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March 2014

Ender's Game

cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, and Viola Davis

director: Gavin Hood

114 minutes (12) 2013
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Entertainment One DVD Region 2
[released 10 March]

RATING: 2/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is possibly the single most commercially successful science fiction novel published in the last 30 years. As a novel, Ender's Game not only won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in a single year, it spawned an immediate sequel that won both awards the year after that. Since then, Ender's Game has turned into a regular cottage industry including comics, radio plays, and no less than 15 sequel books spread out across three different series, with Card and his writing partner now promising even more. Hugely successful upon first publication, Ender's Game has managed to escape the collapse of the market for grown-up SF by allowing itself to be re-invented as 'young adult', a clever piece of re-branding resulting in Publishers Weekly proclaiming it the bestselling science fiction novel of 2012, despite it being over 27 years old. Ender's Game has made Orson Scott Card a very rich and powerful man and it did so by pandering to the very worst aspects of human nature. Lavishly produced and as blandly inoffensive as possible given a framework of slavish devotion to source material, Gavin Hood's cinematic adaptation of Ender's Game is a work of brutal ideological purity.

Set on 22nd century Earth, Hood's film begins with a young cadet beating a much older cadet at a video game. Enraged by the younger cadet's ability to 'cheat' by exploiting the game's environment, the older boy decides to teach his junior a lesson only for the younger cadet to respond with an explosion of violence that leaves everyone in the room stunned and appalled. Not content to merely beat a much larger opponent, the young cadet humiliates and terrifies him as a means of sending a signal to any other would-be assailants. This young cadet is named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) and he is destined to save the human race.

Despite being pegged as a tactical genius by the school's director Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender is stripped of his uniform and sent home to what we learn is a psychotic older brother and an immigrant father who wants nothing more than to raise a military family. The brutal militarism of Ender's world is explained by some handy Starship Troopers-style news footage/ propaganda explaining how the Earth was attacked 50 years previously by an alien race known as the Formics. Desperate not to be attacked again, the human race has transformed itself into a vast military machine that trains its children for war and teaches them that there is no greater calling than military command.

The reason Ender was sent home is that while his ability to humiliate opponents and use violence as a means of solving problems had distinguished him as a truly exceptional human being, the school's director needed to know that his intentions were pure and that he did not actually enjoy hospitalising a fellow student. Once Ender points out that he simply wanted to end the fight quickly and terrify anyone else who might attack him, the director is happy to promote him to battle school and send him into orbit.

Gavin Hood's script adheres so closely to the source material that it appears to have inherited many of the narrative quirks associated with traditional science fiction. Indeed, we are not so much shown the world as told about it through a series of (repetitive) lectures and instructional videos. This fondness for info-dumping is also evident in the film's approach to characterisation as everything we learn about Ender, his teachers and his fellow students comes to us by means of either voice-over or third-party narration. Aside from being inherently clunky, this style of narration also drains the film of emotion and presents the characters' inner lives as a series of tactical decisions and rational calculations. This is particularly evident in the case of Ender as the film uses the battle school instructors as a psychopathic Greek chorus that dehumanises as it explains the cold logic behind his every waking thought.

Convinced that Ender is the child humanity has been waiting for, Graff transforms his orbital battle school into a proving ground for Ender's tactical ability. Singled out as a genius from the get-go, the naturally solitary Ender is forced to learn how to read and manipulate people in an effort to stave off bullying and convince the powers-that-be of his leadership potential. Without the Greek chorus and voice-overs, this section of the film might have been about Ender making friends but the film's narrative style is so depersonalising that it effectively dissolves all meaningful distinctions between social interaction and tactical engagement. In other words, Ender does not make friends but allies and his ability to use friends to resolve social conflicts is presented as being part-and-parcel of his ability to solve tactical problems. Whereas a more nuanced film might have flagged Ender's style of social interaction as indicating a damaged and/ or introverted nature, Ender's Game allows Ender's manipulative actions to go completely unchallenged. In fact, the film even goes out of its way to demonstrate Ender's rising popularity by having kids jostle each other for the chance to sit next to him during lunch.

Having learned how to make friends and manipulate people, Ender is promoted and assigned to the army of Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias) a hugely successful student commander who inexplicably takes offence at Ender's presence and promptly refuses to train him. Desperate to become a more effective soldier, Ender sets about undermining his commanding officer by first convincing fellow students to train him in secret and then staging a series of tactical stunts that win battles and eventually get him assigned an army of his own. Now in a position to experiment with his own set of radically inventive tactics, Ender systematically dismantles every rival commander in the school before casually defeating two armies at once and completely humiliating Bonzo in the process. Convinced that he has somehow been cheated, Bonzo confronts Ender in the showers only for Ender to use his greater size and tactical skill to murder the older boy. Horrified by the monster that he has apparently become, Ender returns to Earth; until someone can come up with an appropriate moral framework that will explain and justify his latest act of grotesque violence.

The similarity between the end of the first act and the end of the second act is hardly accidental, Ender's Game is effectively a series of literary thought experiments designed to generate a particular moral outcome: each act plunges Ender into a savage new environment that can only be mastered with a clear mind and a cold heart. Much like Ender's Machiavellian approach to social interaction, this is a reflection of the film's roots in traditional science fiction in general and one magazine in particular.

Before Ender's Game was a film, it was a novel and before it was a novel, it was a novelette published in a short fiction magazine called Analog Science Fiction & Fact. Launched in 1929, under the name Astounding Stories before changing its name to Astounding Science Fiction, the magazine rose to particular prominence in the 1930s and 1940s under the visionary editorship of a man named John W. Campbell. Though Campbell's role in launching the careers of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Theodore Sturgeon made him one of the most influential figures in the golden age of science fiction, his decision to stick with traditional genre narratives rather than embrace the literary turn of the 1960s meant that his magazine wound up acquiring something of a reactionary reputation. The magazine's tendency towards cultural and political conservatism is particularly evident in what many would now consider to be the quintessential Analog short story: Tom Godwin's The Cold Equations.

Despite being 60 years old this year, Godwin's story remains a work of rare thematic brilliance. Set in a future where a fragile interstellar civilisation is held together by a small number of ships with faster-than-light engines, the story takes place inside a small shuttlecraft that has been sent to deliver supplies to a planet that lies outside the starship's rigid itinerary. Equipped with just enough fuel to deliver the supplies and get back to the ship, the shuttle's pilot is horrified to discover that a young girl has stowed away in an effort to get home. Filled with sympathy for the young girl's plight, the shuttle pilot radios his ship only to be told that there is no alternative but to shove her out the airlock: the shuttle has limited fuel, the young woman puts the shuttle over weight, if the shuttle is over weight for too long then it will run out of fuel and be unable to make the delivery and return home. The reason there is no alternative to killing the girl is that the laws of physics governing the shuttle's path cannot be changed. The universe is indifferent to human demands and so the shuttle pilot is faced with a choice between accepting reality and throwing his life away by refusing to sacrifice the girl. Initially enraged by the cold equations governing life and death, the pilot soon comes to accept the reality of his position and convinces both the girl and her distant brother to do the same. The story ends with a magnificently pointed coda:

A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship. Something shapeless and ugly was hurrying ahead of him, going to Woden where its brother was waiting through the night, but the empty ship still lived for a little while with the presence of the girl who had not known about the forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice. It seemed, almost, that she still sat small and bewildered and frightened on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her: I didn't do anything to die for - I didn't do anything -

Like most works of science fiction, The Cold Equations is a carefully constructed conceit: the universe bends this way, human nature bends that way, and somewhere in the middle you get a potential future that reveals some inner truth about humanity. However, while Godwin's story appears to rest on the unquestionable fact that the laws of nature are indifferent to human concerns, the conceit that actually does most of the heavy lifting in the story is on the human side of the equation as we are expected to believe that:

a) The pilot's society views fuel as a more valuable resource than either trained personnel or shuttlecrafts and so would rather lose a shuttle and its pilot than send the shuttle out with more fuel that strictly necessary.
b) The cruiser the shuttlecraft comes from is able to able to travel faster than light and transport millions of tonnes of equipment and materials to other star systems but it cannot find a way to rescue a stranded shuttlecraft.

Godwin's story presents itself as being about the fact that you cannot change the laws of physics and how the pilot must accept the cold equations governing life and death but in reality the story is all about political despair and how the elites in charge of the pilot's society have managed to convince people that a more humane approach to interstellar transport is physically impossible. The story ends with not just the pilot's acceptance of his society's values, but the acceptance of the victim and her family as well. This is pure ideology of a very specific kind.

Godwin's repeated use of the phrase "there is no alternative" is fascinating as when Margaret Thatcher set about dismantling the welfare state and privatising state assets, she justified her actions by claiming that the only way for modern societies to develop was by embracing free markets, free trade, and capitalist globalisation. Her fondness for the slogan "There is no alternative" was so pronounced that many Conservative MPs began referring to her by the acronym TINA.

Godwin and Thatcher's use of the TINA slogan is part of a much wider rhetorical move by right-wing thinkers to evade charges of selfishness by presenting their vision of the world as being somehow more realistic and natural than those of their ideological opponents. When early international relations scholars such as E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau argued that the international system was a Hobbesian nightmare populated by self-interested and power-hungry states that would stop at nothing to maximise their own security, the name they came up with was 'Realism', thereby suggesting that anyone who disagrees with their right-wing vision of the world is somehow being 'un-realistic'.

This idea that ruthless self-interest is the only realistic basis for interacting with other people was a brilliant rhetorical ploy as it allowed right-wingers to present the injustices and hardships of the capitalist system as unpleasant necessities: 'Of course we'd like to help the poor at home and the starving in Africa but you can't change the laws of economics! We don't have that luxury!' Now routinely deployed to justify such administrative atrocities as weakening the social safety net, privatising public goods, deregulating markets and the worst excesses of western militaries and intelligence agencies alike, the 'realistic' rhetorical stance not only paints all opponents of the status quo as naive, it also absolves the selfish and brutal of all responsibility for their actions. It is not right-wing politicians who brutalise poor people at home and bomb them abroad; there is no alternative to the status quo.

Originally published as a novelette in the same right-leaning magazine as Godwin's story, Ender's Game is built around three successive re-iterations of the The Cold Equations: each act goads Ender into an act of horrific violence before immediately washing away his guilt with talk of pure intentions and a lack of viable alternatives. However, as in Godwin's story, the lack of viable alternatives is purely a product of ideological conditioning as Ender neither questions the options made available to him nor thinks to rebel against the parents and officers embodying the system. In fact, the only people in the film who do question the logic of the system are the ones who wind up being brutalised and killed by Ender: the cadet who feels betrayed by the fact that none of his instructors taught him he could use the environment against an opponent, the student who undermines group morale by picking on one of the smaller kids, the commander who will not allow Ender to train, and the Formics who are so alien that their alternative modes of thought and social organisation are deemed to pose an existential threat to Ender's militaristic culture. Just as Godwin invokes the laws of physics to justify murdering stowaways, Ender's Game mumbles something about breeding rates and claims that humanity had no alternative but to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Formic home world.

Even before the success of Ender's Game allowed Orson Scott Card to become a powerful anti-LGBT activist, progressive elements in genre culture have been looking at his work with some degree of suspicion. Not long after Ender's Game was first published, Elaine Radford wrote an essay suggesting that the book could be read as a moral apologetic for the crimes of Adolf Hitler. Not convinced by the (admittedly hilarious) biographical similarities between Ender and Hitler, John Kessel adapted this unsympathetic interpretation and used it to construct a critique of Card's belief that the only things that matter when weighing the morality of a particular action are the intentions of the actor. While these readings are quite correct to suggest that there is something incredibly unpleasant about a book that bends over backwards to frame genocide as the blameless act of a well-intentioned victim, I think that the story's true darkness lies in its celebration of the worst aspects of the status quo.

There's a wonderful moment in one of the DVD extras where one of the film's producers talks about how she was first made aware of Card's book by a pre-pubescent relative who adored Ender's Game despite not having much time for books in general. Aside from confirming our suspicions that most Hollywood blockbusters are now aimed firmly at sub-literate tweens, the producer's comment also tells us something about the book's enduring appeal.

Ender's Game is a toxic power fantasy aimed at people who see themselves as having been marginalised, mistreated, and betrayed by the institutions that surround them. The intended audience of Ender's Game is unhappy at school, unhappy at work, unhappy in life, and genuinely convinced of their own intellectual superiority. Some of them are bullied, others may do the bullying but all of them are drunk on a cocktail of dark thoughts and status-cravings: why do people make jokes about me? Why don't I have a girlfriend? Why aren't I one of the popular kids? Why don't the teachers and bosses respect me? The appeal of Ender's Game lies in the fact that we have all had these feelings at some point in our lives; we have all felt alienated, frustrated and underappreciated, and we have all had to deal with the fact that while we may hate the social systems that surround us, freeing ourselves from those systems demands reserves of strength and creativity that few of us possess. Sometimes it really does feel as though there are no alternatives to the hand that we have been dealt.

At its best, science fiction is a means of seeing beyond our tyrannical present and into a realm of plausible possibility. When writers make the universe bend one way, and human nature bends the other, what they create is a literary conceit that allows us to reflect upon the world from an entirely new perspective, one that makes radical change seem like a very real and viable alternative. For example, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants presents readers with an advert-riddled future so nightmarish that it is impossible to read the book without questioning the very real and very negative impact that advertising has on our cultural spaces. Similarly, Joanna Russ' The Female Man explores the sexual politics of a number of different fictional societies and provides a broader moral context for real world political discussions. The best science fiction encourages us to look at the world with a fresh set of eyes and see the many hidden ways in which it could be different. The best science fiction makes us bold enough to dream of what is possible; Ender's Game aspires to make us meek and grateful for what we have.

Despite being designed to pass for a moral and intellectual saint, Ender never once questions either his vocation as a military commander or the values of the society that provides him with that vocation. Goaded into increasing acts of violence, Ender responds to feelings of alienation and betrayal by working even harder to follow the rules and provide superiors with exactly what they expect. At the end of the film, Ender is rewarded with a free spaceship and the ability to assuage his conscience, thereby confirming the old right wing saw about how hard choices need to be made now in order that we might do what we really want later.

The problem is not that Ender's Game is a power fantasy wrapped in a persecution complex and fired into the faces of unsuspecting children, the problem is that this film sends a message that the only rational and intelligent response to feelings of alienation, betrayal and confusion is to conform to the demands of the institutions that caused those negative feelings in the first place. Ender's Game is not content with telling us that there is no alternative to a life of selfish brutality, it goes out of its way to present that life as sane, heroic and oh so very clever. Gavin Hood's film is well made and elegant to look at, as beautiful as a $110 million advert for fascism could ever hope to be.

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