Friday, 18 April 2014

The Ender Quartet

So this year I gave up anime for lent, which was actually a lot harder than I expected. I apparently spend quite a bit of time watching anime normally, because I suddenly found that I had time to do some things that had been on my to do list for quite a while. One of these things was to read the books that I had received for Christmas, Xenocide and Children of the Mind, which are the last two books of the Ender Quartet. They had been sitting on my desk for months, and so I decided that it was time to knock that off the list.

For those of you who aren't familiar, the Ender Quartet was written by Orson Scott Card, and it consists of the books Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. I had read Ender's Game for the first time a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed it enough that I gave my friend his copy back and I picked up my own, along with Speaker for the Dead and Ender's Shadow (a parallel version of the story that's not part of the Quartet). I read Speaker for the Dead last year, and it immediately became one of my favourite books (up there with The Silmarillion and The Stand). I had heard that the later books of the Quartet weren't quite as strong as the first ones, but I wanted to finish it anyways, so I got them for Christmas. It was totally worth it.

A spaceship flying from some base towards some planet.
I'll be featuring the books' cover art, all painted by John Harris.
This is from Ender's Game
Now, before I actually get into my thoughts on the books themselves, I should probably mention the author himself. The Ender's Game movie (my thoughts on it here) just recently came out, but while it was in production there was a huge controversy about whether or not to boycott it due to Orson Scott Card's views on gay marriage. Card is a Mormon and was, at the time, on the board of the National Organisation for Marriage. He has been very outspoken about how he doesn't agree with gay marriage and some of his comments have been... inflammatory at best. At one point he basically said that legalising gay marriage would be similar to destroying the US Constitution.

Personally, I think the whole issue was blown out of proportion, but that may just be because it's not as big of a deal to me as it is to some others. In the time since those comments were made, gay marriage has been legalised in the US and Card has stated that he is done with the issue because there is nothing left to do; the government has made its decision. I'm inclined to forgive the man for his anger-inducing comments anyways, for the simple fact that he wrote Speaker for the Dead, the book whose entire message is about trying to understand and get along with those who are different from you.

Speaker for the Dead actually holds the honourable distinction of being the only book that has ever made me cry. The climax of the book is such a powerful moment, and the raw emotion that swept through me actually brought me to tears. The cover of Children of the Mind has a quote from Publishers Weekly on it, saying "Card's prose is powerful," and they're absolutely right. He may not be as eloquent as Tolkien, but Card has a straightforward writing style that makes it easy to understand concept he's writing about, be it theoretical physics or human psychology. Granted, the words that he writes are often mumbo-jumbo (especially the theoretical physics; this is science fiction), but the mumbo-jumbo is at least comprehensible, and it can make you feel.

Some spaceships flying towards some future tower structure.
You have no idea how hard it was to get clean versions of these.
This is from Speaker for the Dead
The Ender Quartet has quite a few accolades to its name (aside from my own personal ones). Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead came out in back to back years, and both books won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards (Ender's Game in 1986 and Speaker for the Dead in 1987), the premier awards in Science Fiction writing, making Card the only author do ever do so. Winning both awards puts them in some very good company, with the likes of Dune, Ringworld, Neuromancer, American Gods (which I didn't like), and many other big names. On top of that, Ender's Game was nominated for the Locus Award, Speaker for the Dead won the Locus Award, and Xenocide was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1992. That's a pretty good number of accolades, don't you think?

One of the fascinating things that I learned from reading the introduction to Speaker for the Dead was that it wasn't conceived as a sequel to Ender's Game. In fact, Ender's Game was originally published as a short story in 1977. Years later, when Card wanted to write Speaker for the Dead, he decided to use the character of Ender as the protagonist in Speaker for the Dead, so he ended up rewriting and expanding Ender's Game just so that he could set the stage for what he thought of as the "real" book. You can kind of see this in the structure of the Quartet, because there are two distinct parts to it. The first part is Ender's Game, set in the near future when Humanity is still bound to Earth, while the second part is comprised of the other three books, set in the far flung future and basically follows the story of the planet Lusitania.

I don't really want to get into spoilers, so here's a brief, vague outline of the Ender Quartet's plot. Ender's Game starts out with Earth preparing for war. Several years prior, they were attacked by an alien species that humans call "buggers" (because they look like bugs), although they were later renamed to the Formics. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a 5 year old boy who is taken by the military to train at Battle School, where he will be among the many being groomed to lead the human armies in the inevitable second war with the Formics. Military training is not something that was designed for 5-7 year old kids, so we get to watch as Ender slowly breaks under the pressure. Like I mentioned earlier, as we transition into the second book we take a massive leap through time. Instead of focusing on Humanity's war with the Formics, we instead look at their first interactions with a new sentient species.

Some spaceship flying through some future canyon in space.
This cover art actually wraps around the front and the back of the book.
This is from Xenocide
This new focus makes the later books much more high-concept than the first one. By high-concept, I mean the book deals with the big issues of life. It asks questions like "what defines a truly sentient being?" or "when does faith become fanaticism?" or "what makes a person themselves?" It's the ability to make people think about these sorts of existential questions that separates standard fiction like Tom Clancy's works from high-concept fiction like these books or J.R.R. Tolkien's works. Card may be a bit more heavy-handed in the way that he brings these questions up (he basically has some of the characters ask these sorts of questions directly), but at least he's trying to get his audience to think (which is more than some authors can say).

These are obviously science fiction books, with the later ones set in the future when things like interstellar travel are possible. Honestly, one of my favourite things about this series is the way that it handles interstellar travel. The reason that there is such a massive time leap between the first and second books is because, in order to travel between planets, a spaceship must go near the speed of light. However, at this speed special relativity comes into play, and we bump into the Twin Paradox, which basically says that if one twin goes on a trip at near lightspeed and the other stays back on Earth, when the first twin returns they will no longer perceive each other as the same age. You can read more on how exactly this affects interstellar travel here.

I do obviously have some complaints about this series in addition to the praise that I've been giving it. As much as I love how interstellar travel is handled, a lot of the other physics mentioned is quite clearly nonsense that he made up in order to pretend that there's an explanation for some of the magic technology that exists in the future (like the ansibles). A new subatomic particle is introduced, the philote. According to Card "Philotes are the fundamental building blocks of all matter and energy. Philotes have neither mass nor inertia. Philotes have only location, direction, and connection" (from Xenocide, ch. 4). These philotes "twine" together to make up everything that exists in the universe, which was supposedly discovered some 500 years from now. Maybe I'm just less willing to suspend disbelief than I used to be, but it just seems a little too ridiculous for me.

Some spaceship flying towards some other spaceship about to launch.
Honestly, I have no idea what scenes in the books any of these covers refer to.
This is from Children of the Mind
My biggest compliant with Card's writing though has got to be how he writes his characters. Some of them are great. Actually, pretty much all of them are great. They're sympathetic, they're flawed, and none of them are perfect. But all of the main characters are way too perceptive! Everyone is super analytical and is trying to study each other to try and figure out what exactly is going on in everyone else's mind. There's no everyman in the group, because they're all freaking geniuses in some way. It's understandable in Ender's Game, where they're trying to choose the best and brightest from all of Earth's children, but in the later books there's absolutely no reason why every main character has to spend half of their lives psychoanalysing the others. I exaggerate a bit, but it can seem like it's really the truth at times.

Those complaints are pretty small compared to the positives that I experienced while reading though. The books really do make you think, and as you read about Humanity growing to understand this new alien species in Speaker for the Dead, you start to hope that maybe someday humanity can understand and get along with itself. These books are steeped with positive hope for humanity, and I'm ok with that. Every now and then, it's nice to think that humanity can change.

No comments:

Post a Comment