Cruelty and Compassion in Ender’s Game

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.

The Forever War

This is another Hugo and Nebula award winner, a story of interstellar war by Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman.

It’s no secret that The Forever War is a spiritual retelling of Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam, although I have apparently been living under a rock and hadn’t known this when I picked the book up. Its connection to Vietnam is palpable for anyone even somewhat familiar with the history of that war, or even just the experiences of American veterans.

The protagonist William Mandella skips across time on relativistic interstellar deployments as the ages fly by back home. Before I realized what context the author was writing from, I found myself thinking about how Mandella’s experience was an exaggerated version of how those who fought in Vietnam must have felt. They came back to a home that had marked cultural changes, whose people often did not comprehend the sacrifices they made, or even know why they made them.

But the book is more than a parable about a particular war. It showcases the insanity of war in general, as viewed by those in the trenches. The book gives a front-row view of what it’s like fighting and dying for commanders who are far removed both from the grim realities of the fight, and from the civilization you’re fighting for. Haldeman’s world-building and storytelling style places you right in the action, with a visceral and inescapable sense of realism.

Military friends tell me there is much about Mandella’s life that a modern soldier can relate to. If Joe Haldeman’s goal was to make me hope no soldier ever again has to experience the alienation and waste of life that unnecessary wars cause, he was successful.

Life, Death and Fear in Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga

I recently finished reading Gateway by Frederik Pohl, and its sequels. I was immediately swept into the sequels, because Pohl uses a tactic Ben Bova would later articulate in Writing Science Fiction that Sells. Pohl set up a grand question that the story gradually answers. I’m a sucker for this formula. Every Asimov book I’ve read has done it, and Clarke was a master at it.

In Gateway, human explorers had stumbled upon an asteroid filled with abandoned, ancient starships. The long-gone aliens are dubbed Heechee and the asteroid earns the name Gateway. Humans start using the ships to explore the cosmos, but their ignorance about how the ships work make these sojourns deadly just as often as they are profitable.

The grand question was simply this: Why did a hyper-advanced spacefaring civilization totally vanish, leaving behind no artifacts whatsoever except their starships? The journey we take in the course of finding out follows the life of Robinette Broadhead, a prospector who plans to pilot one of these ships in search of riches.

But it wasn’t merely this cosmic, scientific question that drove the story in Gateway. There were other, much more intimate mysteries, which carried through in different forms through the whole series. In Gateway the primary theme was fear, and how the terror of death or failure can prevent you from living.

The story is told in a first-person, extended flashback form, and the scenes occurring in the “present” are in the office of Robinette “Bob” Broadhead’s robotic psychiatrist. Broadhead makes regular visits to this psychiatrist but persistently refuses to tell him anything about his experiences at Gateway. Fortunately, he does tell the story to the reader. At first it is a complete mystery what has put Broadhead into the shrink’s office, and his evasiveness with Sigfrid is obvious. The question here is, “What’s eating Bob?” The answer to that question in Gateway provides a moment of pathos at the climax of the book, and drives the plot of its sequels, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous.

The third, and for me the most excruciating, question throughout Gateway had to do with Robin Broadhead’s indecisiveness. Broadhead comes from a very poor background, working in shale mines in North America for subsistence wages. Much of the earth is on the brink of starvation. He wins the lottery and uses his winnings, in an uncharacteristically bold entrepreneurial move, to buy a ticket to Gateway. As a Gateway prospector, he would have at least a remote chance at riches. Of course, life as a prospector could just as easily kill him.

Once he arrives on Gateway, Broadhead spends almost all his time procrastinating. He delays. He languishes. He even lingers indecisively in his romantic relationships. Like anyone afraid of failure, he keeps waiting for a perfect opportunity that never comes. When will he finally commit?!

His ultimate decision and its consequences have a lot to do with why he’s visiting Sigfrid in the first place.

Gateway dealt a great deal with fear, living in spite of your fears and getting on with life in spite of guilt. Sometimes, mistakes cannot be undone, and hopefully we can all learn — as Robin eventually does — to carry on anyway.

 

The Sequels

The sequels to Gateway deal with similar themes, but Broadhead is a very different person after his adventure on Gateway. Robin has to deal with mortality, the question of his own life’s purpose, and of course with the grand question set up in the first installment. Who were the Heechee and where did they go? The books are exploring the Fermi Paradox from an angle you don’t often see. The hard-science pieces of the puzzle rely on some outdated physics (like a contracting universe) but overall the answer to the grand question was worth the journey.