Tag Archives: Ender’s Game

When Science Dreams

The Martian is an intelligent film. Or at least it expects its viewers to be smart. Within ten minutes the titular astronaut is stranded on Mars and the science fun begins. Unlike another recent movie with Kate Mara as a scientist, it doesn’t take long at all for the movie to get started and we get to watch Matt Damon pull a Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

It’s cool, and there’s a lot of science happening that’s remarkably coherent for the most part. What’s funny though, is that less than a week before this movie came out, scientists found signs of actual water on Mars. Which, if it actually works out, will already render The Martian mildly scientifically out-of-date. Like the mention of the missing data-tapes in Star Wars, time marches on.

But a lot of it is extensions of what we know now or what we’re expected to do. The habitat on Mars makes a lot of sense, as does the Hermes ship. It’s science we have, are planning on, or are talking about. And science we want.

It’s very much old-fashioned science fiction, in the sense of dreaming big about what could be. Heck, it’s where the genre started. Questions like “What if we had rockets that could do stuff?” or, more classically, “What if we could go to the center of the earth?” Stories were built around these ideas and then, bam, genre.

Look, I really like science fiction. And it does bug me that a lot of older science fiction is more about the tech than the people, but there’s a sense of wonderment. There are these cool ideas about science and how it will make things different, how radar might actually be a thing, or how communication could be made so easy. Science fiction, of the Asimov and old pulp-fiction variety, is very much about what could be.

Which can be oddly prescient. Star Trek communicators are everywhere, only we call them cell phones and they do so much more than Roddenberry and crew could have imagined. Teleporters and warp drives may not be real, but 3D printers are more than a little like replicators. It’s the sort of thing that would have seemed ridiculous not too long ago (printing physical objects, what?), but now it’s possible. At home.

Not to say science fiction always gets it right. Orson Scott Card had blogging in his vision of the future in Ender’s Game. He may have beaten reality (and a lot of fiction) to the concept of Web 2.0, but, as xkcd points out, reality isn’t quite the same as fiction. Though it would only take a rewrite or two to make the Locke and Demosthenes plot work.

Science fiction does a lot: it can work as a great metaphor, it can create a capacity for new events, and it can dream up cool ideas. The latter is something that’s more or less exclusive to science fiction — nothing else consistently invents for its stories.

So I want science fiction to dream bigger, to come up with newer, weirder, more out there ideas. Because now that we’ve seen pictures of Charon and can more or less confirm that it is not a Mass Effect Relay encased in ice, we’ve gotta think of some new way to explore space.

Or at least get to Mars already.

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The Internet, Neutrality, and Me

Ender’s Game has this wonderful side plot (that didn’t make it to the film) where Peter and Valentine, Ender’s siblings, take to the Nets as Demosthenes and Locke. The anonymity of the Nets allows them, despite their young age, to garner an audience and political influence. Their machinations help prepare Earth for after the war as well as save Ender’s life.

It sounds a little farcical now, since, as xkcd pointed out, they’d essentially just be bloggers. Yet, considering Ender’s Game was published in 1985, it’s an awfully accurate portrayal of what the internet would allow. The Internet is, for better and worse, the ultimate egalitarian democracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you have a say (who listens to that say is another matter). But, stateside, there’s this new issue: Net Neutrality. You may have heard of it, but its end (which the FCC is fighting for) would mean that Internet Service Providers can decide which sites get through fast and which don’t. Want to provide your viewers with smooth video streaming? Pay up. That isn’t a joke, by the way, Netflix had to pay Comcast for faster streaming. The end of Net Neutrality means that if your website can’t afford to pay an ISP then your site can fall through the cracks. Your ISP doesn’t like you accessing a site ran by a rival company? Funny how it loads at dial up speed.

The internet is a beautiful, terrifying place. It needs to stay that way, and we need Net Neutrality.

It’s December 2003. Twelve-year-old Josh is in Peru (he grew up on a ship), on the internet looking for news on Lego’s Bionicle line. He stumbles upon a forum and finds a whole bunch of people like him. Well, they don’t live on a ship, but they like Legos and Bionicle and suddenly he’s found a community. When you’re living on a ship where you don’t have many friends due to not having people your age, it’s incredible to suddenly find peers. That website gave me a social life of sorts, whether I was in Singapore, St. Vincent, or Sierra Leone. In addition to that, the site gave me an outlet for things like writing and cartoons, encouraging me to write stories and make videos.

During my Freshman year of High School I moved twice. Not move across town, mind you: my family and I packed up everything we owned and moved across continents. Enrolling in school would be a challenge, so I did school online. No, it wasn’t my best year academically, but it allowed me to have a somewhat stable education and — this is the best part — interact with other students. Again, I’ve a few lasting friendships from that year.

All that moving (and the ship) meant that a lot of my friends were oceans away. MSN, Skype, and, of course, email, let me stay in touch with them. Once again, despite the distance and craziness of life, I had people to talk to when I didn’t know anyone where I was. These days I can also keep in touch with my often scattered family, even when the four of us are in four countries.

Early in 2012 I’m unemployed and listless so I start a blog to force myself to write. 122 essays (not rants!), three jobs and two years of college later and I’m still at it. Sometimes it’s to help with an essay for class, other times it’s because I’m mad there isn’t a Black Widow movie planned, but I’m writing. And some people are reading (here’s to you!).

The internet is great. It’s been a crucial part of my life for over a decade. I’d be a very different person if I didn’t have access of these sites and services — several of which are not for profit and most likely couldn’t afford an imposed tariff. These days I can read articles on Cracked, watch movies and tv on Netflix, or get lost in TVTropes. I don’t want to have to choose an ISP based on which sites are fastest for them (besides, a lot of places only have one ISP in service). Furthermore, I don’t want the sites I love to have to pay for better access. I want the whole internet, as it is, no matter who I’m paying or what I’m looking up.

Net Neutrality is a big freaking deal. So maybe two kids aren’t gonna use its anonymity to become a famous politician and historian, but an open internet still something worth protecting. I owe the internet a lot, and I want to keep the internet I know in place for whoever’s growing up now. And that’s why I support Net Neutrality

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Two More Hours

The book Ender’s Game is near to my heart. I listed it as my favorite book on my college apps years ago (in lieu of The Lord of the Rings — too cliché). I’ve read it at three different stages of my life: in high school, in the army (during basic training and later as a corporal), and for class during my freshman year of university. What I’m saying is I love the book. Not just because it’s about kid-soldiers saving the world, but because it explores questions of warfare, empathy, and trauma.

See, Ender’s Game is a two-headed beast. You have the story of Ender, the child chosen to save the world. The novel follows him from earth through his trials at Battle School and on to Command School. We see him grow and excel in this environment, triumphing despite the odds being stacked catastrophically against him.

Alongside that it’s a story about a boy forced to deal with isolation and detachment; Ender never has the luxury of friends. Ender’s Game is also about a boy being molded into the weapon at the cost of his psyche and the effect it has on him and those around him. As the novel comes to a close it becomes a story about PTSD and atonement.

So it was with cautious hope that I saw the film of the book Thursday night. It wasn’t bad; it touched on the themes and hit on many of the book’s highlights. But it was too short. It’s really hard to condense all of that into a single movie. Which brings me to the greats flaw of the film of Ender’s Game: It needed two movies.

The movie desperately needed more time, another beat in Battle School, another beat in Command School, and another at the end. Ender’s Game is on of the few books that really needed two movies to tell its story.

That’s the main criticism I can levy against the film. The cast was exceptional, Harrison Ford as Graff in particular. Some of the script was a little wonky, but never enough to drag down the rest. The visuals were beautiful (though I would have done something different camera-wise in the Battle Room). The movie was great, just too short.

Which just might make it that much more painful. It’s easy to hate a movie that’s just plain crappy (See: The Last Airbender) or fails to capture the spirit of the book (See: BBC’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe). Then it’s easy; the movie felt nothing like the book, missed the point, and sucked. In those cases you laugh off the movie figuring, hey, they tried, whatever.

Ender’s Game came so close as a movie. It had all the pieces it needed for a great adaptation. Everything was freaking there, the movie had it all. And it was great, for that. But it needed the chance to breathe. It needed the time to get into Ender’s isolation, to explore Dragon Army, to explore the consequences of his decisions. We needed two movies!

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the movie. I almost cheered when we met Bean and later Petra. Every one of Graff’s scenes was an absolute blast (Ford was able to capture Graff’s severity and warmth like no other). It was great; it just needed more time. What makes it more painful is that if someone ever tries again in the future, the parts will no longer be here. We won’t be able to have Harrison Ford as Graff again nor many of the other people involved.

Ender’s Game is by no means a bad movie, great even; but it came this close to being incredible. Movie’s worth a watch, but definitely read the book.

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Genre as Literature

I love science fiction. I’ve said that before on this blog, and I’ll say it again. I like spaceships. I like a world that’s a little more than ours. But when it comes to literary value science fiction almost always gets written off as being science fiction. Fantasy gets the same treatment. Why? Because it’s genre. Here’s the thing, though: science fiction can be as literary as it can be pulpy. Just like any other genre.

First off, let’s look up what exactly literary means. Wikipedia sources Joyce Saricks and defines literary fiction as “serious,” “critically acclaimed,” and “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.” Most interestingly, the term ‘literary’ fell into common usage in the 60’s. Why? To differentiate ‘serious’ fiction from genre. Which doesn’t make sense.

For example, look at The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. The former (published in 1969) deals with questions of gender and politics as well as being an outsider. There are layers and layers of this in The Left Hand of Darkness; some of it implicit and others not quite clear until after later thought. The Dispossessed (published 1974), on the other hand, looks at anarchy vs capitalism, individualism vs collectivism, and the tension when a person from one worldview visits a world where the opposite is practiced. So far, these seem to be pretty universal — and topical — themes. Both books are also extremely serious and have both been critically acclaimed (they won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, two annual science fiction accolades). So far this sounds very literary to me.

What about Ender’s Game; does Orson Scott Card’s novel fall under Saricks’ definition of literary? First glance would imply not; after all it’s just about children saving the world from aliens. Only it’s not. Ender’s Game is, at it’s core, a novel about empathy. Throughout the book Ender struggles with the tension between hate and love. Can you still hate someone, even your tormenter, after you understand them completely? What happens if this capacity for empathy is used as a weapon? And what if you’re institutionally ostracized from everyone else into becoming a weapon? Here lies the focus of Ender’s Game, not in killing aliens (whether the upcoming film keeps these themes is another issue). Like LeGuin’s novels, Ender is also critically acclaimed and, arguably, quite serious.

We can easily apply this lens to cinema as well. Underneath its slick action sequences, Inception asks questions about the nature of filmmaking and reality. Would you stay in a world where things were perfect, even if it wasn’t real? District 9 explores similar themes to Ender, albeit with regards to racism. Moon questions the meaning of identity in ways normal literature cannot.

Granted, a lot of genre fiction can be crap. Pulp novels from the early 1900’s tend to lack any sort of depth (though they set a lot of genre conventions still observed today). But then, can’t ‘normal,’ ‘non-genre’ fiction be crap too? You can find crappy detective novels, crappy historical fiction, crappy adventures, crappy fanfiction, crappy thrillers, and, redundant as it sounds, crappy romance novels. Why is some of it crap? Because some of it is good; really good. Some might even be ‘literary.’

So why was a term like ‘paraliterature’ coined to differentiate popular or commercial fiction from consecrated ‘literature?’ Does having the presence of anything outside the realms of normalcy instantly damn a piece of fiction? Way I see it, there shouldn’t be a divide: genre can be literary. Video games can be literary, look at The Last of Us! Comics can be literary (Watchmen). The problem with setting up a hard and fast guideline about where the line between literature and genre/paraliterature is that, like it or not, some of what you’re trying to keep out will inevitably slip through the cracks. Even if a criteria is as subjective as ‘serious.’ The alternate would be completely arbitrary decision making which, frankly, is just plain stupid.

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Instant Tension: Just Add Guns!

Say three guys are discussing the proper pronunciation of the word milk. Then the argument heats up and they start yelling. Things are starting to get a little intense Now one of them pulls a gun on the others. Things just got real, man! Then the other guys pull out their guns! Just like that the tension in the story jumps through the roof and the argument about elocution is forgotten in favor of will these friends kill themselves over it.

Most stories (and hilarious Julian Smith videos) need tension to move them along or they’ll wind up boring. So the story needs a crisis, a threat or something. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add a gun. Instantly someone’s life is on the line! Drama! Suspense! Tension!

This can be done right, of course. Look at Lost, especially in the earlier seasons when there were only a handful of guns. We got great drama from the fight for possession to their occasional use and threatening. The conservation of guns allows the actual use of them to provide great tension. Guns mean that life was seriously at stake and there were consequences. But the show didn’t always need guns. “The Constant”, arguably the best episode, is a terrific, tense episode that doesn’t have anyone firing a gun.

Some stories require guns. Video games like Uncharted or Mass Effect are about guys with guns saving the day. Chuck is about spies doing spyish work with guns. Take away James Bond’s gun and we get, well, not James Bond. You can’t rave against guns in these stories since they’re essential to the plot.

But let’s take out guns. Can a story keep that level of tension without a firearm?

Ender’s Game is a magnificent book, that should go without saying. One of the things that makes it so good is the state of constant excitement and tension. And besides the practice ones used in the Battle Room, there aren’t any guns. Rather, the tension comes from our wondering how Ender’s going to carry on.

The larger narrative external to the central one in Ender’s Game is a war between mankind and the alien buggers. But the one we follow is Ender’s personal struggle as he’s thrust into a new environment where he must use his wits to get ahead. We’re invested in the kid’s struggle, we want to see how far he can be pushed and how he’ll continue to think his way out. There are the occasional life-or-death moments, but for the most part the tension is intellectual.

Sometimes the thing at stake isn’t the character’s life but humanity. Silver Linings Playbook uses this sort of tension. Pat, Tiffany, and the other characters’ lives are never at the risk of ending, but rather we’re wondering if their lives will continue. As we watch Pat over the course of the movie we’re cheering for him, hoping that he’ll be able to get past his inner demons and come out on top. In a story like this we don’t need the external threat of death to spur things along. Sometimes the internal conflict is more than enough.

Other times a blend makes things work. Iron Man 2 has a few external conflicts in it (Monaco and the climax), but the central plot centers around Tony Stark’s struggle with his humanity and the consequences of doing the superhero schtick. The tension is a lot like that in Silver Linings Playbook: Will Tony be able to fix himself? It’s a blend that works.

Look, stories need tension, that’s just a fact of life. The question is always how to go about with that tension. Internal, external, guns waving around everywhere; the key thing, of course, is to do it well.

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No Home from War

I’m in college now, and one of the things you do in college is write essays. Every now and then one of these essays (which are certainly not rants) have a similar thread to the ones I post here.

So I have an assignment to look at a contemporary depiction of a soldier’s return home in light of a classical work of literature. Said paper is underway.

I’m taking Ulysses as my example, or Odysseus as he’s known in The Odyssey. But the man I want is Ulysses from The Divine Comedy (or as everyone who’s not a literary snob calls it: Dante’s Inferno). See, in the Inferno Dante meets Ulysses in hell.

After the ten year long Trojan war (y’know, Helen, Achilles, the Trojan Horse and all that) and the ten year journey back (cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, his own trip to the underworld, etc) Ulysses finally returned home to his wife and son.

Finally.

Thing is, as Ulysses tells Dante, that wasn’t enough for him anymore. He couldn’t sit still. Despite how much he loved his family and kingdom he couldn’t resist that call of adventure, to return to the seas.

And so he does. He assembles his crew once more for a final push, one last hurrah. It’s an epic adventure, crossing seas uncharted and finding lands unknown. But the sea overcomes them and their ship sinks and, as Ulysses tells it, that was it.

Ulysses couldn’t go home.

 My contemporary example is The Hurt Locker: Sergeant First Class William James is an EOD technician in Iraq. He’s really good at what he does. Really good.

Then, as the film draws towards its close, his tour comes to an end and he goes home. He’s home with his wife, shopping for groceries. Told to get cereal he’s suddenly overwhelmed by choice. This isn’t what he’s been trained for. He’s a weapon: a machine forged to diffuse bombs. Choosing cereal and shopping are as foreign to him as planting a C4 charge would be to his wife.

He confesses to his infant son that he doesn’t love much, and the one thing he thinks he loves is war. Bomb disposal. So he returns to the battlefield and starts his next tour.

So what’s this theme? This irrepressible call of battle? Why couldn’t life go back to normal?

It’s because they changed. The people who went off to war are not the same who returned. They have skill sets refined for warfare, some of which are not easily translated into civilian life and many of which have no equivalent. Suddenly they feel useless. Like the world they worked so hard to save has no space for them. Shooting bad guys is easy, coping with everyday life is something else entirely.

In Ender’s Game Ender saves the world from the alien invasion. But for him to return to earth would ignite a political storm. So he heads out into space to help start a colony. But even then, life as a mayor/governor is not enough for him. Ender leaves the colony for another, using relativity to stay young as the world ages around him. He cannot stay still: normal life is foreign to him.

Raiden, the player character for most of the second Metal Gear Solid game Sons of LIberty supposedly got his happy ending with his girlfriend at the end of the game. The soldier has beat the bad guy, saved the world, now he rides off into the sunset, right?

In the chronological sequel Guns of the Patriots, however, we find that it’s not the case. During the interim between games Raiden tried to settle down with his girlfriend and live a normal life. But he couldn’t. His almost-forgotten past as a child soldier haunts him and he grows distant and eventually leaves to find a war.

Because there’s always another war, another fight. These people don’t come home. Some, like Raiden and Ulysses, have been at war for so long that that is all they know. Others, like Sergeant James, get off on war: it’s their drug, it’s what they do. There’s no rest for them, because for them rest is torment.

It’s a question we see posed not just in fiction but in reality: once you’ve been through hell where do you go?

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! There are characters who aren’t sure about home in it too!

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Why Science Fiction

Science Fiction is a setting (not a genre) that frequently gets written off and ignored because it’s deemed inept to deal with more serious topics. But science fiction has leave to deal with heavy subjects in a way ‘regular’ fiction only wishes it could. Science fiction – good science fiction – has and will always be about people.

The world will change, but people will always stay the same. People will always want to control, people will always want more, people will always want love, people will always yearn for adventure, and people will always want to find home. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 17th, 21st, or 26th century: people don’t change. The best science fiction examines humanity – consciously or not – in ways that other fiction can not.

Ender’s Game can easily be looked at as just another story about mankind repelling alien invaders. We’ve got the buggers/formics poised to destroy humanity and the only hope lies in the kid named Ender Wiggen. But it goes beyond that: it looks at the idea of empathy (and the lack of it) as a tool and a weapon. It is Ender’s immense capacity for empathy that makes him an excellent leader and brilliant tactician, but it’s his ability to withhold it that makes him a brutal opponent. His empathy endears Bean, Alai, Petra and others to him, his brutality puts a very permanent end to his victimization. It’s this ability of his that allows him to understand his utterly alien enemy and defeat them, but ultimately come to love them. Because he understood them he could love them with all his innocence.

Ordinary fiction would spend too much time trying to explain how and justifying why child soldiers were being trained the way the International Fleet trains Ender and friends. The concept of an enemy so completely unknown, so plain inhuman would feel terribly contrived in conventional fiction. In Ender’s Game we go with it because it’s the setting. We get the innocence of a child and truly alien enemy. Why? Science fiction.

Everyone dreams. Everyone wants to escape. Inception gives us a world where we can escape into our dreams. Yes, there are practical uses for this (typically of the espionage and thieving variety), but what would we really do with this technology? Would we would run from the world and its problems into our dreams, into dreams where everything is how and as we want? Christopher Nolan examines the concept of being able to escape in this fashion and the questions of reality that ensue. If our dreams are better than life would we not chose to stay in that world? What would reality mean then? What would we do?

In Inception we see people running from reality and trying to create their own. It’s what we do in our daydreams and it’s what we do when we go to the movies. But in the world of this movie it’s something they can do on a whim. Some people hide in them, some people will use them, and some simply remain unaware. It’s on the humanity within the story that science fiction thrives. We see people act and can’t help but to wonder whether we, like Cobb’s wife, would just want to live in our imaginary world.

Finally; Serenity. The idea presented in Joss Whedon’s film is the question of control. Of course, we’ve heard stories about totalitarian governments clamping down on freedom and forcing them to behave. But it’s in this setting that the Alliance has not only the will but the ability to truly control their population. If free will and the capacity to make choice is taken out of the human equation what then remains?

Science fiction allows us to explore the idea in a world where it’s possible. Because we’ve agreed to believe that the technology exists we can see the implications. Serenity asks what would people would do if they found a world without choice. Five hundred years in the future we will still aim to misbehave: especially if misbehaving is the right thing to do. Set against a backdrop of spaceships and planets is the story of an artificial family just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of home.

So why science fiction? The setting lets us create worlds where the impossible is just a part of life. This impossible factor lets us ask what people would then do. District 9 asked the question of aliens and segregation, Alien created a unique horror film, Jurassic Park demonstrated the fallacies of playing god. Sure, the setting can be seen as just a vehicle for a parable, but it’s a world where imagination runs wild.

Good science fiction is about the people in the world. It’s a simple concept: the world will change but people will stay the same.

Plus, science fiction is just so friggin’ fun.

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