Monday, March 12, 2012

Ender's Game: A Book Review

So I'm going to try an actual review of a book instead if simply saying I like it in a few throwaway sentences. You might be asking yourself "why should I care about your thoughts on a particular book? What makes you so special?" The answer is nothing, really. To be honest, for most books out there, you will find half of them praising the book and half hating it.

I do have one or two credentials, though. For one, I have read many books. I consume two novels a week or so. I have read westerns and sci fi and fantasy and crime and literary and pulp and suspense and horror and more. From Shakespeare to Chandler, Rowlings to McCarthy. I believe I can say I am an experienced reader without my nose growing an inch. I am also an English major, so I have some experience in close reading, in examining themes, style and more.

I must admit right now that I am probably a terrible critic. I think this is because I like things. I enjoy things. Even such things that are perhaps universally bad, I can usually find something to like, I can usually find a way to enjoy the experience. I try to never focus on the negative aspects of an experience I have. Why would you want to? It simply irritates you, makes you angry or sad. There's no point to it. I'd rather take whatever positives I can away from it and feel happy. Most critics focus on the bad, focus on critiquing and criticizing, or saying how it could have been better. So don't expect any scathing reviews about terrible books. The most you're likely to get is a "meh, it was okay, some things could have been better, I guess." I know I won't be writing reviews for any major magazines any time soon.

But enough of that, let's get on with the review!

Ender's Game is about smart kids. Really smart kids. Geniuses, essentially. One in particular, more than others. His name is Andrew, but everyone calls him by his nickname, Ender, which is highly appropriate as he is very good at 'ending' things, permanently. He's a smartie pants and also an outcast, a 'Third' child, sponsored by the government to be born. He passes the tests and is sent to Battle School (I may very well be getting various specific names of things wrong. Who cares?) to train to be a commander as there is an invasion of 'buggers' coming to kill everyone. That's enough about the plot. I don't want to talk about plot, or summarize the story. I will simply say the plot is fine, with questions, twists, and action aplenty. It works very well.

I guess the one great thing about Ender's Game is the one thing that all science fiction should strive to do. It's science-y enough to be believable to the reader but doesn't get bogged down with too much detail about how the sci-fi stuff works, which I really like. I don't need to hear all the technical specifics about this futuristic technology, I just want to know that it works and it's cool and get on with the story. That's one thing Orson Scott Card does really well in this novel.

Second thing, the characters are really great. They are believable not only as children but as really intelligent children. In ways they act like adults, thinking through problems and strategies, but in other ways, they are very much undeveloped children trying to act older than they are. I can see why so many kids read this book in high school and loved it. It's violent and portrays the realities of what children go through growing up, especially in the crazy Battle School where they are pitted against each other constantly.

Battle School is essentially recess, though instead of an open play field with various things to do, there is one single 'game' they play, team against team. The children are shaped by this game, are pushed and pressured and formed into the best they can be, most especially Ender, on who all the hopes of the human race are essentially placed. The teachers constantly push and dig at him, doing everything they can to break him down, forcing him to adapt and think, to literally be the best he can be.

It's very interesting, how doing these terrible things to these children form them into incredible beings, forcing them to achieve their highest potential. The teachers have this down almost to a science, and they do it. They throw everything they can at the kid, letting him fend for himself and he becomes all the better for it. Well, I guess you could argue whether he really becomes 'better' for it. He becomes smarter, though, stronger. He realizes his full potential. It's very interesting, in this day and age where so much emphasis is placed on the safety of children, where they rarely face danger or hardship. Are they fulfilling their potential? Are we keeping them too safe, to the point where they are not adapting or having to think, or react to any danger?

There is a cost, of course. Ender's childhood is not a happy one, and a couple kids die or break down from this 'perform or lose' mentality, this teaching method. It's tough, to toe the line between wanting a child to be happy, but also wanting them to experience some difficulties so they can learn and live and grow.

It's also very interesting that the war between the humans and the buggers is a simple result from miscommunication. The buggers and humans cannot communicate and because of this, along with assumptions made on both sides, a vicious war has broken out. Such a simple thing, a misunderstanding, and an entire race may be wiped out as a result. It's crazy, right?

So I've talked about this book some. Have I said enough? Have I gone over all the points? The plot: Good, The characters: Great, the style: Fine. I guess I didn't really say anything about the style. You follow the characters, see into their heads as they go along through the events of the plot. It is perfectly fine, no extraneous detail, no lack of action, it keeps you invested and interested all along the way.

I also love the title. Ender's Game. You might think it's referring to the game that all the boys play in Battle School but it also refers to Ender's life, to the 'game' he plays constantly in his life, against his brother, the other boys, and the teachers. It also references a twist at the end which is done very well. The book shows the game all children play as they grow up, learning to manipulate others and survive the various aspects of school, schoolmates and everything else. It is a perfect title.

I think it is a book anyone could enjoy, even those who prefer not to read science fiction.

So that's my review. Like it? Don't like it? Does it work/make sense? Does it make you want to read it? Should I do more like this? Let me know, somehow.

"With Ender, we have to strike a delicate balance. Isolate him enough that he remains creative--otherwise he'll adopt the systems here and we'll lose him. At the same time, we need to make sure he keeps a strong ability to lead."
- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game, Ch. 4


  1. Talking about child development and 'reaching potential', I suggest reading Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and then the critique of it by David Brooks (New York Times).

    1. I do remember hearing about a bunch of controversy over the whole 'tiger mother' thing, but did not really know what it was about. After googling and wikipedia-ing, I have come to know a bit more about it.

      It sounds like she was extremely strict in certain ways, which pressured her children into becoming incredibly smart and talented. I cannot say for certain because I have not read her book, but it is interesting. She also seems to have gotten alot of foolish criticism about her parenting methods, and many folks seemed not to understand that she wasn't really trying to tell how Americans should raise their own children, only telling her story of how she raised hers.

      I did read David Brooks' article, which was fascinating in that he states the true difficulties of childhood are in fact the socializing, the managing of group dynamics. He says a teenage girl sleepover is much more intellectually difficult than practicing music for four hours. It seems true to me, especially when in life, networking and socializing are often the most important aspects into achieving success in society. Essentially, he says what is learned by interaction with others outside the classroom is more valuable than what is learned within the classroom, which I have never really heard before, though it makes sense. Managing relationships and social interactions is incredibly more difficult than memorizing facts.

      So what's right? Who knows? Kids need classroom learning and social interaction with others, need to learn the basics of schoolwork and life-long socializing. They need enough pressure, structure and rules to push them to adapt, learn and achieve, but not so much that they cannot create and have fun.

      I would say that home schooling does not seem like a very good option. It deprives your children from interacting with others, socially cutting them off right from the start.

      Anyways, yeah. Thanks for the comment.