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REVIEW – Ender’s Game (2013)

March 3, 2014

endsgameVideovista has my review of Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sinister science fiction novel Ender’s Game.

Quite possibly the single most commercially successful science fiction novel of all time, Ender’s Game tells the story of a gifted child who is groomed, recruited and trained to become the military commander who will defend Earth against an imminent and unavoidable attack by a race of inscrutable ant-like aliens known as the Formics (the novel’s ambiguously homophobic term ‘buggers’ having been dropped from the film due to the negative press surrounding Card’s activities as an anti-LGBT spokesperson and activist). Having now watched the film and re-read the novel, I am struck by the fact that Ender’s Game sits rather uncomfortably between two different stools:

On the one hand, the story (originally published as a novella in Analog) is a throwback to the golden age of science fiction where genocidal space captains were not seen as particularly problematic characters. This aspect of the novel sits squarely in the foreground and is obvious from the fact that much of the novel’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that it is one enormous Geek power fantasy about a super-smart kid who beats the shit out of his bullies, gets all the cool friends and saves the day despite being misunderstood and persecuted.

On the other hand, the story is painfully aware of the literary turn of 1960s science fiction and so tries to reflect the fact that you can no longer get away with writing a novel about a genocidal space commander without acknowledging the fact that genocide is bad (Mm’kay?) and that characters need to be well-rounded individuals with internal conflicts to resolve. This aspect of the novel is evident not only in Ender’s undirected and largely uncritical angst but also in the way that the book tries to have its cake and eat it too by building towards a climactic battle only to then suggest that climactic battles aren’t necessarily a good idea.

The tension between these sets of literary values not only explains why the more recent Ender’s Shadow (a retelling of the book from the perspective of Ender’s psychopathic and entirely angst-free sidekick Bean) is a far superior novel, it also explains why Ender’s Game is such a deeply problematic work of fiction. Had Ender’s Game embraced its golden age roots and been about a heroic kiddy space captain then it would have been nothing more than your standard piece of reactionary escapist SF fluff and had Ender’s Game been about the morally problematic aspects of military service then it would have been a pretty good revisionist MilSF novel comparable to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. However, by trying to write within two politically incompatible literary traditions, Card effectively wound up creating a novel that emphasises all the worst aspects of traditional science fiction.

I don’t like the politics of Ender’s Game and I don’t like the politics of this film:

The problem is not that Ender’s Game is a power fantasy wrapped in a persecution complex and fired into the faces of unsuspecting children, the problem is that this film sends a message that the only rational and intelligent response to feelings of alienation, betrayal and confusion is to conform to the demands of the institutions that caused those negative feelings in the first place. Ender’s Game is not content with telling us that there is no alternative to a life of selfish brutality, it goes out of its way to present that life as sane, heroic and oh so very clever. Gavin Hood’s film is well made and elegant to look at, as beautiful as a $110 million advert for fascism could ever hope to be.

I’m not the first person to have this reaction:

  • Elaine Radford wrote an essay entitled “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman” in which she points out a number of moral and biographical similarities between the two genocides.
  • John Kessel wrote an essay entitled “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality” in which he points out the problematic nature of Card’s moral system.

But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else point out that the book is not only fascistic but also incredibly derivative as it is essentially a re-skinning of Tom Godwin’s short story “The Cold Equations”. I outline the similarities between the two texts at some length in my review but the similarities are even more striking when you read the original “Ender’s Game” novelette, which was published in 1977 in the same magazine that originally published “The Cold Equations”.

PS Not long after uploading this, I came across a recent Cory Doctorow column from Locus magazine that essentially makes the exact same point about the artificiality of TINA and how Godwin creates a particular moral scenario and then expunges all blame and concepts of moral responsibility by willfully confusing the political laws governing the pilot’s society with the laws of nature. Given that it’s written by Cory Doctorow, the piece is significantly better written than mine and makes the connection I somehow missed with the concept of moral hazard:

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.

He then goes on to talk about the moral horrors of a Robert Heinlein story and I am reminded, yet again of that author’s toxic influence on the history of science fiction.

3 Comments
  1. March 3, 2014 5:07 pm

    I haven’t seen the film, but I did read the book some years ago, and your interpretation of the book’s politics is in line with my recollections of them. (I find myself remembering, in particular, the constant justifications given for the gauntlet young Ender spends his life running.)
    Incidentally, reading your review I found myself thinking of your piece on Heroic Slavery in Futurismic some years ago, with Ender perhaps another such image.

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  2. March 5, 2014 9:22 pm

    Well, I can only agree — Ender’s Game is pure fascism, plain and simple.

    It may also be used as an argument for the social responsibility of the artist: Art in the service of extreme ideologies is dangerous. There are many artists who have “sold out,” but is there any lower sellout than the one who glorifies war?

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  3. March 6, 2014 12:50 pm

    While I agree with the commentary above regarding fascism and false victimhood in Ender’s Game, I can’t help but feel one aspect of the book/film is being overlooked, namely Ender’s manipulation by the system. Again, not digging into yourself in an honest fashion to better understand motivation and behavior, and not being able to relate the personal to the social from a moral position are not infallible excuses for immoral behavior. But, there is another side. There are elements of life, for example the social systems we exist in, which cause people to act in limited fashion. Capitalism, for example, regardless whether one has pondered its implications or accepts it in ignorance, is a system which presents a person a finite number of choices and no legal option beyond. It channels individual and social behavior through specific behavior patterns to which there is no recourse save breaking the law. What I’m trying to get at is, I think Card, for as inexcusable as the presentation of Ender’s character is, was asking his audience to take a closer look at the set of choices given by the system and to question the underlying value/reality. This is admittedly a simplistic reading that takes a backseat to the character issues you identified, but it remains a commendable facet to a problematic work, nevertheless.

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