Book Review: Ender’s Game and Philosophy: Genocide is Child’s Play

Around Christmas, I picked up a book called Ender’s Game And Philosophy: Genocide Is Child’s Play. I wasn’t looking for it, but it found me when browsing the aisles of Barnes and Noble. Like many technologically-minded children of my generation, Ender’s Game remains one of my favorite novels and spawned one of my favorite series. At the time, the movie had just come out; I had just re-read the novel; and when you add 30 years from the novel’s release, the opinions of one Orson Scott Card, and another dozen plus novels and shorts, you have a wonderful world, so close to our own, yet so far away. This is a great universe in which to debate philosophy.

This book is part of a series called Popular Culture and Philosophy and weighs in at 238 pages. We all debate and philosophize, though we rarely acknowledge it. It’s what a lot of you will be doing this week around the water cooler when discussing the season finale of The Walking Dead and all the decisions the characters made. In fact, the series even has a book on The Walking Dead!

Despite the “popular culture” label, however, this book is deeply philosophical. It asks the obvious question – is Ender a murderer who committed purposeful genocide, or an accidental genocide? – and then asks a dozen more that we hardly knew to ask. It’s broken into a few sections: Rules of Engagement, Minds and Bodies, Who Is Ender?, Masks and Deceptions, Child Development, A Question of Character, and Thinking in the Future tense. The sections contain 3-4 treatises, written by mostly professional philosophers, a mix of graduate students, doctoral candidates, and professors, with a few by non-professional philosophers such as a law student. Most of the material references Ender’s Game and Speaker For The Dead, with some references to the extended series, though lack of familiarity past Speaker won’t impact your overall comprehension.

Each treatise deals with one question about the Ender-verse and how it relates to our world. For instance, the first treatise is titled “Push 1 for Remote War”, by Tim Blackmore, and focuses on what Ender’s Game can teach us about drone warfare. Other treatises deal with the dependability of lies, where consciousness ends, perception (the enemy’s gate is down!), sexuality, racism, religion, and learning and rules. The articles don’t tell you how or what to think, but offer you some questions and possible viewpoints from which to ponder them. Through these articles, the reader is encouraged to think deep thoughts, seeing all sides of the question. The focus of each article helps to clarify the meaning and details of Ender’s Game. It also offers the reader some “food for thought,” topics to chew on and ways to grow yourself.

For example, “Being and Learning” and “Playing By The Rules” encourage us to learn through failure. As a child, this was immediately obvious to me. Bean’s success with the rope in the Battle Room came after multiple failures, slamming into stars and walls over and over as he got the hang of things. Ender was so successful (?) in his final battle because he broke the rules. These were lessons I took to heart. I’ve followed this idea in IT – the reason I’m able to be successful now is because of all the mistakes I learned from and wisdom in discerning when I can ask for forgiveness later – and also the rest of my life. These treatises examine these ideas in detail, asking the question, without really asking it, if children of today are being short-changed by this change in our world’s educational stance. Each treatise provides this deep, relevant interrogation of our modern world.

So, why a book review on this site? Yes, it’s partly because Ender’s Game was so awesome, but also because of one article relevant to an ongoing struggle in today’s technical community. Nicolas Michaud and Jessica Watkins ask the question, “How Queer Is Ender?” This article not only deals with sexuality, but also racism and sexism. We’ve seen this play out in recent weeks in tech with Julie Ann Horvath’s experiences at Github and Mozilla’s new CEO Brendan Eich and his support of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, not to mention numerous issues over the past few years. As Michaud and Watkins point out, we should be able to find anti-gay messages throughout Orson Scott Card’s novel (who has become a polarizing figure himself due to his own actions), but is that the case? They delve into homosocial norms, the figurative and literal meanings behind the oft-referenced biblical support for homophobia, and other aspects that may contribute to an anti-gay message, leaving it up to the reader to determine how to move the discussion forward.

Like great sci-fi itself, this philosophy book enables us to take blurry issues from our messy world and frame them in the context of a well-defined fictional world, where we can examine the issues with a clarity that often escapes us. Will this book solve the issues of sexuality, sexism, and racism – or any of the other issues it covers –  within our tech community, or even in our greater community? Probably not. But perhaps it will offer us a common framework for discussion in a language that technical people can understand.

I heartily recommend Ender’s Game And Philosophy: Genocide Is Child’s Play for anyone who enjoyed Ender’s Game, in either novel or movie format, and who is willing to do a little self-introspection. For anyone who has already read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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