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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Ender's Game

OK, better late than never.

As you can see from my last post, I need to catch up on my book blogging. Well, I was planning to write about this anyway. Waaaaaaay back in May, I read Doctor Bean's impressions of Ender's Game, which freaked me out because I had just read the original short story myself, and it seemed to be more evidence that Beanie and I are connected in some weird metaphysical ectoplasmic way. (OK I just like to type "ectoplasmic" now after reading it on Wickwire's Blog).

Anyway, it took me this long to get through the book, because, as I've said before, I have a lot of distractions. And when I'm not being distracted, I'm usually snoring. Where was I? Oh yes, Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card.

I'm a big science fiction fan, so it's surprising that I have never had the urge to read this before. Possibly because I associated Ender's Game with a stupid Japanese video game, Zone of Enders, or assumed that it was some moronic play on "End Game", or "End Zone" or whatever, and usually that sort of thing just makes me go "Next." But after my daughter, the consummate judge of quirky fiction, handed me the short story to read, I knew I had to read the full version.

So, no spoilers here, don't worry. The book is basically about a futuristic war against that ever-popular scifi nemesis, the Bugger (See Starship Troopers). The war is the least interesting aspect of the book. The book is really about gifted children, and what we are willing to do to ourselves and our kids to ensure our own survival. In the book he also explores the concepts of leadership and loyalty and blah blah blah it's worth a read.

Bean commented (in his comments) about the uncanny way in which Card predicted the future of information technology. The original short story was published in 1977, and the full version in 1985. In those days, we were all trying to figure out how to record the messages on our answering machines, some of us had call-waiting, and there was no internet. A few geeks at universities had access to networks and bulletin boards (raise your hands, I know you're reading this), but most of us didn't have computers (certainly not in 77) and the ones that we had were very primitive.

There are two other predictions that I found very on-target. The first is his description of video games. The games in the book are not simple escapist mind diversions. They are being used as psychological training tools. (You could argue that the same is true for modern video games.) Yes, we had video games in 85. They were either arcade games like Pac Man or simple two-demensional side-scrollers. His description of a 3rd person 3D avatar which interacts with an ever-changing environment is probably 10 years ahead of its time. He also describes the game's ability to customize itself based on characteristics of the player. Both in terms of the choices the player makes in the game, and by downloading personal demographic information about the player. We do see some of the former in video games now, but not so much of the latter. But I predict we will see more of this in the future as technology evolves, so someday you may be exploring a virtual world that looks like your neighborhood and that is populated by people you recognize. Interesting but scary.

The other prediction, and the one that has more relevance here, is related to blogs. Yes, Orson Scott Card not only predicted the existence of blogs twenty years ago, but describes them so accurately that it makes you wonder if he had access to some kind of time machine. He describes accurately the manner in which people interact today on the internet, through the use of on-screen personas which give little clue as to the true identity of the writer. He describes how the most inflammatory writing gets the most attention. He describes the interaction of bloggers in the comments sections, and how ongoing flame wars draw in more readers and boost popularity of the various sites. He describes the hypocrisy of writers espousing extreme points of view which they personally don't hold in order to capture readers and put themselves in the limelight.

I suppose none of this is necessarily new in the media. But you would think that the open nature of the internet would allow all points of view to be expressed, and yet we find that only the extremes really catch our attention. Card was on to that.

The book itself is a very well-written page turner and worth a look even if you don't care for science fiction.


ifuncused said...

fascinating. I would like to read that book and read it now...even though I really do not like sci-fi books (and dont understand star wars)
Thanks for the "book report" :-)

PsychoToddler said...

You don't have to know anything about science fiction to understand this book. With the exception of the "Buggers", Card eschews all of the usual sci-fi cliches. No "warp speed" or "transporters" or green slave girls.

Wickwire said...

I read the book in the late 90's. It was indeed well written. Never a dull moment.

fudge said...

yeah, i'm not into all the trekkie technicalities either, but, eschewing the blog-centric view for a moment, the book is really all philosophical. vague enough that almost anyone can relate...i got a lot of cool hashkafa out of it actually, because everything that happened to ender was to make him a better general...course you could argue whether that was necessary.
good grief. i have got to move on with my life.

Miriam said...

It's an absolutely brilliant book. Supposedly they were making a movie -- wonder what happened with that?

houseofjoy said...

Enders Game was my husband's favorite book as a child and I finally read it this winter. Definitely a page turner. I was also struck by the whole connection with the blog world. Apparently there is a whole series that is worth reading.

parcequilfaut said...

I have thus far given Ender's Game a miss, for no real reason, but the fact that you compared it with Starship Troopers (about which I had a friendly-but-heated discussion with a friend that went on for 1.5 hours last night, because I am a Heinlein Junkie) makes me want to dig it up. I think I even have a copy, somewhere...

parcequilfaut said...

I'd been wondering where all the PT hits were coming from when I checked sitemeter! Thanks for blogrolling me! (and I like your version of parcequilfaut (the beginning of the French idiom that, with an actual subject, would give the flavor of "because I must" or "because it is necessary that") much better than some of the others I've run across... :) especially since we played that song at the party yesterday.

You should have been there when we got Pentecostal during the last bit of "The Cheat Is Not Dead". That was a sight every HSR fan might have liked to see.

PsychoToddler said...

Starship Troopers is one of my favorite books. I think I've actually bought it 2 or 3 times. I even had the old Avalon Hill Starship Troopers strategy game (still have it at my folks' house).

That being said, Ender's Game is sort of an Anti-starship troopers. Although both focus on adversity being the best path to self-improvement, Ender's game is more psychological than physical.

And the War is really not a major part of the book. The main comparison is in the Bugs.

But I think if you like Heinlein, you'll like Card.

I thought you'd like the HSR reference:

"I don't know
who it is

PsychoToddler said...

For the benefit of my readers, and completely unrelated to the subject of this post, here is a wikipedia article explaining WTF fhuqwgads is.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Another internet/blog-predicting SF author is David Brin, in his book "Earth".

Doctor Bean said...

PT: Glad you liked it. Without giving anything away (or by email if you'd like), I'm curious what you thought of the ending.

PsychoToddler said...


The ending seemed "tacked on" to me. However, it was not unexpected, because I had previously read a short story called "The Investment Counselor" which summarizes the plots of the other 2 Ender books. So I knew that twist was coming. But I had thought it would have been developed in "Speaker for the Dead" (sitting on my shelf), not hastily added to the end of the story.

Revisionism is an interesting theme to explore.

parcequilfaut said...

I'm on my second copy of Starship. That's getting to be the case with all my Heinlein, as I lend it somewhat indiscriminately. I'll give Card a look.

William S. Gibson predicted a lot of the ways the Internet has affected us, but in fairness he had some knowledge of the initial technology to go on when writing what RAH would have called "speculative fiction".

PsychoToddler said...

I haven't read Gibson (though I think I saw Johnny Mnemonic). Many authors have predicted world-wide computer networks as a concept, but in execution they have been vary abstract or way-off. Like computer chips in our brains or 3d holographic displays or disembodied voices or giant virtual heads attempting to rule the world. Card's description seems to fit what's actually going on now. The only thing he left out was comment spamming.

parcequilfaut said...

Gibson did go a little farther in terms of envisioning technology, in such a way that it doesn't precisely compare to what we have now (I don't think Johnny Mnemonic is based off any of his books -- Hackers is chock-full of Gibson tributes, however), because he envisioned an Internet that was a more holistic multimedia experience. However, with the current advances in gaming technology, I think it's only a matter of time before such things catch on in a big way; the next generation of computer users is going to want that visual connection more and more, and future Windows interfaces may be much more space-based than icon-based. But he did predict spamming in that future universe, ads that were bitmapped constructs (and adkilling software, designed to present as a bitmapped creature that "ate" the ads) in Idoru.

I think he got the tenor of what the Internet has done to consciousness and culture, however, almost exactly right; Idoru talks in large part about how music aficionados, for instance, could create a unified worldwide fan base (the first Bonnaroo sold out with no standard advertising whatsoever because it was announced on Phish.net and a few other jamband sites), could have "effortless, digitally elastic recall" of music instead of having to hunt for out of print or rare recordings, once the Internet became ubiquitous. He predicted that there would be businesses that essentially operated only online. He predicted users that would essentially live in MUDs. That's why I say his work mirrors what's going on now; it'll be interesting to compare it to Card, in light of your opinion that he got the technical details right.