Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Adult fiction for kids? Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

Or is it kids' fiction for adults? When my friend first recommended Ender's Game (VPL link), I thought it would be a normal sci-fi story: some technology, some aliens, some overarching theme about humanity. When I bought it, the cover was quite different than I expected (see below), and the jacket claims that it is an American Library Association "100 Best Books for Teens". It follows the main character, Andrew (Ender, no explanation why) Wiggins, from the age of 6 to 11, then wraps up the rest of his life in the final few chapters. So it's about a kid.

Which, with the cover I had and the "for Teens" claim, made it difficult not to think of the book as teen fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the book didn't feel like teen fiction, and I'm not certain Orson Scott Card intended it to be received that way. It's dark, vicious and at times nihilistic. It also delights in the seemingly simplistic relationships between children without condescending, and delicately portrays the love between a brother and sister.

The normal cover

The cover of the edition I read

Ender Wiggin is a remarkable child, chosen as a possible saviour for humanity. Plucked from his family at the age of six, he goes through Battle School then Command School, pushed to the edge of his sanity by trainers in the hope that he will be able to lead an army in a pre-emptive strike against the "buggers", ant-like aliens that invaded several generations ago but were defeated at the last by the genius of one commander.

Published in 1985 but based on a short bit written in 1977, the story and the language don't feel dated at all, which is especially impressive given the subject matter: Ender uses a personal "desk", similar to a laptop, and jacks into life-like first-person adventure game that incorporates aspects of real life and fantasy, originally with challenges but eventually allowing him to wander around at will. A sub-plot (or rather sous-plot, because it is quite significant) follows Ender's brother and sister as they scheme to eventually take over the world through inventing personas on the nets and becoming influential enough to shape public opinion.

In contrast, I'm reading Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, written in 2002, and already it seems dated. His descriptions of using the internet is at times too prosaic and a bit off: "When she returns to the forum page, her post is there" and "Hotmail downloads four messages..." and "She goes alone to an Internet cafe every other day and checks the new hotmail account she's acquired with her new email address, a .uk one that Voytek arranged."

The book is a bit too much of a morality play, but it still resonates. Like District 9, Ender's Game takes a simple idea about how we treat the other and builds a compelling narrative around it. Done poorly, it could have come across as heavy-handed, but the light language and optimism (at first) contrasts nicely with the subject matter.

Ender's Game was compelling, enjoyable, and novel enough to leave me thoroughly satisfied. Thanks for the recommendation, Marco.

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