For the last week, every spare moment I’ve had my nose stuck in book friends urged on me when I was in Seattle last month: the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It is a rather wonderful evocation of an alternate reality in which children are brilliantly and ruthlessly trained to serve as commanders in Earth’s battle against a hivelike horde of insectoid aliens. That sounds harsh, I know, but somehow he makes it sweet and touching.
I admire Card’s ability to make the preposterous so believable and to hold opposites in equilibrium. Nowadays, it’s not such a stretch to imagine the tender bodies of children hunched over computer screens, annihilating enemies; indeed, in the world of play stations and computer games, no imagination is needed. But Card’s book, first published in 1985 (and based on his 1977 short story), is a dream that prefigured that particular reality, portraying it as a deadly serious game. I also admire the fullness of the emotional and intellectual lives Card gives his child soldiers, their sense of duty, their prematurely broken hearts.
In a way, the book is an extended lesson plan: Ender, the main character, is pulsed by his teachers through a bone-cracking series of ordeals at the hands of his adversaries. As his final instructor says, “There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do.”
At first, this takes the form of a deceptively ordinary computer game which is in fact an heuristic device tailored to Ender’s own experiences and skills. Doggedly, he works his way again and again through the game. Repeatedly, he fails to get past “The Giant’s Drink,” the stage where a malevolent giant offers him a choice of beverages. Ender chooses wrongly and is eaten, dissolved, smashed or otherwise destroyed. In fact, all of the drinks are fatal. Each attempt to choose between them only amplifies the succeeding challenge, earning a more malevolently creative punishment for failing it.
This game sets the pattern for all the challenges Ender will face. Whenever he accepts the terms of engagement set by his adversary, all his choices lead to failure. All his victories come from getting fed up with playing by the rules and disregarding them. He finally gets past The Giant’s Drink when, in his frustration, he overturns both proffered glasses instead of choosing one, then attacks the giant’s soft spots.
Well, I didn’t need a whole box of Metaphor Helper to resonate with that one. I’m not battling aliens or even playing a computer game. My enemy exists in my own thoughts: it is my lifelong willingness to keep trying even when there is no way to win within the terms of a dilemma, my tendency to convince myself that if I try this once more, it just might work. Reading Ender’s Game showed me that aspects of my own life feel a lot like not being able to get past The Giant’s Drink.
As I perused his Veterans Day remarks to a Pennsylvania audience yesterday, I was wondering if President Bush would ever wake up with the same realization. Each time public opinion in his favor declines, Mr. Bush gives the same speech almost word-for-word, like the recitation of a personal rosary: evoking September 11th, decrying “Islamo-fascism,” extolling the War in Iraq, denying that he misled the American people and impugning the patriotism of critics and questioners. This is no more likely to satisfy the growing opposition than it did all the other times. But perhaps the President has fallen into the same error as I, feeling if he tries the same thing just once more, it may work.
I started to think that perhaps Orson Scott Card could offer the Mr. Bush a clue, maybe send him a few choice quotes from Ender’s Game. Since I liked Card’s book so much, I decided to find out something about him. What do you know? He considers George W. Bush a moderate. He’s an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage (based on his adherence to Mormon theology, he says) as well as a cheerleader for the Patriot Act and the “War on Terror,” although his support for gun control and opposition to total deregulation have kept him a registered Democrat.
Learning these things gave me the opportunity to remember another important lesson I was beginning to forget: values and world view are not expressions of intelligence or even keen perception. Card is an engrossing, accessible storyteller who is interested in moral values and who has respect for children’s ethical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives. And I am absolutely certain he would find my own politics as utterly bogus as I find his.
The enemy–within or without–is a powerful teacher, I agree. But there are others as well. The compilation of ancient wisdom known as Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) counsels in 1:6, “Provide yourself a teacher and acquire yourself a friend.” I like the way this is put, stressing our opportunity to find our own teachers and friends. Sometimes you choose them and sometimes they choose you, I think. Today I learned from the enemy in my head, from a writer whose political values I do not share, and from the sweet friends who gave me Ender’s Game and thereby, so much to think about.