My introduction to science fiction came at the age of 14 in a one-two punch of Clarke and Card. Arthur C. Clarke teased my imagination, but Orson Scott Card left an imprint on my soul. I read Ender’s Game three times before finishing high school, and at least another two after that.
I can remember one reviewer on Amazon dismissing it as an indulgent tale for the moody kid who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Regarding how my teenage self read the story, I can’t say they didn’t have a point, but Ender’s status as a gifted outcast was never the profound part of the story to me. The first few times I read it, I was brought to tears in the opening scene of the book, in which Ender, desperate to avoid future and ongoing torment by the school bully Stilson, lashes out and beats Stilson until he’s bloody and unconscious. Even though Ender’s barbaric retaliation against the bully could be justified as an act of self-preservation, he was immediately overwhelmed by guilt.
Ender leaned his head against the wall of the corridor and cried until the bus came. I am just like Peter. Take my monitor away, and I am just like Peter.
Peter, by the way, is Ender’s older brother who is such a sadist that he jokes about killing his siblings, and peels the skin off live squirrels for fun in the back yard. The scene with Stilson establishes the main questions about Ender: Is he evil? Knowing what he is capable of, and what the adults are pressuring him to be, is it even possible for him to be good? Is goodness a weakness? The reader has to watch Ender (and the monstrous adults manipulating him) wrestle with this conundrum. I believe every person ought to wrestle with this about themselves.
Because here’s the disturbing fact: We are all capable of being Peter.
For a long time I read this story as one about guilt and redemption, and the permanent change that happens inside you when you manage to fully empathize with a perceived enemy. There’s plenty to go on if you take that approach. In the series, Ender is able to take responsibility, and then atone, for the genocidal act he is maneuvered into committing in the first book. He didn’t have to; he could have laid all the blame on the adults, but he sets out to right the wrong himself. There’s a line that repeats that goes something like, “when you truly understand the enemy, you can’t help but love them.”
But in the past year Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has gained some notoriety for his psychological analysis of the stories in Genesis, and something he pulled out of the Garden of Eden story and the fall of man drew me back to Ender’s Game and why I found it so compelling. One of Peterson’s aha! moments in the story of Adam and Eve is how self-consciousness and the knowledge of good and evil are necessarily linked. When Adam and Eve take a bite of the forbidden fruit, they simultaneously become knowledgeable about good and evil, and mortified at their own nakedness. That part about nakedness isn’t arbitrary. There’s something about an awareness of your own vulnerability that opens the door to both compassion and cruelty. Knowing how you can be hurt means you can imagine how you might be able to hurt others. Ender’s Game touches these concepts too. Ender’s older brother, Peter, was such a savant at hurting people personally that he was expelled from the Battle School. His sister Valentine was too compassionate, and flunked out for never striking against the enemy in simulations.
Ender was bred to be a medium between those two, and until I encountered this insight from Peterson that’s how I read it. Ender’s ability to empathize with others is constantly linked in the book with his ability to outwit his enemies. It is a talent he eventually uses in order to inflict on the alien enemy the exact thing the humans feared could happen to us: total annihilation.
But now I think Valentine and Peter are both opposite sides of the same thing in human nature: we can empathize like no other creature can, and that makes us capable of both good and evil. Peter is the one who uses this unique power to inflict pain for his own perverse enjoyment. Valentine, to protect and create. Ender wasn’t better for being a “moderate” position between extremes. I hesitate to use the word “better” or “right” because Ender was manipulated into being a mass murderer, so he’s at least tragic, maybe a little bit of an antihero. But he was effective because he was both Valentine and Peter simultaneously. He could understand an enemy so well he thought he loved them, yet at the same time wipe them out completely because survival demanded it.
It seems to me that being good has something to do with having a healthy sense of how evil you can be, but choosing good instead. Doing no evil simply because you’re harmless and powerless isn’t as praiseworthy as knowing you’re a monster and choosing righteousness anyway. Once he knows the full story, Ender does become good. He’s no less capable of leading world-smashing armies the day after the Bugger war ends, but he instead sets out to create and restore.
Get the hardcover edition of Ender’s Game here, because you should have durable copies of the books you love.