Friday, September 18, 2015

OverAnalyzed: The Other in "Ender's Game"

The Other—foreign, shunned, incomprehensible, scapegoated. This concept of the Other is explored by many science fiction novels with one of two results for the Other: Assimilation or destruction. In Ender’s Game, however, Ender both loves and hates the Othered Buggers and thus both destroys and assimilates the Buggers simultaneously. He is able to perform this dual destruction and assimilation due to a combination of his nature and harsh military conditioning. In addition, through his actions, Ender exhibits the intertwined state of destruction and assimilation and reaches a third resolution to the Other, understanding.

From the very beginning of Ender’s Game, Ender is set up to hate Buggers with every fiber of his being. Earth’s culture has developed a laser focus on the “Bugger threat.” Children no longer play “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and Indians.” Instead they play “Astronauts and Buggers.” Propaganda reels show soldiers slaughtering hordes of indistinguishable buggers or bugger ships exploding silently in the black vortex of space. The worst insults anyone can muster are to call someone a “Bugger” or a “Bugger-lover.” The children’s games of “Buggers and Astronauts” train them in combatting the Other—“When kids played in the corridors, whole troops of them, the Buggers never won, and sometimes the games got mean. The Buggers couldn’t just go empty and quit the way Buggers did in the real wars.” (Card, 11). 

This culture of hatred intensifies when Ender arrives at Battle School. Before, the Buggers were only a sort of abstract Other, something no one could conceive of actually facing. At Battle School, the Buggers become a very real threat. Every waking moment of Ender’s day is spent training to combat Buggers. In the Battle Room the children are not really fighting other children, they are fighting Buggers. All of this primes Ender for the eventual destruction he will wreak upon the Bugger race and homeworld. As Graff tells Ender, “The Buggers are out there. Ten billion, a hundred billion, a million billion of them, for all we know… With weapons we can’t understand. And a willingness to use those weapons to wipe us out.” The Buggers are the enemy. Graff will not let Ender forget. As a Third—an extra child conceived at government request—Ender exists only to eliminate the Other. (Card 35).

At the same time, however, Ender also becomes more and more empathetic towards the Buggers. Even back on Earth, the seeds of Ender’s identification with the Buggers were sown. When Peter forces Ender to play “Astronauts and Buggers” it is Ender who is the Bugger. Wearing the bugger mask, Ender thinks of what derogatory names Buggers would call humans: “On their home worlds, do the buggers put on human masks, and play? And what do they call us? Slimies, because we’re so soft and oily compared to them? ‘Watch out, Slimy,’ Ender said.” Ender has completely assumed the role of the other, even thinking like a Bugger. (Card 11).

During his time at Battle School, Ender continues to immerse himself in the Bugger mindset. He repeatedly views footage of combat between Buggers and humans, attempting to glean new strategies from Bugger behavior. And when Ender moves to Command School, leading his subordinates against the Bugger fleet, they begin to resemble the Buggers in their methods of attack. At the same time, Ender dreams of being vivisected by Buggers. He has begun to think so much like a Bugger that his true human self is becoming an Other to himself. All of this on a planet molded by Buggers, as Mazer Rackham says, “Human beings didn’t carve this place… We’re living in a Bugger hive.” Ender’s identification with the Buggers is reaching critical mass in a place built by Buggers for Buggers.  
Perversely, it is this identification which allows Ender to destroy the Buggers. Ender loves the Buggers. He identifies with them in his very core, thinking like one, dreaming like one. To know a thing, one must become it. In order to outwit the Buggers, Ender immersed himself in their mindset, discussing their psychological and biological makeup with Mazer Rackham, even defending them when Rackham notes that the Buggers killed humans. Ender replies, “So they didn’t know what they were doing.” (Card, 271). 

Ender has assimilated the Buggers into his psyche, which is one response to an Other. In the process, he has made the inevitable destruction he wreaks upon the Buggers that much more painful for himself. For Ender must destroy the Buggers. His superiors have decided that humanity’s survival depends on it. And so Ender obliterates the Buggers. Planet by planet, fleet by fleet, Ender cuts a swathe through the Buggers. And in the end, faced with the Bugger home world, Ender decides to destroy both the planet and the queen hidden there. By doing so, Ender exterminates an entire race—only the Bugger queen is capable of reproduction, and without the queen, all Buggers lose the will to live. The end result is a complete obliteration of the Other. “I killed them all, didn’t I? All their queens. So I killed all their children, all of everything.”  (Card 297). 

The very fact that Ender’s destruction of the Buggers necessitates his embracing the Other raises an interesting point about responses to an Other. Ender needed to understand the Buggers at an intimate level to comprehend how to destroy them. As Graff notes, “We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them.” (Card 298).

Or, to reverse the statement, destroying the Buggers allowed Ender to understand them. In other words, the two responses to an Other are really different facets of the same response. In destroying an Other—whether it be a person, a culture, an ecosystem—an understanding is gained of that Other. For example, in conquering India, Britain acquired Indian dishes such as curry. Conversely, when an Other is assimilated, though aspects of its culture or other features may remain, it is no longer the thing it was prior to assimilation, making assimilation a form of destruction as well. 

However, both of these responses carry a heavy responsibility. Ender tells Valentine, “I know the Buggers better than any other living soul, and maybe if I go there I can understand them better. I stole their future from them; I can only begin to repay by seeing what I can learn from their past.” (Card, 314). 

And so Ender writes. He speaks for the dead. He tells the world of what the Buggers were—of their sorrow and their mistakes. Ender ascends beyond assimilation or destruction. In becoming Speaker for the Dead, Ender becomes a Bugger, but remains himself. In essence, Ender has transcended the intertwined responses of destruction and assimilation and created a new response to the Other: Understanding.

With this step, Ender seems to show a way forward, highlighting the obliterating nature of the traditional responses to the Other and giving an alternative found through bitter experience. It is not a perfect answer, for Ender destroyed the Buggers long before he began to truly understand them. But it is a different answer, and sometimes, change is good.