I still recall the intense culture shock I experienced when I entered Stanford Business School at age 23. I was an odd outlier, admitted to the MBA program with no previous business experience. While my classmates showed up with polished skills in accounting or finance, or with an internship at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs under their belts, my expertise was largely limited to music, literature, philosophy and the arts.
But I was a great believer, then as now, in the power of storytelling to guide real world decisions—and this was perhaps my strongest connection with my professors and fellow students. I looked at the case studies we used in the classroom as quirky short stories, each filled to the brim with characters, conflicts and an occasional cash flow statement. And, on rare instances, someone in class would turn to a novel or movie to illuminate some precept in leadership or teambuilding. Films such as Twelve Angry Men or Apollo 13 are full of lessons for those willing to extrapolate from the courtroom or spaceship to the corporate boardroom. I still remember fondly the time I unin- tentionally caused an uproar in a first year business strategy class by trying to solve the problem at hand with my personal inter- pretation of War and Peace.
I wish I had known about Ender’s Game back then. I would have spared my classmates the lecture on Tolstoy and gone straight for Orson Scott Card. Most readers enjoy this book for its fast-paced plotting, and a storyline that pings and zings like the action in a pinball game. Indeed, the premise of the book is that saving the galaxy is not much different than winning at Grand Theft Auto or Super Mario Brothers. But the real substance of the book is its detailed exposition of the strategies and ploys relied on by its hero, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, as he rises to the top of his class at Battle School, and later Command School, before moving on to an actual combat against an alien force. Give Ender some credit: his case studies turn out to be a bit more dangerous than any I chanced to encounter at B-school.
Other science fiction books have incorporated the concept of games or competitive simulations into their plot lines, but not with such careful attention to strategy and tactics. As far back as 1948, A. E. van Vogt drew on the concept of a human playing a computer game in a formal competition for his novel The World of Null-A. But the rise of commercial computer games in the 1980s and 1990s turned this into a familiar plot line—both in movies (Tron) and fiction (Snow Crash). Invariably these books leave out the game theory even as they draw on the game as a source of conflict and drama. A book such as Iain M. Banks' The Player of Games (1988) can build its entire story around a series of elaborate games, yet only offer the vaguest generalities about the rules and techniques at play. Ender’s Game, in contrast, presents a series of detailed case studies in how competitions are won and lost—drawing on both conceptual and psychological insights in the process.
This sophistication in the details here stands in stark contrast to the simplicity of the larger plot, which is as hackneyed as it gets. A young boy saves the universe from ugly, ruthless insect-like monsters, known as "buggers" (clearly Card hadn't spent much time in Britain before writing this book). Such an unpromising story line would normally suffice only for escapist young adult fiction, but Card dishes up something more here, setting up a series of conflicts and obstacles for his protagonist that dispense with dragons and swords and the other familiar paraphernalia of the genre, and instead draw on Ender's skills in leadership and organizational analysis.
In various simulated conflicts, Ender’s team defeats older and stronger opponents through the application of a range of insights—which might involve the decentralization of teams or reorienting the perceptions of combatants. A key conflict is won by taking advantage of an opponent's understandable tendency to apply concepts of up and down to environments were such an orientation proves to be a vulnerability. Other conflicts turn on the value of decoys and misdirection, or the benefits of holding key resources in reserve until the crucial moment in an engagement, or the impact of various motivational methods.
One might justifiably carp that a novel is not a business school case study, and that it may provide valuable insights into team dynamics while failing as literature. I can under- stand this criticism, and will be the first to admit that readers should not turn to Orson Scott Card for his prose style or poetic sensibility. A certain brutal pragmatism permeates these pages—one that has enthralled some readers, but turned off many others. Yet I would counter that stories are not diminished by imparting lessons, far from it—many of the oldest tales, both from Western cultures and elsewhere, clearly aim to embody the wisdom of their society and pass it on to a new generation. This functionality does not diminish the value of a story, but rather enriches it. Ender’s Game would be a far lesser book if it lacked these "teachable moments."
That said, I am less impressed with the political theorizing that Card incorporates into this novel. A subplot about Ender's siblings rewriting the rules of democratic engage- ment is so preposterous, even by the loose standards of science fiction, that I could hardly engage seriously with its pretensions. Yet even as I read these pages in befuddle- ment, I admired Card for taking such a daring stance in an action-oriented novel. Readers may feel as if they had stumbled out of Starship Troopers only to find themselves lost in a bizarre version of The Federalist Papers from an alternative universe. Certainly no one could accuse this author of playing it safe.
Card revised the original text of his novel for later editions, in an attempt to make the story less dependent on the historical exigencies of its time of origin. (The novel, released in 1985, drew on an earlier short story by Card, also called "Ender’s Game," published in 1977.) I have little concern, however, that this book will come across dated 10, 20 or even 30 years from now. True, the technological trappings of Card’s story may eventually seem quaint or peculiar, but the psychological and sociological qualities at play here strike me as essentially timeless. Like those other crossover classics—1984 or The Handmaid's Tale or Slaughterhouse Five—Ender's Game will likely hold on to its place in the canon because it puts its faith ultimately in the power of storytelling, and not just the pageant and gadgetry of conventional sci-fi. Certainly others have emulated its focus on game-playing as a plot device, but none have yet matched the realism of its exquisite gamesmanship.