Friday, November 15, 2013

A Shifting, Crazy Kind of Game

Ender's Game
~Ender's Game~
Ender's Saga
Book 1
By Orson Scott Card

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race's next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn't make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender's skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender's two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.

Read this book. No, don't go see the movie, don't read a summary, don't read movie reviews, just go read the book. Okay, you can read my review first, but then go read the book. You can thank me later.

Alright, in all seriousness, this is an amazing book. This will probably be one of my more sparse reviews because I don't want to spoil things. It really deserves as open a mind as you can give it. Then again, I've read it three times now and each time I've gotten something different out of it. The first time was for a high school class, and I remember becoming inextricably engrossed in Ender's journey and the battle school and eagerly jumping into the next books of the series. The second time was in college, around when I was studying a bit of philosophy, wherein I paid much more attention to Valentine and Peter's story. Finally, upon reading multiple reviews (and summaries) of the movie, I decided to revisit Ender's Game for a bit of comparison, analysis, and nostalgia. And it is every bit as great as I remembered.

Before I go too far, here, I feel somewhat obligated to touch on the elephant in the room that is the author. Orson Scott Card has been in the spotlight lately due to his extremely vocal and financial support of anti-gay causes. I personally abhor his words on this topic and had I not already purchased his books before learning of his practices I would probably never read them. But I did read them, and I love them. That being said, I fully support those who refuse to buy his works. Perhaps read them from the library, or from a friend, and if you feel so inclined to purchase one, do so from a used retailer.

For anyone wondering, there are absolutely no references or bashing of homosexuals in Ender's Game, nor can I remember any in the subsequent novels Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. Actually there is a scene in which a boy kisses Ender on the cheek and whispers, "Salaam," in his ear as a gesture of friendship and farewell, which could readily be construed as a homosexual encounter. But it is never referenced as anything more than a meaningful (and perhaps forbidden) gesture between friends, which is most 'risque' action that takes place in the novel. Perhaps a bit surprising for a story about a predominantly male children's boarding school featuring scenes of naked roughhousing and shower fights?

Ender is the quintessential underdog you find yourself rooting for immediately. He's a six year old kid being thrown in to an intergalactic war, a small but smart young boy with next-to no power over his own destiny. And yet he knows what's at stake, he knows what's being done to him is far from 'normal', possibly even criminal, but he continually pushes onward for the sake of those he loves. And yet, even with this heavy burden he still has his moments of humor and camaraderie with his fellow students at his schools, so it's not all gloom and doom about him.

The other characters are equally as engrossing as Ender. Not only does he develop intricate relationships with other students, but we also are privy to conversations between teachers/military admin watching over him. Ender may have the lives of thousands of faceless people on his shoulders, but these officers have the life and well-being of this little boy in their hands, and they have to live with what they're doing to him in the name of the "greater good". We also get glimpses back to Earth through the eyes of Ender's siblings, Valentine and Peter. These serve as not only an interesting look into politics and the influence of the internet, but also a look at the psychology and morality behind two would-be leaders of men.

If I had to give the book a label, a genre, or an audience I would be quite hard-pressed to do so. As I said before, each time I read it I focused on and came away with different nuances from the story. It is Science Fictional in setting, but it contains very little hard science for non-SciFi readers to get tripped up on. The story focuses primarily on characters aged 6 to 14, yet their thoughts and actions are uncharacteristically adult and their stories are far from the typical coming-of-age a YA audience might expect. It contains war and violence, politics and psychology, but it is also tempered with the games of the Battle School and watching Ender persevere.

There's a saying that "the eye sees what it wants to see," meaning that if you aren't expecting something, oftentimes you won't see it. There is a lot in this book, but from what I remember, I didn't see a lot of what it had to offer until I was prepared to. You read what you want to read. And maybe you glean something greater through it.

Overall, Ender's Game is a must for everyone. If you need a generalization, I'd recommend it for those who enjoy SciFi and/or have an open mind. Younger readers will enjoy the battle school, while older readers may take away some other parts as highlights. It does contain violence and some heavy morality issues, so I'd say high school and up would enjoy this the most, especially for discussion. If the commercials for the movie have piqued your interest at all, and if you haven't already explored the Game, I'd suggest you go find a copy and read it ASAP before someone spoils it for you.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 hours

If you are worried about not liking the movie as much after reading the book (a common and often justified worry), I'd still read the book first. I obviously can't speak as someone who has seen the movie first, but I think the ending is stronger in the book than the film. Also, the ages and time spent during the movie is less impactful. Ender begins at age 6 in the book and ages to 11 through the course of schooling, but the film has him around 14 (at the youngest) and progresses seemingly within the same year. I'm not saying it's "bad" so to speak, but it doesn't pack as much punch as seeing a 6/7/8 year old doing the same things, making the same choices. Plus, the book has more meat to it, things that they simply didn't have time to cover in the film. With that in mind, I do support seeing the film, but I still recommend experiencing the story fresh in book form before the film.

Audiobook Review
Performed by Stefan Rudnicki, with Gabrielle De Cuir and David Birney, Scott Brick, Jason Cole, Harlan Ellison, Christian Noble, Don Schlossman, M.E. Willis and Orson Scott Card.
Length: 11.1 Hours
Listened at 2x Speed

While the copy boasts a large cast, I would not classify this as a full-cast audio. The majority of the book is read by Stefan Rudnicki, with Gabrielle De Cuir reading a few portions from Valentine's perspective. There are two sections narrated by Bean and Peter, though I'm unsure who narrated them, as well as separately voiced conversations at the beginning of each chapter, but as there is no cast list to be found anywhere, on or off audio, I can't be sure who to praise there either. Also, the only portion 'narrated' by the author is a lengthy interview/monologue about how the book came about, located at the end of the audio.

Ender's voice was a lot different than one might expect considering he's between the ages of 6 and 11 for the majority of the novel. Were it produced now, I'm sure the casting would have been much younger, or younger-sounding, to appeal to the YA audience. As it stands, however, Rodnicki provided a soothing performance. Perhaps a little more relaxed than one might expect, but perhaps fitting of Ender's attitude, especially at the end. I don't think I've heard as many or as believable sighs in any other audio.

It wasn't the best I've heard, but it's probably fitting for the time it was recorded. It seems a bit lacking on the youthful aspect of the characters, but it very much fit the tone of the story and its very adult themes. The lack of chapter titles might make it a bit difficult to gauge progression, or to link up with Whispersync, but the knowledge that every adult conversation occurs at a chapter mark may help with that. Ultimately more of a tool for concentrating than an experience in its own right, this audiobook was fairly mediocre. Well produced, but slightly outdated. Well read, but definitely more appealing for an older audience. It is available on YouTube if you're desperate for a taste, but I would definitely wait and see if it's redone in the near future before purchasing.

There is a newly released Ender's Game Alive available now featuring some of the same cast. I haven't had a chance to get ahold of it, but it is said to be more of an audioplay than an audiobook. The narration is gone completely, and it now has a full cast of actors. May be worth checking out for younger listeners if you can get a copy from the library. But do keep in mind that it is a completely rewritten story not unabridged, as it has been edited to "remove narration," now sounding more like a radio broadcast than a book proper (based on the preview clip on Amazon). I may review it in the future if my library gets it.