Summary: A collection of fourteen diverse essays by a diverse group of contributors on Orson Scott Card’s famous book Ender’s Game. Contributors include writer Eric James Stone, writer Mary Robinette Kowal, Burn Notice creator Matt Nix, among many others. The essay topics are also quite varied, including philosophical observations, storytelling observations, and even military application observations. Between each chapter, Card answers various questions about the making of Ender’s Game. This isn’t a book of literary criticism, the sort of essays college dweebs might write for some boring class. These are personal essays, the writers responding casually yet honestly about how the book affected them, about how some attribute of the book influenced their lives.
Thoughts: I very much enjoyed this book; I wish it were longer! My favorite essays included “How it Should Have Ended” by Eric James Stone, “The Monster’s Heart” by John Brown, “The Cost of Breaking the Rules” by Mary Robinette Kowal, “A Teenless World” by Mette Ivie Harrison, “Ender on Leadership” by Colonel Tom Ruby, “Ender Wiggin, USMC” by John F. Schmitt, and “Ender’s Game: A Guide to Life” by Matt Nix.
A few short random comments on them:
The first three essays by Stone, Brown, and Kowal are, I think, great for writers.
In “How it Should Have Ended”, Stone writes on page 8:
One of the best pieces of advice I have received about writing characters is that you should figure out what a character desires most—and what the character fears most. With that knowledge, you can craft a climax to a story that puts the desire and the fear into conflict. By making the stakes as high as possible on a personal level, the climax of the story is more powerful.
Stone goes on to show how Card does this in Ender’s Game. Very insightful for the aspiring writer.
In “The Monster’s Heart”, Brown writes on page 23:
For fiction to provide an experience then, all it needs to do is present the situational cues to us that will automatically trigger our appraisals and physiological responses. … despite the often-repeated eleventh writing commandment, “Show, don’t tell,” the truth of the matter is that a text never shows a reader anything except marks on a page … Movies and plays can show. They can also provide raw auditory input. But a book never *shows* us anything. It’s *all* tell, tell, tell. The trick is to tell in a way that allows the reader to imagine the situation with enough clarity and realism that the imagined situation triggers the response.
And of course he goes on to show how Card does this in Ender’s Game. This is also very insightful for the aspiring writer.
You may have already heard some of Kowal’s writing observations in “The Cost of Breaking the Rules” from the podcast she co-hosts, Writing Excuses. But there’s more here. She makes some very interesting observations, ones I did not notice when I first read Ender’s Game. Granted, it was before I became interested in polishing my writing craft and started paying attention to how authors do what they do. Still, it’s fascinating to see how somebody’s writing can affect you in ways you don’t even notice. Which must be why we can recognize when a story moves us, yet be incapable of recreating the experience with our own work, things like point-of-view, how it’s written and how it shifts, etc. Anyway, yet another very insightful essay for the aspiring writer.
In a Q&A section between chapters, Card offers another great writing advice gem on pages 61-62:
Too many people think characterization is about finding an interesting backstory for the character, or inventing quirks and eccentricities and mannerisms. Those are actually cheap tricks; it’s what you do to make characters without actually having to create them with any depth.
Instead, real characterization is figuring out who they are, what attitude and manner they present, in *each* of their significant relationships. This is hard work!
What interested me in Harrison essay, “A Teenless World”, was the notion that teenagerhood is a modern concept. While I’m not sure I agree with her theory that technology has caused this artificial extension of childhood (though there is certainly a correlation), her essay certainly resonated with me. If you’ve read my other blog, you may know that I believe that “there’s no such thing as a teenager.”
“Ender on Leadership” and “Ender Wiggin, USMC” had some very interesting insights into how Ender’s Game affected military personnel.
One of them mentioned the idea that a good leader does not seek to maintain his status as leader. He hires people who can get the job done, even if that means his own weaknesses will be pointed out. A good leader recognizes his own weaknesses, fully admits to them, and seeks help to overcome them. He does not try to hide them, thereby hiring only people who would not notice them or would pretend not to care about them and thereby not challenge the leader’s power. Maintaining a leadership position for it’s own sake, for the sake of mere power over others, is useless.
The other essay talks about how war games (“TDGs”) were designed to help commanders make tough strategic choices on the battlefield. Rather than designing games constricted by artificial rules (because in real combat, the “rules” are unknown), commanders come up with solutions to problem scenarios and their solutions are discussed and compared and critiqued. The point is to help commanders learn how to think instead of trying to teach them specifically what to think. (“In this situation, do this. In that situation, do that.”) These sorts of “games” are similar to games Ender is forced to play in Ender’s Game; open ended game meant to encourage strategic thinking.
Matt Nix’s article, “Ender’s Game: A Guide to Life”, most closely matched my own way of thinking after I first read Ender’s Game, and how my thinking evolved in the years after I continued to dwell on the issues brought up in Ender’s Game. Issues such as how I relate to Ender personally and what his decisions and outlook affect my own.
For example, consider the role suffering plays in any story, particularly in Ender’s Game. It’s something I’ve wondered about for a long while. Why do we like to imagine being characters who suffer? On page 276, Nix writes:
Suffering, by itself, is just suffering. A guy throwing a script at you because the fax machine is broken isn’t *really* a lesson, any more than Ender’s torment at Bonzo’s hands was. Lessons are only lessons if you choose to see them that way. In some ways, wasn’t that really Ender’s greatest skill—his ability to learn from his torment?
Another lesson Nix writes about involves figuring out what matters. If you want to “make it”, you’ll have to understand that what matters to other people is the bottom line, not how you feel about it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about your own feelings. On page 278-279, Nix writes:
At the end of the day, you have to deliver the goods, and people don’t much care how you feel about it.
The ends *don’t* justify the means. Nothing justifies anything. There’s just what you do, and whether you can live with it. It may be true that the only thing anyone *else* cares about is whether you won, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that matters.
Overall, great collection of essays here. I very much enjoyed this book and will probably be returning to read some of these essays again. Great stuff.