If you’ve ever looked around your workplace and thought “they just keep getting younger every year,” you should go to the IF’s battle school. Forget about teenagers enrolling in the army, these guys and gals are hardly ten. Ender Wiggin is only six. It’s worth it, they say, because they’re desperately trying to create the kind of brainpower that will help them survive another war with the aliens known as the buggers. But the question that the cunning Col. Graff has to wrestle with is enough to make your blood run cold: what are we doing to these kids?
For Ender Wiggin, however, the choice to agree and enter the IF’s school is pretty simple. He’s a third child, practically a death sentence at school, given that most families were only allowed to have two children. But more than that, he’s abused by his monstrous older brother Peter, who he really believes would kill him in his sleep if he could get away with it. So he goes, not knowing what he might have just stepped into.
Orson Scott Card’s novel has been hailed as one of the greatest science fiction novels in the 20th century. That’s not without reason. His descriptions of the zero gravity battle room and the way he gets you into his characters’ heads is second to none. But Ender’s Game is great for another, more subtle reason. It’s because it slowly yet surely breaks down our constructed ideas of what virtue truly is.
The book itself is highly political. It challenges notions of war, foreign policy, and even political journalism. More than that, though, it’s about the children. Graff and the other military officers drive the kids until they can go on no longer, sometimes even putting them in harm’s way to do so. From the first day, Ender finds himself isolated, intentionally made a target of the other children by Graff, who praises him publicly in such a way as to make the children jealous of him. The adults continually place him in similar difficult situations, believing that if he’s to be the commander they want him to be, he must never believe an adult will be there to save him. The adults are valuing what we value both in soldiers, as well as in our culture generally: strength, power, and self-sufficiency. Those are things that the culture still values, even if tempered by other less aggressive values.
But the book itself challenges those values. Ender himself does not appear to be one to have self-sufficiency and power, being significantly smaller than most of the children he’s around, but that doesn’t stop him. The thing that allows him to succeed is not his physical prowess, but his intellectual power. He’s smarter than anyone else around. There are even occasional hints that he’s smarter than the adults as well, not from Ender made out of arrogance, but from the omniscient narrator. But even his intellectual ability is not the thing that defines Ender. What does define him is something that is ironically completely opposite from what the IF was originally looking for.
Empathy. There’s a very telling portion of the book when Ender is talking to his beloved sister Valentine. He’s having serious doubts about battle school, and he’s beginning to learn that he can’t trust the adults in the school. Ender’s signature fighting style is to not just win the battle he’s in, but to win all the other battles; to defeat his opponent so severely that he will never approach Ender again. But to do that, Ender tells Valentine, he must understand them. He must empathize with them. And in that moment, when he completely empathizes with and understands them, he loves them. Then he has to defeat them.
The remarkable thing about Ender’s Game isn’t just that it’s an imaginative space story or even its commentary on how we use children. It is remarkable because the real conflict at work is that an Ender who wants to empathize and love is being pushed to power and destruction. And without question, the story comes down on the side of Ender. I’m reminded of several Bible passages that speak of loving your enemies, loving your neighbor, and living with a general attitude of helping others. And I’m left wondering how we in our own culture pursue so hotly the security of power and self-sufficiency that we completely sacrifice those godly virtues. If Ender’s Game, is nothing else, it is certainly thought-provoking.
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