Friday, June 22, 2012

Review of "The Dispossessed" by Ursula Le Guin

The late ‘60s early ‘70s was a magnificently productive time in Ursula Le Guin’s career.  Though she continued writing award-winning, successful novels, nothing matches the quality and quantity of her output in this time. The first three novels in the Earthsea Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, and The Lathe of Heaven were all written then, each winning one if not more awards and flying off shop shelves.  The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, published in the middle of this stretch, rounds out the triumphant group and is considered by some her greatest achievement.

The Dispossessed is at heart the tale of the Shevek and his struggle to acquire and disseminate knowledge in two different socio-economic systems.  A minor physicist, Shevek’s research into the effects of time on space is interrupted and downgraded by the orthodox, or exploited by ambitious colleagues.  His home planet essentially a desert wasteland, basic habitation is also a struggle.  Shevek and others, including his partner Takver, spend a great portion of their lives dealing with food shortages and the difficult circumstances arising from their planet’s geological conditions and weather patterns.  Feeling his work holds more value than what it is appreciated for, Shevek sets aside his life’s problems and takes drastic steps to change the quality of his research.  The result surprising, the push leads him places he least expected.  The grass not always greener on the other side, it is the manner in which Shevek compromises the situation that the novel makes its point.

One of literature’s greatest realizations of an anarchic society, The Dispossessed is a thought experiment through and through.  Le Guin imagined a planet and its inhabitable moon, placed a system analogous to capitalism on the former and anarchy on the desiccated latter, and named them Anarres and Urras.  Not a Che Guevara or Sex Pistols-esque style of anarchy glorifying non-government, Le Guin handles the subject with maturity; the lives of the people on Urras are anything but utopic despite their lack of authority.  The social problems they face, while in a context potentially difficult readers to relate to but related clearly by Le Guin, adheres to the nature of an anarchic system—for better and worse.  Human vice being what it is, the oft idyllic nature of anarchic theory does not prevent Le Guin from exposing its vulnerable side.  The capitalist system more well-known, she portrays the Anarrens with equal aplomb, and the resulting ideological clashes between the two planets serve up the tension in the novel, not to mention being amongst the greatest social commentary sci-fi has produced.

The Dispossessed’s narrative structure alternates between the two planets, Anarres and Urras, a chapter at a time devoted to each.  Innate to this structure is also an oscillating timeline: the concluding events of the Anarres timeline correspond to opening events of Urras’ to form a satisfying whole.  This structure, while breaking from the linear to make the text more engaging for the reader, likewise forms an analogy to the ultimate outcome of Shevek’s research.  This symbolism, both in the narrative and in denouement, is rich.

In the end, The Dispossessed is a peak of anthropological science fiction and one of the top twenty-five science fiction books ever written.  Le Guin’s voice neither lavish or expansive, she writes in affective prose, sensitive to the causes and effects of the social concerns raised.  Shevek, those he encounters, and social systems they are a part of are dealt with in a realistic fashion that further belies Le Guin’s maturity.  Both answering and raising an equal number of profound questions, the book is for the ages.

Review of "Lord Foul's Bane" by Stephen R. Donaldson

Stephen Donaldson’s opening volume in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant Lord Foul’s Bane is, if anything, divisive for fans of fantasy.  The strict manner in which the book follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth will see them at ease in the familiarity of the story’s development or dismayed at the lack of originality when set alongside the plethora of epic fantasy available today.  There’s also potential the parallels to The Lordof the Rings will entice or put off readers.  What’s not discordant, however, is the moral message burning at the heart of Covenant’s story.  Still poignant today, it and the relative quality of the writing are the main reasons Donaldson’s series was once king of the fantasy charts.  

Lord Foul’s Bane, and the Chronicles as a whole, is portal fantasy.  Though Donaldson doesn’t identify the gateway in the opening volume, events begin and end in the real world.  The focal point of the book is Thomas Covenant.  One day discovering he has leprosy, his wife and the other townsfolk alienate him, “unclean” the word on their lips.  Encountering a mysterious beggar while paying the electric bill one day, the next thing Covenant knows he’s standing atop a pinnacle of stone, looking out over an idyllic land.  Let the fantasy begin.

Called simply the Land, the world Covenant suddenly finds himself in is fully Tolkien in flavor.  Magic works in organic fashion, the people live rustic lives, rivers wind through green hills—everything seems a caricature of what the good life was.  Most importantly for Covenant, there’s also no disease.  Though protesting it a dream, Covenant and the wedding band he still wears are declared sacred by the locals.  A great darkness swallowing the Land, he is subsequently taken on a quest to meet the great council and decide the fate of mankind.  The surreal nature of the Land overwhelming, it is Covenant’s rejection of life there which is the real engine driving the quest.

The similarities more than passing, many more of the motifs of The Lord of the Rings can be found in Lord Foul’s Bane, e.g. quests, dark lords, rings, magic, etc.  But to be fair, Donaldson’s hero is cast from a far different mold than Tolkien’s.  Precisely an anti-hero, it’s difficult to have sympathy for Covenant’s travails.  The belief he’s dreaming, and subsequently that actions have no consequences, causes him to behave in anti-social fashion and commit despicable acts.  His antics at times vile beyond belief, undoubtedly some readers will close the book forever upon reading some of them.  But for those with the patience to wait and learn Donaldson’s intent, a certain understanding does arise.  Without spoiling matters, suffice to say Lord Foul’s Bane is a very personal story that belies comparison to Tolkien only on the surface, everything below a character study of alienation and vindictiveness in the light of goodness.  

In style, Donaldson proves himself a better than average writer.  There are more than a few nice turns of phrase to complement internal monologue, the descriptions are well visualized, and plot movement is smooth and consistent.  The neologisms in the Land will be annoying for some readers.  For example hurtloam as a healing earth, diamonddraught as a kind of spring wine, or the name Saltheart Foamfollower, a giant who befriends Thomas, all appear regularly.  As immature as they may seem, the word pairings are intentional as Donaldson’s aim is to emphasize the idyllic nature of the Land in contrast to our gritty real world.  He succeeds, albeit in awkward fashion.  

The book’s problems lie in Donaldson’s overly predictable plotting.  Details of the story unique and interesting, the overall movement of the plot is, however, far from original. Campbell’s work taking center stage, Covenant’s quest will prove interesting for fans who read only high fantasy, his quest following the monomyth to a T.  However, for those looking for something fresh or new, Lord Foul’s Bane may not be a good option.  With each page, one can almost see Donaldson going through Campbell’s checklist, cast out of group, check, undergo trials, check, etc., etc..  Instead of being one of the few as it was when published in 1977, Donaldson’s strong effort has unfortunately become mixed up with the many faces of epic fantasy since.    

In the end, Thomas Covenant and Lord Foul’s Bane will not be for everyone.  Firstly, Covenant is one of literature’s great anti-heroes, which means more sensitive readers will be repulsed by his actions.  Readers open to the context Donaldson is placing him will, however, empathize with the story and be curious how it develops.  Secondly, the thirty-five years that have passed since Donaldson started writing the series have not helped cement its originality.  Quest fantasy of the purest variety, those who have read a lot of the genre but not Covenant’s story may not find anything inventive other than Covenant himself.  To Donaldson’s credit, however, the quality of writing and world building are better than most.  It would be nice to say the say the same of the plot, but Campbell already identified the idea.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review of "Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory" by Peter Barry

Several books have been published attempting to both quantify and elucidate the complex nature of literary theory.  These include Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford’s Literary Theory and Criticism and most recently Clare Connor’s Literary Theory: A Beginner’s Guide.  While I have not delved into Connor’s addition to the field, I have looked into the afore-mentioned texts.  Eagleton’s is good, but despite new editions, his strong socialist views leak into the narrative, not to mention the work is not fully comprehensive.  Culler’s is quotable quality, but as stated, is short; it lacks the depth of its peers’ and is best as a guide.  Oxford’s is a great reference, but with its formal, distant language, there is little of anything practical to help the reader understand how the theories are applied.  Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, however, is the theory and practice of literary criticism with a comprehensive look at the expansion of literary theory, from the end of the 19th century until present day.  Along with an extensive bibliography and index, Barry also includes additional reading for each subsection, making it a reference book worthwhile for students and scholars alike.

Beginning Theory now in its third edition (2009), Barry has taken the time to bring the reference book, originally published in 1995, into the 21st century.  Beginning with an outline of literary criticism pre-20th century (so-called liberal humanism), Barry thereafter analyzes and discusses structuralism, post-structuralism (deconstructionism), postmodernism, psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, feminist theory, lesbian/gay criticism, eco-criticism, new historicism/cultural materialism, post-colonialism, narratology, stylistics, presentism, transversal poetics, new aestheticism, historical formalism, and cognitive poetics.  There is also discussion on theories currently under development in the literary community, as well a look at ten important events that have helped shape literary criticism.  

Throughout the book, Barry does his best to maintain distance from the theories.  As objective as possible, he tries to allow the spirit of each to speak for itself.  But that he also applies the various theories to sample texts is what sets Beginning Theory apart.  A short story by Poe (supplied in the appendix) is used to contextualize the differing viewpoints of theory, poetry by Dylan Thomas and William Cowper on other occasions.  This variety of example analyses is what sets the book apart.  For those who need examples to make sense of what is otherwise formal discussion, the application of theory makes a huge difference.  If readers still have trouble, the helpful summaries at the end of each section provide not only useful questions to be asked when evaluating a piece (called “Stop and Think”), but also a list of selected reading that provides more detailed material on the given subject.

This review would be amiss were it not to mention Barry’s clarity of voice.  Each theory and example are described in lucid, flowing text that is both a pleasure to read and readily understandable.  Contrasting the often confusing nature of the theories themselves, it is impossible for readers not to walk away without a better understanding of a particular theory.  Rather than style of explanation, the only complaints readers may have would be of Barry’s angle on the theories, themselves.

In the end, Beginning Theory is the most comprehensive look at the subject of literary theory available in print (save the possibility of Connor’s recent addition, which I have not read).  Every pertinent literary theory of the past 100 years is articulated in easy to understand language that transcends the complex, often misunderstood nature of literary criticism.  The sample analyses that accompany each theory cements the reader’s understanding in a fashion theory alone cannot, helping to guide the uninitiated through the first steps of textual analysis.  Because each section has a strong “selected reading” list, the book also becomes a great reference for students and scholars alike.  Highly recommended for anyone interested in literary and cultural theory, as well as owning a handy and useful shelf reference that does not get bogged down in semantics. 

Review of "The Stranger" by Albert Camus

Forever concerned with the human condition, Albert Camus provided the early 20th century some of its most poignant philosophy and fiction on the meaning of existence.  Arguing that mankind should stick its proverbial middle finger up at the pointlessness of life and live despite it (an idea explored in his other major novel, The Plague), Camus’s output also dealt with another facet of life: the absurd.  Certain perspectives distancing consciousness from reality, his 1942 The Stranger is a brilliant rumination on the theme of emotional and behavioral accountability, and one of several reasons Camus won the Nobel.  

Set roughly in the year of the book’s publication, Meursault is an ordinary man living in Algeria.  He works; he sleeps; he goes out with friends; he loves; he eats—in in short, doing all the things considered normal of a person.  Existing prominently on the surface, however, is an emotional detachment from life.  Prelude to many character studies that would come in literature, Meursault exudes a sense of alienation from reality, his own mother’s funeral incapable of producing a reaction.  Phlegmatic to say the least, he lives with impunity.  A situation involving a lover and her brother coming to a dramatic head despite his indifference, Meursault commits one of the most horrendous acts a human can.  His reaction to this, however, is where Camus’ message lies.

A major entry into existentialist fiction, Camus’ view of conscious existence holds tighter to the philosophy of Heidegger and Jaspers than Nietzsche or Kierkegaard.  Not spiritual glorification, Meursault’s participation in the events of his life take on a metaphysical distance from reality that instead highlights his alienation.  The despicable act he commits would bother most, yet he remains unaffected by it and in fact, seems confused dealing with the aftermath.  Camus among the best post-modern writers on the philosophy of existence, The Stranger shows why.

Style strongly in the vein of Hemingway and other American writers of the time, Faulkner, Dos Passos, etc., Camus’ sentence and syntax have a sparse, loose feel that complements and enforces the distancing effect he was aiming at.  Beauty and lyricism not the intent, readers partake in a text devoid of superfluous, over-descriptive language such that only the proverbial bones of Meursault’s life break the surface.  Suffice to say, the usage of style to augment the distance to Meursault readers experience is a major component of the book’s success and an example of art producing value.

In the end, The Stranger is one of the great books of the 20th century.  Though Meursault and his dispassionate mode of living may be confusing to the average reader, it is rightfully so.  Camus’ commentary on post-modern life strikes at the heart of a number of issues, becoming only more pertinent as technology further alienates humanity from itself.  A sparse tone infused with ideas universally philosophical, The Stranger is literature for the ages.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review of "Europe: A History" by Norman Davies

Extremely few cultures in the world can lay claim to having recorded their history for more than the past millennia, let alone two or three.  Egypt, Persia, and China have to some extent, however, it is only Europe that has collectively done so consistently—an amazing feat for a continent featuring hundreds of differing, adapting, and warring cultures over the years.  Norman Davies’ undertaking to relate the entire history of Europe, past to present, is ambitious to say the least.  

The result is Europe: A History, a volume more than a 1,300 pages in length, including appendices featuring raw data in the form of graphs, charts, maps, family trees, and statistics in support of the facts supplied in the narrative.  Davies begins in pre-historic times before Europe had a name, slowly breaking down the major events and developments which have brought the continent to where it presently stands.  Not a focus on the glories of Rome and British empires, Davies exhibits and an even hand throughout, doling out page space to the lesser-known cultures and countries of the continent as well.  Poland, Romania, Scandanavia, the former Yugoslavia, etc. all find their place in European history thanks to the attention of Davies.  

As it stands, however, the book is precisely that: an overview of European history.  Readers seeking details of particular places or times should look into historical works more closely related to the region, culture, or era of interest.  Europe is more light reading, at least as light as thousands of years of history compressed into one large volume can be.

When confronting the reading of such a mammoth block of text, it’s important to consider the style of writing.  Poorly written prose unbearable at such a length, Davies does not disappoint.  Occupying a point somewhere between scholarly and contemporary, Davies never leaves the layperson behind in the details or formality of his writing.  At the same time, scholars will appreciate the informative manner in which facts are related. Never condescending to assume the reader is implicitly of certain historical facts, Davies works from square-one, ensuring the material is available to all readers. 

There are potential faults in the book.  Mankind in disagreement over what happened a decade ago, reports on history a thousand years of age are bound to raise a few objectors.  We will leave that to the scholars, however.  A second point may be the lack of anything truly groundbreaking.  The opening line of the preface stating “This book contains little that is original”, readers hoping for something fresh they haven’t encountered in other history books may be disappointed.  Davies writes clearly in the introduction that Europe is a survey rather than intricate or unique look at every detail of the continent’s past.  Thus, scholars be warned nothing new to be found here.  The book is fully intended for people with little knowledge of events as a whole in Europe who want to know more.

In the end, Europe: A History is the best survey of European history currently on the market.  Covering the immense time span of the pre-historic to the end of the 20th century, readers looking for detailed expositions of individual cultures or eras should look elsewhere.  Like an ongoing epic, Davies relates Europe’s history with an eye to the whole, forever conscious of how events in the east affect the west, or how political regimes failing from within allowed weaker kingdoms to rise.  Educated historians perhaps taking issue with some of the data Davies presents (little of history is not contentious), few, however, will argue with the overall scope of outcomes.  Thus, the book comes recommended for anyone looking for an overview of the important events that have shaped the European continent, all written in quality prose.  With an eye to including even the less prominent cultures, it is an interesting story.

Review of "Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card’s books are like shooting stars: a few flash brilliantly across the sky, but always an anonymous twinkle remains.  His Wikipedia entry proudly boasts of him being the only author ever to win Hugo and Nebula awards for the same two books in consecutive years, yet the remaining 59 he’s published have few additional epithets, most none.  And it’s not a mystery why.  Erratic prose, forced plotting, harsh characterization, and bold conservatism trail everything he writes.  His is a cult following.  With Ender’s Game, his greatest success, Card came upon a concept that worked within his talents and created a highly entertaining novel.  The follow up, or as Card puts it the originating idea behind Ender’s Game, is not as successful but remains a solid read for its themes and suspense, nonetheless.  

Able to stand fully by itself, Speaker for the Dead picks up the life of Ender at age thirty-five—yet 3,000 years in the future from Ender’s Game.  As a Speaker for the Dead, he must travel great distances between planets to speak over people’s deaths, thus giving him an age measured in millennia in reality but mere decades, physically.  The Hive Queen still alive, Ender carries the telepathic insect with him everywhere he goes, searching for a suitable planet in which to set her free to rebuild the bugger species.  Lodged in a jewel attached to his ear, Ender is also now accompanied by the AI, Jane, who helps him gather info to speak for the dead—and much more.

But Ender’s quest to find a place for the Hive Queen is only part of the Speaker for the Dead’s story.  A group of Portuguese Catholics have arrived at the planet Lusitania and discovered humanity is once again not alone.  The pequeninos, or piggies, who inhabit the planet are the only other sentient species besides the buggers mankind has encountered.  Not wanting to repeat the genocide of Ender’s Game, the colonists immediately put in place a host of regulations and restrictions for interaction and research on the piggies.  The piggies, however, prove to have more on their agenda.  The two families of biologists and anthropologists studying the creatures soon find themselves in a world of inexplicable trouble, and unfortunately, in need of a Speaker’s talents.

The suspense surrounding the in-depth knowledge of piggie culture is where Card earns his pay in Speaker for the Dead.  Anticipation built with each of their strange and curious acts, readers readily turn the page to find the reason for the perplexing behavior.  The reveal both surprising and satisfying, the bittersweet feelings which result prove Card’s idea a fertile one.  The journey to reach the conclusion should likewise be mentioned.  While real-world anthropologists will undoubtedly throw the book in frustration, Card’s mixing of cultural perspectives remains poignant to the story and worthwhile food for thought.

Theme is a strong point of Speaker for the Dead.  Guilt (both personal and social), empathy, civic understanding, cultural sensitivity, religion, transcendence, and the need for honesty in all things are discussed, particularly the latter.  Though not always presented in the most believable of fashions or developed in a manner that fully engages the reader, Card’s intentions are in the right place.  Ender’s objective to heal the suffering of the colonists and piggies, while gone about in super-emo-man style, remains subject matter rarely dealt with in sci-fi.  The narrative often harsh and ineffective, Card’s objective still comes shining through, the sensationalist yet hopeful ending drawing it all together in morally exaggerated style.

Like wedging a square peg into a round hole, the dialogue and internal monologue of the novel are forced.  It is a rare moment that interaction amongst the characters feels realistic.  Moreover, Card jumps and skips irregularly between third person narrator, internal monologue, and occasionally his own voice.  The context straight-forward enough that confusion is rare, reading the book is nevertheless neither a smooth or fluid experience.  Topping the lingual list of no-nos, however, is the regular usage of a foreign language.  Words, phrases and sentences from Portuguese feature heavily, Card translating the material immediately after.  The story thus at times feels more like a do-it-yourself Portuguese tutorial than a novel.  El estilo de Card, o la falta del mismo, no mejora la novela. Card’s style, or lack thereof, does not improve the novel.  (A test of Google translator to prove the point.)

Unfortunately, there are some additional lowlights.  Firstly, there is the choice of several plot devices that suit the scene but do not fit the whole.  The AI Jane is a good example. A literal deus ex machina, she controls technology omnipotently at times, yet her talents remain suspiciously absent at others for no reason.  Secondly, Card plays the shock card, and plays it hard.  One important scene in particular fully intends to manipulate readers.  In exaggerated fashion it succeeds, but at the price of contradicting all of the anthropological logic built to that point.  A third problem with the novel is the intrusion of authorial voice.  Like a tornado in Kansas, Card sends Ender on an emotional tear through Lusitania, leaving Freudian repressed guilt, angry tears, and forgiveness in his wake.  Less than subtle, readers are constantly aware Ender is Card.  Pressing so hard, his voice literally breaks the fourth wall on a couple of occasions.  Undoubtedly a reason Card has a cult following, those unfamiliar may be put off by the overt nature of the moralizing.

Only potentially negative, there are some additional aspects of the novel which should be discussed.  Card’s far-future has advanced significantly from ours, interstellar travel, AI, and biomechanical organs to name a few things.  There are others which have not—a seemingly random contradiction.  Despite the thousands of years that have passed, Catholicism remains Catholicism, satellites are still big dumb objects, and electric fences are still five feet tall, humanity having come up with no better tricks to prevent people from entering certain places.  This anachronistic aspect, while perhaps charming—even insightful—to some, will undoubtedly annoy others.  Be warned.

In the end, Card’s intentions in Speaker of the Dead are strong enough to balance the book’s shortcomings.  Syntax, at times internal logic, and the consistency of the novel may fall flat, but the importance of the underlying message burns through.  More YA than adult literature due to the immaturity of Card’s style, the aforementioned themes remain pertinent as the years go by.  Readers coming from Ender’s Game and expecting more of the same military sf should be warned: the sequel has the same strong social commentary as Game’s conclusion, but not the action.  (As Card borrows the ansible in homage, fans of Le Guin may also want to check out Speaker for the Dead.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review of "Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre" Ed. by Walter Kaufmann

Drawing together the various threads that have appeared throughout recent centuries, particularly around the turn of the 20th, Walter Kaufmann’s 1956 Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre is one of a few comprehensive collections of texts available on the subject.  Analysis light, Kaufmann (the editor) mostly allows the examples he’s chosen to speak for themselves, producing a multi-faceted look at the complex subject in the process.  Only a slice taken from each relevant writer’s oeuvre, the book should be considered more light reading than scholarly, the full versions of the texts more likely of interest to those invested in existentialism.  The collection is thus of more interest to those with a passing or burgeoning interest in the subject compared to those wishing to dig deeper into a subject they already know a fair bit about.   

Fiction to philosophy, poetry to essay, a variety of representative texts are selected.  Kaufmann, always editor/sometimes translator, uses an all-star cast of philosophers, novelists, poets, and everything between toward presenting texts exemplifying existentialism.  Included are a selection from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, essays by Kierkegaard, selections from Nietszche’s works (including The Gay Science, Ecce Homo and The Will to Power), prose by Rilke, three parables by Kafka, lectures by Jaspers, essays by Heidegger (including “The Way Back into the Ground of Metaphysics”), a chapter from Sartre’s Self-Deception, as well as Camus’ essay "The Myth of Sisyphus".  

Beyond a fifty page introduction, Kaufmann rarely intrudes, allowing each author’s voice to speak for itself.  The selections chosen holistically rather than definitively, Kaufmann’s choice of texts enclose the subject of existentialism rather than exhaustively define it.  For example, Kaufmann presents Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s point of view on existentialism as not unlike inner spirituality, while for Heidegger, Kafka, and Camus’, a postmodern aspect takes center stage, isolation and absurdity key to their understandings.  Some of the texts naturally more accessible to readers than others, the novelists prove most readable, while Heidegger and Jaspers, as always, must be borne with patience.  

Faults, well, if you happen to disagree with the presented view of existentialism—a wild horse no philosopher has corralled—then there may be some eye-brow raising, even lip-twisting, directed toward Kaufmann’s selection and analysis.  For those who agree with his interpretation, suffice to say agreement typically breeds affection.  For the remainder who are able to maintain a broad view, simply put, the collection can do nothing but provide food for thought.

In the end, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre is not a work to be studied in detail.  A selection only, each writer’s works can be found in full and analyzed to the nth degree in myriad other published works—Nietzsche alone perhaps able to generate a library.  More discursive than analytical, the book is intended for those with an interest in the subject but who are not involved in heavy research.  Readers who approach the book as such will undoubtedly walk away with a much better understanding of the broader picture of existentialism, not to mention a variety of new texts to read, depending which writer’s voice speaks the loudest. A great introduction, and highly recommended.

Review of "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

There are very few “best of” sci-fi/fantasy lists that do not feature Orson Scott Card’s 1985 Ender’s Game near the top.  The story of a young boy’s rise through a space academy tantalizing and highly inventive throughout, the reasons are obvious.  Card hit upon an idea, mined it for every penny of entertainment, and cashed in—a wholly absorbing novel with humanist elements tacked to the end the reader’s reward.  

Ender’s Game is the story of Ender Wiggins and his often exciting, always visceral fight for place in a space academy.  Though he had a bit of trouble fitting in on Earth with his classmates, Ender proves himself more than capable of surviving in a system intended to separate the Darwinian wheat from the chaff.  But it’s at the price of his relationships.  The war games the children and teens play anything but light, laser-tag is only the appearance.  The challenges Ender faces in the game rooms—social, authoritarian, and strategic—break and mold him into a young man.  But what kind of young man does he become? 

Card’s imaginative span great entertainment, the scene is brilliantly set for one challenge after another at the Battle School.  Readers are constantly kept guessing how he—Card and Ender—will top himself, each new setup the next mission impossible.  Yet, it consistently happens, and in the process Ender must use every molecule of brain power to overcome the American Gladiator-like obstacles placed in he and his team’s path by the academy’s authoritarian overseers.  Card portraying the war games in video game fashion, the levels only get more difficult, creating a mountain of suspense in the process.  The war games, in fact, provide the main draw of the novel and are undoubtedly the reason it is regarded so highly by readership.

Aside from neither brilliant nor dull prose, the only other potential fault of the novel is its moods.  The story of a boy at a space academy innately juvenile, a young adult feel prevails throughout.  Card attempts to make the story more “adult” by splashing strong language here or there, adding some graphic details to the challenges at the Battle School, and moralizing at various points, but the overall effect is not very subtle.  There is the sudden prominence of a theme fully adult at the novel’s conclusion, but it doesn’t help.  The story retains a tone that could be either YA or standard.  

Love it or hate it, the most subversive aspect of Ender’s Game is its conclusion.  Events taking a major turn, readers can not expect things to transpire as they do.  Holding a mirror to the story, Card uses a suddenly new perspective to bring Ender to the next stage of his development.  The manner in which Card pulls the literary rug out from under readers’ feet to accomplish this, however, will either have people nodding their heads in better understanding of the novel’s true message, or shaking their heads, preferring such an adventure come to a more conventional ending, the plummet from action to anthropological sci-fi perhaps too quick to handle.  In a genre featuring all too much derivative, Card should be lauded for this, however.  

In the end, Ender’s Game is some of the most exciting entertainment readers of any genre can have.   The sharp left turn of an ending, while poignant to Card’s larger aspirations, may leave some readers disoriented, but will certainly interest those looking for sci-fi with more depth than the standard fare.  Enjoyable at many levels, character to setting, plot to theme, it’s difficult for this book to disappoint save the overall lack of maturity in tone.  Having some thematic points in common with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Forever Peace or Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, readers who enjoyed those two novels but have (somehow) never read Ender’s Game will want to check it out.  The same is true vice versa.