Tag Archives: philosophical books

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ender’s Game’

*Takes a deep breath*

Right.

Some of what I’m going to say here in this review may offend die-hard Orson Scott Card fans, and it may even cause some of you to think I don’t deserve the right to call myself an SF fan. However, I’m not going to sugar-coat my opinion. I know that ‘Ender’s Game’ evokes huge devotion among some of its readers, and that dissenters often face scorn, but heck – this is my blog, and I’ll say what I like.

I did not enjoy ‘Ender’s Game.’ I’m sorry, but there it is.

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Note that I used the word ‘enjoy’. I didn’t enjoy the book, that’s true – but I do appreciate it for what it is, for what it’s trying to do, and for some of the things it anticipated about the world, particularly in terms of computing and the internet. I didn’t enjoy its brutality, its coldness, the writing style employed by its author and the – to my mind – disturbing lack of connection between the characters, and the lack of humanity in a book which takes the idea of ‘what is humanity?’ as a central concern.

‘Ender’s Game’ was a strange book, for me, insofar as I really thought the idea behind it was brilliant, and so much of what I was reading intrigued me. However, there was so much about it that I just couldn’t get on board with – no matter what the author himself says in his ‘Introduction’ to my edition (people who don’t ‘believe’ the way he’s written the children in this book simply have no idea how gifted children behave and act and think, apparently) – that it failed, for me, as a story.

Ender (Andrew) Wiggin lives with his parents and siblings – an older brother Peter and an older sister Valentine – and, as the story opens, we learn that he is being monitored via a machine in the back of his neck, and that – at six – it has been in place for a long time, longer than either of his siblings had theirs. His brother had his removed at five, and his sister at three. Ender, then, is special. For his brother, this is a cause for violent, jealous anger and for his sister it is a source of concern; Ender is a ‘Third’, a child who was born after his parents sought, and received, special permission to conceive and carry him. Thirds are not supposed to be gifted, or talented, or special. Yet Ender is.

The world in which they live exists in the aftermath of a massive invasion of alien enemies, the first of which happened some seventy years in the past, and the people of Ender’s world – a future version of Earth – are waiting for the next wave of attack from these aliens, called ‘buggers’. They are preparing to repel them, and have been working on ways to fight them for generations. Ender’s monitor – which all children have to wear, until the powers that be are satisfied that they have learned enough about the child and how he or she thinks, feels and acts – is designed to spot future battle commanders, children with the potential to be great fighters. Ender is taken from his family by a colonel from the International Fleet, or I.F., and brought to Battle School in order to learn how to kill the ‘buggers’.

So far, so good.

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie 'Ender's Game'. Image: blog.zap2it.com

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie ‘Ender’s Game’.
Image: blog.zap2it.com

The book then begins to take us through Ender’s training, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I found a lot of it impossible to imagine. I haven’t yet seen the film of ‘Ender’s Game’, but I’d certainly like to, if for nothing else than to see how a film director imagined the battle room, and the simulations of warfare, and the ‘flash suits’ the boys have to wear (for, despite the fact that girls are technically ‘allowed’ to train at Battle School, very few of them make it in due to their naturally peaceful and conciliatory inclinations – imagine me rolling my eyes here, if you like.) I did enjoy reading about how Ender gets to grips with null gravity, and how he works out a better method of attack than was previously used, one which leaves the body of the fighter at less risk of being shot by enemy fire, but really I got tired of the repetitive training sequences after a while. I’ve read many books about interstellar warfare, and I have a good imagination, but Mr. Card’s descriptions were beyond me.

Alongside Ender’s amazing military and tactical ability – bear in mind, of course, that he is six years old, turning seven and eight as he progresses through the ranks – his sister and brother are, back on Earth, turning themselves into political orators in an effort to overthrow governmental control and establish themselves as powerful players in world politics. They take the screen names ‘Demosthenes’ (Valentine) and ‘Locke’ (Peter), and soon become widely known, and their writings avidly read. They are barely teenagers, something which Valentine keeps mentioning (even, weirdly, noting that she has not yet started menstruating, so how can she possibly write a weekly column for a major newsnet, which I found disturbing. Why would any twelve-year-old girl say such a thing?) I really enjoyed how Card anticipated things like blogging and anonymous internet users exercising huge power over thought processes and web culture, years before anything like it existed in reality, but again it all seemed so unreal, unbelievable and ridiculous to imagine two pre-teens doing all this that I couldn’t really lose myself in the story. Ender, Valentine and Peter’s parents are so unimportant in this book that I really don’t see what would have been lost by aging them all ten years – they’d still have been remarkably young to be so intelligent and accomplished, and it would have seemed a little more believable to the reader.

So, the story progresses in a rather predictable way – the ending didn’t take me by surprise at all, though that’s not to say it wouldn’t have been a shock ending to its original readers, back in the 1980s – and we follow Ender’s story and that of his siblings to their adulthood, and a spark of hope for the future is planted. Or, at least, the kick-off point for this book’s stack of sequels, if you’d rather be cynical about it. I thought the concept behind the ‘buggers’ was interesting, and I was sorry that more wasn’t said about it (though, of course, I haven’t read the sequels yet), and I worried a little about where this book stood on the question of ‘gung-ho’ humanity, destroying everything around it just because it can.

I’m not sorry I read ‘Ender’s Game.’ It’s a classic, a Hugo- and Nebula-award winning book, and I didn’t really feel I’d earned my stripes as a reader of SF without having had a crack at it. However, part of me wonders why it is so successful. The children – no matter how gifted or brilliant they are – act and speak and think like middle-aged men, and I just couldn’t buy that; there is no character development; everyone, even Ender, reads like a flat cardboard cut-out, despite the fact that Card’s book tackles huge questions like the morality of war, and the idea that ‘might is right’, and the philosophical struggles inherent in everyone’s maturation process. However, all this depth, all this thinking, all this layering, is done in huge paragraphs of exposition and explanation, instead of through dialogue between characters or something that could’ve helped a reader get a handle on the people in this novel, and that left me cold. I was completely indifferent to Ender’s fate, and even though I warmed to Valentine (who is shown as having a heart and who loves her brother deeply – the very ‘weakness’ that marked her out as unsuitable for Battle School), and I liked Ender’s friend Alai, a non-white character who is shown, through his (rather stereotypical) speech to be religious, I couldn’t have cared less about anyone else.

The book struck me as racist, and sexist, and strange (lots of scenes take place where the children, for no good reason, are naked); it was coldly intellectual and – in my opinion – not the sort of book I’d have read with enjoyment as a teenager. The concepts, the science, the military strategy, and the setting are all top-notch, but the writing just didn’t do it for me. I accept its place in the canon of SF masterworks, but I reserve the right to dislike it, and so it goes.

Read some Robert Heinlein or Philip K. Dick or even Ursula Le Guin instead, is my advice.

Book Review Saturday – ‘More Than This’

Right.

For today’s book review post, I’m going to attempt the impossible. It’s something you should definitely not try at home; I’m a trained professional, and all that.

Step back! I know what I'm doing. I think. Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

Step back! I know what I’m doing. I think.
Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

I’m going to try to write a book review without giving away any pertinent details about the story, because the book I’m reviewing is the sort of tale that you just can’t spoil. Pretty much anything you say about what happens in it may, possibly, ruin someone else’s enjoyment, and that would be A Very Bad Thing.

The book is this one, right here:

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Patrick Ness is an author who gets my blood pumping. I adored his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, so much so that I simply couldn’t wait for the third book to be published in paperback, and I had to buy it in hardback; normally, I hate having two-thirds of a trilogy in one format, and the last book in another, but I made an exception for this one. As well as that, I loved his ‘A Monster Calls’ more than I can express in words. It touched my heart in ways that no other book has ever done, or ever will. ‘Chaos Walking’ and ‘A Monster Calls’ are works of genius – I don’t think that’s overstating the case – and so it might not be a surprise to learn I expected great things of ‘More Than This’.

I’m still not sure, really, whether this book lived up to those expectations, exceeded them, or did none of the above. Reading it has put me in a spin, and I suppose that’s the point behind it. My reaction is, probably, what the author was aiming for; if so, then he achieves his writerly goals in spades.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the protagonist of this book, a seventeen-year-old boy, drowns within the first three pages. The whole point of the story is that we are reading about what happens to him after that. The description of his death is shocking and brutal – we are left in no doubt that he suffers, albeit briefly, before the cruel sea dashes him against some rocks, causing him an unsurvivably grievous injury. The opening chapter is typical of the book, employing sparse and beautiful language, with powerful and gripping imagery and characterisation. The chapters about the boy are written in the present tense, which gives them a chilling immediacy and makes the reader feel as though they are taking each step of his journey with him.

For, of course, there is a journey to be taken.

The boy wakes up in a place familiar to him, but also shockingly unfamiliar. As he puts together where he is, and why he has ended up there, we learn about his life and family, his past, and what he has suffered up to this point. The author handles all this – the boy’s thought processes, the setting, the ways in which he struggles to figure out what’s happening, the fear and isolation and crushing loneliness that start to afflict him – with sensitivity and skill, and he creates a truly sympathetic character in his protagonist. The boy wonders if he is in hell, or if he is being punished; as his story is told, we learn that he has spent many years punishing himself for something that happened when he was a child, and for a while I wondered whether this ‘hell’ was of his own making, an extension of the suffering he’d imposed upon himself all through his life.

Whenever the boy falls asleep in this weird world, he relives sections of his life. We meet his parents, his younger brother, his schoolmates. We learn of his love for one of his friends, and their tender relationship. These episodes do not feel like dreams; the boy is literally reliving these moments, and they cause him great pain. At the heart of his sorrow and grief, and his feelings of loss, the reader knows something dark and disturbing is lurking; we know there is a huge, heartrending secret – one too painful for the boy to even admit to – waiting to be uncovered.

I really can’t say much more than this about the plot. Any further detail would destroy the mystery of the book and take away from its central strength – in other words, the unknowable vacuum around which it is built. What I can do is tell you how the book made me feel.

A bit like this, sort of... Image: rgbstock.com

A bit like this, sort of…
Image: rgbstock.com

This is a thoughtful and philosophical novel. It has a teenager as its protagonist, sure, and most of the other characters we meet are also teenagers or children, but… it’s not, in so many ways, a ‘typical’ YA book. It’s a story about life, about fear, about the unknowability of another person’s mind, about hurt and loss and pain and love, and about friendship. It asks huge questions – why are we here? What’s the point of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? – and the answers it offers ask more questions than they solve. This idea, that everything we find out about ourselves or the world actually causes more problems than it explains, is a central theme in the book. Despite its subject matter, it is suffused with positivity, especially toward the end, and – like so many books I love – it shows the power of friendship and self-sacrifice, and how important the connections between people are.

Having said that, I really did feel that the book built up to a crescendo that never really happened. I was crushingly disappointed by the end, but perhaps that’s a personal thing. There were so many things I wished to have explained – and I’m not talking about ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ and ‘What happens after we die?’ because, of course, Patrick Ness knows as much about those things as I do, or as anyone does – but details within the story world, images and characters created in the book, and which could have been explained a bit more clearly. There was one image in particular, a feature of the landscape in this strange ‘other’ place, that I was convinced was full of meaning but which was left unexplored; I found that annoying.

Then, maybe what the author wants is for each reader to come to their own conclusion. If so, then that’s fine – I just wish he’d given us slightly more to go on.

I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that it might upset you if you’ve been bereaved, or if you’re particularly sensitive to reading about the sorts of thing that go in within abusive families. There are some heartrending scenes in this book, sure, and so it won’t suit everyone. However, if you want to read a book which will make you think, and ponder the reality around you, and stimulate your capacity to wonder, then maybe this is the book for you. Just be prepared to be frustrated by it, too.

The most memorable line in it, for me, is this:

Know who you are, and go in swinging.

This is excellent life advice, I think. Believe in yourself, and accept no lies. If I take nothing but this away from ‘More Than This’, then I’ll be happy.

Happy weekend! May you read well.