By James Schellenberg
28 April 2008
About twelve or fifteen years ago, I went through a huge Orson Scott Card phase. For a fan of science fiction to discover a treasure trove like Card's back catalogue—that was quite an amazing experience. I'll never forget my delight as I dove in and explored. The man was clearly dedicated to entertaining the reader—in the plain style, as Card himself calls it: a style that is as clear as possible. No needless ornamentation, only sheer storytelling verve and emotional punch.
Like many such a crush, the object of my affection did not survive extended scrutiny, a polite way of saying Card started getting on my nerves. For one thing, Card developed a tendency to start too many series, beat some to death, and not finish others. I got a little tired of the following sequence: original work is very interesting, sequel is slightly disappointing, new series is started, new series gets no sequel, and a final step where I know that I should not have high hopes but the story is unfinished so I'm waiting and waiting. (See especially The Tales of Alvin Maker, but I also quite enjoyed Card's 1987 collaboration with Kathryn H. Kidd, Lovelock, for which two sequels are ostensibly still in the works.) For another thing, Card's output fluctuated, encompassing books that I simply didn't care to read; I couldn't summon any enthusiasm to read Empire, which is about left-wing versus right-wing civil war in the United States. Also, another reason for pressure on his writing career: development hell for the Ender's Game movie, which he has been talking about for years now. Writing script version after script version is not easy work, even for someone as prolific as Card. Something else has to give way, and it certainly seemed like the quality and inventiveness of his books was fading, particularly in comparison to his earlier work.
So it was with some trepidation that I started a project to listen to all eight audiobooks in the Ender's Game series—or more precisely, Ender's Game and its three sequels, plus a retelling of Ender's Game called Ender's Shadow and the three sequels to that book. Yes, the new series was supposed to be concluded—a point in its favor!—but I didn't have fond memories of books three and four, and Card's newer material has been hit or miss, so books five through eight might fall into the miss category. All the same, I wanted to take the plunge. Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead became such foundational works for me at an earlier point in my life that I felt like I owed Card a chance.
Wow, what a difference a few years makes. I used to think Ender's Game was okay, but a bit of a toy narrative, while Speaker for the Dead was the towering achievement. Now my regard for the books has reversed almost entirely. In fact, in my Strange Horizons piece about sequels a few years ago (Sequels, Remakes, Adaptations), I argued that the combination of Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead formed the perfect set of original work and worthy sequel. Now I'm not so sure!
I puzzled over this for quite some time. I just finished listening to Shadow of the Hegemon (Ender book six), and Card's comments in the afterword sparked an idea, a possible solution to the puzzle. In that book, a sort of geopolitical thriller, Card notes that all of the Ender books are quite different from each other. I guess it depends on your tolerance for such things, whether you appreciate this, but it's a comment that's entirely apt: the books are about as far from each other in tone and approach as could be still categorized as science fiction. Perhaps not a bad thing per se.
But this made me take another look at Ender's Game itself. My current thinking is this: Ender's Game is a strike of lightning, a very rare convergence of a number of remarkable things. The storytelling is urgent and full of punch; the narrative is supported by highly effective characterization that balances on the uneasy edge of realism and schematic representation of thematic material; all of this wrapped into a beautifully paced coming-of-age story that has an unmistakable and inventive basis in science fiction. It's an amazing work, yes, yes, and yes, but the point is that it is sui generis. Not only did Ender's Game come together in purely technical writing terms, it also fell into that rare category of a book that somehow captures the essence of a time period, redefines it, carries it forward, and so forth. So: not only sui generis, but also a cultural lightning strike of the kind that's far outside the writer's control.
Some writers would take that as a sign to get out of the writing business altogether—not just a matter of going out on a high note, but being convinced that the remarkable stroke of luck will never happen again. Yup, here's looking at you, Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm not sure if that's what Salinger and Lee were thinking, but that's sure what it looks like from this side.
In this framework, I don't blame Card for continuing his career, which has gone quite nicely for him, sales-wise (I'll get to matters of artistic quality in a moment). And it explains a lot about the sequels to Ender's Game: the phenomenon will not be recreated, so Card adds to the series according to his current interest and writerly leanings. The sequels might not live up to Ender's Game, and they might or might not live up to the expectations of the fans. So what? It's fun to muck around in this universe and explore different types of stories. If someone is a big enough fan of Ender's Game, they'll probably read the sequels. If not, Ender's Game itself still stands there on its own.
This explanation probably gives too much credit to Ender's Game. I'll see if I can defend this line of thought!
This book is about a boy named Ender Wiggin, the third child in a world with a two-child policy. He has an older brother named Peter and a middle sister named Valentine. Card makes no secret that Valentine represents the good potential in Ender, and Peter is the . . . I would say evil, except that the way it resolves in the book is more along the lines of potential to kill, to take out the enemy with sheer finality. In retrospect, Peter is more evil within Ender's imagination—Ender takes out at least two other kids, more than Peter ever does—but he comes to represent the personal, psychological nemesis that is holding Ender back.
The rest of the world is facing a bigger problem than Wiggin family psychodrama: the buggers, a merciless alien race, have invaded twice already, been beaten back by extreme effort, and might soon invade again. The International Fleet takes the most promising children from around the world and starts training them as young as six at Battle School in Earth's orbit. Both older Wiggin children are rejected—Peter too ruthless, Valentine too compassionate—but Ender seems to be the commander all the military bigwigs have been waiting for. He's a certifiable genius from early on; the staff at Battle School seems determined to break him, and this book is about the clash. And all the tension that comes from Ender's status as humanity's best hope.
What is the statute of limitations on spoilers? I tend to be overprotective of people who might not have read a book or watched a movie, so this Lore Sjöberg piece is a useful (and funny) corrective. In any case, if you're someone who hasn't read Ender's Game, please skip to the next paragraph. The spoiler is right in the title though—Ender thinks he's playing a game, but it's the real war: he is essentially tricked by the staff of Battle School into committing genocide. This is where the Peter/Valentine opposition comes into play—Ender has to be compassionate enough to understand the buggers and their strategies fully, and then possessed with enough of a killer instinct to go for the death blow. The commanders in the know are not confident in Ender's ability to go for the jugular if he knows the full costs, both in human lives and the ultimate fate of the enemy species, so it is all presented as a game. The genius of the book is that once Ender wins, the real emotional punch hits. Victory turns to ashes in an instant, all the manipulation revealed. Card adds an extra wrinkle to the story: the hive queen of the buggers was aware of the impending massacre at Ender's hands, and entrusts a hibernating queen-in-cocoon to Ender. Who else understands the buggers as well as he does? No one but Ender. What a perfect sting in the tail! The book is entirely self-contained, all the thematic threads are wrapped up in this set of revelations; it's also fertile ground for sequels, somewhat unfortunately.
Speaker for the Dead
My main complaint with Speaker for the Dead is that it's so different from Ender's Game. As an extension of the themes in Ender's Game, it's perfectly logical: what will happen to the hive queen? Will Ender redeem himself? In the intervening three thousand years, the original fear of the buggers has long vanished, and Ender is now known as the Xenocide, the only human being to wipe out another intelligent species. He's been travelling near the speed of light between many different planets, which is how he can see so many cultural transformations himself.
It's a whole new setting: most of Speaker for the Dead takes place on a planet called Lusitania, where humans are in contact with aliens called piggies. The book has a slow beginning, since Card is setting up a whole new world; I don't mind this part, since it's fairly interesting. Ender is the "speaker" of the title, a new tradition where a dead person's life is retold in as honest a manner as possible, a tradition triggered by Ender's tribute to the buggers thousands of years ago. Ender is essentially grafted into the story, as a character who is suffering enormous guilt thrown into a similar situation to the one of his original crime.
That all said, Speaker for the Dead is like a work from a different universe than Ender's Game. The tone is much more contemplative this time around, the writing level is pitched to a much older audience, and the use of Ender himself doesn't feel as fresh. Sure, some people might be at the centre of some events of galaxy-spanning importance, but Ender is there for all of them!
Earlier I talked about different types of stories in sequels. As I said, my thoughts on this have changed, and I'm now convinced that the greatest set of related books ever written were the first five Amber books by Roger Zelazny. A fantastic mix of continuing story and new revelations ticking off like clockwork. Zelazny did quite an immaculate job of constructing this series—it's worth tracking down if you haven't already, and since each book only clocks in at around 200 to 250 pages, it's like getting one of those massive and deadly fantasy epics in beautiful little bites. I feel like I can't talk about Speaker for the Dead in the same way any more. Speaker for the Dead wanders really far from Ender's Game territory, and it felt like a bait and switch to me this time around. Does Speaker for the Dead really need to be about Ender? It's a stretch, but yes. The next two sequels I'm less willing to argue for.
Xenocide and Children of the Mind
A number of things are working against the third and fourth books in the series. For one thing, it's a long book split in two. As Card admits in the afterword, the story kept getting longer until he was forced to admit that it couldn't be contained in one volume. As far as I can tell, most of the problem lies in this mass of painfully extended verbiage. I'm usually tolerant of audiobooks that go long, but this one was tough slogging. The book had potential, if it was both books mashed into one and cut down by two-thirds. I'd be curious to see what a red-pen version of the story would be like, a la The Phantom Edit.
A related problem is that Card chose to try and fix an ending for Xenocide rather than leave it as a plain "to be continued." I always remember the ending of Xenocide as the most memorably wretched ending I've encountered in my short lifespan. I know I'm already making it sound more interesting than it is! Don't be tempted into thinking it's one of those bits of bad pop culture that are nevertheless fun to experience. Card tries a magic-hand-waving ending involving faster-than-light travel; worse, it's not like he painted himself into a corner, since the book's construction points to that ending in every detail.
A second thing: this is another existing theme and story with Ender shoehorned into it, as Card himself says in the afterword. Apparently, he had an idea for a heavily metaphysical story, and then decided to use Ender in it. To spice it up? This worked in Speaker for the Dead, mostly, but here the story is just a series of people nattering endlessly about made-up metaphysics. Ghastly and boring. Children of the Mind is slightly better than Xenocide in this regard, but it ends up just as absurdly stretched out. I don't think I could read these two books again (or listen to the audiobooks, as the case may be), since they represent a distinct low point.
Next time around I'll look at the second half of the Ender saga. I'll try not to theorize too much about sequels!