Monday, November 4, 2013

The Politics Of: Ender's Game

Take That, Buggers!
Ender's Game is the culmination of almost 30 years of trying-to-make-a-movie since the Hugo and Nebula award winning book came out. The first part of this review looks at the film alone (and is relatively spoiler free). The second part assumes you have seen it.

Ender's Game
In 1985 a friend of mine gave me a book (maybe it was 1986? It had just won the major awards for Science Fiction). I finished it in a day--taking it to school with me and surreptitiously reading it under the desk (I was in High School). The book had a fascinating premise: fifty years ago Earth is attacked by an alien race (originally: the Buggers, now: The Formic) and survives due to the genius of a single general.

Now, decades later, awaiting the next, coming alien attack Earth is trying to "recreate that general" taking young children into the Battle School program and putting them through ever-increasing levels of training difficulty trying to identify, isolate, and nurture sufficient genius to see us through the next invasion.

A primary candidate is Ender Wiggen, the third son (rare--you have to get permission due to, I guess, overpopulation) of the Wiggen family. His loving sister (Valentine) and psychotic brother Peter have both washed out of the program (although they got much farther than most). When the book begins, Ender, although young, is nearing the end of his training on earth.

The book (and the movie) follow him into Battle School where, more he must contend as much with alienation from his peers (it's a competition and falling behind means you likely fail) and abusive staff (to make him stronger) as the potential world-ending alien threat.

I was hooked--and I devoured the whole thing. I could see why it won all those awards.

The movie was long deemed "unfilmable." I had to actually look into it to see why that was. Here were contending reasons:

  1. The kids are young: Ender is, like, six when the book begins. Later on he's older--but still pre-teen for a lot of it. How would you possibly cast that?
  2. The kids are naked a lot of the time. "Sleep uniform" is, apparently, analogous to 'birthday suit.' Could you film a book with naked-co-ed-kids? No.
  3. It's all internal: The book hinges a great deal on Ender's internal dialog. It's required both for explanation and justification. Ender pretty much kills everyone he every fights: that's his deal, even if he (a) really doesn't mean to and (b) often doesn't know he's done it (he just fights hard and kicks people, literally, when they're down so they won't come back and bother him again). If you don't have his internal explanation--his fear, general helplessness (it's always several-on-one bigger kids who relentlessly escalate), and purity of motive he becomes an actual monster.
  4. Too expensive: the Battle Room features zero-gee altercations between child armies. With anything-below-modern F/x and CGI it'd be more than just way-too-expensive: it'd be impossible.
The movie, like earth itself, rests on the slim shoulders of child-actor Asa Butterfield. For the hard-core (abusive--sadistic?) commander we get Harrison Ford who handles it easily looking better than he has in years. The other kids are also mostly older. Butterfield has to sell us on Ender's lethal intensity, genius, and heart/soul. He does it.

The special effects are first rate giving us exhilarating training sequences where we can figure out what's going on. There are scenes where Ender plays a "mind game" which is a kind of psychological test. These carry the imaginative nature of the book's scenes well: Technology has caught up.

No one gets naked, the kids are a little older than six, and the script--something like the 6th literal attempt at one--gets around the "it's all internal problem."

In other words, they filmed it. The story is a little rushed compared to the book (and at only 114 minutes it could've been a little longer--but I assume almost everything they cut would've been super expensive to film). It's been said it isn't heart breaking enough (the story is about the loss of the kid's innocence--amongst other things) but it carried its emotional payload well enough for my tastes.

The movie is a success. It shows us that very, very little is actually unfilmable. 

Enders Game has done an excellent job.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of Ender's Game
There are two parts to the politics of Ender's Game. The first are those depicted in the moive--and the second are those surrounding the film itself. It turns out they're relevant to the larger issue of real-world politics the film Ender's Game inhabits.

The Actual Politics of Ender's Game
The world of the movie is one where aliens have attacked, killed "tens of millions of people" and humanity believes they were saved by a fluke and the next battle may not go nearly as well. There appears to be a single-world government (for all we know) and vast resources are aligned against the next coming war. If they had an Alien Alert Condition table the planet would be stuck on Infrared.

The book (around which the movie was fairly faithfully constructed) is a product of the 1980's when it was written. It was later revised some in the 90's to account for the fall of the Soviet Union and, at some point, the name the aliens were called was changed from the more colloquial 'Buggers' to 'the Formic.'

In the book Ender is a 'rare' third-child. The Wiggins family has to get permission to breed a third time and, even in a world where "tens of millions of people" have been killed in an alien invasion there is still, apparently, an overpopulation problem (despite this, we see the Wiggins living in a modern-looking suburban house rather than a hive-like skyrise--so maybe they're ultra rich or something?).

We are told, outright, that although the Formic are "contained" their rate of breeding is "unsustainable"--"like ours" and so they will naturally expand to other planets. Their very existence is an unacceptable threat to us (as, one would logically assume, ours is to them). This, I think, was a very 80's thing to think--today the concern is about falling birthrates in the developed world.

We are not given an explicit reason why the adults need Ender. It turns out the great general is, surprise, still alive--so is it that Ender is just so much better (the movie nods towards kids being better at video games than adults)? Is it that only someone who can be tricked into thinking they are playing a game can be ruthless enough with the men under their command to win? Is it a moral qualm where, as with an execution where they give three people blanks and one guy a real bullet, the adults simply aren't willing to commit Xenocide?

In any event the book and to a lesser degree the movie feels like a cold-war novel with the tension of eventual conflict hanging over everything. It also has a very 80's view of bullying where, although no one explicitly gives Ender the advice to stand up for himself, he does, it's the only way out of the situation (the adults will explicitly not step in because they need to toughen him up) and, indeed, once he fights back they never bother him again (in the book--albeit not so much the movie--they are dead).

The Politics of Orson Scott Card
The politics of the film Ender's Game are those of gay marriage and homophobia. Orson Scott Card is a notable personality in the gay-marriage culture wars. He writes widely read OpEds, joined (and then maybe secretly resigned from) the board of the National Organization for Marriage, and is a well-selling author with a wide readership.

He feels, strongly, that gay marriage both threatens heterosexual marriage and any nation that allows it (I look to the burning wasteland of Canada and the fallen, decadent British Empire as proof he is right). He delves into conspiracy theory (RICO statues will be used against those who disagree with gay marriage) and writes a 'fiction' wherein Obama becomes a dictator extending his time in office indefinitely (he carefully defends this 'as fiction'--but is certain his readers have to admit it "sounds plausible." Airtight.

He's upset about being labeled a 'homophobe' ('a term with mental-health implications') for his 'mildest' criticisms of 'the agenda of homosexual activists.' He isn't happy about the call to boycott the movie (liberal intolerance of intolerance, I'm sure) and he said this:
Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.
Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute. 
Orson Scott Card
In other words, "we lost" and now we have to hope our enemies show some compassion (or, well, 'it'll be interesting' to see if that happens). One wonders what 'tolerance' Orson Scott Card was going to show should he "have won." Of course the telling statement here is the very first one.

In the original book the aliens are called Buggers--I was too young to make the connection to buggery (although if I'd known OSC's personal politics I might have) and, indeed, one of the insults that is hurled at Ender is "Bugger-Lover." By the end of the book he does, in fact, become a "bugger lover" having exterminated almost all of them--probably unnecessarily--and having the last remaining queen as precious cargo to try to reestablish the race.

In a scene that manages to be touching--even with CGI--a remaining Bugger soldier wipes a tear from the devastated Ender's face. Perhaps this is what Orson Scott Card was referring to when he asks for tolerance from the victors--if not that literal act (Hey! Christian-Side-Hug)--at least that sentiment.

Let's, as they say in sports, go to the tape:
Why should married people feel the slightest loyalty to a government or society that are conspiring to encourage reproductive and/or marital dysfunction in their children? 
Why should married people tolerate the interference of such a government or society in their family life? 
If America becomes a place where our children are taken from us by law and forced to attend schools where they are taught that cohabitation is as good as marriage, that motherhood doesn't require a husband or father, and that homosexuality is as valid a choice as heterosexuality for their future lives, then why in the world should married people continue to accept the authority of such a government? 
What these dictator-judges do not seem to understand is that their authority extends only as far as people choose to obey them. 
How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.
So, uh, yeah. If the vote doesn't go my way? Down with the government. Way to go, Orson: I'm glad you don't have one of those chain-reaction matter-destroyer devices.

The Connection
In Ender's Game--the book (and therefore, again, the movie)--the world of the 1980's is one where there is still a war to come. We might win--we might lose--but we have to fight. When he wrote it, he was the assured victor of his own personal war: gay marriage was nowhere on the horizon. He foresaw the clash as being ideologies of Godless Communism vs. Patriotic Real Americans (TM).

When it turned out his war was (a) closer to home and then (b) he lost, he felt bullied. In the end here, OSC morally feels he is Ender--forced back against a wall with nowhere to turn--justified in doing anything to bring down his foe (including insurrection and, apparently, treason). In reality, though, on the other hand, he's still Orson Scott Card: he's (for some reason--the gestapo should've taken care of this, I guess) still allowed to write OpEds--and, you know, he'd like to see his movie be popular and shit--so instead of the all-out war he's almost like that Bugger in the end: defeated, unhappy, and hoping for tolerance or acceptance from his enemy.

'Almost like,' though, because he's still bitter, still angry, and still fighting. He just feels he's up against foes he can't beat--he feels picked on--and picked apart. Relentlessly hounded (he's called a homophobe, remember: it used to be homosexuality that was the recognized mental-health conditon!). In short, like Ender, he's been bullied.

It turns out? His enemies do have a message of hope and compassion for people like him who have been bullied:

1 comment:

  1. When you read Ender's Game, there is a lot more going on than just a point of view about gender identification. There is a seriously strong undercurrent of how news and politics plays out on the world. One of the most intricate parts of the full book is the point about how Ender's older siblings play politics with the world using the "internets". This year, we saw that art become political reality. Read this article, and think on the personifications of Demosthenes and Locke by Ender's brother and sister.