Saturday, July 4, 2015

End Game and Ice Ages

4 July 2015

Ender's Game: Orson Scott Card
I saw parts of the movie before I read this - to be honest, I fell asleep several times but that is probably more to do with my tendency to drink wine and sit at the computer watching movies, than to do with the movie itself. So when I spotted the book in theTeen section at the local library I grabbed it so I could do it justice. I had Card flagged for a bit of reading since I knew some of his other work - particularly the Maker books focussing on Alvin - I own a couple of those and was struggling to get into them again - plus I had listened to an audiobook of The Lost Gate which I quite enjoyed, and my kids enjoyed. I'd listened to it in pieces while cycling to work, the kids had heard half of it while we drove to see my parents on holiday last Summer, and are keen to hear the rest. Plus Andrew (13) watched the movie with his girlfriend a few weeks back and rated it highly. Anyway, with all of this, Ender Wiggin's story was high profile and so here we are.

First a note - when I listened to The Lost Gate I really liked the story telling and the way it blended myth, magic and science fiction/fantasy, taking familiar elements from eg Norse myth and blending them with modern ideas. I looked out for the follow up novels, and did a bit of research on Mr Card. In some ways I wish that I had not, as I then found that what I learned about the author coloured my understanding and enjoyment of the stories, and I'm not sure that that is entirely fair - at least from a narrative point of view. Of course a person's background and beliefs are relevant to their work - you can't read about the Mitford family and ignore their politics, and I can't watch a Tom Cruise film without being reminded that his association with Scientology means I wouldn't be comfortable having a drink with him. Or he with me. So it is with Mr Card - a nagging feeling that we would struggle to take one another seriously. Saying that, I've grown over time and would hate to be judged by things I might have said or done or published 20 plus years ago, so let's set my doubts aside and think that we might get on ok over a drink if we met today.

Anyway, Ender's Game is an early novel in his ouvre, developed from a short story, and as such deserves both reduced scrutiny, and yet, examination as evidence of emergent or developing themes. So we have a youth who has powers beyond those of his superiors, and his peers. Ender isn't superhuman, but he is remarkable - a product of genetic and behavioural optimisation, observed by shadowy and manipulative overseers from a military (space navy) bloc who have identified him as the best combination of ability and temperament yet, having observed and rejected his warlike older brother and his empathetic but not aggressive sister. 

Ender is taken from Earth to an orbital training station where young boys and girls like him are trained in war games (particularly, tactics and strategy as learned in mock combat in zero-gravity between troops of youths with, effectively, stun guns). Ender displays the ability and ruthlessness the Navy needs in a leader, so he is put through an accelerate program to hone him into an increasingly able leader of men, and to develop a core group of children who will follow his orders and his lead, while using their own initiative and talent to execute his battle plans as well as they can.
The narrative follows his development, and his struggle with the knowledge that his childhood and  his humanity is being sacrificed to a higher goal - victory over the buggers. The enemy race took a bit of getting used to - not capitalised, and only referred to as 'the buggers', this took some adaptation on my part since at least in New Zealand slang, the buggers is a throw away term for 'them', and so the term didn't automatically mean much to me. 
After a while I formed a picture in my head of an alien lifeform something like the insectile one in 'Starship Troopers', which helped.
So, I won't spoil this one, it's worth reading for yourself, but the book runs on into at least a five part series so you can predict that Ender has an ongoing future in the universe created. The combat is the least interesting part of the climax of the novel - which doesn't mean it is poorly done, it's just that there is a lot else going on around it. The science fiction (relativistic travel, orbital habitats, colony ships) is described in just enough detail to allow you to accept it and move on, without needing details of how anything is achieved - fair technique I think - and in the end it's a book about people, relationships, power and obligation to a greater cause. None of these things is out of place in a novel aimed at - well, at whom? Ender begins the novel at 6 - but this isn't a novel for 6-10 year olds. He is 11 at the end - my 11 year old will enjoy it. But he will find some of the metaphysical discussion tedious, I imagine. I found a lot of this side hard to swallow - that a child prodigy could, at 6 (or 8) make the leap into very adult patterns of behaviour and interaction with others. It reminds me of books written by men with female protagonists when there is a gap between what I read and what I believe. I guess I just didn't think that Card was really writing with any knowledge of a 6 year old, even allowing for the prodigy.
So, given that I've read some later work, is this an artefact of his early work that changes as he develops as a writer? Well, yes, in the case of Danny in The Lost Gate - I think Danny is a well-imagined teen. I had my issues with parts of that story too, but not with the characterisation of the main character, more with the secondary characters.
In Ender I saw an idea looking for a story to tell it. And the last chapter(s) of the book feel quite different to the first ones. The Speaker for the Dead section is a really interesting idea and I see there are novels with that title coming up, so I'll have to read ahead and see what I think - is Card developing ideas and his skills as a writer, or is Card clumsy and didactic with an L Ron Hubbard like tendency to preach and flog the same idea over and again, knowing that the books will keep selling? I'm keeping an open mind - but the lingering feeling I had was the sorrow that Ender felt at what he had done under the direction of his superiors, and his acceptance that it was nevertheless soemthing that had to be done, and that only he could have done. So a story of destiny and doom - and in this, the novel achieves heights that the characterisation and dialogue do not.

He Knew He Was Right - The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock: John and Mary Gribben

I picked this book up because of the Gribbens (mentioned in the Drunkard's Walk review) who write well on scientific topics, with enough rigour to be satisfying but with clear enough language to be entertaining and not didactic.

I'm a child of the 1980s, so the sections of this book on the period from 1982-1988 when the Gaia hypothesis became a theory of Earth Systems Science, were highly charged for me and reminded me of my late teen years, when I was angry with the French (for nuclear testing). In those days the hole in the ozone layer which was only of academic interest to most of the population was of direct relevance to me and my peers here in New Zealand who burned and peeled and learned to hide from the sun because the intense UV that struck the earth here was so much stronger than in other parts of the world.

Many people my age will talk about global warming and climate change and the retreat of the glaciers, and maybe, if they have read a bit more, of the change in atmospheric gases trapped in ice core samples over time, and with any luck they'll know about the Carbon cycle and maybe be able to discuss anthropogenic climate change and the success of the global efforts to reduce the emission of CFC and other ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere.

 In this book about Mr Lovelock we learn about his career as a polymath who took an interest in all sorts of areas, and who specialised in finding applied, practical solutions to challenges such as measuring (or finding a way to measure) tiny amounts of particular gases in a sample. Early experimentation using war-surplus aircraft instruments (from which he scraped the numbers off the dials in order to collect small amounts of radium to use in his detectors) saw him develop machines which he developed into CFC detectors, but also, since they were sensitive to contamination by cigarette smoke, domestic smoke detectors.

He created machines for detecting evidence of life on other planets, both directly and remotely, and was involved with the Voyager and Mariner space programs (you'll have to read it to find out why he was involved with Voyager), but the thing for which he is most famous is in developing the idea that the Earth is an interlinked and connected series of mutually dependent ecosystems that work together to be, in effect, a living organism, analogous to a (gigantic) single cell. He called this 'The Gaia Hypothesis' and spent a long time developing this idea, and defending it from critics while also defending it from the emerging Green movement which, along with the fading Hippy one, seemed bent on taking the idea and twisting it to their own political or quasi-religious ends.

So if you liked Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene' you'll like this - possibly even more if you find Dawkins irritating (I blame the Facebook Dawkins as I have no interaction with the man himself).

I will finish this later tonight and let you know how it ends. So far, we still have a planet, but there are no guarantees that the next ice age isn't right around the corner...the good news - we may not survive it, but the planet will...

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