A Few Thoughts on Ender’s Game

This week the bloggers of Fabius Maximus have posted several times on the evils of Orson Scott Card‘s popular science fiction book, Ender’s Game. I figure I might as well pile on.
I read Ender’s Game for the second time earlier this summer. I noticed it was included in the quantum libraries of a few people I respect and was curious what they had found in it that I had missed. My conclusion upon the second reading was in accord with the first: Ender’s Game is one of the most over-rated science fiction novels published in the last thirty years.
Do not mistake me. I enjoyed the novel. The writing is excellent, the plot was intriguing, and a few select sections were nothing short of brilliant. The words “the enemy gate is down” have been engrained into my brain. This book is a superb selection for any literature class – I daresay it would be a good read for most philosophy classes.
But it is a horrible choice for the Marine Corps Commandant Reading List.
I offer two complaints against Ender’s Game. The first concerns the twist that both marks the novel’s climax and destroys all claims it may make to realism. Ender Wiggins, child prodigy bred from birth to be the military genius needed to save all humanity from an existential alien threat, spends most of the novel training for war in a space station-turned-boot camp named the “Battle School”. He spends his time playing war games that progressively become more difficult. After Ender and his team have overcome everything the Battle School can throw at them, they are moved to a new location and begin to play an even harder game. This game is meant to simulate fleet actions among the stars; it is played by buttons and analog control sticks; its objects are glowing 3-D models of the ships Ender will command in the future. The difficulty is that the game learns from each defeat. Ender can never use the same tactics in two battles, and the number and quality of ships available to him become smaller and smaller every time he begins a new game. His last battle is one of insurmountable odds: Ender is equipped with a few low-tech ships whilst his enemy has a planet and all of the defenses that come with it. Through a stroke of brilliance Ender wins the game – and then is told that there never was any game at all. His training had been real. Those models were not simulations but representations of real fleets manned by real men. The glowing ball of light he had just blown to pieces was now, though millions of light years away, a real asteroid field.
This twist blows away ability to suspend disbelief. War is just as much a matter of ethos and pathos as it is a thing of logic. One cannot play chess with men; that these soldiers would follow the orders of anonymous commanders millions of light-years away with the exactness needed to maintain the illusion of the “game” is absurd. War can never be a matter of blips on a screen. Those who try to make it so will find themselves defeated by friction.
It is my hope that no officer reading Ender’s Game take its climax seriously. I am not convinced that even Card himself does. This “game” was not designed to be realistic; it was a conceit written into the book to make a point. Ender’s Game is just as much a story about agency and morality as it a tale of adventure and war. The focus is not on the methods Ender uses to destroy one enemy fleet after another, but on how Ender is manipulated into doing so. With his crowning victory Ender has committed xenocide. He did not mean to. If he had known the nature of the game he was playing he may never have played it. But Ender did not know the nature of his game. He did not see the destruction of worlds, but the “bleeps” and “bloops” of a video game.
This is why I have trouble taking the comparisons made between the fascists of Europe and Ender (highlighted by Fabius Maximus in the post noted above) seriously. Ender Wiggins could never be Adolf Hitler. Hitler was not being manipulated by the system; Hitler was the system. He knew exactly what he was doing. Hitler and Ender lived parallel lives and committed parallel crimes – but their desires, intentions, and above all else, the extent of their knowledge was radically different. Condemning Ender is condemning a man for sins he never knew were his.
This is one of — if not the — overriding themes of Ender’s Game. Can a man who does not know the consequences of his actions commit a crime? This theme pervades the book; it can be seen from its first chapter to its closing page. Ender’s childhood story is one of pain and abuse at the hands of other children. The novel opens with a group of bullies cornering the young child – only to see Ender lash out and viciously attack the head bully, “hoping to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse” (Ender’s Game, p. 5). He leaves the scene, crying because of his own brutality but sure that the bullies will never bother him again. Colonel Graff, commander of the Battle School, visits him that very day to ask why he attacked with such ferocity. Upon learning that Ender acted in self defense the Colonel whisks Ender away to his school among the stars. Ender never learns what the reader knows by the end of the chapter: the bully Ender destroyed died of his wounds. Humanity would be doomed if their super-weapon was plagued by moral demons. Colonel Graff ensures that Ender would never know just how deadly a weapon he is.
Orson Scott Card wants his reader to question the ethics of this scene. Ender has just murdered, but is he a murderer? His intent was pure and he did not comprehend the consequences of his actions. Does that negate the crime? It is a quandary juries confront every year. The discussion Card seeks is one that every society seeking justice must have.
But not on the battlefield.
Soldiers operate in an environment where information is limited but the consequences of their actions are not. This is not the world of Ender’s Game. Ender plays as a prodigy, a superman among supermen, all powerful in the sterile and perfectly controlled BattleRoom. You will find no supermen among the soldiers of our armed forces – our men and women are but mortal beings, and their battlefields are anything but controlled. Some may claim a similarity in position: like Ender, most soldiers are pawns in the larger system. But unlike Ender, every soldier must bear the consequences of the decisions he or she makes. The soldier who accidentally kills an innocent man will have no Colonel Graff to come and hide the body before news of the death is known. That the deed is done in ignorance or by accident does not change that it was done. In times of war the fruits of a soldier’s labors will be tasted. That a soldier had the best of intentions does not lessen the moral shock of killing an innocent man. That a soldier acted without full understanding of the situation does not change the tactical or strategic consequences of his actions.
This is the fault of Ender’s Game. On the battlefield you do not have the liberty to stop and decide whether or not your intentions are pure. When the guns start firing it is the consequences that matter.

Originally published on 12 September, 2010. Republished (3 November, 2013) to mark this week’s release of the Ender’s Game film.

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I don’t think Ender’s lack of awareness of the results of his actions is the sticking point for Fabius Maximus. He would probably counter that just as the ending is set up not to make sense militarily but rather to raise a moral question, Card contrives Ender's fights in such a way for us to identify with him. After all, what kind of a world is it where the children are commonly this vicious? Perhaps, it is a product of their militarism, but I would think that aggression would be directed at the aliens not each other. The situations Ender finds himself in begin with that strange, psychotic nature. So Fabius basically argues if you take that away then Ender is the monster. He then argues that Ender's “heroism” mixed with victimization finds a parallel in America's claims that we are wrongfully called evil for the killing we've done in our conflicts since the Cold War, as our intentions are good. That's his explanation for the book's popularity in addition to its appeal to the geek's wish fulfillment of being the one to save the world. However, the comparison is not really appropriate since the world really is filled with monsters. This is the problem with the article he cites that condemns moral thought experiments such as the stowaway aboard a spaceship that must be thrown out the airlock for want of sufficient supplies and thrust. That kind of situation could be all too real, even on just a lifeboat, with limited supplies and weight capacity. Thus, Fabius Maximus' argument is at least as contrived as Card's. The real weakness in our sense of morality is whether our intentions really are good, but Ender's situations don't really lend themselves to that kind of comparison. I mean, if Ender’s victims were just normal kids there wouldn’t be any room for ambiguity over the goodness of his intentions, would there? Or perhaps, that is Fabius Maximus’ point, in which case he must think us a supremely evil society.


Thank you for your response.

"I don’t think Ender’s lack of awareness of the results of his actions is the sticking point for Fabius Maximus"

You are right, it isn't. IMHO, this is the greatest flaw in FM's argument — it is Ender's "lack of awareness" that makes the entire book possible. Take away this element and you not only remove the book's central philosophical question, but most of the story as well.

But on the other hand

"I mean, if Ender’s victims were just normal kids"

It is hard to argue that the victims in the beginning of the normal were not normal kids. Bullies, yes, but it most places bullies are a pretty normal occurrence. I would go so far to say that most kids are a bully during at least one point of their childhood or teen-age years and almost every has been bullied. Ender's response is radically disproportionate to the rather normal problem he faces.So there may be some validity to this point.

(I imagine that Card's response, in turn, would be that Ender, still a young child, did not realize what he was doing. His intentions were innocent even if his actions were not.)

"Or perhaps, that is Fabius Maximus’ point, in which case he must think us a supremely evil society."

Well…. that actually describes FM pretty well. Replace 'supremely evil' with 'trending towards fascism' and you have his views pegged

"One cannot play chess with men; that these soldiers would follow the orders of anonymous commanders millions of light-years away with the exactness needed to maintain the illusion of the “game” is absurd. War can never be a matter of blips on a screen. Those who try to make it so will find themselves defeated by friction."

The problem with this argument is that even many contemporary video wargames–even games from years ago–can incorporate moral, hesitations and deviations from orders, etc. on the part of the units of the game. For instance, in Close Combat, a rather old videogame simulating the Bridge Too Far campaign, squads will refuse to advance under fire, will panic when pinned down, etc. Ender's Game is set in the future; videogame AI's have presumably advanced. Ender would have been aware of games that incorporate such mechanics. The failure of the real ships he was commanding to follow his orders exactly would be readily explicable as just another part of the game he had to account for and overcome to win.