Monday, August 28, 2006

Not a Game

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, Read by Harlan Ellison, Read by Stefan Rudnicki, Harlan Ellison, and Gabrielle De Cuir, Audio Renaissance, 2004

I’ve never really been a sci-fi buff, so there are a number of “classics” of the genre of which I have yet to partake such as Neuromancer, Asimov’s Foundation series, or the works of Octavia Butler. Where I’ve partaken of the genre has typically been around the softer edges, works that are in a blurry category unto themselves. While much of Vonnegut, Bradbury, and Douglas Adams might technically fall into a kind of sci-fi, there was always more going on than merely “stories told in the future.”

So, to be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting much when I picked up Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It was a title I’ve been aware of for some time, and it has been widely recognized as head and shoulders above its genre peers. So I figured, what the hell. At worst it’s two days at work listening to a book I’d come here and savage with my characteristic blunt wit; at it’s mega-best, I dash out and buy a bunch of books by a new beloved find. (I’ve found audiobooks have really loosened up my standards, such as they are, for making time to sit down and concentrate on one single thing for hours at a time over the course of a week or thereabouts is an investment I no longer make willy-nilly.)

And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. I still don’t care much for books that glorify battles or fighting or that fetishize weaponry or technological gee-gaws, but Ender’s Game was less like that than packaging had lead me to believe. The simple plot runs like this, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a child prodigy, is in training in a military academy (known as Battle School) to defeat an alien menace known as Buggers who twice before invaded earth killing millions. For a variety of reasons dealing with the type of technology and speed of reactions, a crash-course breeding program that has propagated a race of superchildren, and their malleability, the soldiers, boys and girls both, are all under the age of eighteen. Ender, the most promising student ever, is perhaps humanity’s last hope.

The information about this new and horrifying world is dripped and dropped throughout the course of the story, always given in miniscule doses framing for us the outlines of society such as the birth limit and the governmental allowance on conception. This method avoids one of the greatest pitfalls of futuristic stories: the not-so-hidden monologue on “How Things Got This Way.” It is practically a staple to badly written stories of the future that some character who should know better is given a lecture on what happened, very sketchily, from our time to the time of the book. “It was the war, wasn’t it, sir?” some tyke will ask a headmaster. “Yes, son, it was. You see, in the early twenty first century, as oil reserves began to become more and more scarce, war for resources began to…” and on and on until the robots with human DNA come on the scene.

What’s doubly nice about Ender’s Game from that perspective is that Card was able to expostulate certain things based on his frame of reference, the late seventies and early eighties, and make some interesting predictions. For instance, much of the youth, white or black, speak in a black slang pidgin, everyone has his own laptop computer (here called “desks”), video games of incredible complexity dominate children’s entertainment, and a great deal of communication takes place globally on “message boards” on “the nets.” (As an amusing side note to that, Card even managed to foresee the wankerific pretension that would lead so many of these net users to hijack Greek philosopher names for their postings.)

Back on earth, of course, various factions are doing just that, posting highly inflammatory screeds on the nets. The two most prominent posters are Ender’s elder brother Peter and his sister Valentine, posing as much more experienced participants. Like Ender, they too are genetically enhanced, using their superior brain power to shift public opinion towards certain outcomes. Peter will himself try to influence Ender toward his own likely malicious ends, while Valentine will both use Ender and be used by those who would seek to use Ender themselves.

While a great deal of Ender’s training does indeed involve various battle scenes of practice combat, Card is wise not to focus too intently on the actual bang-bang aspect (or zap-zap as the case may be), but we watch Ender do something few books of this kind actually bother with: think. We see him working his way through an interactive fantasy style video game whose rules are never made remotely clear and whose one actual rule seems to be “break previous rules.” Comparatively a great strategist, Ender also manages to overcome whatever obstacle his superior officers throw at him, even when his particular army group is outnumbered by three to four.

(I say “comparatively” though because much of Ender’s quick thinking is hampered by Card’s obvious ignorance. For example, some of the advances Ender makes in the zero-gravity chamber where these battles take place are things that should be standard by this stage, such as the use of a tether or string to rapidly retreat from the middle of a zero gravity chamber rather than floating helplessly about in space until you come into contact with a much larger stationary object. Making the smallest possible target of yourself also seems a helpful means of avoiding getting shot, not that anyone else seems to have clued in to what is obvious even to squirt gun champions.)

What sets Ender’s Game apart then from just any emerging-soldier-who-must-save-the-day story is the moral complexity injected into the story. As a thinking person, Ender can’t help but empathize with the creatures he’s being trained to destroy. Rather than merely see these aliens as monsters, he notes that they have lives and desires not unlike our own. The book’s climactic battle then is both surprising and disheartening in a number of ways, while the aliens seemed to have been far cleverer than anyone, even Ender, gave them credit for previously.

Tying this in with the political shenanigans perpetrated back and on Earth by Peter and Valentine, Ender’s Game has several levels of characters who, much like the author, only tell as much as necessary to accomplish what they’re after. It is a complex series of motivations working through most action with the head of Battle School, Colonel Graff, using Valentine to keep Ender in training, while Valentine is using Ender to keep herself safe, all the while knowing that Graff is using her and Ender knowing it too. All parties are manipulated and manipulating, knowingly so at times, and denying it at other times.

In the end, it is the author’s actual real intelligence that shines through and that allows the characters themselves to feel human. Far too often, genre writing of the sci-fi category loses sight of the human in either cartoon creations of super-ability or technological Land of Tomorrow marvels. Card has managed to write a novel that both features an intelligent thinking character and to make that character complicated and with actual depth who we can see thinking as well as thinking and feeling about the consequences of his actions. That’s worth more than all the starship blasters in the universe combined.

As an audiobook, three readers take up the reins here literary genre writer Harlan Ellison himself is joined by Stefan Rudnicki. These two take turns with various characters in the narrative, most prominently a kind of Greek chorus of watchers who are observing Ender’s development at the school and occasionally butt in to comment on what just happened or to foreshadow what challenge Ender will face next. Having one of them read the bulk of the novel then engage in conversation with the other might have been a bad choice. Instead it reinforces the constant monitoring aspect of the novel. They are joined by Gabrielle De Cuir rounding out the major female part, Ender’s sister Valentine. All three acquit themselves superbly, lending a slight theatrical flair to the work that is a welcome addition.

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