We’re reading ENDER’S GAME AND PHILOSOPHY, edited by Kevin S Decker

12 Nov

Adam Roberts is in two minds about Blackwell’s latest pop-culture exegesis.


Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford in Ender’s Game (dir. Gavin Hood, 2013)

Ender’s Game and Philosophy
Kevin S Decker (ed)
Wiley, Blackwell, £11.15

PLATO: Since my master downed his hemlock daiquiri, oh how lonely I have been! And how keenly do I feel the lack of an interlocutor.

ARCRATES: That’s my cue.


ARCRATES: Permit me to introduce myself. I’m the embodiment of the Arc Blog, an online offshoot of the New Scientist.

PLATO: To speak of a new scientist implies that there might be an old and a new; when surely there can only be one scientist, whose guiding principle – truth – has nothing to do with novelty or age?

ARCRATES: That’s the spirit! Soon enough we’ll be dialoguing-it to the max. To the max squared!

PLATO: Yet how can this be? My master died twenty five centuries before your ᾄρκβλόγ was set in virtual motion. Yet here you stand, before me, wrapped in a toga!

ARCRATES: The nifty thing about the realm of Forms is its occupants have no sell-by date. Except for the Platonic Form of the Sell-By Date, but that’s a special case. You’re as fresh as a newly tossed salad, my friend. And the toga – yes. Well. I did wonder about the toga. Would it help you adjust to modern life, or would it just freak you out? I thought to myself: toga, or NOT toga? That is the qu— you’re looking pained.

PLATO: Forgive me, my friend. I have been sitting here, awaiting your arrival, with nothing to read but 21st-century philosophy. It has not been an inspiring business.

ARCRATES: I am sorry about the delay. The Toga Rental place didn’t open until – look, anyway, I’m here now.

PLATO: The library here is supplied with a complete set of the ‘Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series’, a whole series of books put forth under the general editorship of William Irwin. The volume I presently hold in my hand is Kevin S Decker edited volume of essays Ender’s Game and Philosophy, in which various eminences and writers spin-off philosophical propositions from Orson Scott Card’s 1985 prose romance, Ender’s Game. It’s a novel with a considerable following amongst science fiction aficionados – science-aficionados, if you will – with its tale of an isolated young boy at a military college trained to fight virtual reality games against an ant-like alien threat, the “Buggers”, only to discover he has been actually directing the battle-fleet to victory. Now, the book informs us, it is a Major Hollywood Film.

ARCRATES: And did you like it?

PLATO: Like? The essays are various, all written in a clear and jargon-free manner. Three main philosophical areas are covered: first, the theory of education itself – one of my master’s main concerns, of course (“‘The Teachers Got Me Into This’: Educational Skirmishes – with a Pinch of Freedom” by Cam Cobb; “Teaching to the Test: Constructing the Identity of a Space Commander” by Chad William Timm). Second, there are several essays on Game Theory.

ARCRATES: Wittgenstein?

PLATO: Since the Realm of the Forms is supplied with the perfect form of Wikipedia – which is like the earthly Wikipedia except without the entries on Simon Cowell – I am able to comprehend your question despite having passed from the mortal realm millennia before Wittgenstein was born. And the answer to your question is: Wittgenstein is mentioned in passing. Brendan P. Shea’s “Do Good Games Make Good People?”, a low-gradient introduction to game theory, names him in a footnote, but that’s all. And in fact the essays as a whole fight shy of introducing specific named philosophers, presumably because such names scare 21st-century readers.

ARCRATES: We’re an easily spooked lot, it’s true.

PLATO: Andrew Zimmerman Jones’ “The Enemy’s Gate Is Down: Perspective, Empathy and Game Theory” explores Ender’s ability to empathise with his foe from the logic of Game Theory. Matthew Brophy’s “War Games as Child’s Play” opens, but doesn’t close, the question of war as a “game”.

ARCRATES: And the third? You said there were three areas.

PLATO: The third area is ethics, broadly conceived. In the novel Ender wins the war by destroying the alien homeworld and wiping out the entire species. Genocide, or as the book has it “Xenocide”, is clearly a crime. But Ender didn’t realise he was actually doing the things he was doing: he thought it was all a game. So is he morally culpable? More: Ender was only able to fight the Buggers as effectively as he did because he could empathise with them so well. Oh the moral irony! Card wrote a raft of sequels in which grown-up Ender, and those around him, wrestle with the consequences of their war-winning actions, like the Allies might have done – but didn’t – about flattening Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. And so we have essays with titles like “Illusions of Freedom, Tragedies of Fate: The Moral Development of Ender Wiggin” (Jeremy Proulx), “Xenocide’s Paradox: The Virtue of Being Ender” (Jeff Ewing); “Why Ender Can’t Go Home: Philotic Connections and Moral Responsibility” (Brett Chandler Patterson); “‘You Had to Be a Weapon, Ender – We Aimed You’: Moral Responsibility in Ender’s Game” (Danielle Wylie); “Ender’s Dilemma: Realism, Neoliberalism, and the Politics of Power” (Ted Henry Brown and Christie L. Maloyed). There’s a quantity of overlap between these essays; as well as a rather fence-sitty tone. Lance Belluomini’s “‘I Destroy Them’: Ender, Good Intentions, and Moral Responsibility” concludes that “we can’t assign full moral responsibility to Ender” but that nonetheless “he bears some responsibility.” And Greg Littman’s “People Are Tools” explains Mill’s moral philosophy in words of more-or-less one syllable before coming to the conclusion that “moral rules almost always have exceptions if circumstances are strange enough.”

ARCRATES: No shit, Sherlock.

PLATO: Your friend’s constipation is not at issue. It is not that these essays are wrongheaded, or poorly framed. Since the intention is to introduce philosophical debates to readers with little philosophical knowledge, a degree of plodding elementariness is inevitable.

ARCRATES: You do have a problem, though?

PLATO: Opposite the title page is a list: “OTHER TITLES IN THE BLACKWELL PHILOSOPHY AND POP CULTURE SERIES”. I counted forty-three titles, including The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers; Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back Therefore I Am; Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery; Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is As It Seems; Downton Abbey and Philosophy: The Truth Is Neither Here Nor There; The Hobbit and Philosophy: For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard and Your Way; Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics and Monsters… for Idjits; The Ultimate South Park and Philosophy: Respect My Philosophah!; The Ultimate Daily Show and Philosophy: More Moments of Zen, More Indecision Theory. Hit show + philosophical pun = booksales. These topics have, I submit, been chosen because of their popularity rather than their metaphysical fertility.

ARCRATES: But why can’t those two qualities coincide? You talk as if Philosophy stands in inevitable opposition to Popularity. Surely not!

PLATO: We are talking about more than popularity. We are talking about cult shows, fan favourites, the focus of a critical mass of fandom. And the nature of fandom is the dissolution of difference in shared enjoyment. Mass-fandom is a profoundly un-dialectical activity; or more precisely it replaces “deep” dialectics with a spurious surface dialogue (“who’s the best Bond: Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Are Daleks better villains than Cybermen?) that takes as axiomatic our shared investment in the value of the text (Bond is cool! Everybody loves Dr Who!). Philosophy withers and dies where there is no dialectic.

ARCRATES: You are too harsh! This fandom you dismiss so haughtily – in this case, the constituency of people who love Ender’s Game – acts as a kind of shared idiom. I cannot discuss philosophical matters with you unless you and I share at least some of the same points of reference.

PLATO: But this is exactly my point! Ender’s Game and Philosophy at no point questions the worth of Card’s novel. Indeed, the contributors repeatedly stress this: it is a masterpiece of science fiction, it is powerful and disturbing and so on. The model here is not philosophy, but – the Sermon.

ARCRATES: The Sermon! How so?

PLATO: My master established the best model for philosophy: a dialogue between intellectually engaged minds. The sermon comes from a different tradition. Here the model is to take a text, for instance from The Bible, and to expatiate upon it, in order to draw out the truth and wisdom in the original text. The pre-existent wisdom and truth of the text is taken as axiomatic; the purpose of the sermon is simply to focus the minds of the faithful – those who belong to the cult – upon the text. Sermons elaborate along pre-set lines; philosophy can go anywhere. The point of philosophy is to prise minds open. The point of a sermon is to find pleasant or striking ways of reaffirming the shared shibboleths of the community. Can you imagine a Preacher standing up before his congregation and setting out on a disquisition that might conclude the God does not exist? Or that He is evil? The essays in this volume are all of them, formally, sermonic. Many of them start with a quotation from the novel, like a Biblical verse, and ruminate upon it in, in the approved pulpit manner. All of them work as sermons do through rhetorical steps, appeals to the authority of church elders, towards the sorts of conclusions that will startle nobody out of their souls’ habitus. I believe this explains why the experience of reading this collection is one of anti-climax, of disappointment: not because the essays are badly done, from within the logic of these things, but because it all feels so predictable, so run-along-rails.

ARCRATES: You’re wrong, my little Grecian 2000, and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong. Your example is peculiarly poorly chosen! So far from uniting Fandom into one church of shared value, Orson Scott Card is perhaps the single most divisive figure in science fiction today. Many revere him as a grandmaster of genre. Many more deplore him for a series of opinions he has expressed, especially with respect to homosexuality.

PLATO: Oho? You have my attention. Proceed?

ARCRATES: Card believes homosexuality to be sin, and deplores the growing tendency to treat it as merely another iteration of the manifold ways human beings love other human beings. Where gay marriage is legally sanctioned, Card has vehemently styled such reform as a personal attack on him and his heterosexual marriage, arguing for armed insurrection against the US Government if it passes such legislation and generally claiming that homosexuality should be recriminalized and that God Hates Gays.

PLATO: Has he not read my own writings on the necessary superiority of homosexual love over the heterosexual?

ARCRATES: Presumably not.

PLATO: But this is very strange! I took the novel to be an allegory, after the logic of my Master’s allegory of the Cave, of precisely this matter. “Ender” is presumably a contraction of the phrase “Rear-Ender”, somebody who prefers the rear-end or buttocks. His struggle is with the “Buggers”, a common euphemism for sodomites. His training involves a great deal of naked wrestling and struggling, of great violence and passion. One of the locations is called “Eros”. Ender wins by penetrating to the home base or fundament of the Buggers and ramming home a –

ARCRATES: Alright, alright. Let’s not get carried away. My point is that the 2013 release of the Ender’s Game movie has generated a surge of genuinely dialectic debate. Many fans feel betrayed by Card’s intolerance and homophobia, and they feel this more acutely because they consider science fiction to be, in some primary sense, about difference, about encountering the alien, the Other – and therefore about diversity and toleration. This fact, I think, explains the fury the film has engendered. Movies are released every week adapted from books by writers with more offensive views than Card’s. But Card takes the brunt of “our” fury because we expected better of him. And the debates that are swirling around are properly philosophical! Can we separate out a valuable work of art from an artist who holds despicable views? If not, then how can we in good conscience enjoy works by Lovecraft, Wagner, Shakespeare? What is the morality of boycotting a film, if the strategic result does no harm to Card himself but causes actual professional damage to the people, many of them gay, who made the film? And there is a larger cultural fascination, I think: at times of war, societies invest emotionally – indeed, invest erotically – in the strength, courage and beauty of their fighting men. It is not a coincidence that in these times. social and cultural anxiety about the imagined “dangers” of male same-sex desire tends to surface. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of novels, about the First World War, is very good on precisely this matter.

PLATO: This is interesting, I agree. But it hardly contradicts my point, for none of these issues are addressed in Ender’s Game and Philosophy. Nothing on the ethics of same-sex desire, on the validity of homosexual marriage, on the role of the author as a symbolic whipping-boy. I’m prepared to agree that Ender’s Game is, currently, a means by which some crucial critical questions are getting aired. They’re just not in this collection.


Read Adam Roberts’s “Three Surprising Theories of Science Fiction” in The Future Always Wins (Arc 1.1), out now.

Also on the blog: Adam Roberts remembers Jack Vance (1916-2013)

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