Among the many classics of science fiction literature, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game has maintained a place far above even others that have been remembered for decades. When I was only a child in a family where scifi books were well-loved, Ender’s Game was the scifi book. I am unsure if it was my first introduction to the world of science fiction – I think not, there was an ancient paperback collection of short stories, as much pulp fiction as scifi, that I can recall thumbing through in various reading nooks – but it was one of my first exposures to the genre and it was one that stayed with me all my life. Having now re-read it, and having finished its sequel as well (with intentions to read the rest of the series), I can say that my memory of Ender’s Game had been both true and almost … mythologized over the years, faded in places, yes, but more than that. I had come to think about the book itself as somehow carrying, harboring, embodying not only all of the talk that scifi fans I knew had surrounded it with, but also all the talk and thought that I had come to craft for myself with reference to it. It is, I realize now, both the book I thought it was and, at the same time, perhaps no greater than many other works of science fiction. I say this not to diminish the wonder of Ender’s Game, because it is still among the shortstack of books I would hand to someone exploring scifi for the first time, but I say it because I now see the book as Card himself meant it to be: it is the prelude to the truly great work – Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead.
As a young, bright child, who who wanted to read Shakespeare, learn algebra, and wear glasses (even though I didn’t really need them) before the age of ten, how could I not be deeply moved by the struggles of three alarmingly intelligent children in a world that either didn’t understand their brilliance, didn’t want them to be that brilliant (or, at least, didn’t want to know or listen to it), or wanted to manipulate their brilliance to adult ends not of the children’s conscious choosing? They were me – in more extreme circumstances, of course, but me just the same – constrained on multiple sides by adults who didn’t understand, didn’t care, or didn’t understand or care in the way they (the children!) wanted, maybe even needed, them to. I, myself, had pretty understanding parents, all things considered, and teachers and other adults in my life who did their best to create a healthy and productively challenging environment for me, and I’m grateful for all of them and for the full sum of my experiences growing up, both positive and problematic. They contribute much to who I am today. I remember, though, especially after rereading Ender’s Game, just how confusing and lonely it can feel to be any kind of weird at that age. Smart kids don’t have an exclusive corner on that market. Lots of other kids have that difficulty too. For me – and if I understand the young Wiggins, for them too – the issue wasn’t just being strange or even being strange in isolation from others who were similarly strange, it was the perfectly understandable but unfortunate reality that the adults around me did not (could not?) understand how and when I could have handled more, like an adult (knowledge, in particular), and when I needed them to aid me like the child that I was (in the realm of affection, for instance).
That is not to be a judgment against them. I have no idea how they truly could have known what I needed when I’m not sure that I fully knew myself at the time or had any way to articulate it even if I’d viscerally understood. Rather, it is to say that when I read Ender’s Game for the first time … I was Ender Wiggin (loyal, hard-working, quick-thinking, strategic, determined, perpetually emotionally bruised and lonely) … and sometimes I was Valentine (gentle, generous, protective, persuasive, creative, opinionated, perpetually wary but hopeful) … and I even worried, like Ender, on those days when I felt most angry and hurt and competitive, that I might also be like Peter (ambitious, cruel , cunning, relentless, controlling, perpetually seeking power so no one would have power over him). I saw in these characters my own awe-inspiring and frightening power as well as the power of the adults around me, the power of humanity to change and for humanity to change our world and the universe beyond it – even by the hands of children. That is the Ender’s Game I remember with reverence even now and, while it is now just one among several amazing works of science fiction that I adore, my nine-year-old self remains steadfast in calling it “the best.” It told me that I, even so young, could contribute something great to the world, to history, but if I was not very careful, I could also be a part of something terrible and horrific. It was a youth-empowerment text – not just by showing power, but also fallibility and responsibility.
I felt not only understood, but … trusted. The author not only seemed to see into me, but also to let me see into them, into the alien other that were the adults around me and my peers. I saw their fears and hopes, how they could be at once loving and demanding, how they could both plan and stumble with the arrival of chaos, how they could tell themselves stories as unreal as the stories they sometimes told children, wanting to believe them and acting as if they were true, and how adults could see some of the consequences of their actions and, at the same time, be so blind to others. I’m not sure, really, if the book itself (or my revelations from it) helped me decide to try to build bridges between my understanding and that of adults or helped me forgive them as well as myself when neither of us was strong enough to build such a bridge or when the ones we built collapsed under our feet. Yet, in looking back, I realize that while Orson Scott Card was preparing to humanize the originally demonized aliens of Ender’s Game, he also managed to humanize humans – children, especially, but also adults.
He shows how we as people, of any age, have internal reasons and external pressures and emotions that obey neither but are affected by both, a reality that means sometimes we do the most good when others don’t understand what we are doing and sometimes we do the most damage when we don’t understand what we are doing, so these circumstances are not mutually exclusive. We – children, youth, adults, humans in general – know enough to think we know enough to act on most things, even in a world, a universe, this complex, but do we? Do we always? And if we don’t, do we always (or ever) know enough to judge the actions of others who likely also think that they know enough to act? These are questions that Card and his characters (and therefore readers) only begin to ask in Ender’s Game. Speaker for the Dead is the full exploration of those questions, from multiple vantage points – children, adults, religious orders, scientists, humans, aliens, the innocent and healers, as well as those willfully and unwittingly committing harm, truth-sayers and liars alike. If I just tell you that it’s even better than Ender’s Game or that you’ll come to love Ender and his world all the more, maybe you won’t pick it up (maybe you haven’t read or somehow weren’t impressed with Ender’s Game), but the sequel is more than that. Speaker for the Dead is a deeply fascinating exploration of human emotions, alien cultures, family secrets, scientific mysteries, and small-town politics with intergalactic ramifications. So … are you Googling it now?