Reviews of “Ender’s Game” (1977) and related work

“Ender’s Game” (1977Text)

Orson Scott Card (writer).

On a future Earth, a kid plays a zero-gravity sport at Battle School.

The twist is clever, but it feels like old-school SF, not New Wave. If you’re considering reading this short story instead of the 1985 remake, you should know that the longer remake provides a deeper psychological drama and adds in the New Wave. It does that without changing the plot from the short story, so if the traditional military SF is all you want, settle for the original.

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Ender’s Game (1985/1991Text)

Orson Scott Card (writer).

Read in 2023.

I read the Swedish translation of the slightly updated 1991 edition. This is the only work in the series that I’ve read in translation.

On a future Earth, a brilliant kid has his monitor surgically removed.

Card’s curt. That is, he writes in the style of his earlier screenwriting, keeping a high pace through most of this remake of “Ender’s Game” to the form of a novel. The pace brings out the strengths of the competitive theme. It’s the kind of military SF that’s focused on tactics and fragile personal relationships within a force, not on the hardware or an alien enemy. To that core, Card adds a mystical dimension reminiscent of Dune (1965), including a dubious, tormented saviour.

The mystical dimension first becomes apparent in a computer-generated adventure game at Battle School, impressively imagined for 1985. That game takes on a Grimm fairytale dimension, then proceeds into more Freudian territory. That development continues when the plot moves to Eros, a planetoid named after the mythical Eros who, in Freud’s symbology, represents a drive to live. In Card’s own symbology, the mythical Eros—but not the Eros station—corresponds to Ender’s empathic sister Valentine, while their wicked brother Peter corresponds to Thanatos or Freud’s death drive. The psychoanalytical dimension, and the psychology in general, are rather weak, but Card writes high intelligence well. His child soldiers remind me of The Coming Race (1871), bullying one another and handling gamified weapons and martial arts with understatedly eerie glee.

Card is clearly steeped in US Christian memes: The innocence of the child; the self-hatred of that child internalizing the idea of its sin; the deep empathy of the saviour; the sacrifice of the saviour-as-scapegoat; and the stakes: “all or nothing” instead of a dynamic struggle that includes some level of failure. Ender never loses a fight, which is dumb. He never has to fight his brother Peter, which is probably why Peter’s 60+ years of global supremacy doesn’t have its consequences worked out.

Card’s worldbuilding is not as good as Neuromancer (1984) or Eon (1985), but he does have a nominally controlled version of the Internet that makes a lot of sense, and his conceptual games with microgravity are interesting. Anyway, the original short story is already soft science fiction. Adding a psychic twist in its mystical dimension, the novel is softer, less mechanistic. As for Card’s purported message of empathy, I don’t buy it. Decades later, an older Card supported the US occupation of Iraq after it became obvious that the US government lied to justify its war of aggression against that country. I think Ender’s empathy is a dramatic conceit to spice up the military SF, not a sincere message. Prefer The Forever War (1974) for similarly soft military SF against war.

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‣‣ Speaker for the Dead (1986Text)

Orson Scott Card (writer).

Read in 2023.

Humankind, slowly spreading among the stars, gets a second chance to make friends with a mentally alien species. By this time, Ender is more hated than Satan and almost nobody knows he’s alive.

The plotting is impressively integrated with the worldbuilding and both are dense. Card brings together four intelligent species in one place: A cheeky cyberpunk AI, the FTL-telepathic “buggers” of the first book, humans, and “piggies” native to the world of Lusitania. Much of the plot is structured as a mystery where various professionals investigate the piggies in particular. As is common in the form, the reader is pointedly fed a crucial clue that is disregarded by the investigators: It is clear that when the piggies kill humans, the piggies themselves do not view this killing as war or murder, but as a celebrated ritual somehow connected to a great reward. It was obvious to me from the beginning that this would be a parallel to how the buggers in the first book failed to see how their killing of humans could be offensive.

No longer curt, Card loads up the novel with a lot of character, cultural specificity, and moderately clever astrobiological detail, albeit with simplified climate systems and ecosystems. The human cultural extrapolation is just a little disappointing: The Norwegian and Swedish influences are fun for me as a Swede, but the Brazilian Catholicism is deliberately retrogressive, like the dominant culture of The Mote in God’s Eye (1974). Despite the title, Speakers for the Dead as a priesthood are not examined; it’s still just Ender, and he’s still the author’s darling. Even Jane, the AI, loves Ender, and he still has almost magical powers of empathy, deduction and martial arts. The only time that he speaks for the dead in this novel, in the normal capacity of his priesthood, the event is modelled on cathartic psychoanalysis, everted to apply to the living. It’s exciting because it’s dramatically structured, and it’s a better model of human psychology than The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), but not by much.

The deepest flaw of this novel is its failure to resolve the basic Nietzschean–Kantian tension of Card’s concepts. The reign of the Hegemon is still not properly examined. Instead, it becomes clear that the focal tribe of piggies is mutually hostile to its neighbouring tribes and wants to expand to colonize other worlds in supposedly peaceful competition with humans. In the former aspect, the piggies mirror the warlike behaviour of native Papuan tribes uncontacted by industrial civilization, and stone-age human tribes in general. In the latter aspect, the piggies mirror the warlike behaviour of imperialism in human industrial civilization itself. Ender demands that the focal piggies instead play nice and unite with the other tribes, which is something humans got better at after WW2. I don’t sense any deep thinking about conquest, the limits to growth, or alien mentalities in this. Rather, the piggies are human in their foreign policy at all three stages.

Valentine’s distinction in the novel, between ramen (not noodles but “the frame” in Swedish) and varelse (“creature”), is not useful. All it does is to apply the idea of moral insiders and outsiders to extraterrestrials. Ultimately, the morals of the series seem constant across great biological differences and levels of education. It is as if the end goals of intelligent life were convergent both at the Nietzschean end, where humans and piggies both act as if might makes right, all the way through to the more enlightened Kantian end, where humans and piggies ultimately agree that they must treat intellectually capable life, above some unexamined baseline, with respect. Another sequel may complicate that image, but the superintelligent Ender nonetheless makes the assumption on the basis of all the facts Card presents here. It is a little bit too anthropocentric for my taste.

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‣‣ Xenocide (1991Text)

Orson Scott Card (writer).

Read in 2023.

Events on Lusitania and on a planet named Path, more than a decade after Speaker for the Dead but ending some weeks before the arrival of the fleet sent in that novel.

This novel is a textbook case of how a series can drift out of the science fiction genre into fantasy.

Ender’s Game began with relativistic STL travel and credibly transformative superintelligence. By this point in its sequels, the author can say through one of his characters, “life is how God gives purpose to the universe”, and mean it. A little later, the characters achieve instantaneous FTL travel, in a mode that one of the characters thinks of—correctly—as “travel-by-wish”. There is a long, cringe-inducing effort to justify all sorts of magical thinking, including the soul, as a science of “philotics”. This all makes as little sense as the equally wishful metaphysics of The Coming Race (1871).

Superintelligence is still around, but it’s no longer transformative. Instead, Card exhibits both conspiratorial thinking and ethnocentric social conservatism. The obvious correspondence between religion and philotics is canonical. That is established on the planet Ganges, a colony apparently dominated by ethnic Indian Hinduists. A team of scientists there, all of whom were devout Hindus, made crucial discoveries of a nature that could have been reproduced in other labs, but were not. Card derives from his premises that certain crucial facts in philotics are both discovered through religion and just slippery enough that they can be dismissed as religion by the scientific establishment for a thousand years, even though—in the context of this fiction—they are provably correct and ready for use in engineering. This aligns with the conspiratorial thinking of schizophrenic devotees in the real world: Those who believe that scientists reject the gnosis of fanatics because scientists are blind idiots, or evil, or both.

Just as Ganges is Indian, there are also Chinese planets. Path is one of them. On Path, everyone has epicanthic folds. They follow a version of Daojiao (religious Daoism) that includes naming people after the ancient celebrities that Card read about in his research. It’s an outmoded stereotype of Chinese life, but Card being Card, he posits that Path is simultaneously a Potemkin village established by an authoritarian grand conspiracy for an abusive experiment in transhuman superintelligence. That’s a bad idea, so poorly resolved that its consequences—if there are any—go unexamined both in the epilogue that concludes the novel, and in its sequel.

The movement toward fantasy escalates to the creation of Theosophist thoughtforms, which is dumber than The Coming Race, even though the earlier novel helped inspire Theosophy. Along the way to the bitter end, there are just enough moments of interest, including descriptions of bugger society and mentality at last. A bad point in these is a retcon: New queens are made to be sent to other planets, which seems to contradict the climax of Ender’s Game where the alien species is vulnerable only because all of its remaining queens are on one planet, as if the human fleet had managed to wipe out every single colony and every colony ship in a few days’ time. There are no xenocides but lots of short chapter-opening dialogues between the bugger hive queen and Human the piggy, moments of tension between the species, weak speculation about piggy wars being a means of climate stabilization induced by the descolada, etc. Fun stuff.

If what you want is closure, you should definitely stop here. The last sequel, Children of the Mind, completes the plot only in that Lusitania and Jane are both saved in boring ways while Ender dies from having split his soul.

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‣‣ Children of the Mind (1996Text)

Orson Scott Card (writer).

Read in 2023.

The resolution of the threat posed against Lusitania at the end of Speaker for the Dead.

Based on the title, I guessed this would be A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960): A story about Card’s married intellectual Catholic monks, the Children of the Mind of Christ, witnessing the further development of the pact Ender signed at the end of Speaker for the Dead, some centuries after Xenocide’s epilogue, which is more than 80 years long. My guess was completely wrong. The Children of the Mind barely appear in this novel. Its title refers instead to the thoughtforms created in the previous novel. It plays out over the span of a few weeks immediately following the main body of Xenocide, before the epilogue. The only connection to the epilogue of Xenocide is that excerpts from the fictional poem written in it open the chapters of this novel.

In the same way that the pun has no substantial relationship to the monks, the thoughtform premise of this novel, which was established at the end of Xenocide, has no substantial relationship to the premises established in the first two novels. In my reading of the series, I accidentally skipped over Xenocide, so to me, the premise was new. I didn’t realize my mistake because the changes in tone, setting and character between Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead are enormously greater than the changes between any two of the later novels.

The biggest difference is stylistic. The original was fast-paced and heavy on action; Speaker for the Dead was slow and rich; Xenocide was multi-threaded but tonally similar to Speaker; Children of the Mind is mostly dialogue, fast-paced again but low on action and surprisingly lacking in characterization. Wedged into the dialogues is a series of misplaced speculations and implausible romances of no relevance to the plot, though one of these is predicted in a dream in Xenocide.

The cultural worldbuilding, such as it is, is bad. The only interesting detail is a reminder of indications in Xenocide that the hive queens’ workers are enslaved, but this never reaches the court system defined in Ender’s pact. Indeed, the pact doesn’t feature. Instead, Card steps in mud by firmly establishing that many more human ethnic groups from Earth have their own exoplanets. Trondheim, the Norwegian–Scandinavian planet in Speaker, made sense to me because of its inhospitable climate. Ganges and Path made much less sense. Now there’s a Japanese planet, a Samoan planet, etc. One minor character, living 3000 years in the future, says the Catholics of Lusitania are “Brazilian”, not of his own “Portuguese ethnic heritage”, but Brazil’s Catholic colonizers left Portugal mere centuries before the novel was written. It is implausible that the distinction between Portuguese and colonizer-derived Catholic Brazilians would remain stable and important across three millennia.

The Japanese planet is embarrassingly named “Divine Wind”. It shows one clear case of cultural development, which Card—in the afterword—reveals he took from a dream his wife had: The people of Divine Wind carry cremation jewelry, an invention that would be abhorrent to most non-Christian Japanese at the time of writing, because of the stigma (contamination as per The Golden Bough) associated with dead bodies. Card’s future Japanese are also unlike real Japanese in other ways: They eat only raw fish, they mistakenly say -san where modern Japanese would use -sama, and many of them view the atomic bombing of Japan as “the gods’ attempt at redemption of the people”. That latter detail is lifted not from Japanese culture but from Judeo-Christian culture. It echoes an idea of “Habakkuk” (ca. 600 BCE) and other books of the Old Testament, that Yahweh punishes his chosen people to redeem them.

Along the way, Card takes his muddy foot and puts it in his mouth. Like the elderly Heinlein in Time Enough for Love (1973), he’s got an AI—albeit an AI retconned as a soul that can run on trees—turning into a woman. Like Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, Ender is thousands of years old when a part of him is finally put to rest in this volume. To the extent that Ender dies, this is a conclusion, but it is unworthy: A Christian fantasy novel and not a good one, built on schmaltz and stereotype, not thought.

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