This weekend I finally watched Ender's Game. I had been waiting to see it, having missed it in theaters, because I wanted to read the book, a book about which I had previously been, perhaps blissfully, unaware.
I'll start by saying that I don't think I would have enjoyed the movie more if I hadn't read the book. Although the movie stays remarkable close to the story, it really just skims the surface and for good reason. In summary, the world is in dire straits and the only solution is to use computer games to train brilliant children to become commanders in a new army and thereby save the human race. And yet the movie falls flat. The special effects are somehow not special enough. Asa Butterfield is too old to fully capture the power, and the horror, of Ender Wiggin, who should be much younger. But then the abuse and struggles that 6-year old Ender Wiggin faces would not make a popular film and neither would the thought of a 10-year old destroying an entire species. The film's Ender is a kinder person than the book's, but his affect is also more flat. We do not see the struggles that makes him who he becomes. He makes friends too easily. The adults argue that they can't afford to be soft, but there they are, hovering over every scene. Even the shock of the ending, the revelation that they were fighting a real war, that Ender just annihilated a civilization, doesn't have the weight it should because the audience has never had the opportunity to feel what the characters supposedly feel. We just watch. "No!. The way you win matters!" Ender cries. But he could be any adolescent, crying about any unfair battle.
Of course, this is part of the appeal of the book to its primarily adolescent and young adult audience. I can remember that feeling of being misunderstood and manipulated. Ender is the innocent who is tortured and despised despite his innocence; he is despised for who he is. No one seems to care, no one protects him. The adults let the bullies get away with bullying. He takes action, and he is absolved of all responsibility for his actions. In this scenario, the fact that Ender is mistreated is evidence of his goodness and his gifts. And in the end he overcomes all obstacles and is blameless. How can this not appeal to the rough world of adolescent angst? And yet this is precisely the problem with Ender's Game. Its morality is a stunted, juvenile morality.
Ender is a highly gifted child. He is also horrendously abused. His parents are negligent. His older brother, who shows all signs of being a psychopath, tortures him relentlessly. He is bullied at school. He is chosen to go to a military school that seems to function with the sole purpose of pushing children until they break. Ender is the child they have been looking for, a child with tremendous empathy, but also a child with an overwhelming survival instinct. Colonel Graff's mission is to push Ender to breaking point after breaking point, until the survival instinct drives all his actions, to the point that he will destroy before he risks being hurt.
The basic premise is laid out at the beginning of the novel. Ender was chosen, protected, wearing a monitor. The monitor was removed and along with it his protection, leaving him open to the school bullies. In the ensuing fight, Ender moves beyond merely beating his opponent, Stillson, to brutalizing him. Later when Colonel Graff asks him to explain his actions, Ender replies:
"Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they'd leave me alone."
This, of course, is the answer Graff is looking for. Ender had to beat Stillson to a pulp because it is the best strategy in the only world Ender knows, a world where violence is the only recourse. At the tender age of 6 Ender has no faith in rescue. He has a brother who tortures him, who will torture him again, and parents who seem oddly unconcerned. He does not see a world in which anyone will protect him because no one has protected him this far.
And of course, this view of the world is shared by the Space Command. Colonel Graff want to shape a young mind to pulverize the enemy without conscience. The military command is still functioning on a rather childish, dualistic, level. They were almost destroyed by an alien species. They see their only option as destroying the enemy before it can come back to destroy them, and they are going out of their way to do just that, to perform the interplanetary version of beating the bully to a pulp so he could never hurt them again. They do not question the fact that the enemy has not returned. It never occurs to anyone that the "buggers" might have made a mistake. That they might not have originally realized that humans were intelligent, or that, having made that discovery, they might not attack again.
"We did not mean to murder. When we understood, we never came again. We thought we were the only thinking beings in the universe, until we met you, but never did we dream that thought could arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams. How were we to know".
So the military uses their own fears, to manipulate Ender, to play on his self-loathing, his fear of being destroyed. They don't let Ender's innocence or good qualities surface and Card intensifies and plays up this dichotomy in ways that are unsettling. They make him into a killer, but claim he is still pure, still good, because he did not know he killed.
This raises several rather profound questions, doesn't it? In fact I find the book tremendously unsettling and thought provoking. Although the book is not difficult, and I suspect it can be ready simply without extended reflection, it can draws upon many emotionally and ethically complex issues. It is also an extremely powerful study of violence, of military conflict, of strategy, and the extent we can allow manipulation to run amok under the guise of military necessity. It is a damning statement of the many ways we let our fears build walls which separate us from and dehumanizing those we see as "the other", and the way we use fear to justify our actions. There are, after all, reasons we encourage soldiers to see the enemy as "gooks", "towelheads", or "buggers". It is very difficult to kill Ali, the little boy who was in your scout troop and whose dad owned the deli down the street, but not so difficult to kill some anonymous "other" who is somehow less than yourself. But just as Colonel Graff didn't care what happened to Ender once the war was won, we don't really worry ourselves too much about what happens to our soldiers after they've come home from war.
When Ender learns that he has destroyed the buggers in reality, not in a game, he has a much more visceral reaction than the movie Ender:
"I didn't want to kill them all. I didn't want to kill anybody! I'm not a killer! You didn't want me, you bastards, you wanted Peter, but you made me do it, you tricked me into it!" He was crying. He was out of control.
"Of course we tricked you into it. That's the whole point," said Graff. "It had to be a trick or you couldn't have done it. It's the bind we were in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew you couldn't do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood the buggers well enough."
"And it had to be a child, Ender" said Mazer. You were faster than me. Better than me. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn't know. You were reckless and brilliant and young."
Do Ender's actions shape him and what he becomes? Who is to blame? Is he innocent, as this passage seems to claim, or does he bear the responsibility for those he has killed? Card seems to gloss over any sense of resolution Ender finds at the end. Forgiveness is mentioned and with that forgiveness comes a renewed sense of responsibility. But it seems the afterthought here, whereas for me, I would think it would be the primary focus.
Since I read Ender's Game in January, snippets of news, fragments of conversations, keep bringing me back to the many questions raised by the book. I am sure that some of my ponderings may not have been intended by the author, but that is one of the reasons I consider this a good book, it makes the reader question, even beyond the intended scope of the book, or its intended message.