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Characters as Children

(Novels for Students)

There can be no question that Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game is a graceful and useful piece of fiction, with a convincing sense of time and place that only comes from a writer in complete control of his or her material. To certain fans, Ender's Game is one novel brave enough to really look at children without making them childish. They are relieved that somebody finally got it right, and they praise Card for his unflinching honesty about the cunning and cruelty, the wisdom and humanity, of children. But is it really about children? They are called kids, but they don't act or talk like kids. Card seems to take pride in this, considering it an innovation, as if the only alternative would be having the cadets in the Battle School play marbles and talk baby talk. I suspect that the children in Ender's Game are written as adults and then called kids—like stunt doubles in the movies, fresh-faced, diminutive adults playing the parts of kids, snubbing out their cigars to go out and lick lollipops before the cameras.

Let there be no mistake: I don't object to his characters because I foolishly think they are not any more vicious than kids are in real life, or could be. I can tell the difference between childhood innocence and sweetness, and the first does not necessary lead to the second. In the book, the nastiness that Peter, Stilson, and Bonzo show toward Ender is unprovoked, but it still makes sense as their characters are drawn. It makes sense that children become defensive and cliquish when their place in the world is uncertain. Insecurity is unavoidable in new situations, and in childhood everything is a new situation—maturity is just a matter of recognizing repeating patterns, and without comforting recognition, all these kids have to protect themselves with is violence. Stilson and Bonzo, in particular, lash out for reasons that they themselves would probably not recognize, in response to their insecurity. I accept this as a depiction of children and their behavior, as much as I don't like it.

Ender's response to the other boys' bullying is more intelligent and calculating, as everything Ender does is, and Card uses it to show another aspect of childhood, the struggle between intellect and fear. Ender kills Stilson and Bonzo without realizing that he has done it—in all other things, his behavior is precise and he gets the results he intends, but in physical struggles he lashes out with a fear-driven response that is beyond his control, a cyclone so violent that he does not even see the results and only suspects them. Fear pushing intellect into the back seat is a reasonable characterization of childhood.

Peter's continual sadism is more serious than the other hostilities in the novel because it is intentional, not spontaneous. He may feel threatened by the success of his younger brother, as is implied in the early chapters, but then why is he torturing animals years after Ender has left the Earth? And what does that have to do with the statesman...

(The entire section is 6,451 words.)