Creating the Innocent Killer:
Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality
by John Kessel
[This essay in slightly different form appeared originally in Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, Vol. 33, Number 90, Spring 2004, copyright © 2004 by the Science Fiction Foundation, on behalf of the contributors]
There's always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won't reflect the storyteller's true beliefs, it will only reflect what he BELIEVES he believes, or what he thinks he should believe or what he's been persuaded of.
But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don't even think to question, that you don't even notice-- those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.
--Orson Scott Card
Over the years I have told a number of friends that, if I had had access to a nuclear device when I was in seventh grade, there would be a huge crater in upstate New York centered on what used to be West Seneca Junior High School.
Had Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game existed then, I might have been one of its biggest fans. I would have been enraptured by the story of the innocent who is persecuted despite his innocence, perhaps even because of it. The superior child whose virtues are not recognized. The adults who fail to protect. The vicious bullies who get away with their bullying. That was the world as I saw it in seventh grade. Apparently this is a story that still appeals to many people: Ender’s Game is probably the most popular science fiction novel published in the last twenty years.
In relating Ender Wiggin’s childhood and training in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card presents a harrowing tale of abuse. Ender’s parents and older brother, the officers running the battle school and the other children being trained there, either ignore the abuse of Ender or participate in it.
Through this abusive training Ender becomes expert at wielding violence against his enemies, and this ability ultimately makes him the savior of the human race. The novel repeatedly tells us that Ender is morally spotless; though he ultimately takes on guilt for the extermination of the alien buggers, his assuming this guilt is a gratuitous act. He is presented as a scapegoat for the acts of others. We are given to believe that the destruction Ender causes is not a result of his intentions; only the sacrifice he makes for others is. In this Card argues that the morality of an act is based solely on the intentions of the person acting.
The result is a character who exterminates an entire race and yet remains fundamentally innocent. The purpose of this paper is to examine the methods Card uses to construct this story of a guiltless genocide, to point out some contradictions inherent in this scenario, and to raise questions about the intention-based morality advocated by Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.
The Victim Hero
The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore. Almost everywhere we find the effort, marked by varying degrees of intensity and by the use of various coercive measures, to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us—i.e., the weak, helpless, dependent creature—in order to become an independent, competent adult deserving of respect. (1)
—Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence
Orson Scott Card is often praised for writing what the late John Gardner called “moral fiction,” and invariably Ender’s Game and its sequels are cited as prime examples of Card’s probing examination of moral issues. “Ender’s Game” was the first science fiction story Card published, in Analog in August 1977. The original story came in second for the Hugo in 1978, and it was largely on the basis of that story that Card received the Campbell Award for best new writer the same year. (2) The novel version was published in 1985, and received the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novel. Speaker for the Dead accomplished the same feat in 1986, and to this date Card is the only writer to win both the Hugo and Nebula for best novel in consecutive years. He has said that Ender’s Game is about “a child, our ultimate icon of vulnerability, put under almost impossible stress. It was when he decided to give up the enterprise that he won the ultimate victory; and then he became an almost tragic figure when it became clear that his victory made him obsolete, while his childhood training had left him unfit for any other kind of life.”(3) Despite his moral preoccupations, in this summary of his novel Card seems less interested in interrogating Ender’s morality than in evoking sympathy for him.
The most obvious way Card produces sympathy for Ender is by subjecting him to relentless, undeserved torment. On the very first page of the novel an adult lies to Ender about something that is going to hurt him: the doctor removing the surgically implanted monitor that Ender has worn while being evaluated by the IE training agency swears that the removal “won’t hurt a bit.” (4) But in the event it is excruciating.
When Ender is not being lied to by authorities, he is being bullied. The source of most of the hatred directed toward Ender is that he is superior to virtually everyone in the book—superior in intelligence, creativity, sensitivity, logic, psychological understanding of others, morality, and, when it comes down to it and despite a lack of training and physical stature, hand-to-hand combat. In that first chapter, the same day the monitor is removed, Stilson, a playground bully, attacks Ender. At the age of six, in the first of several physical battles Ender wins, he completely incapacitates Stilson.
The family offers no haven from assault. Ender’s older brother Peter torments Ender all out of proportion to any rational motivation, and his abuse goes completely unnoticed and unchecked by their parents. Peter repeatedly threatens to kill Ender. He seems almost the textbook definition of a psychopath—their sister Valentine tells how he tortures squirrels, staking them out on the ground and skinning them alive in order to watch them die5(p. 160). He is prevented from killing Ender and Valentine only by the threat of being found out.
Yet, for reasons that are never made clear, Ender never tells his parents; he learns early to hide his fear and hurt. “It was the lying face he presented to Mother and Father, when Peter had been cruel to him and he dared not let it show”(p. 47).
Inthe real world, the motivation for such secrecy, when it is not fear of retaliation by the abuser, is often shame—the child fears that he or she is somehow responsible for, even deserving of the abuse. It is interesting that the one time that Ender’s father confronts him and asks why Ender did not ask a grown-up for help when he was being bullied, they are interrupted before Ender can answer. The question is never answered. (p. 19).
One might ask where Ender’s parents or teachers are when Ender is physically assaulted. This question reveals a second mechanism Card uses to generate sympathy: in Ender’s Game, adults or authority are never there to protect.
In the case of Ender’s persecution by Peter, we may decide that their parents are simply purblind (The possibility that the parents know but approve or don’t care is not considered.). In the case of commanders Graff and Anderson at the battle school, we see authorities deliberately suppress their urge to help Ender because they need to train him to face any challenge on his own. “He can have friends,” says Graff at one point early in Ender’s training “It’s parents he can’t have”(p. 40). In this context a “parent” is any adult in authority who has power to protect the child. Most of the time, rather than helping Ender, adults deliberately increase his torment. As Graff says, “Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way” (p. 220).
The extreme situation Card has constructed to isolate and abuse Ender guarantees our sympathy. After Ender is manipulated into entering Battle School, (he’s brought there by lies severing him from Valentine, his only protector) his abuse continues, deliberately fostered by Graff. On the shuttle up to the orbiting school Graff singles Ender out for praise for the sole purpose that the other recruits will resent him. Before they even reach the school, Ender is forced to break the arm of Bernard, one of his tormenters. At every turn Ender faces hostility, scorn, and even physical assault. The result is an escalating series of challenges and violent responses by Ender. These sequences invariably follow the following pattern:
Ender is resented by others for his skills, honesty, intellect, superiority—in fact, for simply being who he is
The others abuse Ender. They threaten his life.
Ender does not or cannot ask for intervention by authority figures.
Even when authority figures know about this abuse, they do not intervene. In most cases they are manipulating the situation in order to foster the abuse of Ender
Ender avoids confrontation for some time through cleverness and psychological cunning, but eventually he is forced, against his will, to face an enemy determined to destroy him.
Because he has no alternative, Ender responds with intense violence, dispatching his tormenter quickly and usually fatally. Ender engages in this violence impersonally, coolly, dispassionately, often as much for the benefit of others (who do not realize or admit that Ender kills on their behalf) as for himself. Onlookers are awed by his prowess and seeming ruthlessness.
Ender does not know that he has killed his adversary.
Ender feels great remorse for his violence. After each incident, he questions his own motives and nature.
In the end we are reassured that Ender is good.
As a mechanism for producing sympathy, this scenario is brutally effective. All this is illustrated in the climactic fight that ensues just before Ender’s graduation from Battle School, when opposing cadet commander Bonzo6 Madrid and a gang of his supporters trap Ender in the showers. As an object lesson in how Card manages the reader’s sympathies, this sequence is exemplary, and I would like to analyze it, and the effects of each element of the scene, in detail.
Graff and the battle school’s officers have known for some time that Bonzo intends to kill Ender; they allow Bonzo’s attack to happen, they even want it to happen. They capture it all on video, from several angles. They could prevent it, but they won’t. The effect of this is of course to increase our sympathy for Ender, yet we are also supposed to sympathize with the officers. They don’t do this because they want Ender to be hurt, they don’t enjoy the prospect of anyone being hurt, but they do it because they must do it to train Ender so he can save the human race.
To this Card adds one circumstance after another to cause us to side with Ender: Ender’s enemies surprise him when he is at his most vulnerable, naked and alone in the showers. Ender is smaller and younger than his opponent, and Dink, the one boy there who is on Ender’s side, can’t intervene. Ender doesn’t want to fight, but does because he has no alternative other than to let himself be killed. And he’s not fighting for himself alone—the fate of the earth, we are told, depends on his survival. If Ender dies, the last hope of the human race dies with him, thus making his self-defense an ultimately self-less act.
Bonzo and the other boys represent all the abuse Ender has suffered up until then in the novel. Bonzo’s gang includes Ender’s earlier enemy Bernard, and mentally, Ender includes his earlier tormenters when he thinks, “All it would take for the picture to be complete was for Stilson and Peter to be there, too”(p. 227). These enemies are cruel and, unlike Ender, enjoy the prospect of maiming or killing, even if they have an unfair advantage. The terms in which the boys are presented rival those of the melodramatic villains in a silent movie: “Many were smiling, the condescending leer of the hunter for his cornered victim”(p. 227). Bonzo enjoys the prospect of killing Ender:
“Dink cried, ‘Don’t hurt him!’
“Why not?” asked Bonzo, and for the first time he smiled.
Ah, thought Ender, he loves to have someone recognize that he is the one in control, that he has power. (p. 230)
Bonzo is immune to reason. When Dink points out that their real enemy is the buggers, and that killing Ender may doom the human race, instead of having second thoughts Bonzo is simply more enraged. Ender thinks: “You’ve killed me with those words, Dink. Bonzo doesn’t want to hear that I might save the world” (p. 230). Ender’s enemies don’t care about the human race, all they want is their own revenge.
Bonzo is also immune to pleas for mercy. When Ender begs Bonzo not to hurt him, Bonzo is only more determined. “For other boys it might have been enough that Ender had submitted; for Bonzo, it was only a sign that his victory was sure”(p. 229).
Despite his desperate circumstances, Ender coolly reads Bonzo’s character and manipulates him into fighting one-on-one. Once the fight begins, Ender easily beats Bonzo to a pulp, without himself even getting scratched: when it comes to the test, Bonzo the formidable adversary is stupid and incompetent, or his rage makes him stupid and incompetent. Up until now Ender has shown himself to be vastly superior to Bonzo in mental combat; now he shows himself to be equally superior in physical combat. Yet even when it is clear that Ender has already won the fight, Ender persists in maiming Bonzo in order to insure there are no future attacks.
Like many scenes of personal violence in this and other Card works, this fight is painfully intense, ending with Ender kicking Bonzo in the crotch, “hard and sure”(p. 231). Though he does not know it at the time, Ender has killed Bonzo. But lest the reader be repulsed by Ender’s pursuing the fight until Bonzo is dead (which an observer might see as vengeful, unwarranted, or vicious), the narrative insists that it is done for entirely rational reasons, not out of a personal desire to lash out. “The only way to end things completely…” Ender thinks, “was to hurt Bonzo enough that his fear was stronger than his hate”(p. 231).
Ender generalizes from this situation that the only rational policy to insure safety in the world is to be ready always to cause excessive pain. No authority, law, ally, or social structure may be depended upon. “The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can’t kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you”(p. 232).
Despite his settling on this martial philosophy, after it is all over we are assured again that Ender is at heart a pacifist. When Dink justifies Ender’s beating up Bonzo (Bonzo meant to kill Ender, Bonzo was a troublemaker, he had superior strength and size), Ender breaks down and cries.7 “I didn’t want to hurt him!” he insists. “Why didn’t he just leave me alone!”(p. 233)
It is not until pages later that we learn Bonzo isn’t just hurt, he’s dead. Also, it is only at this point (240 pages after the event) that we learn Ender killed Stilson in the analogous fight that occurred when Ender was six years old. The officers have kept the facts of these deaths from Ender. But the effect is to keep these killings from the reader as well, divorcing the consequences of Ender’s violence from the acts, and thereby reducing the likelihood that the reader might judge Ender at the moment they occurred. And as if to additionally insulate Ender from our judgment, a few lines after we learn that Bonzo and Stilson are dead we are assured by Graff that, “Ender Wiggin isn’t a killer. He just wins—thoroughly” (p. 247).
Graff’s judgment on the deaths of Bonzo and Stilson clarifies Card’s definition of a killer. Presumably, someone can kill hundreds, thousands, even billions (Ender eventually “kills” an entire race) and not be a killer. A killer is motivated by rage or by selfish motives. To be a killer you must intend to kill someone. And even if you do intend to kill, you are still innocent if you do it for a larger reason, “selflessly,” without personal motives. And if you feel bad about being forced into doing it.
Kate Bonin, in her article “Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card”8 points out how the killing of Bonzo prefigures Ender’s eventual destruction of the buggers. The history of the war against the buggers follows the pattern of the fight against Bonzo; in fact, just before the final battle in which Ender exterminates the buggers, he explicitly compares his confrontation with them to the unfair fight in the shower (p. 322). The number of times this scenario of unjustified attack and savage retaliation is repeated, not just in Ender’s Game but in other of Card’s stories and novels, suggests that it falls close to the heart of his vision of moral action in the world.
The Innocent Killer
These killings by a hero whom Card has gone to such lengths to present as sympathetic indicate that Card means to put in the most challenging terms the fundamental premise of his moral vision: that the rightness or wrongness of an act inheres in the actor’s motives, not in the act itself, or in its results.
Here, as elsewhere, Card argues for a morality based on intention. Throughout Ender’s Game, we are urged many times to judge a character’s actions not on their effect (even when that effect is fatal) but on the motives of the person performing the action. As Ender states it in Speaker for the Dead, “Speakers for the Dead held as their only doctrine that good or evil exist entirely in human motive, and not at all in the act” (Speaker 39).
Though this doctrine is not codified in Ender’s Game, it is everywhere present in the action. And by testing this moral premise in situations of murder, even genocide, Card seems to dare the reader to try to reject it—as if to say, if a morality of intentionality can stand up to this test, it can stand up to any. But at the same time he chooses these difficult examples, Card goes to great lengths to urge the reader not to reject Ender based on the violent reprisals he visits on his enemies. We are told over and over, without irony, that Ender is good. Just after Ender is recruited (soon after he has killed Stilson) Graff tells Anderson, “He’s clean. Right to the heart, he’s good.” (p. 38) Later, Graff insists, “There’s greatness in him. A magnitude of spirit.” (p. 280) Ender himself protests, “I never wanted to kill anybody. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to kill anybody.” (p. 331)
In a long scene between Graff and Valentine, Valentine insists desperately: “Ender is not like Peter!”
…maybe I’m like Peter, but Ender isn’t, he isn’t at all, I used to tell him that when he cried, I told him that lots of times, you’re not like Peter, you never like to hurt people, you’re kind and good and not like Peter at all!”
“And it’s true”
“…Damn right it’s true.” (p. 162)
The source of Valentine’s desperation, and the reason for Graff’s querying her on this issue, is that they both recognize that Ender has committed acts that are just as violent as—in fact, more violent than—any Peter has committed. The difference between Peter and Ender is not in what they do, but in what they are.Peter enjoys hurting people; Ender abhors it. Ender is “kind” and “good” even when his actions seem to belie that characterization.
Other characters in Ender’s Game are also forced to do things they see as immoral, against their better natures, in the service of saving the world from the buggers. Graff, the orchestrator of Ender’s brutal education, swears that “I amhis friend” (p. 38) even though he does nothing to demonstrate that friendship, and in fact does many things that to a neutral observer would indicate a desire to destroy Ender. As with Ender’s goodness, this is a case of the author insisting on a quality in the character that need not be demonstrated by action to be held as true. Goodness is not a matter of acts, but of intentions, an inherent quality independent of what one does. “I don’t really think it’s true that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Card stated in a 2002 interview.9 “Good people trying to do good usually find a way to muddle through. What worries me is when you have bad people trying to do good. They’re not good at it, they don’t have any instinct for it, and they’re willing to do a lot of damage along the way.” The import of this statement is that there are some people who are good before they act, and some others who are bad before they act, and that goodness or badness is exhibited in their actions. These "bad" people can’t do good, and “good” people can’t do bad.
So we see that later, when Ender is made a cadet commander, even though his treatment of his subordinate cadet Bean recapitulates in its unfairness and arbitrary harshness Graff’s treatment of Ender, Ender is not doing wrong. As Graff did to Ender, Ender makes the other cadets resent and dislike Bean so that Bean is forced to show his superiority. “That was the only way he could win respect and friendship,”10 Ender says to himself (but not to Bean). “I’m hurting you to make you a better soldier in every way . . . [even if]… I’m making you miserable” (p. 184) Like Graff, Ender insists he is Bean’s (secret) friend.
Over and against these examples of “good” people whose cruelty is justified, even an act of friendship toward its objects, we have the “bad” people whose mistreatment of others, unlike that of Graff and Ender, springs from bad motives: Peter, Stilson, Bernard, Bonzo. We are never invited to wonder whether (and it is hard to imagine that) they might have a good motive for any of their actions. Bernard is a sadist from word one. Stilson is a bully. Peter is a psychopath. Bonzo is consumed by jealousy and hatred.
Card thus labors long and hard in Ender’s Game to create a situation where we are not allowed to judge any of his defined-as-good characters’ morality by their actions. The same destructive act that would condemn a bad person, when performed by a good person, does not implicate the actor, and in fact may be read as a sign of that person’s virtue.
The doctrine that the morality of an action is solely determined by the actor’s motive rests on a significant assumption: that the good always know what their motives are, and are never moved to do things for selfish reasons while yet thinking themselves moved by virtue. Ender has perfect knowledge of his own motives and the motives of others. Ender never suspects himself of doing other than what he thinks himself to be doing, and indeed, in Speaker for the Dead he makes a career of delivering faultless moral judgments of other people. When Stryka, one of the students on Trondheim in Speaker, objects to the morality of intention that the Speakers propound, Ender dismisses her.
“Xenocide is Xenocide,” said Stryka. “Just because Ender didn’t know they [the buggers] were ramen [i.e. human] doesn’t make them any less dead.”
Andrew sighed at Stryka’s unforgiving attitude. It was the fashion among Calvinists (11) at Reykjavik to deny any weight human motive in judging the good or evil of an act . . . Andrew did not resent it—he understood the motive behind it. (p. 39)
The possibility that Stryka may have a legitimate reason to object to Ender’s behavior is never considered—her qualms are “fashion.” A page later, Ender identifies Stryka’s real motivation (which Ender knows but she does not) as a fear of the stranger. In this case the stranger is not the aliens exterminated by Ender, but Ender himself. Stryka’s concern for the genocide of the buggers, which might be interpreted as arising out of a concern for the humanity of the “other,” is presented instead as an example of scapegoating the “other”—but in this case the other is redefined as the exterminator, not the exterminated. This is a very clever stratagem: those of us concerned about understanding the “other” are redirected from worrying about the alien to worrying about the killer of the alien, and thus our condemnation of genocide reemerges as a sign of our prejudice and small-mindedness. Ender is not the victimizer, but the misunderstood victim of others’ fear and prejudice.
This bait-and-switch stratagem prevails throughout these novels. In the extended ending of Ender’s Game and throughout Speaker for the Dead, Ender is presented as a victim of the extermination of the buggers rather than its perpetrator. Card bases much of Speaker on the irony that this most moral of humans (the founder of a new religion of understanding) is considered to be evil by people who are not as moral as he. Indeed, Ender’s notoriety as “the Xenocide” only works in Speaker for the Dead if he isn’t really guilty of the crime of genocide.
The Guiltless Genocide
As I have suggested, this issue of genocide puts the morality of intention to its ultimate test. We may forgive Ender the killings of Stilson and Bonzo, but can we forgive him the extermination of a race of intelligent creatures? This question has previously been raised in an essay by Elaine Radford that appeared in Fantasy Review in 1987. (12) Radford’s essay says many things with which I do not agree, and its tone is often intemperate, but she touches on several issues that are central to my own trouble with Card’s writing.
Radford’s essay speculates that Card wrote Ender’s Game as an apologia for Adolf Hitler. She points out certain parallels between Ender’s biography and Hitler’s—that they were both third children, that they were virgins until age 37, that they were close to their older sisters, that they were abused by adults, that they both committed genocidal acts.
Card, in the same issue of Fantasy Review, (13) denied Radford’s assertions. He said that he had no knowledge of any of the Hitler biographical information that Radford cited. Such parallels were “trivial coincidences.” He said he intended Ender as the moral opposite to Hitler: Hitler knew what he was doing; Ender did not. Hitler intended to exterminate; Ender did not. Hitler felt no moral qualm; Ender spends the rest of his life expiating the guilt he feels for exterminating the buggers.
Let me say very clearly that I do not believe that Orson Scott Card wroteEnder’s Game as an apologia for Hitler. I do not believe the biographical parallels Radford finds to Hitler are evidence that Card intended any parallel with Hitler—other than the parallel that they both commit genocide. Like Card, I take the other points of similarity as coincidences.
Yet although Card takes pains to point out how much he intends Ender to be Hitler’s moral opposite, he does admit that his introducing the issue of genocide was deliberate.
"On the broadest level, it should be obvious to every reader of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead that I do draw one key parallel between historical monstrosities like Hitler, Stalin, and Amin, and my character Ender: they are thought of in the public mind as loathsome mass murderers. Despite their similar public image, however, every other element of Ender’s story is designed to show that in his case the image is not reality—he is not like Hitler or Stalin, exactly the opposite of what Radford claims. Far from using Ender to try to make people approve of Hitler, I use thecontrast with Hitler, Stalin, and other genocides to illuminate the character of Ender Wiggin." (14)
“The humans in Ender’s Game never imagined that they were obliterating another species; rather they thought they were destroying an invading species’ ability to make war. Genocide was the result of not understanding the effect on the buggers of the death of the hive queen.” (15)
“…Does Radford really believe that I was claiming Hitler’s near extermination of European Jews was an accident? That he and his underlings didn’t know their death camps might kill all the Jews? Yet if I made Ender’s crime so obviously different in intent from Hitler’s deliberate genocide, how can she imagine I meant Ender’s story to be an apologia for Hitler.”(16)
These paragraphs are full of obfuscation. First, the phrase “destroying an invading species’ ability to make war” is a careful parsing of language that obscures what happens in the novel: the buggers are unable to make war because they are exterminated. Characterizing this as destroying their ability to make war is like characterizing cutting off someone’s head as eliminating his ability to whistle.
Second, it is inconceivable that the commanders would not at least suspect that killing the queen would kill the entire race; the buggers in battle always responded as a unit, as if under the direction of a single mind, and in Mazer Rackham’s famous victory decades before, destroying a single ship caused the entire bugger fleet to go dead. (p. 206-07) Rackham explains the nature of the bugger group mind to Ender at length long before the final battle, and Ender uses this knowledge in preparing his strategy. The only reason the commanders would not know this is to make it possible for Card to assert that the final genocide was accidental.
Third, even this point about the hive queen is an evasion. Ender doesn’t just kill the queen: he disintegrates the entire bugger home world. The “MD Device” is a weapon that destroys matter in an expanding sphere. Ender knows exactly what it does, as do his commanders. When he sets off the MD Device there is nothing left of the buggers’ planet but “a sphere of bright dust”(p. 325). “Where the vast enemy fleet had been, and the planet they protected, there was nothing meaningful”(p. 325). The buggers do not need to have a group mind for this to constitute extermination.
Fourth, the passages insist that the difference between Hitler’s genocide and Ender’s is that Ender’s was an accident. Ender thought he was playing a simulation whereas Hitler knew the gas chambers were real. This "science fiction element" (remote-directed war) serves in moral terms as yet another evasion; in reality, people do not commit genocide by accident. This is another parallel between the bugger war and the fight scenes where Ender kills Stilson and Bonzo, all three constructed by Card, however improbably, so that Ender never knows he is killing his adversaries. But whether or not Ender’s battle simulations were practice or real, the ultimate purpose of any practice was to enact such destruction in reality. Ender and his commanders were aiming for this battle and they all knew it; thanks to the trick played on Ender it just happened sooner than it would have otherwise.
Fifth, Card implies that the humans were appalled by Ender’s success in destroying the buggers. Yet the officers have valued Ender from the beginning precisely because when he resorts to violence, he does so to the extreme, completely eliminating any chance that his enemy may regroup and strike again. Ender destroyed Bonzo and Stilson’s “ability to make war” by killing them. The commanders view Ender’s killing his adversaries not as an unfortunate overreaction, but a valuable trait. They need someone who will go to that extreme, they create Ender to be such a person, and they justify his killings afterward. So the fact that Ender succeeds in winning the war by totally destroying the enemy can hardly be called an unintended consequence. And when the bugger home world is obliterated, the humans in the battle room are not horrified, but relieved, even overjoyed, thanking God for their deliverance (p. 326).
No one charges Graff or the commanders with genocide. When, after the war, the courts charge Graff with "mistreatment of children, negligent homicide" (p. 336) in his running of the battle school, he is exonerated, essentially because of a Nuremberg defense: “I did what I believed was necessary for the preservation of the human race” (p. 336). When Ender’s killing of Bonzo comes up at the trial, “…the psychologists and lawyers argued whether murder had been committed or the killing was in self-defense. . . . Throughout the trial, it was really Ender himself under attack. The prosecution was too clever to charge him directly, but there were attempts to make him look sick, perverted, criminally insane”(p. 340). The only conceivable point of this last line is to assert that Ender is not sick, perverted, or insane. The prosecution of Graff, and through him, of Ender, is misbegotten and unjustified.
So despite the evidence in the book that the extermination of the buggers is at the very least a war crime, Card wants us to believe that Graff and Ender are not guilty. Any attempt to blame them is an injustice.
The Lonely Savior
But wait. Despite his heroic reception in the immediate aftermath of the bugger war, and his exoneration by the courts, as time passes isn’t Ender vilified as a mass murderer? Despite Mazer Rackham’s assertion that Ender is blameless, [Mazer says, after the battle, “We aimed you. We’re responsible. If there was something wrong, we did it”(p. 329).], Ender goes down in history as “the Xenocide.” Doesn’t this indicate that Card believes that Ender did something wrong?
Moreover, doesn’t Ender accuse himself even more than others do? After brutally beating up Stilson, and after virtually every incident of violence he performs, Ender accuses himself of being a sadist like Peter. When Ender joins an expedition preparing to settle the newly opened extra-solar systems, he cringes at the other colonists’ praise. He doesn’t want to hear them “tell him how he was so young it broke their hearts and they didn’t blame him for any of his murders because it wasn’t his fault he was just a child—“(p. 341). Ender looks at his reflection in a mirror and sees “eyes that grieved for a billion, billion murders”(p. 331). “All his crimes weighed heavy on him, the deaths of Stilson and Bonzo no heavier than the rest”(p. 340). He goes off to the colony worlds in order to “repay” the buggers, as he says, “by seeing what I can learn from their past”(p. 346). Ultimately, he finds a dormant bugger queen and carries her cocoon off to reseed the bugger race on another world.
But rather than seriously undermining Ender’s moral nature, these self-accusations serve to disarm any impulse we might have to speculate that Ender has any motive other than necessity for his seemingly excessive violence. A self-lacerating innocent tells us he never gets any personal satisfaction out of hurting anyone, and what an outside observer might see as vengeance, we are told by the author is self-defense. Plus, as we have seen, Card has constructed a plot and argued hard for an ethics under which Ender can kill without being guilty. By the morality of intention that, in Speaker for the Dead, we are told is “the only doctrine” of Ender’s new religion, he is not guilty of genocide. We, who have seen Ender abused almost from birth, who have seen how painful every step of his training has been for him, now must watch as he takes the sole blame for the extermination of the buggers.
Card has spoken in interviews about his tropism for the story of the person who sacrifices himself for the community. This is the story, he tells us, that he has been drawn to tell again and again. For example, in justification of the scenes of violence in his fiction, Card told Publisher’s Weekly in 1990 that, “In every single case, cruelty was a voluntary sacrifice. The person being subjected to the torture was suffering for the sake of the community.”(17) I find this statement astonishingly revealing. By “The person being subjected to the torture,” Card is not referring here to Stilson, Bonzo, or the buggers, who may well be sacrificed, but whose sacrifices are certainly not “voluntary.” Their deaths are not the voluntary sacrifices that draw Card’s concern. No, in these situations, according to Card the person being tortured is Ender, and even though he walks away from every battle, the sacrifice is his. In every situation where Ender wields violence against someone, the focus of the narrative’s sympathy is always and invariably on Ender, not on the objects of Ender’s violence. It is Ender who is offering up the voluntary sacrifice, and that sacrifice is the emotional price he must pay for physically destroying someone else. All the force of such passages is on the price paid by the destroyer, not on the price paid by the destroyed. “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” might well be the slogan of Ender’s Game.
If, therefore, intention alone determines guilt or innocence, and the dead are dead because of misunderstanding or because they bring destruction on themselves, and the true sacrifice is the suffering of the killer rather than the killed—then Ender’s feeling of guilt is gratuitous. Yet despite the fact that he is fundamentally innocent, he takes “the sins of the world” onto his shoulders and bears the opprobrium that properly belongs to the people who made him into their instrument of genocide. He is the murderer as scapegoat. The genocide as savior. Hitler as Christ the redeemer.
I do not make the allusion to Christ casually. The figure of Christ, like that of Hitler, comes up briefly in Ender’s Game, and the associations it calls up are revealing. When Ender’s friend Alai points out that his habitual salute to Ender, “salaam,” means “peace be unto you”, an image immediately leaps into Ender’s mind. He recalls his mother quoting Jesus from the gospels.
“’Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ Ender had pictured his mother piercing Peter the Terrible with a bloody rapier, and the words had stayed in his mind along with the image.” (p. 187)
The word “peace” calls to Ender’s mind not the Prince of Peace, not the Jesus of turning the other cheek, not the Jesus who stayed his apostle’s hand when the apostle attacked the soldier who came to take Jesus in the garden. “Peace be unto you” evokes in Ender an image of murderous revenge against his personal tormenter: the savior as righteous killer.
Thus, Ender’s taking on guilt for the extermination of the buggers at the end of Ender’s Game, and in Speaker for the Dead, is in no way a repudiation of his earlier violence, which is still viewed as justified, but rather a demonstration of the “magnitude of spirit” Graff praised him for earlier. Ender exterminates an alien race, gets credit for saving the human race, gets credit for feeling bad about it, and gets credit for expiating sins which he did not commit. First he sacrifices himself emotionally in order to save the human race physically, and then after the buggers are dead he sacrifices himself morally so that others may feel themselves innocent. History records him as a monster. In reality, the monster is a savior.
Because he has sacrificed his life for others, there is little happiness available to Ender. He takes what satisfaction he can from his work for others, though that work is more often than not unseen or, when recognized, unappreciated. His rage and alienation are deeply suppressed.
Why is Ender’s Game popular?
Ender’s childhood is based, albeit loosely, on my own; his relationship with Peter and Valentine is based, not on my actual relationship with my older brother and sister, but rather on the way I conceived those relationships to be when I was Ender’s age. Ender’s revised understanding of Peter late in life parallels in emotion the same revision I went through in my teens as I discovered the my childish view of my older brother was hopelessly wrong. (18)
—Orson Scott Card
What becomes of all those people who are the successful products of a strict upbringing? . . . anger and helpless rage, which they were forbidden to display, would have been among these feelings—particularly if these children were beaten, humiliated, lied to and deceived. What becomes of this forbidden and therefore unexpressed anger? Unfortunately, it does not disappear, but is transformed with time into a more or less conscious hatred directed against either the self or substitute persons, a hatred that will seek to discharge itself in various ways permissible and suitable for adults.”(19)
—Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence
Ender’s Game, seventeen years after its first publication, continues to sell between 100,000 and 200,000 copies per year in the United States.20 I have listened to students speak about it. It is tremendously popular with young readers. It has broad appeal. In my class this semester, when one of my most serious students, a believing Christian, praised Ender’s Game, another, a cynic and not any sort of Christian, chimed in with “that’s a great book.”
I would suggest that the methods of evasion that I have delineated in the text, and their congruency with the psychology of adolescence, offer an explanation for the novel’s deep and broad popularity. Psychologist Alice Miller has examined the mechanisms of abuse widespread in “normal”child rearing and explained how abused children incorporate their experience into their psyches, only to act it out years or decades later. Miller explains how children often justify abusive treatment, or deny even that it was abuse. I deserved it, they say, I needed to be socialized, my parents really loved me despite what they did, they did it for a larger purpose, for my own good. In extreme cases, the abused convince themselves that the abuse was evidence of love.
Because their abusers were secretly their friends, no anger against them is permissible. The repressed rage gets displaced, then acted out.
Disassociated from the original cause, their feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, longing, anxiety, and pain will find expression in destructive acts against others or against themselves .
The abused child, when grown and given the power to act out his own suppressed rage, is unable to identify with the objects of his rage. In extreme cases, as Miller says about convicted child abusers,“Compulsively and without qualms, they inflicted the same suffering on [others] as they had been subjected to themselves.” (21) Yet to the abuser it still feels as if he is being abused, as if the sacrifice is his, and the effects of his actions on others take a secondary place to the emotions he feels himself.
This, I fear, is the appeal of Ender’s Game: it models this scenario precisely and absolves the child of any doubt that his actions in response to such treatment are questionable. It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender’s story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else. Your mistreatment is the evidence of your gifts. You are morally superior. Your turn will come, and then you may severely punish others, yet remain blameless. You are the hero.
Ender never loses a single battle, even when every circumstance is stacked against him. And in the end, as he wanders the lonely universe dispensing compassion (22) for the undeserving who think him evil, he can feel sorry for himself at the same time he knows he is twice over a savior of the entire human race.
God, how I would have loved this book in seventh grade! It’s almost as good as having a nuclear device.
The problem is that the morality of that abused seventh grader is stunted. It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to a nuclear device. It’s a good thing I didn’t grow up to elaborate my fantasies of personal revenge into an all-encompassing system of ethics. The bullying I suffered, which seemed overwhelming to me then, was undeniably real, and wrong. But it did not make me the center of the universe. My sense of righteousness, one that might have justified any violence, was exaggerated beyond any reality, and no true morality could grow in me until I put it aside. I had to let go of my sense of myself as victim of a cosmic morality play, not in order to justify the abuse—I didn’t deserve to be hurt—but in order to avoid acting it out. I had to learn not to suppress it and strike back.
We see the effects of displaced, righteous rage everywhere around us, written in violence and justified as moral action, even compassion. Ender gets to strike out at his enemies and still remain morally clean. Nothing is his fault. Stilson already lies defeated on the ground, yet Ender can kick him in the face until he dies, and still remain the good guy. Ender can drive bone fragments into Bonzo’s brain and then kick his dying body in the crotch, yet the entire focus is on Ender’s suffering. For an adolescent ridden with rage and self-pity, who feels himself abused (and what adolescent doesn’t?), what’s not to like about this scenario? So we all want to be Ender. As Elaine Radford has said, “We would all like to believe that our suffering has made us special—especially if it gives us a righteous reason to destroy our enemies.”(23)
But that’s a lie. No one is that special; no one is that innocent. If I felt that Card’s fiction truly understood this, then I would not have written this essay.
A number of people have objected to this essay on the grounds that intentions do make a difference in our judgments of the degree of culpability we assign to an actor performing any action. I did not mean to give the impression that I believe that intention is irrelevant to judging whether an action is moral. We normally take intentions into account when making such judgments. I do, too. To judge only by results would be cruel and rigid.
What bothers me about OSC and Ender's Game is that he says that onlyintentions matter in making such judgments. This I absolutely reject. It is the classic excuse of someone who commits a heinous act to say that his intentions were good, and to justify his questionable means by referring to his good ends. We see this all too obviously, for example, in the justifications the Bush administration gave for the Iraq war. They said they thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that he had links to terrorism, that we were there to promote democracy, etc. Millions of people even at the time knew that these justifications were inadequate, or in many cases outright fabrications.
Card sets up Ender to be the sincere, abused innocent, and rigs the game to make us accept that he does no wrong. I see the entire pupose of the "remote war by game" trick in the novel as a device to make this argument plausible. But in the real world genocide is not committed by accident. We see the immoral consequences of such a mode of thought in the heaps of dead bodies that history has piled up, committed always by leaders who tell us they only meant to protect us from evil. I just will not accept that. —JK
Headnote: Scott Nicholson, "CARD'S GAME: An Interview With Orson Scott Card” (1998)
1 Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (1983; rpt, New York: Noonday Press, 1990), p. 58.
2 Orson Scott Card, “Notes on Ender’s Game”, in Ben Bova, ed., The Best of the Nebulas (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1989), p. 32.
3 Ibid., p. 33
4 Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1985), p. 1.
5 One of the unaddressed questions of Ender’s Game is how did the Wiggin family produce a psychopath like Peter? The book gives no hint of an explanation for his behavior; it’s possible I suppose that Card believes simply that “some people are just born bad” but I find no clear indications of a source for what seems to be Peter’s motiveless evil. Curiously, Card says in his “Response” to Elaine Radford that Peter is not as evil as he is portrayed early in the book, and that Ender misperceived him. Given Valentine’s anecdote about Peter torturing the squirrels, and the numerous examples of Peter’s sadistic behavior in the story, I find it hard to understand that interpretation.
6 We are told that Bonzo is pronounced “bone-so,” not “bahn-zoe.” But for an American audience of the Reagan Era, when this book was published, the most common association for this name would be the name of the chimpanzee from the 1951 comedy that Ronald Reagan starred in, Bedtime for Bonzo.
7 Tears in Ender’s Game, no matter how justified, are inevitably a sign of humiliation. A Card hero will do almost anything in order to hide his emotional torment. It is as if the ultimate humiliation a person can face is to cry in the presence of others.
8 Kate Bonin, “Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card”, New York Review of Science Fiction, 172, 15, 4 (December 2002), pp.17-21.
9 “Orson Scott Card: Casting Shadows” (interview), Locus 503, 49, 6 (September 2003), pp7-8, 71-72, at p. 71.
10 This assertion is an example of what psychologist Alice Miller has called “poisonous pedagogy”, the use of coercive measures to rid children of weakness and dependence in order to become adult and deserving of respect. This process leads to the conclusion that if people fear you, you have earned their respect, and if they defer to your domination, you have earned their friendship.
11 It is curious that Card identifies this judging of the morality of an act based on the act and not its intention “Calvinist,” since a fundamental premise of Calvinism is the belief that people’s actions are irrelevant to their salvation. Good works can’t save a Calvinist if he is not a member of the elect, any more than Card’s “bad” people can succeed at doing good.
12 Elaine Radford, “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman.” Fantasy Review 102 (1987), pp. 7-11.
13 Orson Scott Card, “Response”, Fantasy Review 102 (1987) pp. 13-14, 49-52.
14 ibid., p. 13.
15 ibid., p. 14
16 ibid., p. 14
17 GraceAnne A. DeCandido and Keith R.A. DeCandido, “PW Interviews Orson Scott Card” Publishers Weekly, November 30, 1990.
18 Card, “Response”, p. 50.
19 Miller, p. 61
20 Personal conversation with an editor at Tom Doherty Associates, U.S. publisher of Ender’s Game.
21 Miller, “Introduction” from Paths of Life: Seven Scenarios, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998) <>.
22 The “compassion” to which Ender devotes his life in Speaker for the Deadmay be read, not as expiation of his guilt or comforting others, but as only another example of acting out displaced hostility. As Speaker, Ender’s ostensible purpose is to explain the life of the deceased in a way that evokes empathy for that lost person. But, as for instance in his explanation of the life of Marcos Ribeira in chapter 15 of Speaker, despite Ender’s assertions that “there’s no blame” in the actions of the community that led to Marcos’ alienation and brutality towards his wife, Ender’s Speaking is as much a scolding of the living for their callous moral blindness as it is a defense of the dead. We are told that Ender’s role is not to judge; he does this by handing down infallible moral judgments. The one certainty Ender’s Speaking establishes is that Ender is superior to anyone else in his godlike ability as a moral arbiter.
23 Radford, “Ender and Hitler”, p. 11.