Periscope Depth

I’m on a bloodbuzz, god I am

A few folks linked approvingly on Friday to this Grantland piece on Friday about Ender’s Game:

Card’s most famous story opens as a movie today, a generation after he first wrote it. I gave the book to my 10-year-old daughter to read last December. She devoured it as fast as I did, and we’re not going to miss the movie. Whether you’ve read the book or not, I hope you see it too.


No, the main reason boycotting Ender’s Game is counterproductive is that the theme of the story itself is the best repudiation of everything for which Card has come to stand.


That’s what Ender’s Game is all about, really. In order to defeat the buggers, Ender has to figure out their tactics. In order to figure out their tactics, he has to understand them. In order to understand them, he has to stop hating them. Empathy leads the way to victory, but it also leads the way to emotional devastation, because how can you live with yourself if you’ve defeated an enemy you’ve grown to love?

It’s a moving anecdote, I can’t take anything away from it, and the merits or failings of any boycott have been debated to death by better writers than I. But I disagree with the author’s conclusion that Ender’s Game has a hidden message of tolerance.

For every Muslim, Mormon, African-American, homosexual, or other member of an oppressed minority who read Ender’s Game and took something positive from it, there were ten angry white kids who read it and took something horrible. We can reason this from our armchairs–when the sales figures are that high, you know white folks are digging it–but, in the spirit of matching like with like, I’ll offer up my own anecdote: I was one of those angry white kids, I read it, and I took away the wrong things. Specifically:

  • That the frustrating isolation I felt was not a result of my own difficulty at reaching out to peers who shared my interests, but because I was secretly smarter/stronger/better than them;

  • That my success in the future hinged on perfection in everything that was assigned to me;

  • That happiness was secondary to dominating my peers;

  • That the conclusions I drew about my peers–what motivated them, where I stood in relation to them–were best kept private, not shared with them or with my own friends or with my parents or with anyone outside the echo chamber behind my giant forehead;

  • That reading sci-fi/fantasy made me smarter than other people;

  • That reading sci-fi/fantasy made me better prepared for the challenges of adolescent and adult life than other people;

  • That understanding someone could come after or in service of subjugating them totally, not as an alternative to it.

I could point you to chapter and verse, but I imagine you don’t need my help: we’ve all reread Ender’s Game in the months leading up to the movie, or we re-read it a dozen times in high school and college. It’s not a stretch to infer the above from the novel. And, if you’ll allow me just a little more speculation, I think plenty of other readers took the same message from it. If you disagree, pick your least favorite geek culture message board – a subReddit, a comic book discussion forum, a video game blog comment section, whatever – and see how deep you have to go into a comment thread before running into any of the above sentiments. Bonus points if it’s not on a controversial topic! Bonus points if you can find the fans of, say, the latest Metal Gear entry flagellating themselves like peerless geniuses.

All of the above were vividly (and expertly; Card’s a fine writer) depicted in Ender’s Game, and all of the above are wrong.

(I wouldn’t go so far as to assert that those are all things Card necessarily believes, or believed at the time of writing. It’s a sign of creativity in a writer that they can create a world, and characters, and scenarios that portray things they don’t otherwise espouse)

If Rany Jazayerli read Ender’s Game as a child and took a message of tolerance from it, I would be a boor to say he’s wrong for doing so. I can’t second guess the contents of his own head. Ender’s Game is a dense text, allowing for multiple interpretations. But I have to offer my own surmise: that it’s also possible to take some remarkably intolerant themes from the exact same book; that kids who were not as marginalized as Jazayerli was might have taken those themes instead; that the effects of those beliefs can be seen in some of the more toxic strains of “geek culture”; and that ten times as many of those kids read the book, hence its awesome sales. If you’re looking for a sci-fi novel to give to your 10-year-old daughter to teach her the virtues of empathizing with people whom the social order has cast aside, there are less troublesome books to offer.

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