Sunday, 1 February 2004

First Meetings In The Enderverse

Orson Scott Card
Orbit/Times Warner
ISBN: 0-84149-311-2

To open, a word of warning: This compilation is one for those who are already acquainted with Orson Scott Card's 'Ender' series only. As a first step into this universe of child prodigies and moral philosophy, it would be a disaster. Not so much dropping the reader into the deep end as catapulting them into it.

Comprised of three stories expanding on previously uncovered areas and the original novella upon which the phenomenally successful 'Ender's Game' was based, it is a must-have for fans of the series but a poor starting block for first-time readers.

In 'The Polish Boy' we are introduced to Ender Wiggin's father as a young child, as much a genius as his son would come to be but raised to resent the International Fleet by his father. The family is Polish and Catholic and, in a nation under virtual occupation by international forces for its refusal to comply with birth-control regulations and various other ordinances, it is no surprise that when the eldest children are due to be tested for entry to the Fleet's Battle School there is a conflict between the family and the examiners. However, in the end it is not the older children but the five-year-old John Paul that attracts the interest of the Fleet...

'Teacher's Pest' covers the first meetings between Ender's parents, the brilliant pupil John Paul and his young post-graduate teacher, Theresa. Through political arguments and the course of their studies it shows how they came to fall in love and sets the scene for the events of 'Ender's Game'.

The novella that formed the basis of that novel is shorter and less detailed than the book itself, beginning with Ender's appointment of commander of one of the 'armies' in the Fleet's Battle School - a place where the teams of prodigal children take part in intensive mock wars to determine who is the best strategist and tactician. 'Ender's Game' follows him into Command School and through the war against the aliens for which he has been trained, all the way to that conflict's terrible conclusion.

Finally, 'The Investment Councillor' describes the grown-up Ender's first encounter with the computer intelligence, Jane, a being who is to become one of the most important characters in the books that follow. As Ender reaches his majority and the trust fund set up for him by the military is released into his control, an unscrupulous accountant attempts to claim much of the money for himself and inadvertently discovers Ender's identity. Ender searches for a way to deal with the problem and Jane reveals herself as his only hope, finding a solution in her own inimitable style.

The three new pieces are typical of Card's work. The writing is fresh and the dialogue sharp, words as always being used in weapons. Each conversation or discussion has the feel of a battle being fought, with the speakers weighing each phrase carefully and reading deep meaning into every word. These hugely confrontational yet cerebral discourses ensure that the stories never lack tension despite the absence of any action in the usual physical sense.

'The Polish Boy' is particularly excellent in this regard. The young John Paul's duels with the International Fleet personnel are both riveting and strangely disconcerting. Seeing a five-year-old argue grown men and women into giving him what he wants is a bizarre and slightly disturbing thing.

While 'Teacher's Pest' and 'The Investment Councillor' involve only adults, 'The Polish Boy' and 'Ender's Game' are primarily centred around children, the prodigal juveniles suitable for Battle School. The problem lies in their very precocity - they talk and act so much like adults that the reader must constantly remind themselves that they are children. There is nothing childish about them and as such, their intelligence and adult mannerisms seem unnatural and alien. They are forced to act as grown-ups by the situation at Battle School, but does their very nature make them so mature as John Paul acts in 'The Polish Boy'? It doesn't seem to mesh with reality and that is this series' only major problem. Certainly nothing else about the stories fails to please - the plots are engaging and realistic, the dialogue authentic and the writing stylish.

'Ender's Game' is a different story altogether. While the novel itself was everything mentioned above, the novella that birthed it is clearly unedited from Card's original and early work, for even the writing style is changed. Much of the subtlety that usually characterises Card's work is missing and the novella drops into becomes dangerously cloying in places, particularly towards the end. While the story remains basically the same, much of the build up, particularly Ender's life before Battle School, is missing and some would argue that that early insight into the boy's world is essential to understand what makes him tick. This curious view of the development of the story is interesting as a concept rather than a great read and detracts from the overall quality of the compilation.

Nonetheless, 'First Meetings' is, while not for everyone, a must-have for any aficionado of Card's work and as such a person I grant it an honourable place on my 'Fanboys only' shelf.

This review was originally written for