I watched Ender’s Game last night, and, with only a vague memory of the novel by Orson Scott Card on which it is based, was newly struck by all the moral questions raised by the story. One or two of them – as with most things these days – seemed to connect with a few of the larger themes of my PhD, so I decided to write this post.
Ender’s Game tells the story of Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, who is part of a cohort of children being trained to lead the Earth’s fleet of spaceships against the Formic menace. Fifty years ago, the Formic (a race, as their name indicates, of ant-like aliens) attacked earth but were repulsed thanks to the heroics of one Mazer Rackham. Now mankind, fearing a return of their fast-rebuilding enemy, is launching a final attack on the Formic homeworld in order to protect the future of the Earth. The plot can be divided into two sections: those moments spent in ‘battle school’ orbiting earth where Ender and the other children learn basic military strategy and Ender marks himself out as a leader; and, then, after some hesitation, Ender’s journey to ‘command school’, not far from the Formic homeworld, where he leads a team through simulated attacks against the aliens.
The twist of the story, however, is that, following Ender’s triumph in the last simulation when he fires a superweapon that erases all life from the planet below, all these simulated combats were in fact real battles. Ender’s game was actually reality, and, eager to show his strategic daring, the child prodigy has both committed genocide and sacrificed many thousands of human lives to do so. Despite knowing that this twist was coming, it still shocked me, while the film’s coda – in which Ender discovers one last Formic and promises to protect the creature – does little to assuage the horror.
This got me thinking. Right at the beginning of the film, and during an important interlude between ‘battle school’ and ‘command school’, Ender explains his tactical brilliance in the following terms:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.
What is so terrible about the ruse of claiming that Ender is playing a simulation, therefore, is that it prevents any meaningful contact between the child and his enemy, no matter how much he feels connected to him. The coda tries to redress this, and makes us realise that Ender was indeed slowly building up a rapport with the aliens all along, but this only confirms the ugly logic of it all. The sentiment that when you understand someone well enough to defeat him, you also love him should – one feels – be an argument for pacifism, for restraint based on sympathy. What the imposition of false make-believe has done is to remove that restraint so that the child ends up killing the enemy he has begun to understand and love.
Behind all this, there is the shape of an argument one often hears about video games and other immersive entertainments: that they create arenas of suspended morality, and so corrupt those who spend time in them. This brings me to the PhD, and an antitheatrical argument that has circulated for eons, which runs along similar lines, namely that the theatre exposes its audiences to experiences and ideas that they would never otherwise have had. If some of these ideas are dangerous, then the theatre, for all the safety of theatrical illusion, can still have a corrupting influence on those who watch or, perhaps even more so, on those who act out, night after night, the blinding of Gloucester, the murder of Banquo or any other such scene.
Against this, there is an argument that the theatre promotes sympathy and connection, stretches the emotional fibre of an audience (and an actor) forced to confront extreme situations, and so makes them stronger. What, I suppose, therefore, is ultimately so disturbing about Ender’s Game is how the simulation is used to close down the possibility of emotional development. The suggestion that it is all make-believe makes it easier to do something terrible. The game, the play, for a moment at least, suspended morality as much as it suspended disbelief.
BONUS: Coda on Shakespeare
This has just made me think of Hamlet. Does Laertes need the fencing match in order to kill Hamlet? The standard reading is that Laertes is furious and would attack the prince anywhere, but is restrained by Claudius into making it look like a fencing accident with the use of a sharpened, poisoned rapier. That said, could it not be that the structure, the game, of such a match helps Laertes to commit murder? After all, he has only to convince himself that it is, as it appears, no different from all the sportive bouts we know he has been having as part of his education in France. This would mean that, like Hamlet, Laertes too needs help to kill. Further, it would fit with other moments in the play. After all, even Hamlet, a bit earlier in the plot, seems to have tried to turn fiction to the real-life end of strengthening his resolve by staging the Murder of Gonzago to ascertain Claudius’s guilt…