Thursday, December 12, 2013

Speaker for the ... Writer?

Once upon a time, several years ago, I had a student in speech class who was a HUGE fan of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. He spoke so highly of it that I recommended it to my husband, who read it and also liked it. Since sci-fi is not really my genre, I never read it until recently, when the movie was coming out. (Because, you know, it's always better to read the book before seeing the movie.)

Well, after reading the book, I've decided I'm going to save my money and just wait for the movie to come out on pay-per-view. When I said that to my husband, he said, "Well, science fiction's not your kind of book anyway," like that explained everything. Actually, it's more than that. I can enjoy just about any kind of story that is well-written. My problem with Ender's Game is that I think Card tried too hard to make a "statement," and the story suffered as a result.

If you're not familiar with the story, the premise is that Ender Wiggin is a six-year-old boy who is sent for training as a warrior in the battle against humans' dreaded enemy, the buggers, which seem to be a highly-advanced race of ants (or maybe bees). Ender was monitored closely throughout his early childhood and was selected for training partly because of his intelligence, but mostly because of his ability to deal with his psychopath of an older brother, Peter. The officials who run the Battle School are convinced Ender is humanity's last best chance against the buggers, so they accelerate his training. I actually mostly liked this part of the story; there was something rather Harry Potterish about this story that preceded Harry Potter by about a decade. Ender quickly masters the skills needed for battle and rises to display innovative leadership. That part was fun. The concept of having a gifted young hero who is being trained to save the world makes for a good story.

As the story wore on, though, I began to feel my suspension of disbelief was having to strain a little too hard to keep me in the story. I didn't have any trouble accepting that Ender was super intelligent and able to reason and/or intuit solutions to the ever-more-difficult and often unfair situations in his training. What began to bother me rather quickly was Ender's level of emotional maturity. By the climax of the story, Ender is only 12 years old, yet his emotional responses seem more like those of a 40-something. Card wanted us to believe Ender was predisposed to genius because of his heredity. I'll grant heredity could explain his intelligence. But maturity? A person's not born with that. One can't inherit maturity. Emotional maturity comes through experience, and while Card might argue all Ender's experiences at Battle School served as the crucible for maturity, I couldn't buy it. Especially not when Ender's life experiences were generally negative (he was often bullied, and the school officials purposely isolated him from his peers and even actively tried to set them against him). It's been a long time since I studied any psychology, but I seem to remember that rejection and disconfirmation are more often associated with low self-esteem and social impotence than with the kind of strong leadership Ender displayed.

But even that I might have been able to forgive, if I hadn't started to get the feeling Ender was being used as much by his author as he was by the school officials. There was definitely a subtext of "it's wrong to manipulate the innocent, even if for noble purposes" that Card seemed to want to make sure came through the story.  Even the big climax of the story seemed to me to have less impact than it should have because Card wanted so badly to make sure that we got the message of how wrong what happened was, using Ender as a tool to show us the toll that winning at all costs can take. In the last chapter, the sermonizing through the story was so blatant I had to force myself to finish reading the book.

I'm not saying a story shouldn't have a heavy message. I love it when a story has deep things to think about for days after I've finished the book. But that message shouldn't ever take precedence over the story. The story must come first. After all, I'm reading a novel, not an essay on ethics. And I know from other things I've read that it is possible to do both - create characters who "live" and who also bring to life ethical principles, without hammering the reader over the head with them.

When I finished the book last night, I told my husband how much I didn't like the last chapter, and he said, "You won't want to read any of the other books about Ender, then, because they are mostly like that last chapter." Thanks for the heads up!

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