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Sunday, September 2, 2012

The most noble title any child can have is Third.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Ender's Game is a story of how a young boy came to save humanity, and how dearly it cost him. Ender is a rare third child in a futuristic world where families are permitted only 2 children. The government has sanctioned his birth because they are searching for a commander to fight the next war with "the buggers", an insect-like alien life force that nearly wiped out Earth roughly 50 years ago. Ender's older brother Peter is brilliant, but ruthless, and his sister Valentine is equally intelligent, but too compassionate to command in a violent war. Ender is, as the government had hoped, a perfect blend of Peter and Valentine.

At just 6 years old, Ender is sent to Battle School in outer space, ripped from his family. He struggles at first, but quickly rises faster than any other student, moving from an army of other "launchies" (kids his own age) to being placed in an army of older students under the command of the ruthless Bonzo Madrid. Ender continues to lead practices in his "free play" time with his "launchy" friends, quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with despite his age and size. Though he is tested frequently by the special treatment he receives from the adults, he makes it all the way to commander.  With an army of novices, Ender manages to revolutionize strategies and defeat all of the armies at the school.

Meanwhile, Valentine and Peter hatch a plan to write philosophy/political commentary on adult discussion groups under pseudonyms, gaining such fame that they become a part of the Earth-side conflicts at the highest level. Valentine is asked twice to intervene to motivate Ender, as his treatment by the adults takes a heavy toll mentally and physically. After his success at Battle School, Ender is transferred and taken first to Earth (for 3 months, to fall in love with the planet so that he can desire to defend it) and then to IF Command, where he is mentored by Mazer Rackham, the commander who defeated the buggers in the last invasion. Ender is given a fleet to command (made up of his best comrades and friends from Battle School) and after successfully defeating the simulations, they begin to face Mazer himself, who controls the enemy in the simulator. They fight many battles, some easy, some hard, but Ender never loses. He gets more and more demoralized until he is nearly broken. During what Ender believes is his "final exam", Ender wins the battle with a shocking twist, only to discover that in fact, his fleet's battles had been with real buggers, not Mazer Rackham.  Unknowingly, Ender has led the 3rd invasion and wiped out the buggers.

Ender is shocked and horrified, never intending to kill (and still only eleven years old). Earth breaks out into conflict, Peter rises to the top of the ranks, and Valentine abandons her pseudonym, Demosthenes, to move to a "colony" on one of the now empty bugger planets where humans are encouraged to have as many children as they'd like. She convinces Ender to join her (as he cannot return to Earth without falling under Peter's control) and he governs the new colony as she writes a history of the 3rd invasion. While exploring a new potential planet colony, Ender discovers that the buggers have created a planet out of his video game from Battle School. He follows the journey of the game and discovers a larva of a queen bugger (they have discovered they work in a hive colony formation). She shares (through thought) the history of the buggers, and reveals that they didn't realize the humans had thought, and once they knew, they didn't plan to attack again. She begs Ender to keep her alive so that she can rebuild the bugger population, but he explains it's too unsafe right now.

He returns to his colony and writes a history of the buggers from the Queen's perspective, calling it Speaker for the Dead. He begins a tradition of having a person speak for another human at their funeral, sharing their best and worst qualities, a complete history. He does so for Peter, who dies back on Earth, but only after sharing his whole history with Ender via "ansible", an interplanetary communication device. As things settle down at the colony, Ender and Valentine set off to travel the galaxy, moving from planet to planet telling stories and speaking for the dead. Ender keeps the queen's larva with him, waiting for the time to come to rebuild.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you haven't read this book, you should. Its target audience is young boys, but the message and the plot are accessible to everyone, and it's a great read. You can borrow my copy if you want - but you have to wait until my roommate Laura finishes it. :0)

-- This book definitely felt like it had the makings of a series -- I think there is a sequel, but technically only this one was on my list, so I decided not to read it. I also thought that having a dual story line to follow Valentine and Peter was really fascinating. All three children are brilliant, but their minds work in totally different ways, and they each play a huge role in shaping the world (or I guess, the universe). It made me think about the differences and similarities between me and my sisters.

-- The master manipulating heads of IF Command tell Ender that he had to think it was a game:
"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."
  I thought this was fascinating. Do the best military commanders bury their compassion, or suspend it, while they lead vicious battles? Do they lose it completely? So often we see people come out of the military with a different personality, a changed perspective. Is there a way to prevent it? Is that even desirable? Killing as if you were in a game, but murdering in reality. It's a lot to think about.

-- Ender loves life on Earth (the 3 months he chills at a small house on a lake) and when he tells Valentine he would be happy "just living", just existing, she can't agree.
"She tried to imagine herself being like the other girls at school. Tried to imagine life if she didn't feel responsible for the future of the world. 'It would be so dull.' None of us could be happy for long, doing nothing."
  This is how I feel most of the time. I think maybe I'd like to find some small, idyllic town, set up a bookstore/bakery, and just revel in the mundanity of it. But then I remember that there are bigger things, wider concerns, and while no "bugger war" lurks, there are oh-so-many analogous conflicts that do. I can't help but feel that some of the responsibility for the future of the world rests on me. It rests on all of us.

-- Proust wrote that the best writers aren't the ones that tell the best stories; they're the ones whose stories do the best job at reflecting ourselves back to us. The classics that last are the best mirrors; they show us our truest, rawest selves, in ways that we couldn't see on our own.

   I loved this book. It's one of my new all-time favorites. It's not the most spectacular prose I've ever read, and it's pretty plot-driven as far as literature goes. But it's an incredible mirror, and one that we will always need to remember. Ender reminded me of so many protagonists -- like Frodo, like Holden Caulfield, like Harry Potter, at a young age he was thrust into a complex world of good and evil. With barely enough time to build his own morality, he is asked not just to take part in, but to lead an epic war. And when it's all over, he doesn't know how to exist.
   I always cry at the end of the Lord of the Rings because Frodo is too broken to just live out his days peacefully at the Shire. I know he goes on to the Grey Havens, which are basically a sort of heaven, but there's such a palpable sadness in the idea that the world he's struggled to save from destruction is not his anymore.

When Ender and Valentine have lived for many years on the colony planet, Ender approaches Valentine one day and says they have to go:

Ender:         "We have to go. I'm almost happy here."
Valentine:   "So stay."
Ender:         "I've lived too long with pain. I won't know who I am without it."

This just tears my heart out. But there's truth in the idea that once the pain creeps in, once we understand how the world works and how others suffer, there's no going back. Like the Giver, we've been blessed and cursed with knowledge. We share the burden of what we do with that wisdom.

Favorite passages:
  •  Conversation between head officials at the Battle School:
  "I went back through some of the tapes. I can't help it. I like the kid. I think we're going to screw him up." 
"Of course we are. It's our job. We're the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive."
  • "Human beings are free except when humanity needs them."
  • Slang speech from Dink, a brilliant student who has refused to rise through Battle School's ranks:   
"I be crazy too, little buddy, but at least when I be craziest, I be floating all alone in space and the crazy, she float out of me, she soak into the walls, and she don't come out till there be battles and little boys bump into the wall and squish out de crazy."
  • Ender -- "What difference does it make if I hate the part of me that you most need?"
  •  Queen of the buggers, to Ender
"We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
In closing, I will say simply this. Like Ender, I am a Third. And I have never been prouder in my life.

To rabbits, exploration, and Aircanoe Up!