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devil duck

SF stuff

People have been telling me for years that I need to read some Orson Scott Card. So last weekend, while visiting snolan and sutragirl, I picked up the Card novel on top of the pile on the nearest bookshelf. It was Ender's Game, a title I had heard, but about which I knew nothing.

For the three people in my circle of acquaintance who haven't read the book, the protagonist is a young boy (Ender) going through military training -- only more so. He starts his military training at age 6, and by the time he gets to school, the school administration have already decided he's the next Alexander the Great, and that he will be treated even more brutally than most military-school trainees: intentionally isolated from potential friends and from any hint that anyone in the world might help him. Since he is, of course, the next Alexander the Great, he meets all the increasingly unfair and impossible challenges they set him, earning unprecedented undefeated scores in video-games and group tactics, developing a cadre of devoted followers, graduating years early and (I assume, since I haven't read the last 80 pages or so) becoming commander of the Earth's starfleet and saving the world in his teens.

In his progress through preschool and then military school, Ender naturally shows up a lot of other kids, who grow to resent and then hate him, so they try to beat him up. Ender exemplifies the macho saying "I don't start fights, but I end them." Each time the big boys gang up on him, he disables the leader and then goes out of his way to cause him extra pain and suffering because "I didn't just want to win this fight, I wanted to win all the future fights in advance, so they wouldn't attack me again." (That's not a perfect quote, but close enough.) And it works: the kid Ender has mangled never bothers him again, and the kid's groupies and hangers-on never bother him again, either because they're afraid of Ender or because they've seen that their former hero has feet of clay so they switch allegiance to Ender himself.

I had some misgivings about this approach to conflict. I suspect it's exactly what was going through the minds of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Somoza, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, Battista, and every other bloodthirsty dictator of the 20th century: "I don't just want to beat my opponents, I want to crush them so they never even think of attacking me again." I suspect it works when your enemies are people who respect only power: once the leader they're following gets beaten, they'll switch allegiances in a millisecond to whomever beat him. But what if you're dealing with people who honestly like and respect the person you brutalized and humiliated unnecessarily? They may not strike back immediately, but they'll find their opportunity, months or years later. Furthermore, some who had nothing against you before will now hate you for your cruelty to their friend/relative. And what if you're dealing with people who have a sense of justice and moderation? They'll conclude (as did the Allies in World War II) that "this guy is a monster; we need to unite to take him out, for the public good."

Confucius, if I remember right, distinguished a number of different kinds of leader: best is the one who is respected, next the one who is loved, then the one who is feared, and worst, the one who is pitied. Can't a hero aspire to something higher than "the one who is feared"?

Back to the book. It also bothers me that, at least in the first 3/4 of the book, Ender has never failed at anything. He has his fears and worries, mostly about turning into a sadistic murderer like his brother or about making friends, but everything he actually tries works perfectly. How will he deal with losing? I guess I need to finish the book to see if he ever has to face that....

Comments

Make that four people who've never read any fiction by Orson Scott Card. I read an essay by him many, many years ago (it was in a fanzine, not online) and found him so offputting and whiny that I decided that I had better ways to spend my time and money than reading his books. My decision was sealed after I learned of Card's political views, especially on homosexuality.

I did read several, back when he was a Hot New Thing, but lost interest fast. They're pretty much all the same: young boy with exceptional gifts struggles but triumphs. Plus his worlds are questionable and his SF cred is roughly zero: he doesn't know how to make shoes, and he appears to believe that strict monogamy is the best way to diversify a limited gene pool.