Friday, January 10, 2014

Remember, the Enemy's Gate is Down

Kevin S. Decker (editor), Ender's Game and Philosophy: The Logic Gate is Down

Nearly thirty years on, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game remains not only the author’s most read, most influential book, but a powerful outsider cultural critique. It has achieved crossover success, and often gets read by academics, public policy makers, and general audiences that wouldn’t normally touch science fiction. It has a dedicated intergenerational readership, and organized opposition, probably exceeded only by the Bible and Harry Potter.

And no wonder: despite space opera flourishes, “the Enderverse” touches common human experiences that transcend time, genre, or audience background. Diverse readers see themselves in Card’s tale of a genius, disgusted with his own prowess, molded by a state which exploits his wrathful tendencies. But until Kevin S. Decker collected eighteen new essays from varying disciplines, all centered on Ender’s tale, I’d never realized its place in Western philosophical tradition.

The assembled authors muster a tremendous array of philosophical insight on Ender’s struggle, mixing ancient and modern philosophy, plus domains including governance, mathematics, computer science, and military ethics. Some authors draw on familiar sources, from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Sun Tzu, to Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt. Other sources don’t ring immediate bells: Friedrich Schelling and G.E.M. Anscombe aren’t household names, but offer remarkably valuable insights.

Card’s story maintains its popularity, and avoids ordinary science fiction obsolescence, by embracing ambiguity. This is remarkable in a frequently sententious genre. Despite science fiction’s general agnosticism, authors like Asimov, Heinlein, and Octavia Butler eagerly spotlight their culminating morals. Card, though he clearly cues our sympathy for Ender, doesn’t flinch to show how Ender’s propensity for violence and self-delusion make him a prime Battle School candidate.

Decker’s peanut gallery utilizes this ambiguity to explore topics like war, education, competetive behaviors, and the composition and governance of modern and postmodern societies. Topics Card addresses momentarily, or which vanish into the background of his highly complex narrative, get detailed treatment by serious scholars. Though fans have long loved Card’s Enderverse for its complexity, they’ll surely share my joy at discovering how specific that complexity really is.

Some authors, like Danielle Wylie and Kenneth Wayne Sayles III, use Ender’s story to explicate important concepts in ancient or current philosophy. Others, like Jeremy Proulx and Matthew Brophy, use philosophy to shed new, deeper light on Ender and his struggles. This open, rolling dialog allows credentialed scholars in difficult disciplines to communicate plainly with general audiences. It also lets academic philosophers espouse the uncertainty frequently reserved only for artists.

Importantly, these authors don’t necessarily agree. Kody Cooper, for instance, cites Aquinas and Augustine to justify Ender’s violence. But James Cook, of the US Air Force Academy, draws the opposite conclusions from the same sources, while condemning Battle School for not teaching even rudimentary military ethics. (Some critics, primarily online, find disconcerting Hitler parallels in Ender’s story. Though some of these scholars cite these claims, none embrace them. Godwin’s Law applies in print, too.)

These disagreements make for some of an already surprisingly great book’s best reading. Legitimate scholars, mustering robust support, debate topics like how responsible we can hold Ender for his actions, or whether governments can legitimately manipulate their citizens. Some of Decker’s scholars would exonerate Ender altogether; others suggest he’s self-deluding and culpable. Though all of these authors “like” Card’s novel, they disagree vigorously on what liking a dystopia means.

Be warned: these authors, with their intellectual debates and philosophical hermeneutics, are academics. These eighteen essays, averaging around twelve pages apiece, are serious scholarship, not Ender’s True Hollywood Story. Don’t undertake this book unthinkingly, or mistake it for light beach reading. Expect authors to challenge, threaten, and overwhelm you. Expect to learn by struggling with hard concepts. Expect, frankly, a sit-down version of Battle School.

Though publisher Wiley Blackwell released this book to coincide with the new Ender’s Game movie, it shipped before the movie debuted. These scholars address only the literature, which they address in great depth. They assume you’ve already read the book and recognize flip references to Bonzo, Bean, and Eros. I admit, it’s been a while, and I needed to cross-check my paperback occasionally. Decker’s authors write for Ender fans, not newbs.

Ender’s dedicated audience won’t be surprised to discover how much intellectual intensity Card packed into his book. We’ve loved it for that reason for over a generation. But this book lets fans attach names to concepts, explore ramifications in greater depth, and situate it in our larger cultural tradition. Decker’s authors won’t make you enjoy Ender’s Game; they’ll show you what loving this timeless classic entails.

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