I promised this a while ago so here’s my book review of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I also added a link to this book on my resources page. You can find lots more useful stuff there that I both like and use personally, so check it out if you like.
Before I start, there are a couple things I need to mention. First of all, I listened to the audio version and it was pretty good. If you prefer audio over paper or e-books, you’ll probably like this one too as the production quality is great. The added benefit is that you get an extra piece spoken by the author himself, explaining why he wrote the book, why he refused so many movie deals and more. Well worth it and partly the reason why I write this review.
Second, this is a relatively old book as it was first published as a novel in 1985. This shows in certain regards and apparently, the author updated the book in 1991 to make it more relevant to modern times. But don’t let this stop you from reading it; there’s nothing in the book that is too closely related to the past that it might hinder the story. On the contrary, in many ways it is still relevant today, perhaps even more so than back then. I won’t go into that here to avoid spoilers.
Third, this is a science-fiction book. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll already know about it as it’s one of the classics. If you’re not, consider it anyway. The sci-fi stuff is done well and also not as intrusive as in other books. Once you accept the basic premise, you don’t have to do lots of leaps of the imagination to follow the story. Some authors mess up in this genre, thinking they can get away with anything. Orson Scott Card didn’t, he got it right and placed the characters, their motivations and thinking, their evolution from children into warriors, all this comes first. So don’t let the genre scare you off either.
That said, a quick word about the story:
Ender Wiggin is born sometime in our future in an Earth at war: humankind has started exploring the universe and encountered an alien race that attacked them, starting a series of wars. Earth cleans up it’s act and starts working together on a global scale to avoid being annihilated. They set up a special program to find the brightest children and send these off to military school in the hopes of finding the one who can lead them to victory.
Ender is one of those children and the book follows him on his journey. I can’t really say more without giving too much away so I’ll leave it at that.
The relevance to self-defense training
Like I mentioned in my post about The Walking Dead and Self-Defense, I like to use examples from movies to illustrate concepts that are valuable in real life. To a degree, you can do the same things with books with the only real difficulty being the need for the other person to actually read the whole book. As this takes a lot longer than watching a movie, I can’t always convince people to do so. No big deal, I just have to find another movie reference then…
Anyway, why am I so enthusiastic about this book?
Because it’s filled with great information on training warriors and how to think like one.
Of course, the story is fiction but there are some interesting lessons in it anyway. Let’s take a look:
- Work together or die. When faced with a threat, especially one you cannot overcome by your lonesome self, you need to work with others to ensure mutual survival. Strength in numbers and all that. In Ender’s Game, humanity pulls together because if it doesn’t, it will perish. The cadets learn the same thing: work as a team or “die” in training. Throughout the book and especially in the main part that covers Ender’s training in Battle School, teamwork and it’s challenges are the main topic.
- Teamwork is difficult. Even faced with destruction, egos and politics are never far away. Both Ender, the officers, politicians and cadets display this behaviour. You’d think that with everything to lose, this wouldn’t be an issue, that people would pull together for the greater good. Nope, doesn’t happen. It is my experience that in real life, things are no different. People will go out of their way to make sure you lose too if they can’t get what they want or if you seem to be getting more than them. The same applies to self-defense and survival: it’s easy to say “we need to work together” but when that means you have to do things you’d rather not, suddenly the goal doesn’t seem to by worth it anymore. Except when you can rise above the petty stuff. Easier said than done.
- Teamwork is for professionals, going solo for amateurs. A friend of mine is a retired soldier with more than his share of experience in both official wars and the other kind in Africa and the Middle-East. Many years ago, he reacted to a bunch of people talking about self-defense and military systems that they had it all wrong: soldiers fight in teams. They fight as a unit, not all by themselves. The reason they do so seems obvious but so many self-defense enthusiasts miss it: it works. Two against one sucks for the one. Two who train to work as a unit and have experience doing so against one sucks even more for the one because now, he doesn’t really stand a chance. Here’s the thing: the bad guys figured this out too. Criminals, muggers, thugs and the like typically avoid going at it solo. They routinely have at least one buddy there for back up or already in play (even if you don’t notice him or her…) when they come at you. You’d think that everybody would get this, but I can do nothing but notice that many people still refuse to accept this fact. If I’m wrong, then why are the vast majority of practitioners spending most of their training time on defending against a single attacker or are they using strategies and tactics that put them in danger should there be another aggressor?
- Strategy is a habit. Everything Ender does is about strategy. His every day life is about learning to be smarter and better than the opposition. Every test in Battle School is more difficult than the previous one so he can never rest on his laurels. He has to be “on” all the time and not mess up. If you’ve done your time in the military, you’ll remember from boot camp and other training how the pressure is pretty much always on and you have to keep your shit wired 24/7. Kind of like in a real war and by extension, in all violent conflict. It doesn’t matter how strategically superior you are in the dojo if you can’t make it work out there on the streets. The only way you can do so is by making that kind of thinking a part of your daily life, regardless of where you are.
- Out of the box thinking. What makes Ender so effective is that he thinks out of the box. He sees everything his fellow cadets sees but then he looks past it and finds a way to exploit even the smallest advantage. The way he uses the suits in the simulator and how he determines where “down” is are perfect examples of that. In self-defense, you have to do the same thing by stepping outside of your comfort zone and not doing what the opposition expects you to do. If you follow the scenario the thugs have in mind, you are a their mercy. Which doesn’t mean you have to go at their throats right away; it means you need a plan that doesn’t rely on you overpowering multiple opponents just like you do a single opponent, should the need arise.
- The training changes you. Ender changes because of the mock battles he is put in non-stop during his training. He learns many things about himself and his own personality. Some of these things aren’t very nice and he has a hard time accepting them. If you train for self-defense correctly, the same happens to you: once you get over how cool it is to learn that neck break technique in class and practice it over and over, you’ll eventually come to realize that you’re training to kill somebody. To snuff out a life forever. Once you notice how easy it sometimes is from a technical point of view, you’ll eventually discover your own mortality: you are just as vulnerable as that guy you practice to kill. It’s one thing thinking about this rationally, it’s something else when the consequences sink in or you are confronted with this in real life. Once you really get it, you’ll not be the same again.
- Experience changes you. At the end of the book (and I’m not going to tell you why), Ender is filled with a crushing guilt when he realizes the magnitude of his “crime”. In the same way, using violence in real life has lasting effects too. There are only small percentage of people who seemingly suffer no psychological consequences when taking another’s life. Though they do seem to have other issues instead, but I won’t get into that here. The sad fact is that most people suffer from it. Some recover quickly, some take longer, others never really recover. Regardless, they are not the same person as before. It is doubtful that many of them would say that killing another human being was a positive experience in their lives…
There’s more to this book but I can’t really mention it without spoiling the story for you. Instead, I’ll just recommend you buy it and enjoy both the story and the characters as well as the lessons in it. I certainly did and hope you do so too.