Beyond The Pale

Literature, Subjective Criticism, Ender’s Game

I’m back.

I first read Orson Scott Card’s classic Science Fiction novel Ender’s Game sometime around 1998. Rob Dickerson, my then youth pastor was talking about the Science Fiction novels that had influenced him the most when he was my age, and the ones that he remembered with the most fondness where Ender’s Game and Frank Herbert’s Dune, both of which I read and loved. I found Ender’s Game to be important enough that between 1998 and 2002 I read it at least five times, and during my times of teenage and early twenties angst, I would tell Andrea that if my parents ever really wanted to understand who I was, they would have to first read and then understand Ender’s Game, and The Matrix. Looking back, I’m convinced that while this cultural consumption as comprehension of personality motif was immature, it did point to something powerful about the book.

So I came back to Ender’s Game a dozen years after my first reading with fond memories, but I also came back with lowered expectations. My taste in prose has moved from a pizza and milk shake type arrangement to something a little more substantial. I want my veggies, I want my filet and snails, but I also don’t want to lose my roots. I don’t want to forget what made me love reading in the first place. Here’s what I found: I found that I don’t think Ender’s Game is the best book ever written anymore, but it isn’t the junk food that I expected either. Card sprinkled some powdered vitamins on that pizza. Ender’s Game is all about isolation and love and fear and community. It’s about the way we hurt that which we don’t understand. Xenophobia is a common theme in Science Fiction stories with Aliens, but the truth it depicts is homophobia, philophobia, filiphobia, fear of those who are ever present with us but not of us, the other that we hear talked about so much in most of the chic humanities disciplines for students who never want a real job is the Alien of Card’s Enderverse, it is our parents, our spouses, our friends and enemies.

For anyone who hasn’t read this story, Ender is born into a world that has already been attacked twice by a race of insectiod aliens and is preparing for a third invasion. It has been almost seventy years since the second invasion, and a third invasion is imminent, but in the first two invasions, humans barely won, and the powers that be aren’t sure that they can win a third time, so they scan the planet for precocious youngsters to be trained in null-g battle and fleet command tactics, and the best of the best are sent to an orbital battle school where they study military history and everything else they might need to be the minds behind earth’s space fleet, but what they live for while they are there is the battle room, the game of the school. Ender is the most brilliant of the brilliant, and with the third invasion coming ever closer, it quickly becomes apparent that he is humanity’s greatest hope for survival.

As I said before, I’ve read this book several times over the last dozen years, and while the story itself has lost much of its original appeal (I have some issues with a lot of the science in the book, which I suppose means that my taste is running away from the soft Science Fiction of Card and others of his ilk and drifting more toward the hard Sci-Fi that used to bother me so much when I was a kid), the emotional resonance of what happens to Ender as he simultaneously grows powerful enough to destroy and love his enemy rings completely true to me.

Every time I read the last chapter of the book, I experience what I’ve discovered is my version of crying (it involves a sudden onset of a frontal lobe headache coupled with intense sinus pressure and various facial spasms and tics—quite uncomfortable really. I’d much rather be a person who cried for real.) because I know this pain, not the pain of having killed, but the pain of needing to understand and be understood, the pain of seeming isolation that seems, at times, to be inevitable in human interaction. “If only we could have talked to you,” Card has the Hive Queen say through Ender (How’s that for some metareferential narrative mucking about?), “but since it could not be, we ask only this: that you remember us, not as enemies, but as tragic sisters, changed into a foul shape by Fate or God or Evolution. If we had kissed, it would have been the miracle to make us human in each other’s eyes. Instead we killed each other. But still we welcome you now as guest-friends. Come into our home, daughters of Earth.”

I was talking to an old friend the other day, trying to explain the way that me worldview has evolved in the last several years, and I realized that probably the greatest change has been the way that I view this alienation. For a long time, I thought that the line from Rules of Attraction, “you will never know me. No one ever really knows anyone” was a universal truth, that we really never do know anyone. And the great pain of life is the fact that we are wired to need to be understood and to understand, that we need someone who can speak for us, but there is no one who can really hear our voice. The change of these last few years is that I have come to realized that whether we can or can’t ever really know and be known, the purpose of life is to pursue such an intimacy: with spouses, with parents, with close friends, with children, with God.

The great tragedy of the so called post modern condition is the alienation we experience when we buy into its precepts, of alienation and solitude, so when my face went all twitchy last night as I finished reading Ender’s Game yet again, I felt a thrill to realize that it was twitching for different reasons than it ever had before, not because I believe that we are inextricably separated from each other, but because I’ve come to understand how important real community is—and to mourn for those who don’t know it exists.


March 1, 2010 - Posted by | Literature, Science Fiction


  1. Awesome post. Israel gave me his copy of the book this fall, but as I am a ridiculously slow reader now, I haven’t yet touched it. Is this not why we’ve been created? To commune with God and with God in others?

    Comment by alltheseblessedthings | March 2, 2010 | Reply

  2. I’m going to reply to this again after now. But I wanted to transmit signal through space now. Beep beep. Human connection.

    this semester is treacherous. Let’s load up the covered wagon and head out west.

    Comment by wordorgy | April 14, 2010 | Reply

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