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.

On Risk, Time, and Living: Niven’s Ringworld

I know economics isn’t the first thing to spring to mind for most people when reading a science fiction classic, but bear with me anyway. Something stood out to me in the light of Austrian economics while reading Ringworld. Something that I consider a huge credit to Larry Niven for believable world-building. It has to do with the Pierson’s Puppeteers and how they handle their immortality.

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll try to explain the Puppeteers without spoiling the story. In the Ringworld universe, the Pierson’s Puppeteers are one of the older space-faring species. They are bizarre, three-legged, two-headed creatures with very high intelligence. Once upon a time they governed a gigantic commercial empire, but at the time of the novel, they are confined to their own home world, too averse to danger to risk leaving it. The one Puppeteer in the cast of the story, Nessus, is considered insane by his people because he has not only dared to leave home, but is taking a group of aliens (two humans and a Kzin) on a dangerous expedition.

So why do they act this way? The book explains this behavior as a consequence of the Puppeteer’s development of immortality. If they’re careful and can avoid being killed, they never die. So naturally, they’re careful to a fault. This intuitively makes sense when you’re given all the information, but thanks to economics we can roughly anticipate the Puppeteers’ preference for caution just by knowing about their longevity.

In the Austrian view of economics, there is a concept called time preference. Someone with a high time preference is willing to discount the future in order to have something sooner. Someone with a low time preference is willing to delay gratification, to discount the present in order to get something later. You see this all the time when people work for wages (high time preference), loan money or start an entrepreneurial venture (low time preference). Our time preference is also very much influenced by the length of our lives. None of us live forever, so every choice you make with your future self in mind has the end of your life (usually before age 100) as a furthest boundary. This is why people try to save during the early part of their adulthood, and switch to mostly spending during the twilight years of their lives. It’s not so common for an 86-year-old man to work twelve hour days and save like a miser the way an unmarried 20-something running a startup might. When your future is likely to be short, you tend to favor the present.

But what if your future was effectively infinite? Two things: First, you might not mind taking the long view and making plans that take a long time to develop because hey, you’ve got plenty of future in which to reap the rewards. Second, think of what kind of loss death represents. How many years are lost when a human dies? Probably somewhere less than 100. An effectively immortal creature stands to lose trillions. For a Pierson’s Puppeteer, virtually all of life always lies well into the future, and deserves a level of protection bordering on the paranoid.

Perhaps most importantly, this piece of Ringworld is a lesson in the value of our mortality. The Puppeteers manage to make very clever plans, but by and large they are selfish and cowardly. Their own lives loom so large in their futures, there’s no room for anyone else. We mere mortals can only spend so long thinking that way. Eventually we have more of our life behind us than we have before us, and if we want to touch the future, it will be through other people: your children, extended family, and friends.

My great uncle lived only about 77 years, cut short by disease earlier than I would have liked. Even though he is no longer with us, the dent he made in the world is going to last for generations. The old dairy farmer was gruff and sometimes short-tempered, but he lived his life by giving generously to anyone who had need. He didn’t die rich as far as I know, but over 700 people attended his funeral in a small country church, each of them profoundly touched by him at some stage of their lives. And not just family. Some were friends that hadn’t been seen for years, some were the type who were afraid to even set foot in a church, but they showed up all the same to say thank you one last time. To put it in Austrian terms, living like he did is a matter of keeping a low time preference for the sake of other people’s futures, in spite of your own dwindling time on earth. A creature who never dies never even has the opportunity to make that sacrifice.

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.