Ender’s Game

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.

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Shaken, Not Stirred

Spoiler Warning: This blog contains minor spoilers for the movie Skyfall

When I was a kid, my parents rented a condo up at Sugarloaf, a ski resort in Maine.  The owners owned the complete collection of Bond films. I put one in out of curiosity, not being familiar with the series. Ended up watching them all by the end of the week, and have been a life-long fan ever since.

There’s this great ceremony to Bond films. You almost always start off with a prologue. Right at the climactic moment of the prologue, the theme starts and the film cuts to the title sequence. You can expect the title sequence to be surreal, filled with motifs representing what you’re going to see in the film itself. Then, there’s the rest of the movie; Q, M, the Bond Girl, the Villain. It’s all going to be there, in some form or another.

Skyfall, the latest release, had it all, though some of it was unexpectedly shaped. The prologue, for example, ended in a rather dramatic failure. Q’s got a new actor and new attitude. The Bond Girl role was split, with the more classical of the two getting a rather abrupt arc. M had a far more active role in the plot than normal. Speaking of the plot, it attempted to be quite a bit deeper than Bond usually goes.

Then there’s the villain, Silva. Javier Bardem proves his performance in No Country For Old Men was no fluke; the man is capable of some downright mesmerizing badness.  A friend compared his performance to Ledger’s Joker; I don’t know how apt that is, but neither would I outright disagree.

The settings did not get left behind either; this was my favorite collection of settings in any Bond film. The finale at the old manor house on the Scottish Highlands was breath-taking. Don’t be surprised if one of my future novels takes place in exactly such a place.

For me, it all worked beautifully to form one of my favorite Bond films.

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve started spending so much time thinking about storytelling is I get way more critical during movies. I don’t consider this a positive trait; I go to movies to have a good time, not to nit-pick plot elements. Unfortunately this tendency made at least one film this year far less enjoyable than it otherwise could be, and I was worried the same might happen with Skyfall. But the plot, despite being as nitpick-able as any Bond flick, didn’t bother me at all; I was caught along for the ride and had a great time.

Music video of the week: A wonderful number by one of my favorite folk rock bands, Of Monsters and Men. Enjoy!