Ender's Game

By Orson Scott Card

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

I still recall the intense culture shock I experienced when I
entered Stanford Business School at age 23.  I was an odd
outlier, admitted to the MBA program with no previous
business experience.  While my classmates showed up with
polished skills in accounting or finance, or with an internship
at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs under their belts, my
expertise was largely limited to music, literature, philosophy
and the arts.   

But I was a great believer, then as now, in the power of
storytelling to guide real world decisions—and this was
perhaps my strongest connection with my professors and
fellow students.   I looked at the case studies we used in the
classroom as quirky short stories, each filled to the brim
with characters, conflicts and an occasional cash flow
statement.  And, on rare instances, someone in class would
turn to a novel or movie to illuminate some precept in
leadership or teambuilding.  Films such as
Twelve Angry
or Apollo 13 are full of lessons
for those willing to extrapolate
from the courtroom or spaceship
to the corporate boardroom.  I still
remember fondly the time I unin-
tentionally caused an uproar in a
first year business strategy class
by trying to solve the problem at
hand with my personal inter-
pretation of
War and Peace.  

I wish I had known about
back then.  I would have
spared my classmates the lecture
on Tolstoy and gone straight for
Orson Scott Card.   Most readers
enjoy this book for its fast-paced plotting, and a storyline
that pings and zings like the action in a pinball game. Indeed,
the premise of the book is that saving the galaxy is not much
different than winning at
Grand Theft Auto or Super Mario
.  But the real substance of the book is its detailed
exposition of the strategies and ploys relied on by its hero,
Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, as he rises to the top of his class at
Battle School, and later Command School, before moving on
to an actual combat against an alien force.  Give Ender some
credit: his case studies turn out to be a bit more dangerous
than any I chanced to encounter at B-school.

Other science fiction books have incorporated the concept
of games or competitive simulations into their plot lines, but
not with such careful attention to strategy and tactics.  As
far back as 1948, A. E.  van Vogt drew on the concept of a
human playing a computer game in a formal competition for
his novel
The World of Null-A.  But the rise of commercial
computer games in the 1980s and 1990s turned this into a
familiar plot line—both in movies (
Tron) and fiction (Snow
).  Invariably these books leave out the game theory
even as they draw on the game as a source of conflict and
drama.  A book such as Iain M. Banks'
The Player of Games
(1988) can build its entire story around a series of elaborate
games, yet only offer the vaguest generalities about the rules
and techniques at play.  
Ender’s Game, in contrast, presents
a series of detailed case studies in how competitions are won
and lost—drawing on both conceptual and psychological
insights in the process.

This sophistication in the details here stands in stark
contrast to the simplicity of the larger plot, which is as
hackneyed as it gets.  A young boy saves the universe from
ugly, ruthless insect-like monsters, known as "buggers"
(clearly Card hadn't spent much time in Britain before
writing this book).   Such an unpromising story line would
normally suffice only for escapist young adult fiction, but
Card dishes up something more here, setting up a series of
conflicts and obstacles for his protagonist that dispense with
dragons and swords and the other familiar paraphernalia of
the genre, and instead draw on Ender's skills in leadership
and organizational analysis.

In various simulated conflicts, Ender’s team defeats older
and stronger opponents through the application of a range
of insights—which might involve the decentralization of
teams or reorienting the perceptions of combatants.  A key
conflict is won by taking advantage of an opponent's
understandable tendency to apply concepts of up and down
to environments were such an orientation proves to be a
vulnerability.   Other conflicts turn on the value of decoys
and misdirection, or the benefits of holding key resources in
reserve until the crucial moment in an engagement, or the
impact of various motivational methods.  

One might justifiably carp that a novel is not a business
school case study, and that it may provide valuable insights
into team dynamics while failing as literature.  I can under-
stand this criticism, and will be the first to admit that
readers should not turn to Orson Scott Card for his prose
style or poetic sensibility.  A certain brutal pragmatism
permeates these pages—one that has enthralled some
readers, but turned off many others.  Yet I would counter
that stories are not diminished by imparting lessons, far
from it—many of the oldest tales, both from Western
cultures and elsewhere, clearly aim to embody the wisdom
of their society and pass it on to a new generation.  This
functionality does not diminish the value of a story, but
rather enriches it.  
Ender’s Game would be a far lesser book
if it lacked these "teachable moments."

That said, I am less impressed with the political theorizing
that Card incorporates into this novel.  A subplot about
Ender's siblings rewriting the rules of democratic engage-
ment is so preposterous, even by the loose standards of
science fiction, that I could hardly engage seriously with its
pretensions.  Yet even as I read these pages in befuddle-
ment, I admired Card for taking such a daring stance in an
action-oriented novel.   Readers may feel as if they had
stumbled out of
Starship Troopers only to find themselves
lost in a bizarre version of
The Federalist Papers from an
alternative universe.   Certainly no one could accuse this
author of playing it safe.  

Card revised the original text of his novel for later editions,
in an attempt to make the story less dependent on the
historical exigencies of its time of origin.  (The novel,
released in 1985, drew on an earlier short story by Card,
also called "Ender’s Game," published in 1977.)   I have
little concern, however, that this book will come across
dated 10, 20 or even 30 years from now.   True, the
technological trappings of Card’s story may eventually seem
quaint or peculiar, but the psychological and sociological
qualities at play here strike me as essentially timeless.  Like
those other crossover classics—
1984 or The Handmaid's
Tale or Slaughterhouse FiveEnder's Game will likely
hold on to its place in the canon because it puts its faith
ultimately in the power of storytelling, and not just the
pageant and gadgetry of conventional sci-fi.   Certainly
others have emulated its focus on game-playing as a plot
device, but none have yet matched the realism of its
exquisite gamesmanship.
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