Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Ender's Game

I appreciate that I’m almost 40 years behind everybody else, but I’ve just finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  Yes, it’s a ‘classic’ but, as I’ve said before, there’s so many ‘classics’ out there, not just sci-fi and not just novels, that if you didn’t have some holes in your reading list then I’d worry.

As I sometimes submit to Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and cite this blog on my submissions I’m probably doing myself no favours by posting a review.  Because, I have some concerns - and one major issue - with the book.  Not that it’s not without merits: I liked the point about space not having an up or down, and it made me think how many space battles I’ve seen portrayed have been gravity-affected dogfights with the ground no longer visible.

But my issue?  Not with the language.  It’s a YA book, so I was expecting something more burger and slaw than lobster thermidor.  No, it isn’t Nabokov, but neither is it Enid Blyton in space.

I don’t - as many seem to have - a hang-up with the word ‘buggers’. As an Englishman it’s a curious word.  Yes, it means anal sex, but it’s not what first springs to mind.  It’s, say, what an elderly Yorkshireman says when he’s miles from home without an umbrella and it starts to rain.  And it’s said with resignation under the breath.  No, in calling his aliens ‘buggers’ Card has, as David Brent would say, embarrassed himself there.  (Ditto ‘Dr Device’ - just plain silly).

I could live with the storyline, which was pretty much as linear as one of those highways across the American desert.  Yes, there were hurdles to overcome, but hardly twists.

The pacing?  Well, let’s let it go.  The way the book plods along through the various games, really ends at the end of the penultimate chapter, then outlines a whole new novel-length story in the last chapter.  The last chapter, and not just through the way it zipped through years, was one of the most engaging.  However, it read like a précis of a much richer novel, one where there was a real sense of something strange going on.  Without spoiling, to me Card thought of a really intriguing plot device but then wasn’t sure what to do with it, nor had the authorial horsepower to get any decent mileage out of it.

Is my issue the idea of child soldiers?  This has stuck in the craw of many readers, to judge by reviews.  Yes, given the world we live in today, writing about children being brainwashed and forced to fight is potentially tricky.  But, come on people, this is fantasy.  Go with it.

I have a bigger issue (but it’s still not my key issue) about why they need to be children, anyway.  Yes, it’s explained briefly and unsatisfactorily towards the end; but I don’t remember doing anything other than taking it on trust when I embarked.  It feels like a plot device that should have been rethought after a few beers or a hot bath

No my big hang-up - and we’ve been skirting around the issue for the last couple of paragraphs - is that they’re not children.  Let me repeat that.  They’re not children.  They don’t talk, walk, act or speak like children.  The only - excuse me whilst I repeat that in capitals - ONLY thing that makes them children is that Card says they’re children, and they keep saying that they’re children.  But, apart from being a bit moody and unschooled, they read like adults.

Maybe the argument is that they’re children with adult skills.  If that’s the case, show the contradictions and conflicts.  I think I could have bought them if they’d been adolescents, unable to cope with their super-human (but not supra-human, they’re not superheroes) skills, but not as four-year olds or whatever Ender starts off as.  Again, a germ of an idea, but I suspect a lack of authorial horsepower to get it to fruition.

It’s the classic mistake.  Show don’t tell.  Sometimes we’ve got to do a bit of telling; Basil Exposition has got to keep his plot donkeys exercised on the sands of story to some degree.  Life is full of telling to embed and clarify the showing (think of school).  I have no issue with a bit of telling.  But don’t rely on the telling to do both the heavy lifting and the finessing.  Don’t forget to do the showing or, worse, make your showing fail to back up the telling.  When your showing can’t cash the cheques your telling is writing, then you have a issue.

And that’s my issue with Ender’s Game.

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