Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Classics: Ender’s Game – A Book Review

Hot off the completion of 1984 and typing out my review, I jumped straight into Ender’s Game.  There are those who would argue its place among the ‘Classics,’ yet I am one to wholeheartedly agree with its place on any top SF/F list.  I first read this back when I was in middle school or high school; from the first time I started reading it, I was hooked.  The pace is quick, and by that I mean fast!  There was an incredible amount of military theory, political manoeuvring and plot packed into such a compact book.  The fact that this was originally based on a short story and fleshed out into its current form may explain a lot of that.

Recently made into a cinematic adaptation (which I have yet to see), Orson Scott Card has certainly seen his fair share of criticism and bad press.  To be honest, I don’t agree with many of the author’s views, certainly not the ones that put him in such hot water.  To be clear, and to get it out of the way, this is a book review about Ender’s Game, not about the author.

We first meet Ender as his monitoring device is removed, a device that records his brainwaves and experiences.  It is no surprise that the first couple of encounters would be formative and revealing to Ender's character: with his older and diabolically twisted brother, Peter, and one of the older kids from his school, Stinson.  The former is a driving force for Ender throughout the book, as Peter’s torments and harassment plague Ender.  Poor Stinson is our first example of Ender’s capacity to excel in reading a scenario and overcoming it despite a multitude of deficiencies, defeating an opponent who outclasses him in every conceivable physical way.  The two sides of Ender are revealed and explored thereafter.

The Battle School and the games played with Ender, as well as those he plays within, are a quick overview of how he becomes the formative general and leader that will eventually save the world.  His leadership skills are developed and flexed until he finally gets to Command School.  There, he is set with the best and brightest from the Battle School.  Tutored through the most grueling challenges yet faced by the legendary hero of the Second Formic (Bug) War, Mazer Rackham, Ender and his team fight their way through new and more complex simulations.  They culminate with Ender winning the decisive victory over the Buggers.  We then realize that simulations, these were not.

The books ends with Ender leading a colonization of one of the Bugger planets, recently vacated after their queen’s died, leaving them devoid of reasons to live.  After establishing the colony, Ender makes a startling discovery.  He finds the last remaining egg of the Buggers, a queen who telepathically explains to Ender their perspective of the war Ender fought to defeat them.  He earns their love and respect, in doing so, healing the wounds that Battle School and Command School had rent in his psyche.

The dichotomy of the chapter introductions, typically a discussion between Colonel Graffe and Major Anderson about what Ender accomplished, or how they would mess with him, were perfect blends of world building and backstory in the context of what developed in the chapters themselves.  Typically laced with some significant humour, it often contradicted the seriousness of the activities Ender was forced to endure.

I found the chapters with Peter and Valentine (Ender’s older brother and sister) were originally a distraction from the story I really wanted to read: what was Ender doing?  In this, perhaps the fifth time reading, I came to understand just how important this part of the story was.  As Valentine assisted Peter’s megalomaniacal dream of ruling the world, it counter-balanced Ender’s genius; Peter and Valentine were the two greatest influence on Ender’s formative years.  As Peter and Valentine grew their influence over the global political landscape, it mirrored Ender’s control over the Bugger threat.  It was also the mechanism that justifiably allowed Ender to escape Peter’s clutches, but only through Valentine’s doing.

At just 225 pages, this is a quick and easy read, yet compelling in that you really want to keep up with Ender’s exploits and see what other obstacle he tackles.  Benefitting from a power outage, thanks to hurricane Andrew, I found lots of opportunity to grab a few pages here and there.  Before I knew it, I was done, having enjoyed it just as thoroughly as the first time.  An easy, and nostalgic, 10 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Scfi-Fi/Fantasy Classics: 1984 – A Book Review

So, I just finished reading 1984, by George Orwell.  It is the fourth in a project I began a short while back; read as many of the formative and recent classics of the science fiction and fantasy genre.  By most any standards, 1984 is a must read for the genre.  From an age where science fiction was really in its nascence, I could not agree more with the assessment.

The beginning of this book starts relatively slowly.  It introduces the reader to Winston, who lives in a world of totalitarianism, where the Party, led by the figurehead of Big Brother, defines and directs the lives of the citizens of Oceania.  As we explore Winston’s questioning of the world order, we are gradually introduced in the results of this level of control.  We don’t know the why or the how, just the net results, which in an odd way is a mirror of the Party’s control of its populace.

Winston meets Julia and begins a relationship with a kindred spirit, beginning to buck against the rules, the chafing that Big Brother and his cronies have inflicted upon them.  As things progress, they diverge more and more from the fold until Winston is given the book of revolution, the manifesto of the Resistance leader, Goldberg.  As Winston inducts himself into the revolutionary ideas of Goldberg, we are finally served with the world building that led to the creation of the Party and Big Brother’s control, a parallel I found quite inventive and infinitely satisfying.

Then they get caught.  Big Brother’s Thought Police capture them.  In a concussive and outstanding piece of literature, Winston is bombarded with physical and emotion torture that breaks his body and spirit.  He is reintroduced into the collective mind of the Party, but only after a prolonged series of tortures.  His resistance is broken and he accepts the system as just, as the way it should be.  Without giving it away, I found the very last line of the book to be a gob-smacking finale that literally left my jaw dropped.

As is likely done, this book is compared to the current state of world affairs and the parallels that Wells draws.  What I found interesting was the way this still translates into today’s current worldviews.  Particularly in North America, mainstream media is bitterly divided by party lines and their politics:  MSNBC and the liberal press for the Democrats and small ‘L’ liberals; Fox News and the associated right-wing media with the Republicans and small ‘C’ conservatives.  What I found interesting was the relationship between the Party in 1984 and how things are portrayed.  Today, both extremes are provided as fact, with sometimes completely divergent interpretations of the same events; the middle ground is often the sacrifice at the altar of truth.  Heck, there are too many times where the truth is completely abandoned to further exploit a turn of phrase or a fact to fit the extreme’s narrative, something Big Brother would approve of.  The selective cognizance of the past we now face n North America might as well be the equivalent as Winston’s edition of the past to fit the current narrative of the Party’s worldview.  As an example, I cite the case of the US Supreme Court upholding a closely held company’s right to decide what types of birth control to fund for their employees.  Here is a rather comical assessment from a Fox Host, with a definitively pendulum swung the other way response from MSNBC.

That the idea a political party could hold that much power and influence over the population, as conceived in the time Orwell’s penned the novel, is a rather profound and frightening premonition of our current state.  With such an information overload through instant communications, often with the unfiltered eye and untrustworthiness of social media, the idea that people would simply follow the current, accepting their political leaders’ opinion as gospel is chilling.

Orwell doesn’t pull any punches, something I enjoyed and appreciated; the book was superb and beat any expectations I had.  The info dump after Winston starts to read Goldberg was a surprise; the near thesis interpretation of the system the Party and Big Brother took me on a tangent I wasn’t expecting.  To be honest, I was relived when it returned to Winston’s perspective, yet the impact of the last chapter would have been completely lacking if we had not a complete understanding of the world dynamic.

As a political science fiction novel, I was stunned and mesmerized by the execution and appreciated the complexity of the system behind the story presented herein.  The novel 1984 has a definite place on my bookshelf of Classics, and a definite 10 out of 10.