Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ender's Sequel

Man... it feels like ages ago that I heard about Ender's Shadow.  It came out during my last year in high school, and I'm pretty sure that I was already getting positive reviews from friends back then.  So why haven't I picked it up before now?  I'm really not sure.  I loved Ender's Game - like many kids of my age and disposition, I was entranced by its fantastic-yet-realistic depiction of relationships in a school for space commanders.  Also like other kids, I was progressively disappointed by the sequels, tolerating "Speaker for the Dead" and hating "Xenocide."  The sales pitch for Ender's Shadow has always been "It's more like the good stuff in Ender's Game," but perhaps I just wasn't convinced.

More recently, I've been hearing about an apparently-great series of graphic novels based on Ender's Game, and chatter about an upcoming movie (another topic that's been around for well over a decade).  That has rekindled my interest in this book and setting, and I gratefully took the opportunity to dive back in to the world of Bean and Ender.

The result?  A really good book.  Now, it's been... I dunno, maybe about fifteen years since I last read "Ender's Game," so I can't really directly compare the two, but I did enjoy this offering.  It has a few minor warts, but is fun and moving enough to more than make up for any shortcoming.


I have always liked the idea of doing a novel from Bean's point of view.  Over the years, my memory of him has decayed, but I've remembered appreciating him as a minor character, one of the many promising and interesting kids who surround Ender.  I tend to be attracted to sidekicks in general - hence the nickname "Horatio" (it's a long story) - so just on principle I liked the idea of giving a sidekick his own book.

Card really goes out of his way, though, to make Bean the HERO of this book, both in his own mind and empirically.  Bean gets an origin story even more dramatic than Ender's, growing up as an orphan on ugly city streets, fighting for survival, and literally creating civilization out of chaos.  Along with this story, he creates a pretty amazing personality for the kid.  It's a little hard to put into words... he's a bit like someone who has reached the fifth or sixth stage of Kohlberg's theory of moral development while skipping stages three and four, if that makes any sense.  He is a hyper-aware observer, a brilliant mind (Card explicitly states that Bean is even smarter than Ender), and a keen analyst of social situations; yet he cannot connect with people on an individual, emotional level.  And so, despite his small size, he actually almost plays the roles that we would often assign to a villain.  He sneaks, he schemes, he he cheats, he plots, he lies, he manipulates.  Ultimately, his actions are designed to save humanity, so we can cheer for him, but there's an even stronger edge to him than there was for Ender. 

The overall arc of the plot will be familiar to anyone who has read Ender's Game.  Card states in the introduction that he intends these two books to be complementary and not dependent; someone should be able to move from Ender's Shadow to Ender's Game as well as vice-versa.  One big difference, though, is that Bean is much more observant than Ender, and so he consistently figures things out well before Ender does.  Because of this, I'd still recommend people to read EG before ES... in particular, the final revelation in EG is especially dramatic (I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach the first time I read it), while in ES it comes across more mundane since Bean figured it out long before.  Which is totally fine for people reading this after EG, since we ourselves already know (mostly) what's going on.

There are just a few ways in which you can see strain between the two books.  The most glaring for me is in the interactions between Ender and Bean.  These are the sections that Card cannot change - the dialog and action needs to stay the same.  And yet, the fact is that the Bean presented in this book is different from the Bean we thought we knew in the earlier book.  As a result, Card constantly comments when Bean is saying something sarcastically, or ironically, always wondering whether Ender will recognize that he isn't being serious; because, of course, when Card wrote the earlier book, Bean WAS being serious.

Ultimately, Card can't let Bean be the sidekick.  He needs to be Ender's equal, and so whenever Bean is placed in the role of being Ender's lieutenant, Card has to subvert their relationship.  Bean views this as a contest even if Ender doesn't.  Sometimes he loses - their early encounters clearly place him in a subservient role - but by the end, he is secretly Ender's better, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders to give Ender room to breathe. 

I guess I'm a little disappointed by this, but not too much.  I would have still loved this book if Bean had just been Bean.  By shaking things up, Card has deprived us of a book that's really about a sidekick, but given us a new and interesting hero instead.

Past plot and character, on to theme:

Another thing that really struck me about this book was the way Card shows Bean's mind working.  In particular, Bean is constantly analyzing situations, coming up with a theory that fits the situation, then analyzing the theory, modifying or discarding it as appropriate.  Bean questions EVERYTHING.  A teacher will give a long, two-paragraph speech about a topic, I'll find myself automatically assuming it's true, and then immediately Bean will think about how that speech is bogus, and give incontrovertible reasons why it can't be true.  Throughout the book Bean is a thorn in the system's side, tearing aside every veil of secrecy that they try to put up.

To me, what's especially interesting about this is that this book is aimed at young adult readers, presumably students who are still in school.  EG and ES both are excellent books in the way they reflect the reality that many of us face(d) in school - bullies, oblivious teachers, resentment towards high achievers, the importance of friendships, etc. - while also providing for escapism and fantastic wish fulfillment - outwitting the bully, becoming the smart kid who saves the day.  ES seems to pretty clearly imply that questioning authority is not just okay, it is virtuous.  This is a pretty subversive message to send out.  I, of course, approve.


Ender's Shadow was a rare treat, a chance to revisit a world that I had loved and lost.  It has also piqued my interest in checking out the other EG-related works that are out or coming soon.  Good to know that the well is not yet dry.


  1. I find it endlessly fascinating that Card has become a right-wing commentator -- check out some of his pro-war-in-Iraq writings to see him weirdly employ the logic that seems to be sharply questioned under Ender's Game (our enemies will always lay waiting to attack us if we don't destroy them first, etc.). Doesn't (shouldn't, at least) impact the quality of his fiction, but it's awfully strange to behold.

  2. Wow, I didn't know that! I just now checked out some of the essays on his web site. Weird stuff. It doesn't seem like he's a doctrinaire conservative, but definitely pro-war and anti-gay, which, as you point out, is especially odd given the themes of his early books. I'd say that, even more than Ender's Game, "Speaker for the Dead" seems to directly oppose a lot of his war arguments.

  3. Hey Chris, nice to read your take on ES. I'd also recommend Shadow of the Hegemon and Shadow Puppets, though like the original Ender's Game series, the sequels tend to get a bit worse as they progress. I just saw on Amazon that there's a new Ender book out: Ender in Exile, set between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, which seems like it'd be a worthwhile read.