Justifying the Means: An Overview of the Philosophy in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Something I really appreciate is when a story isn’t afraid to deal with complex themes. Sure, it’s a risk to do so. The storyteller risks alienating audience members if the theme is too blatant, or he risks sacrificing good story for good theme. Every now and then, though, a story comes along that embeds its theme in the plot, characters, and setting.

Ender’s Game is one such book, and for that I am grateful. However, just because it wove the theme into the story well, doesn’t mean that it necessarily was a good theme. To clarify, I’m only speaking of the first book in the series, Ender’s Game. I haven’t read the rest of the series.

My primary problem with Ender’s Game is that ultimately it seems to endorse a view of “the ends justify the means.” This is a philosophy known as pragmatism.

In pragmatism, the guiding force is the force of expediency. Something is true if it is expedient. If it works. Workability becomes the determining factor in truth. If something achieves a good end, it is justified. It is true. Here’s an example of how a pragmatist might defend their position.

Nazi’s come to your door and ask you if you have any Jews hidden there. You do, but obviously you don’t want to turn them over. So, instead of telling the truth, you lie to the Nazis and save the Jews. See? Good end (saving human life) justifies normally bad means (telling a lie).

At this point it’s important to distinguish between pragmatism, and being pragmatic. Being pragmatic is trying to solve a problem logically. Being a pragmatist means that you believe the ends justify the means.

That’s a very basic definition, and if you’d like a more in-depth discussion of pragmatism, I suggest you check out this lecture. I took all the information above from it.

So, how does Ender’s Game endorse pragmatism?

The primary and most obvious way is simple. Throughout the book a simple question is raised: is it right to turn a child into a killer, to put a child through so much pain, so that he could save the human race? Does the end (saving the human race) justify the means (turning Ender into a killer)?

And ultimately, the answer given appears to be yes, for three reasons. 1) The planet is saved, 2) Ender is not harmed, and 3) No real consequences take place because of the militaries’ choice. Most of the characters end up happy. Basically, the goal is achieved without much (if any) harm coming to the characters. The pragmatistic logic used to justify their actions works.

Granted, it’s a subtle message, which is why I say it appears to endorse pragmatism. Because it is subtle and woven so well into the story, it’s hard to figure out precisely what’s being said. But after thinking about it for a while, I believe that this is the message given.

So in essence, I’m going to be careful when I recommend Ender’s Game. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good book–rather, it was a fantastic one. But even good books have flaws; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. Instead, it means that we should watch out for the bad, and praise and enjoy the good.

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The Power of Simplicity: A Review of So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger

I’m going to be completely honest here. I haven’t read many Westerns. In fact, I count, including this book, a total of two that I’ve read. This isn’t because I have anything against them, rather, I’ve very much enjoyed the ones that I have read. The only reason my count is so low, is because I’ve never found too many to read.

The point being, I read So Brave, Young, and Handsome as just another story, not necessarily as a Western.

The story follows a struggling writer named Monte Beckett. His first book was a runaway bestseller, prompting him to quit his job and turn entirely to writing (every aspiring writer’s dream). That was seven years before the story opens. When it does, we see him yet to publish another book, always unable to get very far into any attempted project. When he meets a man named Glendon who has his heart set on returning to New Mexico to see his former wife one last time, Monte can’t resist joining him.

The author of So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger, had written a single book before this one. That book, Peace Like a River, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I enjoyed it, I felt it took too long to get where it was going, and dipped a bit into sentimentality near the end. Funny thing was, everyone liked Peace Like a River, while So Brave, Young, and Handsome got mixed reviews. I personally prefer the latter. Here’s why.

To begin, the story got moving far faster than did Peace Like a River. Because it started so fast, I was a little worried it would slow down around the middle. To my surprise, it kept up the pace for most of the book, while maintaining strong characters at the heart of it. Speaking of which, the characters were exceptionally well-drawn.

Never once did any of them go “over the top.” Meaning, the story never painted anything as black and white, including the characters. They all do good things, they all do bad things. Instead of stereotypical–and slightly easier to write–heroes and villains, we have legitimately flawed characters, all of which we sympathize with in some way or another.

But perhaps the aspect of this book that made me love it so much was the simplicity. It wasn’t simplistic, but it was simple. The entire book was understated, which made the moments where emotions ran high far more believable than if the entire book was written that way. In fact, the most emotional part of the book was simply the main character leaving another, wounded character (arguably the “bad guy,” though as I previously said it’s hard to define anyone that way).

In that scene where Monte Beckett leaves, there’s no long discussion. No speech. No overt emotion. Monte just leaves. And somehow, the way that was written, the subtlety with which the emotion was portrayed, affected me far more than many things I’ve read as of late.

So yes, this book is understated and simple. On occasion, this hurts it, especially near the end. At the end there is a section of about fifty pages that while significant, could have easily been cut back to thirty or twenty-five, without any real loss.

The climax might disappoint some because of how understated it is. For me, I thought it was perfect. Maybe you won’t, but I’d urge you to give this book a try anyway. I highly recommend it.

Breaking Our Own Rules: A Review of The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

“Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great. What would have become of Beethoven’s music if he’d chased rules instead of inspiration? Of van Gogh’s paintings?”

So begins The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. The funny thing is, The First Five Pages is a book on writing that opens with an indictment against books on writing. Now, I appreciate what Lukeman goes on to do in the rest of that opening chapter. He distinguishes, it appears, between storytelling and writing. Storytelling is an art. Writing is, but is less of one than storytelling. Lukeman proposes that rules can be set down when it comes to writing.

If he adhered to this proposal (that rules can be set down for writing, but not storytelling) I’d agree with him. Sadly, he doesn’t.

First, though, credit needs to be given where credit is due. This is a truly unique book. It’s written from the perspective of an agent or editor who has just received a manuscript from an aspiring author. Lukeman, as a former agent and editor himself, outlines what things people in these professions look for when reading a manuscript. He claims that they are simply looking for a way to reject your work (and he gives backup for that).

Then, going in order of what an agent or an editor looks at first, he sets out rules to avoid getting rejected.

Let me say this: this book is helpful in many regards, but perhaps best in the sense that it teaches you to think like a writer. I found myself, during the days that I was reading it, suddenly paying attention a bit more to language, to imagery around me, and trying to write something about experiences I was going through in my mind. That’s helpful because, as Orson Scott Card reminds us that, “we storytellers, like fishermen, are constantly dragging an ‘idea net’ along with us.”

This book helps train you to drag that idea net along.

Nevertheless, ultimately, I think this book breaks its own rule. It creates rules for storytelling especially in the chapters and sections on creating likable characters, pacing, setting, characterization, and even its chapter on viewpoint. It gives us many “thou shalt nots” even though, as it itself claimed, it is ridiculous to do so when it comes to an art like storytelling.

Even with that problem, though, there is still much to learn from this book. It’s not perfect. No book really is. But so long as we realize that the “rules” set down for storytelling are opinions and not objective facts, we can enjoy and learn from this book. I recommend it.

Heartwrenching Realities: A Review of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

If you start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old named Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later, you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one. (From the back cover)

Good stories involve you emotionally. In whatever way that story is supposed to, it does. It could make you tense, or make you sad, or make you happy but there has to be some sort of emotional investment that you, the reader, have made in the book and that the book takes advantage of in some way, shape, or form. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does this beautifully.

Decent stories allow me to disengage from the emotional pull of them very quickly after they’re over. This is almost a week after I finished The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, and I am only just now disengaging enough to write this review. Why? Because this book is sad.

Not in the bittersweet way, or the shimmer of hope way, but in the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking method of pain. Because that’s what this book makes you feel: not sadness, but pain. It hurts to read these final chapters; not because they are done poorly–far from it, they are near-perfect–but because by the time you arrive at the final chapter, you are so emotionally invested in the characters, but at the same time fully aware of the reality of their surroundings, that you can’t help but feel pain when the end comes.

John Boyne, the author, approaches the subject in a different way. He writes from the perspective of a nine-year-old named Bruno (who is completely ignorant of anything that is going on around him), and who’s sole concern is becoming content with his new home in what Bruno thinks is called Out-With (Auschwitz). Then, very slowly, Bruno begins to discover certain odd things about his surroundings: the hundreds of people beyond the fence, the soldiers constantly milling around, his father’s frequent disappearances. But instead of Bruno realizing something is wrong, or at the very least trying to figure out what is going on, he takes it all through his view of the world. The people beyond the fence simply moved there, and were given nice jobs to take care of them. The soldiers are protecting his father because he is important. His father is going on business trips of little consequence.

But all the time, we the readers acutely understand why the people are behind the fence. We understand why Bruno can’t cross over to that side of the fence when he eventually meets another young boy named Shmuel from the other side. We understand why Shmuel doesn’t like the soldiers, why he is always so hungry, and why he is so frightened. And we understand what happens when he takes the march.

When the end of this book comes, it hurts even worse. I thought I knew the ending (it’s tragic Holocaust fiction, the ending shouldn’t be that hard to guess, right?) but I was dead wrong. It was so much worse.

Very rarely does a book completely blindside me to what is coming. Even rarer is when the book can make me realize my error at exactly the right moment to increase the emotional impact to its full potential. This is a book that did both of those things. This is also a dark book. This is a sad book. This book is a painful one. A story that is hard to read, because we know that things like this happened. And slowly, through the eyes of an ignorant, innocent nine-year-old, we understand anew just how bad people can become and just how dark a place the world we live in is.

That’s never a comfortable reality to be reminded of. But it’s a necessary one. I cannot more highly recommend this book.

Note: This book contains intensely unsettling thematic elements. While there is very little graphic imagery, the subjects dealt with are mature. Recommended for those 13 and up.