The Game that Plays Us

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I tried looking for the best word that could describe this book yet failed big time not because of my limited vocabulary but because this book resisted, no, defied, being boxed in a one-word description. At first I decided ‘thought-provoking’ is accurate enough because it had me thinking from the first page down to the last, had me conflicted about the multitude of themes it touched on, had me revisiting things I learned from college (I graduated with a degree on Consular and Diplomatic Affairs, what a coincidence!). But then I also like to tell you that it’s also just as equally intense, compelling and just well, for the lack of a cooler adjective, fantastic. So kindly excuse the lengthy, pretentious-sounding review ahead, friends. You are warned.

There are three siblings at the core of this novel’s beginning and I know it’s pretty clear from the get-go what particular pattern Orson Scott Card wanted us to see before the plot kicked off: the three essential types of leadership. Peter, the eldest, is the kind of leader who elicits power through fear, oppression and dominance. Think Machiavelli. Valentine, the only girl, is his extreme opposite: she earns respect through compassion, righteousness and high morale founded on a sense of justice. Mahatma Ghandi with spunk, perhaps. Ender, our titular character and youngest of the three, is the middle ground that bridges their differences together, thus representing the ideal kind of leadership in proper equilibrium between firmness and gentleness. I wouldn’t call it perfect because this book is not written to glorify or rally for just one kind of leadership nor to contest which is the best one. If anything, I think it’s a better bet to say that the author is actually writing towards the complete opposite thing; this story makes us realize that no leadership is ever perfect, that there would always be faults in each of them, that there is no such thing as the greatest of them all, only effective ones, and that even this could vary depending on situations, people and ultimately, the goals that we set our eyes on. In my International Relations classes, I learned that Karl Marx used to say this about theories and concepts: that so much has been said about the world, when the point however, is to change it. It’s hard to explain why that particular quote came to mind when this realization came to me, but I hope you get the idea.

In my opinion, these three kids can also stand for the different ways books can captivate us. Some books are like Peter: fiercely intelligent, ambitious, pragmatic, haunting. These books have such strong voices they fill our heads with ideas and open our eyes to the cold, darker realities of life. We read this kind of books and we emerge as smarter, more reasonable individuals, albeit a little bit jaded about the world and humanity. Some books are like Valentine: sensitive, enthralling, virtuous, diplomatic and disturbing all at once. Instead of attacking our minds with concepts, these stories aim for the heart and overcome us subtly through our emotions. Sneaky books indeed but we don’t feel cheated at all, even after it leaves us with trembling fingers in shock or tear-stricken eyes because of heartbreak. And then there are books like Ender that catches our attention for their sheer mystery and keeps our gazes steady from all throughout with its strong sense of wisdom and gripping glimpses of sympathy. Books that are somewhat deceiving because they appear somewhat too young and raw from the outside, but are actually made of genius and gold on the inside. Books so clever they promise you child’s play when all along you’re being shipped to a dangerous inter-galactic battle for the world’s survival. Books so daring and fantastic they make us look into ourselves and realize that we’re all eleven year-olds deep inside: always seemingly-trapped in this intricate web of helplessness, but like Ender, we can always be someone great…if we are ever brave enough to decide to be. It muses:

“I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not “true” because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: the mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about someone who lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about oneself. ”

Ender’s Game is this kind of book and hot damn, if all sci-fi books were this good, I’ll be an official member of this geekery for the rest of my life.

I don’t want to spoil the good stuff so let’s get my pet peeves out of the way as early as now: the writing isn’t really what you’d call Pulitzer-prize-winning-good, but it complements the story just fine because well, it is after all about a child so there’s really no need to be high-sounding and snooty. It’s so simplistic and straight-forward without any efforts to sugarcoat or romanticize anything, which I’m still rather uncomfortable of, the transition from one thing to another sometimes coming too abrupt or random. (Read: my subliminal way of saying how difficult it is still for me to get off my faux literary high-horse.) But I also came to appreciate how swiftly it got down to business and got the whole plot running, this being Science Fiction. Taut, action-packed pacing is the way to go and Ender’s game did just that.

The greatest struggle I had with this book was its credibility, I guess. I know how idiotic I am sounding, demanding realism in Sci-Fi books, but I mean this about the characterization. I admit I’m a little unbelieving in the beginning because the story just told us that Ender is the genius-slash-chosen-one without really explaining why and how they came to assume that. I almost snorted at that part when Colonel Graff argued that Ender is smarter than him, justifying how it makes sense to put the weight of the world in the shoulders of some kid. I was raising my eyebrows at the ages they were recruiting kids for battle school and I was smirking, ‘Six years old and being trained to be commander of a fleet, REALLY?’ Peter & Valentine’s opinion pieces as Demosthenes and Locke, while being really way out of the minds of average twelve and fourteen year-olds, are hardly what I would call opinions that will take the world by storm or scandal. It’s laden with political shiz but it’s truthfully vague generalizations and nothing unheard of, but I guess it would really only seem this way if you’re really hardcore about international geopolitics and intergovernmental treaties like the nerd that I am back in college. Um, I kind of understand these things because I’m interested about them so I just didn’t skip through them. It’s loosely based on the bipolar regionalism that occurred during the aftermath of the world wars where the US and USSR are being good neighbors on the outside but are actually on each other’s throats in competition for world supremacy. But enough about my bragging, ostentatious self, how did the book make me believe, you ask?

Ender showed me that he’s everything he is promised to be and so much more. I liked how skillfully the games and its rules were laid out and how Ender played it exceptionally in a way that you really had to salute him. Also, it’s such a fresh concept to write a protagonist who is gifted in leadership. You would really see for yourself how he came to earn the respect and support of his friends in battle school but still keep that distance and isolation for him to be revered and regarded highly. I mean, I’ve read about geniuses in sciences, maths, sports, arts and languages, but A GENIUS ON MILITARY STRATEGIES AND COMBAT? Now that’s something new.

The turning point for me was the shock of learning that Stilson and Bonzo was actually killed by Ender in their encounters. Not gonna lie,that had me reeling. It’s the first moment that I came to understand how frightening and how dangerous Ender can be on the loose if he’s already killed two people before even turning a double-digit age. And the fact that Ender knows this in the creepiest sense possible just blew my mind.

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.”

I also loved how technology became improvised plot devices for the author to describe the character’s emotions. The Nets showed the sharp contrast between Peter and Valentine’s point of views of the world and yet they also came to reveal how much similarities they also shared through their pseudonyms and personas. And I thought it’s brilliant how the mind-simulation computer games that Ender plays while still in battle school gave us pictures of his fears, desires, longings and realizations. It’s the perfect way to acquaint us of our protagonist’s weakest and most secret moments minus all the cheesiness and drama—It’s consistent in this factor. And the fact that it ties up neatly with how the buggers are communicating and sending signals to him all along just about broke my heart a bit, you know.

The ending is a little hasty for me but I think it’s only because, like Ender, I was poised and led to believe that I’m still under the guise of training simulations and not really commanding actual ships in a real actual battle. The revelation afterwards that the battle is actually already done is still proof of how engrossed I was with what’s happening that I didn’t see the twist coming. The shock, it felt so good to be true. The way things fell into place when they finally settled on the planet where the buggers originally resided seemed utopian in a sense but not entirely and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The big triumph of this book is very much portrayed by the success of its protagonist: that underneath the shiny, cold exteriors of science and technology, there’s the human heart and hand commanding it to move and function. That a story can make you grapple with your conscience while still root for your flawed hero all the way is already a success in itself and this book went even beyond. I finished the book and wondered where planet Ender and Valentine is in now and whether they’ll come back here on Earth. I wished I lived in an era governed by them and wouldn’t have minded being in battle school myself. Omg someone put me into Dragon Army stat!

Big thanks and a shoutout to Darliza, by the way. The enemy’s gate is indeed down. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “The Game that Plays Us

  1. This is a long post but I enjoyed reading it. 🙂 I’m glad you loved Ender’s Game. It’s a classic. I also have a friend whose first SF read was this book and it made her seek more SF works. I hope you would do. This genre is mind-blowing and thought-provoking at its best.

    My favorite’s Bean. There are other books set in Ender’s universe that focus on Bean.

    • i knew there’s gotta be more to Bean’s character! Yay!

      And yeah, this is definitely a good start for more SF books to come. Thank you for enriching my reading experience, too.

      And are you up for another round of book swapping? Haha. Just give me a shout-out whenever you feel like it. 🙂

      • Hi, Darden! I’m going on a holiday and will be back on Feb. 5. We can send each other our Feb books by then. 🙂 I already have a book for you. 😀

  2. I’m lining this up as my first sci-fi read this year and it looks like I won’t be disappointed. Although I’ve liked some sci-fi shows and movies, i never really tried it in literature.

    The movie adaptation of Ender’s Game will also be coming out this year, I think. All the more to read the book, stat. 😀

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