Friday, August 24, 2012

Innocence and Epic Battles: Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game

As the topic of this is specifically around the ending of Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game, consider this fair warning of spoiler content.  If you haven’t read Ender’s Game yet, I would encourage you to do so without knowing the ending.  Love it or hate it, the book is a journey.

When thinking about “epic space battles”, lots of great series ran through my mind.  From the towering juggernauts of the BattleMech/MechWarrior universe, to distant galaxies where countless brave commanders have fought insurmountable odds, one story kept shoving to the forefront – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  While the book is based on a short story and received updates from its first release, my impressions are based on the first version I read - the 1991, so-called “Author’s Definitive Edition”.

Take 30 seconds in any search engine and you’ll come across a quick summary of the story line.  Let me instead skip ahead from a young Ender Wiggin entering Battle School, to a slightly older Ender Wiggin in Command School preparing to lead his trusting friends (although even he at times comes to grips how tough it is to think of them as such) through final training exercises in the “simulator”.

One of the reasons this book has stood out for me is the fact that towards the end there is a continual stream of several battles, many of which could be considered epic (although knowing the final, most epic battle is to come).  With Ender in command each battle ends in victory, but you feel tensions rise as the battles become more complex, and it seems that soon our hero must meet his match.  This is coupled by the decline of Ender’s health, and the slipping of his sanity as pressure takes its toll on a child’s mind.

Card does a masterful job of providing just enough detail of each battle to allow you to feel the brilliance of the tactics, the suspense of near defeat, and the apparent cruelty of Mazer Rackham pushing Ender to the edge.  This continues on and on, with no battle the same, no battle drawn out longer than it needs to be, yet gloriously detailed.  Part of my amazement too, is that Card paints this mural of epic battles through the eyes of a computer simulator (which, given the timing of the novel, I always picture in Apple IIe-style quality).  Never needing to paint the sharp detail of what one might see from the eyes of the fighters themselves, Card leaves it to our own minds to fill in those details.

This, of course, culminates in the conclusive battle at the buggers’ home world.  Just when your heart rate is at its peak, Ender and his commanders are given “Eighty fighters, against at least five thousand, perhaps ten thousand enemy ships.”  It goes without saying that while their approach is to laugh and treat this as just a game, how they carry through to victory makes this a truly epic space battle, with great ramifications.

It’s at the end, when the realization is made that the “simulations” were actual battles, and that Ender has led the actual killing of human and alien fighters, that you may (like me) begin to look a bit deeper at another reason these battles are so epic.  We know the whole time that Ender is just a kid, but in the aftermath of the excitement really, really appreciate that fact.  Our classic hero or heroine commander is often sporting gray hair, having lived a full life, loved and lost many times over.  Instead we see that the only way to achieve victory was to take advantage of the innocence that Ender had, and to do so without him ever understanding what’s being asked of him.

While I don’t necessarily expect everyone to wax philosophical with me on the last point, I hope that those who have read Ender’s Game can appreciate how much excitement Card was able to build through the entire novel, and really how many epic battles we were able to witness at the end.  I can also imagine that others like me will occasionally hear a soundtrack playing in their head to accompany what they read.  Card paints a fantastic picture of war and its impact, and perhaps most importantly, invites us in his introduction to take from this our own meaning.

By Luke Rasmussen