I loved Ender’s Game the first time I read it, as a pre-Internet pre-teen without any knowledge of Orson Scott Card’s bizarre and homophobic vitriol. I even liked the first sequel, before the second one convinced me that maybe some stories were better off as one-shots. Then I found out about Card’s personal beliefs, and mentally classed the book with early Mel Gibson movies and other entertainment I feel vaguely guilty about liking. But as the new, rather-joyless-looking movie adaptation arrived, I decided to reread Ender’s Game, to see how much of what I liked about it remained and how much I could pick up on Card’s prejudices as an adult reader. The short answers: Not as much as I remembered, and more than I expected! First of all…
1) Surprise N-word: Orson Scott Card, would you like some racism to go along with your homophobia? I read an old copy of the book, an early printing that includes a part where, in some routine trash-talking, Ender calls his friend Alai by the n-word, and then jokes about how his great-great-grandfather would have sold Alai’s grandfather to another slaveowner for not liking that term. Kids these days!
“That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?”
Ender decided that Alai was joking. “Hey, we can’t all be niggers.”
Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”
“My great great grandpa would have sold him first.”
Card edited that exchange in later editions, but apparently not because he’d regretted using the word or even realized that maybe having your white, super-genius, messiah-like hero use racial epithets and joke about slavery isn’t a great way to develop a sympathetic protagonist. No, according to Orson Scott Card, “prudes” forced his hand.
“Even as the old obscenities dealing with sex and excrement were unleashed upon the public, new obscenities moved from the realm of the merely indecorous to the sinful. What f* and s* (and worse words) had once been, now n* has become. And, just as there were prudes who screamed in outrage and demanded that any work containing those old bad words must be banned, so we have a new group of prudes making identical demands about works containing the new bad word,” he wrote in 2000, in response to a question about why he had edited that passage. (Card begins that answer by comparing himself to Shakespeare, which gives you an idea of the rest. He also goes onto to assert that truly sophisticated readers would understand that Ender’s racism was really about teaching Alai tolerance and rebuking his friend for being racist about Asian people – an argument which requires a whole separate critical takedown.)
2) The invention of blogging: Forget the Big Twist. The parts I most remembered from the book over the years, and the parts I was most impressed by, were Card’s prescient depiction of political blogging and the influence that Internet writers would have on world events. Okay, maybe Matt Drudge or Nick Denton haven’t become world dictators, as Ender’s blogger/psychopath brother Peter eventually does. But I was very impressed at how Card, in my memory, predicted the rise and the influence of personality-driven online writers, who become famous based largely on their (carefully-calculated) inflammatory rhetoric. When I went back to reread Ender’s Game, I was most looking forward to spending time with Peter and sister Valentine, who make themselves famous by getting into anonymous online debates with each other.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the Peter/Valentine/blogging plotline takes up about half a chapter, plus a few lines towards the end for plot resolution and sequel setup. I don’t know what it says that throwaway subplots formed my most enduring memories of the book, but it’s not a great recommendation.
3) Video games are about as interesting to read about as they are to watch other people playing. Ender’s Game is a very readable book, which is a big accomplishment considering its reliance on poorly-described virtual combat. The “battle simulations,” first at Ender’s school and later when he’s tricked into destroying the enemy’s homeworld, were pretty opaque to me during this re-read – I finished those scenes with no real visual of what the children gladiators actually accomplished or physically did during the battles. It was much easier to visualize the arenas in the Hunger Games books, for example, or the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books. I think Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling had a bit of an advantage over Card, in that both of them described battles that were more in the physical world than the video games that make up so much of Ender’s Game. But world-building or big-picture description of any sort isn’t a strength of Card’s – there’s a slapdash civil war shoved into the book’s resolution, between superpowers that have never been clearly delineated. And it’s a problem when you do choose to set a book in what is essentially a series of video game championships and then can’t describe them clearly enough for a reader to do much more than skim for dialogue and outcome.
4) The Big Twist makes no sense. When your main character is a tactical genius, the best strategic mind in generations and the savior of the human race, it rather strains credulity that he can’t figure out when he’s fighting actual battles against an actual enemy. Especially when he’s purportedly hoodwinked by a couple of bumbling mid-level military guys and the washed-up war veteran version of Rip Van Winkle.