MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE BOOK AND MOVIE AHEAD!
I just came back from seeing Ender’s Game. The book had been one of my favorites growing up. I remember coming across it in sixth grade, having never heard of it before. Beyond being a really great story, it posed questions I had never considered about morality and the decisions we must make when confronting an enemy who poses an existential threat to ourselves, our family, or perhaps our entire species.
I read it again in high-school, that and it’s sequels and the (in my opinion, superior) companion novel, Ender’s Shadow, but I don’t think I’ve touched it since then. Coming back to the story through the movie ten years later is interesting. I don’t believe I was equipped to truly understand the enormity of what Ender did and what questions he faced afterward.
Watching the film, I found the characters and their actions less realistic than I remembered, but I don’t think that matters. Not all stories are perfect reflections of the real world but rather thought exercises that let us take perspectives on hard questions that we’d never able to find if we restricted ourselves to reality.
Ender’s philosophy is simple: if you want to be sure, truly sure, that your enemy won’t ever come back and hurt you, you have to hurt him first. Hurt him so badly he’s not ever capable of hurting you again. Don’t just win the first battle, win them all at the same time.
We see this on a smaller scale when Ender confronts various bullies. Ender beats them so badly they die, though in the book this fact is deliberately hidden from him. At the end of the novel we see it in the largest possible scale, when Ender destroys the bugger’s home planet to ensure they cannot harm humanity again.
If you scour the internet you’ll find some pretty extreme opinions on the book, ranging from adulteration to accusations of furthering a fascist agenda. I in particular disagree with the latter, not because I believe what Ender does is right or wrong, but because I don’t believe the book advances anything. It poses questions. I don’t personally feel it offers many answers, not that they are any.
To be fair, it is, in many ways, a very ugly question. Genocide (or, more precisely, Xenocide) is the kind of topic that can make people’s skin crawls even thinking about, much less discussing in depth. Yet it’s not impossible to imagine facing the same scenario Ender did. An incomprehensible alien race who’s wrecked astonishing havoc on us. At what point do we give them the benefit of the doubt? How many people are we okay letting die while we figure out if there’s any chance of peace? Do we need to be 100% sure? 99%? 90%?
These questions are almost certainly what the American leaders faced during world war II, in determining whether to use the atomic bomb against Japan. In the future, they will almost certainly be asked again.
There aren’t easy answers. Maybe there are no answers. Our morality, any morality, are systems devised for living within a society, with neighbors who, largely, aren’t trying to kill us and our entire families. With people who will generally try to be peaceful and follow the rules. But when those rules break, when we are forced to the edges where things aren’t peaceful and clear, when our lives are threatened, our the lives of our family are threatened or the existence of our very species, those rules are stretched in ways they maybe weren’t meant to be stretched. What seemed fair and proper in theory shatters when faced with oncoming cataclysm.
In an analytic sense, these are the edge cases of morality, the ones where the rules don’t work the way we want them to. I don’t know what to do about them. I don’t know what the right approach is our even a method of exploring them, but what I wish is that we discussed them more, not less. That we used the fact that we do live in a largely peaceful time and place to think about what might happen when that peace is disrupted. Because right now, we have time to talk about these things. When you’re fleet, humanities last hope, is days away from the enemy planet, your too late.