Saturday, 17 November 2007

Unconvincing games

Another book for the Charity Shop run. This time a "science fiction classic": Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Published originally in 1985, derived from an earlier short story, this is a book I've heard a fair bit about over a long period of time. I originally heard about it during my first working trip to the US in 1992 (from AMG), but it took C purchasing it for my birthday for me to finally get round to it. The book has attracted a large fan-base, several sequels, and even some rather odd endorsements from military organisations.

It tells the story of a young child, Ender, bullied at school but identified by the authorities as possessing certain strategic talents. These talents are desperately sought because humanity is on the losing side of a war with an alien race, the insectoid buggers (yes, indeed - what was Card thinking?). Along with other children, Ender is taken away from his family to enter a training programme that builds on and enhances the strategic skills that have been identified in them. This programme, which takes place in space, primarily consists of exercises in which Ender and his fellow students "play" strategic wargames, with themselves taking roles as playing pieces. At the same time, Ender confronts bullying from his fellow students, gradually triumphing both in this and the wargames played. As time passes, these wargames involve to take on more aspects of the fights with the aliens (no, I can't say "buggers") that they aim to train the students in. This success leads to Ender taking increasingly senior roles in the wargames, ultimately becoming the commander-in-chief of his fellow students. After a particularly long-winded and brilliantly-resolved fight it is revealed to Ender that this game was not what it appeared. It was not a game at all, and Ender was, in fact, fighting the aliens by proxy. His success in the game reflects a defeat for the aliens. As it happens, a terminal defeat, since his gameplay involved a devastating attack on their homeworld. The novel finishes with celebrations across human civilisation, but with Ender on the alien homeworld where he begins to atone for his unwittingly genocidal actions, by raising young buggers from pupae.

As I noted already, I knew a bit about this novel before I started. What I knew appealed to me, the theme of atonement by a powerful character, in particular, I'm a sucker for. However, reading the novel was quite a different experience. Firstly, right from the start, it got me shaking my head and disbelieving it. Bizarrely, Ender is only 6 years old when the novel starts, but has an interior life of someone much older. Suspension of disbelief on this scale, this early on, is unnecessary in a novel. Although Ender is supposed to be special, this sort of set-up in simply not credible. Making him a young teenager, and therefore more justifiably aware of himself, would have made far, far more sense. Anyway, there are other problems. He has a brother and sister who are also special, and who play key roles in propaganda events back on Earth, again while still very young. Another unconvincing turn of events.

More practically, the novel is medium-long in length, but stretches its central story too thinly. Despite being a gameplayer myself, I couldn't get excited about the games described during the novel, they just got in the way between plot advancements. I presume the author was aiming for character development here, but that's hard to pull off when the novel's characters are hobbled from the get-go by appearing unrealistically wise and self-aware for their ages.

Most importantly, I just didn't like Ender at all. Primarily because he's just very annoying, which makes it hard to get behind or care about his evolution through the book. The nature of the events at the end of the novel make these sections with him more interesting, but you have to wade through a lot of "character development" that just doesn't seem realistic to get there.

My suspicion is that the short story would work far more successfully. By focusing on the key themes, a lot of the peripheral aspects that annoy me in the novel would drop away. Perhaps I'll read that at some stage. Anyway, in summary, this is a "classic" with feet of clay. I can see why it might appeal, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. I suspect its focus on childhood appeals to some readers, while its novel approach to military activity appeals to others. It was probably more unusual and exotic when first released, so I'm doubtless being too harsh, but it's important to be honest about how novels hold up against time.

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