Flipping between reality television and footage of the war in Iraq, Susan Collins was inspired to pen The Hunger Games. The dystopian young adult trilogy has been a runaway success both of page and screen: book sales number in the tens of millions, and in 2012, the first film took in nearly $700 million worldwide. (The next film, Catching Fire, releases tomorrow.)
Initially, I resisted the books for fear they were too violent — but then, at the urging of friends, family, and coworkers (all of whom I believed to have respectable taste), I devoured them in a weekend, and my husband did the same. The Hunger Games are literary alchemy, a breathless amalgam of all the tropes I loved as a child: romance, survival, and the poster child for strong female protagonists, Katniss Everdeen. When the first film came out, my husband and I rushed to the multiplex.
Collins’ trilogy provides, at turns, masterful commentary on class disparity and violent voyeurism: Katniss and her companions excoriate the citizens of the Capitol for their decadence and rabid consumption of the Games. (Their disdain was contagious: for weeks after reading the books, I found myself asking, “Would someone from the Capitol do this?” before doing or saying anything.)
But while watching the films, my husband and I felt uneasy. This discomfort ran deeper than the typical distaste any reader feels when watching a beloved book adapted for the screen. Watching children slaughter each other was very different than reading about it.
Over at Think Christian, I take another look at Ender’s Game, focusing on the leitmotif of understanding and communication in Orson Scott Card’s work. This applies particularly to inter-species communication.
We might, in fact, riffing off the Norwegian parody pop song, say that the central question of Ender’s Game is, “What does the Formic say?” Ender is the only one with the genuine curiosity to find out, and doing so is how he moves beyond his bloody calling.
What we find out, in a sense, is that on the Formic understanding, each human being has the dignity and worth of a queen. We are all queens, or as the Bible puts it, made in the image and likeness of God. This reality becomes all the more salient when like the Formic queen, “dynamite with a laser beam,” we too are killer queens, to make another pop culture connection (HT: Dylan Pahman).
A key difference between the film and the book is that the film is pretty thin on answers to that question of inter-species communication. There is much more about what the Formics think and feel in the book. I’ll post some of the relevant sections, which include significant spoilers, below the break. If you have not seen the film, you should not read these sections!
But for those of you who have seen the film, just think about that question of understanding the Formics as you revel in “The Fox (What Does it Say?)”
I and Jordan Ballor have already commented on Ender’s Game this week (here and here), but the story is literally packed with insightful themes, many of which touch upon issues relevant to Acton’s core principles. Another such issue is that of the problems with Neo-Malthusianism, the belief that overpopulation poses such a serious threat to civilization and the environment that population control measures become ethical imperatives.
Such a perspective tends to rely on one or both of the following fallacies: a zero-sum conception of economics ignorant of the last 200 years of sustained economic growth, which have allowed humankind to escape the Mathusian trap; or a belief that people are the problem when it comes to poverty.
In Ender’s Game, the story begins (more obviously in the book) with the fact that Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is a “Third,” a third-born child in a time when the international government of Earth had adopted a two-child policy. His parents had received special permission to have a Third because their first two children, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), had shown so much promise. Unfortunately, Peter had proven too aggressive and Valentine too compassionate. The government hoped that Ender would be a happy middle. (more…)
Ender’s Game, the recent film based on the best-selling science fiction novel, offers compelling insight into the idea of human capital, among many other compelling insights (e.g. this one and this one).
In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote, “besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself.” He goes on to emphasize the importance of human knowledge, intelligence, and virtue for human flourishing. In economic terms this idea is known as human capital. While affirming this truth, Ender’s Game challenges viewers to consider precisely what they might mean, demonstrating in the characters of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) that the specifics of one’s definition makes all the difference. (more…)
One of the recurring themes in Ender’s Game is the dynamic surrounding Ender Wiggin’s apparent uniqueness: he was, it seems, quite literally born for the purpose of ending the conflict with the Formics. The source material as well as the film released last week raise moral questions surrounding what we might call “bloody callings” quite pointedly.
A popular quote from Frederick Beuchner sets a helpful framework for discussing the question of whether there can be legitimate callings to offices that require violence. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” says Beuchner. Alissa Wilkinson has helpfully pointed out something that Beuchner’s quote omits: our skills. The world may need something that we enjoy attempting to provide, but we may be no good at providing it. Wilkinson consider the case of the aspiring writer, but her observations apply to any pursuit.
Ender’s skills, if we might call them that, are apparently uniquely suited for competitive achievement. As his name suggests, he ends things. Ender embodies total victory. So how does Ender fit within this threefold requirement for discerning vocation?
The other night, I sat down with my kids to read one of my favorite Rudyard Kipling poems, “The Camel’s Hump,” a remarkable 19th-century takedown of 21st-century couch-potato culture.
With typical color and wit, Kipling takes aim at idleness, decrying “the hump we get from having too little to do” — “the hump that is black and blue.” Kipling proceeds to elevate labor, noting that hard work refreshes the soul and reinvigorates the spirit: “The cure for this ill is not to sit still / Or frowst with a book by the fire / But to take a large hoe and a shovel also / And dig till you gently perspire.”
The illustrations in my 1949 version of the poem offer additional flair to Kipling’s contrast, aptly showing what can happen, physically and spiritually, if we do or don’t get our hands dirty. But don’t let the boy’s youthfulness fool you: “We all get the hump / Cameelious hump / Kiddies and grown-ups, too!”
[The above pages are taken from Volume 2 of the 1949 Childcraft collection, Storytelling and Other Poems.]
One of the more curious cultural movements in recent years has been the increasing interest in zombies, and in particular the dystopian visions of a world following the zombie apocalypse.
Part of the fascination has to do, I think, with the value of thought experiments in speculation about such futures, however improbable. There may be something to be learned from gazing into a sort of fun house mirror, the distorted image of humanity as seen in zombies.
But zombies have not only captured the popular imagination. They have also become the object of academic (or at least ‘intellectual’) discourse.
Peter Paik, for instance, has a working paper at SSRN on “The Walking Dead” as an exploration of attempts to escape the “state of nature,” characterized by pessimism regarding “a better future and the fear of moving beyond an economic system that permits unlimited acquisition.” Neoliberalism is for Paik the defining feature of the run-up to the zombie apocalypse, which might say more about the captivity of academic discourse to dominant modes of cultural interpretation than anything of value about real-world political economy: “The mindless, undead ghoul that consumes the flesh of human beings lends itself almost too easily as a metaphor about our current economic predicament.”
One of the takeaways from the surprisingly (at least to me) interesting World War Z has to do with a central insight into post-apocalyptic political economy, and is a word of caution pace Paik concerning the relative valuation of a “neoliberal” order. At one point, Gerry Lane’s wife Karin appeals to Gerry (Brad Pitt) to talk to his friend, Thierry, an official with the UN. Gerry response: “Thierry isn’t in charge of anything anymore.”
Is the morality of an act solely based on the intentions of the person acting? Moviegoers may get some insight into this question when Ender’s Game is released in theaters Nov. 1.
Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game book series began in 1985 with its most well known first installment, winning the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best science fiction novel. The book tells the story of an alien invasion, where the world’s population prepares for an imminent second attack by training as many specialized soldiers as possible. Most of these special soldiers are children, honing their skills on an orbiting space station in zero gravity simulations called “Battle School.” Ender is a potentially gifted future commander, selectively bred by the International Fleet, the organization combating the alien force. The book follows Ender’s journey through the beginning of Battle School.
In an interesting essay on Ender as a killer from the International Review of Science Fiction, John Kessel concludes that Ender is far too innocent for someone who commits murder and violent acts in the book (warning: this essay contains many spoilers if you have not read the book). John makes some good points, illustrating the expertise of Card in encouraging the reader to root for the “innocent killer.” The book’s story is even more potent when you add the fact that Ender is abused during most of his life, partly because he is a third child when couples are only allowed to have two. Does the reader root for the “murdering savior,” or is Card content in saying that committing immoral deeds in ignorance is acceptable? These questions and more are addressed in the rest of the Ender series.
…when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don’t even think to question, that you don’t even notice– those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.
–Orson Scott Card
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Not Quite Alone in the Wilderness,” I examine the intergenerational infrastructure of innovation and civilization through the lens of Richard “Dick” Proenneke, whose efforts to build a cabin in the Alaskan wild, alone and by hand, are recorded in the popular documentary, often featured on PBS.
Here’s a clip that gives an extended introduction into the project:
As Proenneke says, “I was alone, just me and the animals.” In his recent book Redeeming Economics, John Mueller relates how classical economists would often use the fictional example of Robinson Crusoe, who was shipwrecked on an island and left to survive alone, to get at the anthropological knowledge necessary for a coherent political economy. In this week’s piece, I do something like this with Proenneke, whose experiment has the advantage of being something that actually happened.
I’m reading through the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my son, and there’s a striking exchange between Gandalf and Denethor in The Return of the King. Gandalf has just arrived with Pippin from Rohan, and the two have been admitted into an audience with the Steward of Gondor.
As Denethor says of himself to Gandalf, “Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”
To this Gandalf responds, “Unless the king should come again? Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for. But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”
Consider this claim not only in contrast with the decadent stewardship of Denethor, who conflates the particular good of his realm with the common good of Middle-earth, but also with respect to the corruption of Saruman. For as the resurrected Gandalf the White says, “Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been.”
For a funny look at what Gandalf’s stewardship responsibility amounts to in the LOTR, check out the “Gandalf Problem Solving” flowchart (HT: Jon Acuff):