence and purity allowed him to save the world from the evil of the One Ring, so are we touched by Ender, the mythic innocent destined to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders.
We embrace Ender because we want to believe with all of our hearts that the necessary act of survival can be done in innocence despite civilization’s need to vilify and condemn the perpetrator. It’s comforting to us as readers and accidental philosophers that we can still see Ender as a hero.
I’d go as far as to say that even Peter is ultimately a comforting character. With Peter, Card asks, “Can there be a benevolent megalomaniac?” Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? We’ve always been told that, but deep down we want to believe that the old adage is a lie, that maybe we can learn from our mistakes, that maybe even the worst of us can grow. It’s reassuring to think that a sociopathic genius like Peter could find a way to align his own selfish goals with the goals of humanity and become the great unifier of all mankind.
That’s the kind of thing that Orson Scott Card does best: forcing us to reevaluate the way we think about everything. He doesn’t give us the all-too-familiar fallen hero but rather a true hero vilified. He doesn’t give us the typical vision of a ruler corrupted, but instead shows us corruption turned to serve the greater good. Even when he had Valentine play the role of the frighteningly demagogic Demosthenes, while Peter played the role of conciliatory Locke, he was forcing us to see things a little differently, to see the irony of how the left and the right can collude to manipulate the public, and serve each other.
As mankind gains knowledge at an exponential rate, we struggle to find the wisdom with which to deal with that knowledge. More and more, we find crucial wisdom in stories like Ender’s Game. We find within fictional characters or in fictionalizations of real characters something that resonates as real in our souls. After all, a well-crafted biography is not merely about facts, but about the heart and soul of an individual, the world in which that person lived, and how that world reflects our own. The identical is true of fiction—especially thought-provoking science fiction because the arena lends itself so well to allegory.
What I see as the great hope for humanity is that we are compelled to find new perspectives, and to look at complex situations like those served to us by Orson Scott Card. For a short time, we become Ender, grappling with that which must be done versus that which is right to do—in this case, the moral ambiguity of survival. The more we challenge ourselves with literature that dares to pose the hard questions, the better equipped we are to navigate real-world complexities.
In recent years, we’ve developed a deep fascination with the understanding of not just heroes but of villains as well. The humanizing of a serial killer, such as in Dexter. The turning of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. Even our obsession with the show-stopping musical vindication of the Wicked Witch speaks volumes about us. We, as a species, are beginning to realize that good and evil are not so simplistically clear as we once thought they were. Our eyes were opened by the likes of Shakespeare (the bard, not the planet) to the vast complexity of the human condition, and finally we are truly ripe for embracing it. We want our stories to show more than just the dark and the light; we are compelled to explore the grays. The intricacies of human existence, human choices, and human survival. Nowhere is that clearer than in Ender’s Game.
“Human beings are free except when humanity needs them.”
I’ve often wondered how the story would have gone if Ender knew that his final game was the actual war. Would he have gone through with it? Card answers the question in Ender in Exile. Ender says point blank that, yes, even if he knew, he would have tried to complete his mission, and end the formics to save humanity. I think it would have destroyed him, though. I suspect he would have found a way to end his own existence in the process of saving humanity, finding the weight of his harsh victory unbearable. He would have been a true tragic character.
But, on the other hand, I think Ender and Orson Scott Card are smarter than that. If Ender knew the final battle was real, I think he would have changed the game again, this time by changing the objective. Because if he truly was incapable of losing, wouldn’t the greatest victory be to save and preserve both species in a lasting peace?
I believe if Ender knew what he was truly doing, he would have used the fleet to find a way to communicate with the formics, and ultimately he would have been successful enough to learn that they were no longer a threat. So perhaps the greatest failure in Ender’s game was Graff’s and Mazer’s because, by not trusting Ender fully and completely enough to give him the full picture, they didn’t allow Ender to work his magic. It was Ender’s ability to see the big picture that made him a genius commander. With the whole picture, how gloriously he might have solved the problem!
Ah well. We’ll never know. Except, perhaps, in an alternate Ender universe…which, come to think of it, is not entirely out of the question. After all, there are parallel novels in the Ender world—what would be wrong with adding one that is somewhat perpendicular?
I’d definitely stay up until four in the morning to read that.
- I was sitting on the floor in the hallway of a hotel while on vacation. I had to be out in the hallway because I didn’t want to wake the baby or my wife, who had tired of hearing me flip pages of Ender’s Game in bed.
- It was more of a bed and breakfast than a hotel. The hallway in which I was reading had green carpet and yellow walls, and it smelled of dusty potpourri that infused the pages of the book.
- While in the hallway reading at 4:00 am, I ate some leftover prime rib from dinner and got horseradish sauce in my sinuses right at the moment when Bean announced to Ender he had been named a team commander. My tears were from the horseradish. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
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