Troll the internet for “the greatest science fiction novels of all time” and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game will be at the top of every list you’ll find. (Or it was last time I checked.) It’s been at the top of every list for at least two decades now and will probably always be there . . . but I don’t know why. I don’t know why it’s a better book that A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Man in the High Castle or The Left Hand of Darkness or Brave New World or The Earth Abides or Childhood’s End. I don’t know why it’s been deemed by fans as being better than Beyond This Horizon or The Space Merchants or Alas, Babylon or Slaughterhouse Five. I don’t understand it. I never have.
I mean, I do know technically why fans have voted it the greatest science fiction novel ever written. It appeals to all those readers who feel (or have felt) abused; those readers who feel alienated, ignored, or have at some time been helpless before bullies and tyrants and who wanted revenge, not only on them, but on the whole world. Ender’s Game delivers all of that–in spades.
Yet when I read the book in 1985 when it first appeared, I was stunned by my own reaction to it, at how unpleasant I found it. When it started climbing the list of “great” SF novels, I became even more perplexed. This is because when I think of all of the “great” science fiction novels I’ve ever read (and I’ve read most of them since I started reading in ernest in 1958), I think of how much fun they were to read. Is Ender’s Game truly a better book, a more fun book, than To Your Scattered Bodies Go or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or The Martian Time-Slip?
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m talking about my own personal response to Ender’s Game based on my life-long love for science fiction (as well as the art and craft of writing). The book just wasn’t any fun. Neither was Speaker for the Dead (which I openly admit I never finished). It’s possible, I suppose, to say that I ought to like Ender’s Game because so many millions of other people like it. But that argument is as specious as it is misguided. One ought to like beets because they’ve got vitamins in them. But no argument can compel me to like something like beets (or the so-called music of Lil Wayne or Jay-Z) for any reason. One’s rational and deductive; the other is based on one’s taste which are not rational. (I remember seeing an album by Elvis when I was young. On the cover it said: “Twenty Million Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong”. Well, yes they can if you don’t like Elvis.)
In my last blog entry I talked about my sense of wonder–which was almost a shift in consciousness–in reading a small passage in Philip José Farmer’s The Dark Design, the third book in his Riverworld Series. It blew me away. The scene not only thrilled me to no end, but it encapsulated for me the best of what science fiction can do: it can take you to places you’ve never been before. It can dazzle and delight. It can conjure and it comes closest to being magical. Truly, it’s beyond any rational analysis. But since you’ve also experienced it, you know what I’m talking about.
Now, I understand that the two or three of you who read my blog regularly probably love Ender’s Game and worship the ground that Card walks on. My students at ASU certainly do and Card’s fans are in the millions world-wide. My opinion here is definitely in the minority. This is about something that Carlos Castaneda says in his book, Journey to Ixtlan. One night in the hills of central Mexico, Don Juan Matus, Castaneda’s teacher, tells him: “Never listen to your mind. Your mind will always play tricks on you. Always listen to your body for your body will never lie.”
What he’s talking about here are intuitions, instincts. We make choices based on taste all of the time–when we go to the grocery store, when we purchasing books on amazon.com, or when we decide which movie to see on the weekend. These decisions, though taking place in the “mind”, really are informed more by our “gut” feelings. There are movies I won’t see because I don’t like the actors or the director or the story. It’s the same way with you. (And forgive me for telling you something your already know.)
But let’s play the devil’s advocate here. There is a possible argument wherein we could accept the “unpleasantness” of Ender’s Game as being worthwhile. It comes up in literature classes all the time. It goes like this: “Since when does ‘literature’ have to be pleasant? Most novels and short stories, after all, are quite unpleasant. Just read any story by Flannery O’Connor and you’ll understand.”
I would counter that some of us get great pleasure in reading writers who are challenging and even might be deemed depressing. Thomas Hardy would be one, D.H. Lawrence would be another, perhaps even the aforementioned Flannery O’Connor. But I maintain that there is something truly creepy in Ender’s Game that can’t be found in William Faulkner or Emile Zola. Whatever else there is in their stories, there is also a kind of joy in their writing. That’s why I love Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, and Saul Bellow. Their characters shine and the writing is spectacular. And many of their stories are actually a lot of fun to read. I loved Pynchon’s Against the Day which is arguably a science fiction novel and for as difficult a read as Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon was, it was still fun.
And that’s what it comes down to. I read for pleasure–first. Aesthetic illumination and literary analysis can come later. But I personally found no pleasure in Ender’s Game. I don’t like it. I never will. There is (for me) no sense of wonder in the book and I found all of the characters unbelievable. This is mostly because I have known many six year-olds in my time and they don’t have the wisdom and verbal articulation skills of fifty year-old men. They certainly don’t lecture adults. I didn’t believe it then, I don’t believe it now. Children don’t speak or emote the way the do in Ender’s Game. (And I absolutely am not interested in scenes of naked boys wrestling with each other. That is the essence of creepiness for me.)
Now, I know that I’ve just engaged in apostasy and that you’ll attack me for not liking your favorite book of all time. But I need to assure you here that this isn’t about you–even though you’ll be offended at what I have just said. I’m just talking about the joy I feel in reading a great science fiction novel or story . . . and how that joy was lacking for me in Ender’s Game.