Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ender in Exile, by Orson Scott Card

Around 23 years ago, Orson Scott Card published Ender’s Game, a YA novel about a boy trained as a soldier to fight in a war against an invading alien species. The novel launched an extensive series of books that followed, across solar systems and centuries, not only the original protagonist, Ender Wiggin, but several other major characters from that first novel. Now, in a new story set immediately after Ender’s stint as a battle commander, Card returns to the subject of the teenage soldier and explores the years in which Ender grows into a full-fledged adult.

SPOILER ALERT! If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, and you plan to, stop reading this review now. There’s no way to discuss Ender in Exile without exposing certain plot points in Ender’s Game. So just move along. There are plenty of other reviews to hold your interest on this site. Better yet, step away from the computer, go to the bookstore or library and get yourself a copy of Ender’s Game. Let me assure you it is a far far better novel than Ender in Exile anyway.

The cover describes Ender in Exile as "The All-New Direct Sequel to Ender's Game" but it is really an expanded retelling of the final chapters of Ender’s Game, when after destroying the “Buggers” (or, more properly, the formic species) Ender departs with a shipload of colonials to establish a new human colony on a former formic world. While on this new world, he discovers hidden there a cocooned larval formic queen and establishes a psychic link with it to learn why the formics attacked humans in the first place and why they allowed Ender to destroy them. He then writes an influential work called The Hive Queen and the Hegemony and establishes himself as a sort of pseudo-religious figure called the Speaker for the Dead who reveals the truth, good or bad, of a person’s life after their passing as part of the mourning process for survivors. In Ender’s Game, all this is glossed over in just a few pages and not much of it is explored in other books in the series.

So it ought to be fresh and interesting material for a new novel. But in Ender in Exile, Card explores almost none of it, and when he does, very little is illuminated. Instead, the first fifty pages of the novel are a collage of letters and discussions between various characters trying to determine whether Ender should return to Earth. Everyone attempts to manipulate everyone else, until a great deal of tedious blathering leads us to understand that pretty much no one, not even Ender himself, thinks that his return is a good idea. Instead, at the tender age of thirteen, he will be appointed governor of a new settlement planet named Shakespeare Colony. His sister Valentine volunteers to go with him. The next several hundred pages (or is it several hundred thousand?) log the colonists two year space flight (because of relativity, the Earth and those who live there will have aged 40 years in this time). Much of this flight involves conniving and counter-conniving between Ender and the ship’s captain who hopes to steal Ender’s governorship from him once they reach the distant planet. This is all done through endless formal dialogue in which characters pretend to be nice to each other and debate about what’s appropriate speech and behaviour for various ranks and ages of military and civilian personnel (it’s like while Card was writing Jane Austen sneezed on his laptop keyboard). There’s a timid ship-board romance between Ender and one of the colonists that never threatens to go anywhere and there is a significant amount of paper dedicated to describing a production of The Taming of the Shrew that the colonists engage in to amuse themselves. A lot of people point out, over and over again, in praise and in disgust, that Ender is only a young teenager.

What is most disappointing about the book, overall, is its lack of vivid imagery. Ender’s Game is a memorable book because it is full of images that sear themselves into the reader’s mind. There are the brutal encounters of Ender’s childhood, the stark descriptions of Battle School, the range of Battle School students, the glimpses of the Buggers themselves, and the strange and vivid dream-like landscape in Ender’s leisure-time escapist video game (to name but a few). Ender in Exile, by contrast, almost manages to avoid creating any visual images at all for most of the book. Card doesn’t even give us a decent picture of the colonists’ ship. Finally, about two-thirds of the way through, we’re introduced to an intelligent grub which metamorphoses into a metal mining beetle. Ender hones his telepathy by speaking to these beetles, which prepares him for meeting the hive queen. That part is kind of cool and there are a few other surprises in the waning chapters, but, unless you have an extreme tolerance for the tedious, you’ll never get there.

Given that you are not an absolute die-hard Ender fan, I’d say it’s safe to avoid this latest installment. If you’ve read every other book in the series and you want to make it a clean sweep, pick this novel up and see how far you can get before you are driven mad. It’ll make for a new kind of Ender’s Game.


ellie_enchanted said...

Well, that's sad. I really loved Ender's Game, and while I haven't read any of the sequels, I would have hoped that Card had kept his excellent writing skills.

mr chompchomp said...

Read Speaker for the Dead. It's the original sequel to Ender's Game and it really is quite good.

tanita✿davis said...

Uh oh. I read the Spoiler Alert paragraph and stopped. I'm disappointed that this last one isn't great. I was SO hoping...

Seth Christenfeld said...

Honestly, though--has Card written anything worth reading since Enchantment? (If Enchantment even was?)