Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ender's Game: Literary Analysis

Ender's Game is a science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card and is one of the very few books to win both Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction's highest honors, for Best Novel. It is the story of child prodigy Ender Wiggin in 22nd century North Carolina, who lives with his distant parents, his dear sister Valentine, and his sadistic brother Peter. The novel opens movingly: “I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.” Humanity faces the threat of a technologically advanced alien civilization that has already attacked twice, and the Earth leadership desperately seeks a person with the skill and innate ability to lead Earth's forces to victory. In Ender Wiggin, they see that person. Colonel Graff, who says that unique first line, is the book's most mercurial character. A fat, slovenly bureaucrat in some respects, he possesses a keen military mind and a ruthless sense of what must be done to win final and ultimate victory in the war that humanity faces. It is his manipulation that turns Ender Wiggin into a precisely-tuned instrument of destruction, who in the end, is able to save humanity. The question Card leaves us with is: was it the right thing to do?

Early in the book, Peter Wiggin terrorizes his younger siblings, inflicting physical violence and even threatening to kill them. Peter is cruel and manipulative by nature, and this naturally led to his oppression of Ender and Valentine. He especially hates Ender because Peter was tested and rejected for Battle School while, at the outset of the book, Ender still wears his “monitor,” and is apparently destined for Battle School. After Ender leaves Earth to go to Battle School, the conflict continues to a lesser extent between Peter and Valentine. Peter draws Valentine into his scheme to gain power in the world. He and she pretend to be the ideologues Lock and Demosthenes. Locke's persona is reasoned and wise, while Demosthenes is inflammatory and indulges in demagoguery. They are meant to be perfect opposites. Peter takes Loke, Valentine writes Demosthenes. Essentially, they each are taking positions that conflict with their real beliefs. Through their close partnership, they begin to understand more about each other and Peter's animosity is curbed somewhat. However, Valentine knows that if Ender returns to Earth after his victory over the Buggers, Peter will use him to his own ends. She uses Demosthenes to assure that Ender can never return to Earth, and she leaves Earth on a colony ship to join him. So the conflict is resolved only when the aggressors are separated by lightyears.

The Human war with the Buggers is the overarching conflict in the story. The Buggers are a powerful alien race that attacked Earth twice sometime before the story began. They were repulsed by the space-fleets of Earth, but only because of the dumb luck of Mazer Rackham. Since the “second invasion,” humanity has concentrated its energies on preparing for a possible third invasion. Humanity is under a Hegemony and the IF (International Fleet) builds spaceships with ever-increasing speed and firepower. However, humans on earth believe that the fleet is massing in the solar system, when in fact each ship is sent to attack the Bugger home-worlds as soon as it is built and crewed. The IF has instituted the Battle School, an orbital base devoted to training prodigious children to be the leaders and commanders of the fleet en route to destroy the Buggers. Ender Wiggin is selected to attend Battle School. He overcomes the trials of battle school and is sent to Command School. There he is trained by Mazer Rackham himself, and begins to practice using the “Simulator,” a virtual command interface. He is aided by his “jeesh,” his friends and allies from Battle School. Unbeknownst to him, the battle “simulations” are actually the real battles against the Buggers. He wins most of them handily. On the final trial, however, he decides to use his weapons against the Bugger planet itself, employing a suicidal strategy. He is succesful, and the planet is destroyed, along with nearly all his forces. Rackham reveals to him that he just fought the real battle and has defeated and destroyed the Buggers.

Before Ender enters battle school, Stilson, a boy at school, terrorizes him for being a “Third”--a third child born to his parents under a special dispensation, at a time when there are strict population controls placed on the population. One day Ender's “monitor,” a device the IF uses to observe him and decide his fitness for Battle School, is removed. Stilson, seeing that Ender is now unmonitored by watchful adults, approaches him with a group of cohorts planning to cause pain. Ender determines that he must take the gloves off. He thinks that only a complete victory would dissuade the bullies from further attacks. When Stilson attacks him, Ender's response is swift and very painful. Stilson is vanquished and, the author implies, actually dies. Later, at battle school, Ender makes an enemy of Bonzo Madrid, a much older boy who commands Ender's army. Bonzo treats Ender nastily, and Ender embarrasses him by defying his orders to never fire his weapon, and firing critical shots that win a battle with another army. Ender is later transferred to another army and has further scuffles with Bonzo. Their conflict culminates when Bonzo confronts Ender in the showers. Ender decides that, as before, a direct confrontation is necessary. He destroys Bonzo, later finding out that he killed him as well.

All the conflicts in the book are set against the backdrop of humanity's protracted war with the Buggers, which forms the overarching story line. The first lesser conflict is Peter Wiggin's infliction of pain on his younger siblings. Ending this conflict becomes a major motivation for Ender and Valentine. Ender's fight with Stilson is his final test, and the moment in the book when he is most defenseless. It is his response here that finally tells Colonel Graff, the commander of Battle School, that Ender is strong enough to lead. As Ender goes through Battle School and proves his stellar abilities, it is his seeming indispensability in the Bugger Wars that provokes Bonzo's hatred and jealousy. Before their last encounter, Ender's older friend Dink shouts, “Don't hurt him, Bonzo! We need him!” This only inflames Bonzo further, reminding him, as Card points out, that he is largely a nonentity to other people, while Ender is the perceived savior of humanity from the Buggers. In a sense, the antagonists Peter and Stilson and Bonzo were hindrances that prevented Ender from addressing the major conflict: the war with the Buggers.

Ender's time in the “simulator” at Command School is the climax of the story, specifically the final “test” set by his teacher Mazer Rackham: he must lead the human forces, outnumbered 1000 to 1, to victory against a massive Bugger fleet around their home planet. Prior to the battle, Mazer tells Ender that the upcoming battle will be the final simulation; if he wins, he will graduate from Command School. Ender is dismayed when he sees the enormity of the fleet he is tasked to destroy. He thinks it is an impossible cheat by Rackham, and decides that he will use all his forces in a near-suicidal attack on the Bugger planet itself. This mirrors an incident earlier in the book, Ender's last battle at Battle School, where Ender and Dragon Army beat not one but two armies in the battle room by using similar techniques. Ender's spiraling, unpredictable attack leads to grievous losses, but it also brings the awesome destructive power of Ender's weapons to bear on the Bugger planet. He destroys the planet. Ender thinks he has won by cheating, but the celebration of the observers sent to watch his final battle tells him otherwise. Finally, in the book's revelatory moment, Rackham reveals to him that he has just destroyed the Buggers—the “simulator” was no simulator at all. In fact, it was a tactical command center of the entire Earth space armada. He tells Ender that Earth needed a commander with the compassion to fully understand his enemy, but with the ruthlessness to destroy him. Ender had the compassion, but not the ruthlessness, and thus his true purpose was hidden from him. Ender concludes that a complete understanding of one's enemy will lead irrevocably to loving them. Ender's victory, then, is the climax of the story, though he did not know it at the time.

The questions Card leaves unanswered are uniformly intentional. Ender's Game is not a thrilling science fiction story, but rather a novel about the human condition and the consequences of thoughts and actions. Was Graff's manipulation of Ender justifiable? Was Ender's eventual act of destruction the right thing to do? Did the Buggers deserve to die? These are the questions Card leaves us with, and they are questions with answers that may make us rethink our preconceptions about human actions, the military mind, and the prospect of nonhuman intelligent life in the universe. Ender's Game, however, does not succeed because it is a great philosophical work. It succeeds because it is a novel that describes otherworldly events with a human heart. Like the best experiences in life, the events in Ender's Game do not just happen. They break down and change and build up the characters who experience them. In a world where fiction is so often idealized and unrealistic, Ender's Game is, conversely, a harshly realistic novel set in one possible future.