Friday, May 30, 2008

ENDER'S GAME, by Orson Scott Card


In contrast with the book mentioned in the last post, which took around three weeks to finish, ENDER'S GAME took me all of three days. I'm guessing it's the stripped-down, plot-centered nature of this book that compelled me to charge through it so quickly. While DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS seemed to use the plot, for the first several hundred pages, as a vague center to a series of character musings and backstory, ENDER'S GAME hones in on the events in one character's life almost to the exclusion of all else. There are places where the narration pulls close to another character (mainly in a few chapters focused on the protagonist's sister, Valentine, and the side story she's involved in), and each chapter does start with a brief conversation revealing the views shared by some of the supporting characters regarding the protagonist's development, but these are mere adornments of the core story arc. If DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS is a tapestry composed of an interweaving of multiple threads, which reveal the story when viewed all together, ENDER'S GAME is a single steel cable running from point to point.

ENDER'S GAME tells the story of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a brilliant child selected to command Earth's forces in a war against an alien species called the Buggers. The story starts with Ender as a six-year old, as he is brought to the Battle School to begin his training, and most of the plot follows Ender as he is put through one grueling test after another. We spend a lot of time inside of Ender's mind as he thinks through the challenges, and the book focuses on this almost to the point of excluding everything else. There is very little description of setting, hardly any text focused on fleshing out the world Ender lives in. We don't learn what the food he eats is like, or what the bathrooms look like, or even what Ender himself looks like with any great detail (hair color, eye color, height?). But this thinking through of challenges is pretty compelling stuff. It had the power to turn this book into one of the most successful Sci Fi novels ever written, and to bring in a wide audience that doesn't normally dabble in the genre, or read much to begin with.

And that makes me think of parallels with other books well-loved by people who don't identify as bookish--SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut, POST OFFICE by Charles Bukowski, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN by Dalton Trumbo, are all examples that spring to mind. The authors do manage to squeeze their own voices into the text, but the text of all of these books is so simple, and so focused on action, and so stripped of extensive description or language, that they seem fundamentally distinct from much literature. Hemingway also works with what seems like plain and direct speech, but his writing isn't direct in the way these other novels are. He spends a lot more time hinting at things, giving you ideas wrapped in shrouds, as if the ambiguity will endow his subjects with profundity. He wants you to come to conclusions that he's hinting at, but these other author's tell you plainly what they mean. And they don't tell you much else. You sometimes get the feeling of being in a clear tunnel passing through a wash of fog when you're reading these types of novels. What the author presents to you is clear, but sheds little light on the world in his novel that exists outside his words. Depending on who you are and how you read, you might automatically fill in the rest of the world with your own ideas. Or you might wonder, every now and again, what lies in the swirling mist.

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