Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has an enormous appeal to teens. Admittedly I’m not one of them, as I only encountered the book at university (and anyway I prefer the original novelette). Neither is John Kessel, though opens with predicting that if he had encountered it as a teen, he would have loved it. And over the course of this essay he tries to explain why.
(Spoilers abound for Ender’s Game. And to be clear, I haven’t read the novel in a long time and I’m not arguing for this interpretation myself, just that I find it fascinating. Summaries of the book’s events come from the essay and not the novel.)
First off, Kessel argues, Ender is a character designed to elicit maximum sympathy from the reader. His brother torments him and his parents fail to protect him, and eventually he is forcibly separated from them. The authorities lie to him from the first page, where a doctor says that an excruciating needle is painless.
Indeed, a cycle of events develops. Ender is envied for his virtues, and is abused because of it. Ender does not go to any authorities for help, he merely endures the torment and tries to avoid confrontations. These escalate until he is forced against his will to respond. At this point Ender uses disproportionate force against his tormentors, maiming or even killing them, rendering them unable to threaten him again. After this he feels intense guilt over what he did, until his friends assure him that what he did was necessary and unavoidable.
This achieves two seemingly contradictory things. Most obviously, it acts as a wish fulfillment fantasy to anyone who is a victim of bullying. But because Ender avoids responding for as long as possible, because he holds off from fighting until he’s forced into it, he maintains an unassailable moral high ground. Even when he kills, it’s an accident and he remains innocent. And because the tormentors attacking Ender because of jealousy of his abilities, it means Ender doesn’t even share the blame in provoking his attacks.
This, I fear, is the appeal of Ender’s Game: it models this scenario precisely and absolves the child of any doubt that his actions in response to such treatment are questionable. It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender’s story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else. Your mistreatment is the evidence of your gifts. You are morally superior. Your turn will come, and then you may severely punish others, yet remain blameless. You are the hero.
This pattern of blameless retribution is played out to even greater degree at the end. Ender should have been absolved from any guilt in destroying the Bugger homeworld; not only did he think it was a simulation, but it was the only way Ender could see to win the scenario against impossible odds. Yet even though the story is carefully constructed that he be blameless, he nevertheless feels guilty and responsible for his actions, to the extent that he spends the next book atoning. The general public even allows him to accept this guilt and call him the Xenocide.
(By the way, I find it fascinating that none of the elements Kessel talks about are present in the original novelette: no bullies, no retribution, and the result of destroying the homeworld is more a horrified shock, and ends-justified-the-means, than anything else. Given that the novel Ender’s Game was written to act as a prequel for Speaker for the Dead, it’s interesting to look in what ways the novelette is expanded to deliver the psychological tone necessary for the atoning figure in the sequel.)
Creating the Innocent Killer by John Kessel
Availability: free online
Word count: 8,200
First published: Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, Spring 2004
Where to find it: You can find it online here