Sunday, 22 May 2011

SF Book Review: Ender's Game

I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game for the first time last night. I’d caught snippets of controversy over the years, heard bits and pieces about the plot, and I even recall one of my favourite film directors, Wolfgang Petersen, was attached to make it as a Hollywood blockbuster at one point (um, good luck to anyone who tries!). I’ve had such good luck with my run of SF classics recently, I thought I’d give this immensely popular novel a try.

Six-year-old child prodigy Ender Wiggin is the youngest of three siblings with unlimited potential. They’ve all been monitored by the military authorities, and Colonel Graff, charged with selecting a child to be groomed for eventual leadership in a pending war against the alien “buggers”, picks Ender. His brother Peter is cruel and heartless, while his sister Valentine is too nice to ever hurt anyone. Ender, meanwhile, possesses the best attributes of both, from a military point of view. He is compassionate enough to make friends and inspire loyalty, but he also has a single-minded survival instinct that is cold and calculating. Graff reckons that with sufficient training, he can coax Ender into becoming a military tactician to rival Alexander the Great or Napoleon.

Did I mention Ender is only six?

Throughout his time in Command School, a top secret orbital station, the best and the worst of Ender are brought out—his will to succeed, to become master of the battleroom, sees him progress up the ranks with astonishing speed. He makes friends and enemies along the way, and is deeply haunted by memories of his cruel brother and the sister he loved. Graff is ever present behind the scenes, pulling the strings, manipulating the young genius into becoming the best he can be. The stunning third act is full of twists and turns as Ender must struggle to realize his true, frightening potential.

Wow, talk about a provocative novel! I’ve seen it listed as Young Adult, but there’s no end to the moral, ethical, political, social, and futuristic themes raked up here. Card doesn’t dwell on any of them, doesn’t preach; he tells his story the simplest way he can and lets the reader do most of the heavy lifting—if they want it. Because it also works as an exciting science fiction tale, a coming-of-age story, with a memorable climax.

Ender might be very young but he thinks and behaves with an ever-increasing maturity almost immediately. There’s nothing condescending here. He’s also prone to nightmares, and is shaped not just by Graff and the endless battleroom games, but by those around him. He has to contend with bullies, rivals, abusive teachers, personal demons: all of us have something in common with Ender Wiggin. Card’s triumph here is the complexity he gives these boys and girls struggling to become men and women before their time. At their age, it might all be about winning games and points, but they’re constantly aware there’ll be a time when those games and points will end lives. We feel that responsibility weighing Ender down, and his will to overcome it becomes ours, vicariously. We don’t want these children to ever graduate from the battleroom. But if they must, let it be under the leadership of someone with compassion and not just a killer instinct. Humanity must graduate intact.

Everyone needs a Valentine to temper their Peter.

I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed Ender’s Game. It’s a one-of-a-kind children’s SF war story that isn’t really for children at all. I’m telling everyone I know to read it (if they haven’t already), and I can’t wait to see what the sequels are like.

That makes six GREAT sci-fi novels in a row for me now. The previous one was Frank Herbert’s Dune; next up is Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. SF has always been my favourite genre, but I had no idea there were so many masterpieces out there, waiting to be discovered.

This is Robert, signing off for now.

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