A Simulation of Intelligence

The function of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow to Ender's Game

Janet Bruesselbach

Science Fiction

N. Katherine Hayles


Orson Scott Card's writing is transparent.  This means that its aim is to simulate an experience for the reader without their real involvement in a world that otherwise would be both speculative and traumatic.  This novel format, which any casual reader takes for granted, performs a kind of magic that Card, along with every fiction writer, uses not to fully simulate reality but to artificially expand that reality for the reader.  The content of experience is all that matters; in the simulation created by the prose of a science fiction novel, reality is, if anything, the last thing one would want to describe.  Nevertheless, Card's writing does not push toward extremes, but rather attempts a kind of psychological realism, remaining, as each reader's own perspective must, with one character for the most part but beyond that character when necessary.  The matter of "necessary" is ambiguous, and, in Ender's Game, is central to the discussion of the main character made by authoritative voices of which he is unaware.  The simulation functions primarily through the reader's empathy with one character; empathy is conveniently a major theme of both novels.  When we accept the simulation of transparent language it's like accepting the rules of the game, but that doesn't mean the writer of those rules wins; winning isn't the goal.  Reading may be less active than playing, and perhaps the difference between the parts of this metaphor depends on that.  The goal of the content-oriented novel is to have the reader fulfill the simulation and gain the same wisdom his or her sympathetic character does.  When Card wrote his shadow novel, he had to make a difficult balance between undermining one's sympathy with Ender or with Bean in all the dialogue sequences that both stories share.  In Ender's Game, Bean's identity seems close enough to Ender's to allow readers the same kind of empathy.  However, Card makes Bean's voice and analytical capabilities the equal or greater of the author's own, whereas Ender's are perhaps below a reader's level, and his active abilities, as described, are incomparable.  The result of this is to elevate the reader of Ender's Shadow to superhuman consciousness and acquire sympathy through flattery.  An analysis of the method of the "shadow novel" will be made by contrasting Ender's Game to Ender's Shadow and how even slight disparity between Card's similar simulated intelligences can jeopardize empathy with either.

In the way almost anyone can sympathize with Ender, Ender represents the interests of all of humanity, and even embodies the human race (humanity is racing to prepare him!).  His nickname is only one letter away from the Greek word ander, or man, while his given name, Andrew, is drawn from the same root, although it could possibly also derive from the related andreios, meaning "brave".  "Ender", of course, also describes his most militarily valuable characteristic as "one who ends": a game, a life, a species, a book.  Humans see themselves as balanced between kindness and cruelty as Ender is toward Peter and Valentine, but these are both functions of empathy, and Ender explains to Val:

"'In that moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.  I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves....in that very moment when I love them--'

'You beat them.'  For a moment she was not afraid of his understanding.

'No, you don't understand.  I destroy them.'" (Game 238)

Card plays his language significantly in this passage.  It is noticeably distanced from its protagonist because the third-person narration describes Valentine's perspective rather than Ender's.  Once the term "understanding" has been defined and emphasized as the key to "loving" your enemy to death, Card uses the word as it concerns the conversation itself.  The "moment", too, is echoed in Valentine's description.  It is lucky for Valentine, so loved, to "not understand" Ender's hyperbolic logic of survival, because he feels like a threat to her just as she doesn't feel his threat for as long as it takes for him to annihilate what he loves.  At the same time the reader, feeling sympathy for Ender, must realize that the goal of their reading is to have that same understanding with Ender.  Yet in fully understanding a character, you understand that they are limited to the text they inhabit, and you make it so that they don't exist; only you do.  Winning the game is also losing.

Bean is in a more mature situation, but the comparison between book and game is not as reliable.  Card allows Ender's Shadow to define Ender's Game in one crucial way, which is that Bean never plays the fantasy game Ender does, thus defining that game as one of the referents of the novel's title.  Although the same readers might sympathize with Bean as much as Ender, Bean is not every boy. The adult conversations preceding each chapter, which sound immature compared to Bean's sharp reasoning, follow the discovery of his origin in a genetics lab.  His character's central ambiguity is whether or not he is human; for most of the novel, Graff believes he isn't, but Card's messenger Sister Carlotta ultimately makes him human by tracing the experiment's genetic sources to a (very Cardian) ideal human family.  Ender already took the maturity of a human child to its reasonable limit, and Bean's adult rationality surpasses such realism entirely.  Yet if Bean isn't human, why can we relate to him and understand his situation?  Who hasn't felt too coldly analytical before, or betrayed by emotion?  A six-year old, perhaps, Bean's speculatively fantastical age.  More importantly, everyone at least partially wants to feels as if they are different from the rest of humanity, better somehow, and drawn their greatest strength from nevertheless retaining compassion.  It is this evolutionarily driven desire for uniqueness on which Bean's sympathy functions.  But if we can sympathize with this character's feeling inhuman, doesn't that justify his humanity?  And if he is thus granted humanity, the very alien-ness that made him sympathetic is gone.  It is a vicious and entirely avoidable dichotomy.

Another way in which Bean has the reader's sympathy is that he himself has a more passive intelligence than Ender's.  We can only try to convince ourselves that we would be as good at strategy games as Ender is, while knowing that in this regards he is superior to us and only in observation of his capabilities to we exceed him.  Bean is, as one chapter describes him, a "scholar".  He begins as a street urchin whose smallest action causes the "breakout of civilization" on the streets, which in Card's language means the construction of patriarchal family groups.  From the time learning is available to him, he can bring all history of civilization as the context of Battle School.  The genetic change to which his inhuman intelligence is attributed is equated with the Fall and moral knowledge.  His capabilities for understanding the whole of anyone, enemy or not, seem to exceed Ender's (functionally as well, as he hacks his way into the teachers' database and memorizes student profiles), as early as first meeting Achilles.  Confronted with Ender, however, he finds his capabilities for affecting others limited nominally by his lack of empathy but actually by the existing narrative of Ender's Game, which does not allow Bean to eclipse Ender but, as the title implies, only shadow him like a reader.  Bean explains (as the narration subtly slips into monologue), reverentially: "he's the alien, not me.  He's the unintelligible one, the unpredictable one.  He's the one that doesn't do things for sensible, predictable reasons.  I'm going to survive, and once you know that, there's nothing more to know about me."(Shadow, 162)

The story from Bean's perspective, however, creates an unexpected character assassination, especially when we take into account its being written in more enlightened times.  Petra becomes greatly weakened, although when Bean eventually talks tactic with her we discover she has a perspective of her own, which evolves in the sequels but also sacrifices the strength of Petra's character until she falls into the missing "Valentine" role actually fulfilled religiously by Sister Carlotta.  The psychological structure of Bean's past is more complex and less effective than Ender's, yet he returns even more often to Achilles than Ender does to Peter.  Loving Bean means empathizing with Petra, and Petra's character is destroyed by loving Bean.  Empathizing with Bean falsifies itself, as Bean is unempathizable.  Dawkins's selfish gene theory paired with Mormon faith drives Card's philosophy.  Empathy is both love and hate.  Bean does not appear to love or hate anything, until he loves Ender, and acts on hate for Achilles.  Emotions are the logical reason consciousness is protected and the reason emotions must be tricked out of play.  Without empathy there is no need for elimination of empathy.  This reader is playing a game of finding such conundrums that is already old.

After Bean overhears the teachers, their conversations enter the normal text of the chapter, but the structure of having such conversations before each chapter continues.  Instead of concerning the "hypothesis" of Ender's tests and perhaps showing the purpose of the game, they concern the protagonist's personal history.  Thus these discussions are again of what the character doesn't (yet) know, because he has figured out almost everything that was in the pre-chapters in Ender's Game.

The awkward moments come when Card has to fit a savant into the role formerly used as a foil, a social straight man to Ender's despair.  Card here overuses the method of attributing previously undetected irony to Bean's words.  This is the problem with Bean's intelligence overshadowing Ender's, because Ender's heroic primacy leaves Bean all thought and no action.  Thus when Bean recognizes that Ender has judged him solely by his actions and not his reputation, we see that the meaning of the story is almost entirely independent of its events.  At the same time, although Bean does not explicitly do this, the reader can observe Ender's actions unweighted by Ender's ignorance.  Ender himself, in writing his history of the buggers, generates the historical perspective by which he is the ultimate sinner.  At the collision of all the different stories one could possibly have about Ender, all we know is that he commited mass xenocide. 

The title of Ender's Shadow can be an analogy as well as a pun on the form of what has now become a literary game.  The analogy is less clear than that of Ender's Game, in which the fantasy game is a metaphor for Ender's life, which he has been made to treat as a game.  What is the light that creates Ender's Shadow?  Could the light be, analogously, the author's view?  If one could see something from inside its light source, one would see everything but the shadow.  Bean isn't himself the shadow but in it.  The book takes the shape of Ender's story.  Maybe every story is a shadow of Card's. "In all the bugger worlds, there was never more than a single story to be told; when we're there, the world will be full of stories"(Game 312) says Val.  In Ender's final story within his story, he makes empathetic to billions of individual minds the aliens that were the ultimate in empathy, so much so that two novels enclosing the same sequence of events would be unthinkable; in fact, so much so that the "novel" is unthinkable, because the simulation created by fiction depends on the method of communication from one consciousness to another, with a definite difference in view between author, reader, and simulated go-betweens. 

The Buggers' managing to communicate with Ender takes the form of a materialization of simulation much like that realization of shared experience that is the goal of Card's novels.  When Ender sympathizes with the game figure in the fantasy game that the computer's emerging intelligence generates for him, the connection materializes itself in its dreams, in which he actually is as much the dream figure as he must feel in order to play the game.  His dreams become more real than his conscious play during the end of the book, when the Buggers read the imagery from his dreams and then build the computer's landscape, thus materializing what seemed only fantasy.  They, too, having been disguised as a continuation of the human self-control game until Ender discovers the physical simulation, truly exist again when Ender finds the larval queen.  Having adolescents and older children read Ender's Game produces the opposite effect to their watching The Matrix, because the ultimate message is that everything is reality, even the game.

Is the literary simulation real, too?  Does the reader have to be as intelligent as Bean to understand him, or only think she is?  Is anyone who is as righteously moral as Ender capable of the same evil or, as the story's moral ambiguity has it, efficient self-defense?  There is always something at which Bean or Ender are conspicuously capable that undermines empathic simulation. If something of the full character is hidden, where is it?  It doesn't exist.  The character is only a part of ourselves but, if Card is successful, a new part.




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Hatrack River, Orson Scott Card's site

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