I’ve spent the past two days reading a book my students have been trying to get me into for years: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. It holds interest for me mainly because it provides another entry in the short list of novels that follow what I call the Lawrence of Arabia Pattern.
In the Lawrence pattern, a group of rival nations come together to fight off a common threat, an imperial power that is much more powerful and technologically sophisticated. Beating the threat takes just about the whole text to accomplish: the war is the pretty much the whole story. Except that to fit into the pattern there has to be a twist at the end: a denouement, in which politics resumes its natural course and the rival nations, no longer facing a common enemy, begin to squabble.
The idea is probably simply that humankind naturally tends toward war. It gains philosophical depth, though, by the fact that the tendency is always presented under an ambiguity. Either hostility is the necessary human condition or it’s marginally preventable; war is either inevitable or almost inevitable. The general idea gives the books a cast of tragic realism; the narrow ambiguity gives them a cast of political profundity. Together they make readers feel wised-up, and smart.
I first met the pattern in John Christopher’s Tripods series. More recently, it became the political backbone of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. Orson Scott Card does it all in one book, and it feels a little rushed. The real problem with Ender’s Game, though, is something else. Both Card and Collins present the pattern in plots that hang on a game — yes, Ender’s game is a game, and yes, the hunger games are games. But Ender’s game is nothing more or less than a video game. Seriously: this whole book is a matter of reading about someone playing video games. In comparison the Hunger Games’ game, which is gladiatorial, seems like real life.
And there’s more. Following Christopher, Collins uses her game as a feature of dystopia: it’s the bad guys who force you (Collins) or encourage you (Christopher) to spend your life playing games. In other words, for Christopher and Collins, games are a distraction and prevent you from accomplishing anything. In Card, they are the only thing to do, and they win wars.