Remember how at the end of this meme I promised to catch up “in the next year or so” on some of the yet-unread books on that list? Well, I am happy to announce that six months in, I managed to check off one single entry.
Of course, me being me, I could not just go in and read a single book when it happened to be part of a series. So, after reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, I proceeded to reading the other three books in the original Ender tetralogy, and then the Shadow tetralogy for good measure. So, it’s eight books in six months, not one. Considering how little time I set aside for book-reading these days, it is not a bad return, if I say so myself.
I planned to pen a review of the series since around the second book. What I ended up with is a whole bunch of gripes and a few things that I distinctly liked. So, I think of this post more as “assorted reflections” rather than a true book(s) review. If interested, feel free to read on.
The setting of Ender’s Game is in a not so distant future, where the humankind is united in the face of annihilation. Two invasions of the insect-like technologically-advanced alien race known as Buggers have been repelled, but the third one is expected within a few years. Bright kids from all over the world are taken from their families to the space-based Battle School to be trained as future commanders of the fleet that will fight the invaders. Among them is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, anointed “the best hope” for humankind at the tender age of six. He is an exceptional child who grows into an exceptional military leader before he hits puberty. As he and other kids play war games to train themselves for future battles, they do not realize that the games are no longer what they seem. In the end, Ender proves to be the savior of humankind and completely wipes out the entire Bugger species without realizing that at first.
I am not really sure what elevated Ender’s Game to near the top of the NPR list (and I assume it is the book itself, rather than the series, that sits at #3 on that list). It is engaging, well-built, it explores a number of profound themes, but is it truly a better-written or more significant work than some entries rated lower? The conflict between two star-faring races that cannot communicate to – and, therefore, understand – each other is a spectacular springboard to explore plenty of existential subjects. But the execution did not convince me; in fact, I saw too many just-in-time convenience devices introduced throughout the book to keep the proceedings conform to the imagined universe, and I normally do not equate such devices with masterly storytelling.
On the positive side, I very much like the concept of telling the story through protagonist’s eyes, where very little that the protagonist does not know is revealed to the reader. It helps to make the book a more immersing experience, with the all-knowing narrator nowhere to be seen. The author does an excellent job exposing things to us only as Ender learns them. In fact, the book changes viewpoint, to Ender’s sister Valentine’s, only a couple of times, and I found that somewhat disorienting because of the otherwise consistent view through Ender’s eyes.
In the later books, viewpoint constantly changes from one character to another, but always stays true to the specific character at the center of a given chapter. And the characters are not uniform in their thought processes or perceptions; they see things differently, they argue, they fall out of line, they pursue their own preferred courses of action, they go through ranges of emotion that are not necessarily in sync with others. All of it makes them real; this is how people behave. The author is so good at keeping each character’s perspective his or her own that I find myself time and again disappointed at the conclusion of some arguments, which go from a strenuous – occasionally, petulant – and always long disagreement to a sudden acquiescence rather abruptly. All of the characters are depicted as extremely smart people; we follow their complicated thought process with a certain level of exertion on our part. To have a chance phrase or a stray thought to act as a catalyst for a revelation repeatedly throughout the series may be indicative of the collaborative and inquisitive nature of human intellect, but it occasionally feels like a cheap trick that does not mesh well with really bright individuals.
The edition of Ender’s Game that I read came with a foreword by the author himself, in which he lamented how adults may have disparaged the book because they did not find the behavior of the young kids – and there are only a few significant characters in the book who are not pre-teen or early-teen kid geniuses – believable. I must admit I had serious problems envisioning ten-year-old kids, no matter how smart, behaving in a mature and thoughtful way in critical situations. I suppose my children are only normal…
The three later books of the original tetralogy, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind, take place 3000 years after Ender’s Game and tell a mostly self-contained story that has little to do directly with the events of the Game. Ender is in it, and so is Valentine, both starting as adults approaching middle age, having skipped centuries after centuries due to relativistic effects of interstellar travel. Ender’s baggage, both emotional as the result of being responsible for extermination of entire species, and physical in the shape of surviving last Bugger progenitor carried around in his sack, play a non-trivial part in the story. It revisits the problem of the clash of civilizations that are largely incomprehensible to each other, and not once but a couple of times over, on different levels.
Speaker centers on Lusitania, a Brazilian-descendant colony planet where the humankind comes in contact with a sentient species for the first time since the Buggers. Unlike the last time, humans can actually communicate with the Pequeninos. However, the scientific protocols that are in place as a direct result of the Bugger destruction thousands of years ago prevent human xenologists from learning anything useful about the alien race. The matters are complicated by the virus that invades all living things on Lusitania and can only be contained rather than eliminated. Ender, who created the vagabond ministry of Speakers for the Dead, eulogizers who attempt to uncover the truth in complicated lives after people pass away, is called to Lusitania to speak the death of a colonist, Marcao Ribeira. Upon his arrival, he gets entangled not only in the secrets of the Ribeira family, but also in a complicated relationship between the human colony and the native species. The book also introduces us to Jane, a computer-based companion of Ender’s, who lacks any physical manifestation but can manipulate computerized information anywhere in the human universe. Jane is also a sentient being, unique as she is. She can make her own decisions, has feelings that can be hurt, and at some point sets in motion the events that eventually bring Lusitania to the brink of destruction.
Xenocide alternates between Lusitania and the Chinese-descendant colony planet of Path, where a girl prodigy is given a task to go head-to-head with Jane, even though she does not know it at first. Most of the story picks up about 30 years after the end of the Speaker. The fleet that was sent to destroy rebellious and dangerously infected Lusitania is only about a year away from reaching its destination. Ender, who married the Ribeira widow, Novinha, has settled down on Lusitania, and is working with all of his step-children to find some solution that would avert destruction. That involves both finding a cure for the virus and discovering instant interstellar travel. On the road to success, as a side effect, Ender brings to life young versions of both his sister Valentine, who is with him on Lusitania, and his older brother Peter, who never left Earth and died 3000 years ago. Meanwhile, the Bugger race finds a new life on Lusitania, the relationship between humans and Pequeninos go through ups and downs, and Jane signs her own death warrant by allowing a plan to disconnect all of the computers in the universe simultaneously to be put in motion.
Finally, the Children follows several plot lines over the course of just a few weeks to the big resolution. With the instant interstellar flight now possible, Peter Wiggin pursues political solution to Lusitania fleet recall, by jumping from world to world to find levers to convince Starways Congress in the error of their ways. Lusitania residents, of all races, are being evacuated to uninhabited but habitable worlds in the universe, via the same instant interstellar flight. Meanwhile, the virus that has been menacing Lusitania since before the humans came, is proven to be artificial, and members of the Ribeira family, all scientists of different stripes, aided by young Valentine, explore the world that originated the virus, where they come yet again into contact with a sentient species that they cannot communicate with.
This trilogy-within-series brings to life all of those multi-dimensional and believable characters that I mentioned several paragraphs above, but the story veers way too much into what I call “accidental” storytelling. Continuity errors is one thing (there are a couple, especially moving from one book to the next). Illogical choices is another, although they can be written off as “people make mistakes”, despite the fact that they are clearly needed only to make the subsequent events possible. But what bothers me the most is the notion that years after years the supremely bright main characters of the story – one of which is named a god after we already learned of her godlike abilities – spend futilely in search of solutions, and then almost at the last possible moment – boom! – they have successive conversations that lead to all of the discoveries they need. The books are hugely dialogue-driven, the physical action serves mostly as the bridge from one dialogue to another. What have they been talking about for the last thirty years, if the solutions required just the right questions to be asked? Which were asked just in time to avoid disaster, but not a minute earlier.
The three books seemingly touch on every single philosophical and existential subject known to man and explore them in a lot of detail, through dialogues between the main characters. A person’s place in the world, self-perception, love, faith, loyalty, causality… While the author prompts some profound reflections on many of these topics, some conversations become tedious and a bit circular. And on spiritual and theological matters, the discourse eventually becomes somewhat incomprehensible and contrived for my taste, especially when it regards godlike Jane.
On balance, I liked this story only through about two-thirds of the Speaker, and kept reading only because I wanted to get to the resolution. As it turns out, the author left a couple of loose ends at the end of the Children that would obviously lead to another sequel. Given that Ender passed away towards the end of that book, I though that Ender’s Shadow was an apt name for the next installment, so I somewhat forced myself to start that to learn how those remaining loose ends would play out.
And was pleasantly surprised. Because Ender’s Shadow returned me to the same time and place of Ender’s Game and did an excellent job in rekindling my interest in the series by making one of the supporting characters of the Game, Bean, the protagonist and telling his parallel story.
Ender’s Shadow is probably my most favorite of the eight books in the series that I read. It operates almost entirely within the boundaries that were outlined in the Game without inventing convenient new concepts. Even as it recasts Bean from a super-precocious subordinate of Ender’s into a genetically-altered intellectual superior, that transformation does not enable new things that were beyond reach in the first book, but rather illuminates the same things we already knew from a slightly different perspective.
For instance, one of the significant somewhat illogical things from the Game – the quick success of Ender’s Dragon Army – becomes explained in detail here. Because we saw the events in that book through Ender’s eyes, we could not know – since Ender didn’t – how his army was selected. The author tried to convince us that relentless training and a true genius for a commander was all that was needed to mold a few undistinguished veterans and a bunch of untested newbies (“launchies”) into a coherent and superior fighting unit in a matter of weeks, which to me felt rather unbelievable when I read those chapters. In the Shadow, we learn that practically every kid in Dragon Army was a veritable “diamond in the rough”, very carefully selected for their abilities by Bean acting on an assignment from the school hierarchy. Which considerably substantiates the army’s success aside from being based solely on Ender’s own brilliance. (Mr Card deserves his props if he always meant it that way but originally hid it from the readers, waiting for an opportunity to flesh the story out. But the Shadow was written 14 years after the Game, and the foreword to it clearly states that Mr Card came across the idea of writing a book from Bean’s point of view somewhat accidentally. My unsupported, but logically sound, guess is that Mr Card only thought about explaining how Ender’s army was an inherently superior unit when it gelled with Bean’s storyline in the Shadow; when writing the Game, he was content with advancing the idea of Ender’s singular abilities by conveniently showing him quickly succeed against the obvious odds without much of a foundation for that success.)
The first part of the book takes place entirely on Earth, far from space-faring environment, which makes a nice counterbalance for the fantastic concepts that exist in this universe (instant interstellar communications – but not flight, as yet, – or molecular-destruction devices that can blow a planet to smithereens, to name a couple). And the fact that nothing jumped at me as a continuity problem with the Game, made it even more enjoyable (yes, I suppose I’m a bit OCD about continuity – every situation that directly contradicts something that I learned in previous books throws me off enjoyment of a given book on its own merits).
The remaining three books – Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets and Shadow of the Giant – deal with the aftermath of the victory over Buggers on Earth over the next half-decade or so. Ender is gone on the first colony ship, as a precaution against putative wars for his services as the military leader in Earth-side conflicts. Bean remains a central character, and Peter Wiggin, Ender’s older brother, becomes one as well, as the holder of supra-national office who is looking to create a unified and peaceful Earth. Members of Ender’s “Jeesh”, the team of a dozen kids who was directly involved with Ender in defeating the Buggers, feature in different capacities, some more prominently than others. A couple of other Battle School graduates come to the center stage, too, and so do a few adult characters.
The story moves crisply, driven by dialogues similarly to the previous books and allowing various viewpoints to take center stage at different junctions. The characters continue to behave as real humans, making mistakes, getting carried away, atoning for their faults, and so on. In addition to philosophical discourses, there are plenty of geopolitical subjects explored in considerable detail, to say nothing of occasional excursus into religious matters, among them a fairly strong condemnation of the intolerance inherent in Islam. It is a pretty entertaining read all around. But my gripes pile up quickly.
The cavalier attitude towards timelines is both disorienting and sometimes plainly faulty. There are references to “centuries since” events of our lifetimes, which put the proceedings into at least 22nd century, if not later (we are never exactly told what year it is on the calendar), but there are also frequent historical parallels drawn with events of the 20th century, which logically suggests that the events in the book occur in a more near future.
The three books cover a period of seemingly no more than six years (with the exception of the final chapter of the Giant, which fast-forwards about half a century ahead), but pack inside them so many global changes, that it is hard to believe how quickly they occur. The author uses a “years of build-up” qualifier quite often to blunt the suddenness of those events, but there is no place to fit many of such years-long blocks into just a half of a decade. Furthermore, there are several long periods of either idleness, captivity, preparation or exile for assorted main heroes, not occurring at the same time. Could it all take just five or six years? And why do our Battle School graduates seem to remain teenagers throughout the proceedings? Surely by the time events in the Giant roll along most of them have to be twenty-somethings.
The power wielded by Achilles in the Hegemon is never seriously substantiated. Achilles, a supporting character in Ender’s Shadow, is a seriously bad kid who knows Bean from his street days, but who only spent a very short time in the Battle School before being confined to a mental institution. In the military conflict that occurred immediately after the victory over the Buggers, Achilles was sprung from that confinement. The Hegemon kicks into gear about a year later, with Achilles apparently already fully in control of a faction of Russian military/intelligence. Another few months go by, and he is able to take over Indian military command. While all this time being a highly valued Chinese asset. How did he manage to build so much influence out of nothing in just a couple of years? Contrast that with Peter Wiggin, who has purposefully been building his global influence for years, but is nowhere near having the same direct power after working at it for much longer…
The characters frequently overthink situations. Yes, they are all intellectually superior geniuses, but all of those decision trees based on “he expects that we expect that he expects, so this is how we make it unexpected” reasonings become tiresome after a while. If the intent here is to show that even the smartest of people reach their decisions only after carefully analysing several moves ahead, the author succeeds. But some of those deliberations could have been shortened without much loss for us, non-genius readers.
Almost all of the significant events revolve around members of Ender’s Jeesh. One of the underlying concepts of the story is the fact that the peaceful existence of the future Earth is dependent on these military geniuses departing the Earth for different distant colony planets, so that they will never have to compete with each other for supremacy. OK, I can buy that premise. But what about thousands of other Battle School graduates dispersed throughout the world? At least three of them play major roles in the proceedings (and one other, who appears only cursorily, is named at the later stages as a high-ranking official in his native country), so they definitely have the ability to influence the course of history. But the possibility of those other former child soldiers, who may not be the best of the best, but are still some of the smartest and most driven people on the planet, being even important in the big scheme of things is totally neglected. It wouldn’t be a problem for a less global story, but definitely rings hollow when the entire population of Earth is involved.
I could mention a couple of continuity issues or a few other convenient unsubstantiated artifacts that help move the action along, but then you would get the impression that I am bashing the books. Not at all. Overall, I enjoyed the Shadow tetralogy quite a lot, as it painted an interesting picture of the recognizable future, moving at a good pace, with many well-depicted characters. But I cannot get past all of these contradictions or deficiencies without thinking that the author did not have an airtight picture of where he wanted to get to, and instead was making some of the stuff up as he went along. Which does not diminish his skill as a storyteller, it only diminishes my perception of the end product.
I don’t think I will seek to read many of the other works in the Ender universe – there are prequel short stories and novels, a Battle School novel that takes place before Ender’s time, a short story continuing to track Bean and his children, a novel that follows Ender in his exile (and ties up one of the loose ends left from the Shadow of the Giant, according to Wikipedia), several short stories that spin off that, etc. But I might nonetheless read Shadows Alive, due to be published some time later this year, which purportedly ties together continuation of Bean’s life after years of interstellar travel with the plot lines that remained loose at the end of the Children of the Mind. Take that as a positive recommendation for the overall series, if you’re so inclined.