Dystopian politics

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.


5 thoughts on “Dystopian politics

  1. There’s a huge body of scholarly work on *Ender’s Game*, military simulation, and video games. Some of it’s even interesting.

  2. I’ve loved Ender’s Game and the Ender series each time I’ve read it. I’m happy to see you post on it.

    I get what you’re saying about a tragic realism and c’est la guerre type attitude that runs through the book at both the protagonist’s level and the book’s universe. Indeed the ambiguity you mention runs through the entire original four book series.

    But, I think the other important storyline is the child-adult tension, not just rival nations. For Ender this ambiguity and tragic realism is fabricated, deliberately so, and he’s denied access to the rules of the ‘game’ or participation in defining the situation. He knows or comes to discover that every situation where there is narrow ambiguity between inevitable conflict or almost inevitable conflict, is a staged game, by Graff and the Battle School teachers. The schoolyard bully, Gonzo at the Battle School, and the actual games (battles in the Bugger War).

    By contrast, Ender’s siblings do have access to and can participate in ‘defining the situation’ and the ‘rules of the game’. As Locke and Demontheses, Valentine and Peter engage in ‘real’ politicking and as the series plays out – bring about world peace.

    Also, are you saying that in addition to Collins and Christopher, the games are dystopic for Card as well? or not at all because they’re real life and all there is to it? I think to respond to both, Card’s games are both real, in the sense that they are supposedly actual battles in a real war and also dystopic because they are played according to rules and definitions of situations the protagonist and other characters have no access to. But these two features are also kept separate – they are not both real and dystopic in the same sense, because from the perspective in the novel, they are *someone else’s* game. They are the world of the adult that the kids are required to ‘play’ in, dystopic for Ender as tragic hero, but not inevitably so for Valentine and Peter, who learn how to out maneuver the game successfully. Ender doesn’t.

    Perhaps Ender’s Game is a bit rushed – to be honest, after so many readings, it’s difficult to recall where the individual book storylines begin and end.

    The narrative arc of the book indeed follows a pattern of rival nations pulling together to face a common threat only then to resume petty squabbles (as much sci-fi does). But if the criticism (if you are in fact making one) of a Lawrence type pattern is that it posits ambiguously resolvable conflict as a fundamental characteristic of humanity, then I’d say, well that’s what makes it compelling and not a prescription for a utopian future (like some other sci-fi). Since I’m supposed to be a sociologist, I find the irresolvable conflict posed in the book most salient in the tension between individual/social at both the character and book universe levels. The Buggers are an obvious foil for our modern conception of humanity as fundamentally individualistic – they are the epitome of a social species. But also, the conflict that arises from playing in someone else’s game occupies much of Ender’s thought and emotions while ‘just playing video games’.

    The book as a stand alone (not in context of the series) is, yes, all about games – everything is game, whether it’s Xenocide, world peace, or some strange melding of minds via the liberties of the genre. (Apparently, the simulator Ender plays with becomes an intangible sort of connection between his psyche and that of the Hive Queen – I can’t remember if that is revealed in Ender’s game or subsequent novels).

    If you don’t like video games, I suppose that’d be rather dystopic.

  3. Everything you’re saying here is smart. I agree with all of it. The games work in different ways: they are “real” in different senses of the word, and they are dystopic in different ways as well. That I worry about books which present video games as effective ways to live a life (to live an emotional life, not just to win a war) doesn’t detract from the book’s interest: it is interesting for exactly this reason. As to the Lawrence pattern, yes, it’s good; it’s good as a critique of utopian politics. The main point of my post was just to start of list of Lawrence texts. You’ve gone much further in considering the Card novel.

    • A year late to the party–but wanted to add some of my thoughts, spurred largely by your quote:

      “I worry about books which present video games as effective ways to live a life”

      I would disagree that Ender’s Game is actually doing this. Maybe in the initial book alone, but the series is (I think) 5 or 6 books long now. If Hunger Games is judged in the full context, so should Ender’s Game.

      Ender’s Game may end in “triumph” but those kids have serious problems because of the video game and the war–and it isn’t a video game. It is a layer which hides them from realizing that they are killing and sacrificing real lives.

      Countless lives are lost, and while the protagonist isn’t murdering them with a knife, he is murdering them–he is just using a computer screen to issue the kill command, just like a “drone” pilot fighting in Afghanistan from Texas.

      Just like drone pilots suffer from PTSD, so to do the characters–no one can really look at Ender post war and say he “succeeded” at life–he is broken, harmed beyond repair, and driven to grief by his actions.

      The following books show him leaving the computer and forming a galactic religion which has one goal–honoring the people he has killed–and attempting to martyr himself and give up his own freedom and autonomy to honor others.

      The characters do not really succeed, and have problems that mirror depression, PTSD, suicidal tendencies, psychosis, all derived from their experience. I definitely don’t read the book and feel like they benefit or that the lesson is that video games are effective ways to live.

  4. Of course you’re right. Can you tell I really wanted to have a conversation about the series?

    I think I also share in your worry – it’s the general Luddite knee jerk reaction to a technologically mediated world. Can you live an emotional life via video games, and if so, what is lost/gained? In fact, I recall a similar question on a midterm, something about whether you could have a face-to-face ethical interaction over Instant Messaging. And to think that was before video messaging was widely available…

    Again the sociologist in me is curious about the different reactions between those who read the novel in print and those who read an electronic version.

    I would be curious to hear your thoughts on Jane – the separate species that develops out of and consists of the technology – but that would mean you’d have to read the rest of the novels :) After all, Card is a good Mormon and the reconciliation between spiritual – technological in subsequent books is expected and quaint.

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