Moral of the Story: Ender's Game

A couple of weeks ago I sent a photo to a friend, documenting the various components of my evening activities – I was curling up with a good book, cheese and crackers, and some tasty local(ish) beer. She wrote back (and I paraphrase), “you’re reading that??”

Indeed, I was. “That” being Ender’s Game, a 1985 sci-fi novel about a kid, Ender, whose sole mission in life is to save humanity from an alien invasion. While it is quite different from my usual reading-diet of journal articles, it is also quite an explicable choice. My thesis is about the moral psychology of war. The book Ender’s Game raises many many moral dilemmas around war and violence, and is even on the reading list for the US Marine Corps. (So is The Art of War, which I recommend much more highly.)

It was… an interesting read. On the one hand, I’ve heard it referred to as “pure wish-fulfilling power fantasy for smart kids who think (are sure) they know better than everyone else”, which definitely fits with my experience of it. Ender is sah isolated, because he is sah much better and more important than all the other little kids, oh paw misunderstood liddle Ender.

On the other hand, that seems too “local” an analysis, since the book also contains themes of “the burden of power (i.e. military supremacy)” in a threatened world. The military leaders are facing “difficult choices” to do with deceiving the population, wiping out civilizations, and using child soldiers; but they can carry those responsibilities, and make those decisions, because they are so tough and important and Know What is Best for Humanity.

My favourite thing about Ender’s Game though – apart from the way it made me think about military dilemmas in a new way; a way involving aliens and games and kids and highly improbably physical combat – was that everyone here in the US seems to know about it, and to have an opinion. I even got talking to a guy on a train about it the other day, who told me that it is quite common to read an anti-war message into it. I’m not quite sure I see that aspect, but I may just not have been looking hard enough.

How about you read it too, and let me know what you think!

Comments

I've read it, and loved it. I think it's fair to say there is an element of Mary Sue/Marty Stu to Ender, and a certain kind of kid is definitely supposed to identify with him, but I still loved it.

I think Ender's Game is a very stoic book, the main theme is that of absolute responsibility. Ender is both smarter and more ethical than the adults in the book and one of the primary things he must learn is that he cannot trust the adults, he needs to grow up and get out of their shadows, because although they may believe they're acting for the greater good, he knows better. And at the end of the day, that intelligence is a responsibility, he can't defer to those who are older or higher-ranking; although his society is not set up to accommodate this, it is unethical for him to just "follow orders" when he knows better.

I really like this whole "The adults are in charge but it's our responsibility to save the world" theme in Ender's Game - given the time it was written I suspect the Cold War and its growing nuclear stockpiles was what we were supposed to relate it to, but it also fits nicely with things like climate change.

The boomers claim the mantle of age, experience, responsibility and power, and yet your average Gen-Y can see the ethical impetus more clearly and is on average better-educated too. The fact that they "outrank" us is no excuse, it's our responsibility to vote them out and fix the problem, because at the end of the day if climate change or nuclear winter ruins the Earth (ie the buggers destroy Earth, or conversely Ender commits a war crime against the buggers) then "But it's not MY fault, THEY were in charge!" will be cold comfort.

This, to me, is what the book is trying to say. I wouldn't say it's anti-war exactly, just that we have to be careful with war and we can't defer responsibility for our ethical choices in war to others. From what I've heard, later books in the series may explore anti-war themes more than this one, but I haven't read them so I can't say.

Actually that's a really good point! About how the responsibility that comes with power applies to Ender, too; I was thinking of the hierarchical power of the adults, but you're right in that he has a "power" of his own in that he is intelligent and empathetic, and others respect him for both qualities.
"But it's not MY fault, THEY were in charge" - cold comfort indeed. I'm not quite sure it's true that one generation sees the (an?) ethical impetus more clearly though? I mean, is age correlated with moral judgment or moral behaviour (in the environmental context or elsewhere)?

Actually that's a really good point! About how the responsibility that comes with power applies to Ender, too; I was thinking of the hierarchical power of the adults, but you're right in that he has a "power" of his own in that he is intelligent and empathetic, and others respect him for both qualities.
"But it's not MY fault, THEY were in charge" - cold comfort indeed. I'm not quite sure it's true that one generation sees the (an?) ethical impetus more clearly though? I mean, is age correlated with moral judgment or moral behaviour (in the environmental context or elsewhere)?

Yes, sorry, to clarify - I haven't seen anything to indicate that younger people are more ethical in a general sense, I meant that age is correlated with belief in climate change, and belief we need to act on it. I'm not sure if that can be generalised to nuclear disarmament, or even to other environmental issues.

I do think the ethical point can be extended more broadly though, if only in an "ought" sense rather than an "is" sense. Age is also strongly correlated with more progressive beliefs on things like LGBTI rights, and I would argue that we have a responsibility to act on those beliefs in the political sphere.

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