When intelligence, ruthlessness and empathy co-exist in the same person, one might expect the person concerned to perform certain actions, made possible by the first two attributes, which leave him or her guilt-stricken because of the last. Empathy is a stronger concept than sympathy; empathy allows one to feel what others feel, whether it is joy or pain or grief. When encountered in the same person, it stands to reason that the ability to be merciless would not sit well with the countervailing inclination to empathy. Add power to this precarious mix, and it makes for something explosive.

The eponymous character in (South African director) Gavin Hood’s film adaptation (2013) of the first of Orson Scott Card’s series of six science fiction novels, Ender’s Game, is such a complex personality, and although the film’s running time does not allow the director to dwell at length on the uncomfortable consequences of such a combination of character traits and power, they do show clearly in certain scenes.

It is probably unnecessary to give an elaborate account of the film-plot; science fiction aficionados who read this blog would have seen it anyway. (I shall leave the novel mostly aside for the moment; Hood’s film script deviates from the novel’s plot in some respects and glosses over it in others; understandably, because covering the novel “faithfully” in a film would require one at least three or four times the length of this one.)

The action in Ender’s Game is set in the relatively distant future of interplanetary travel, seventy years after Earth was attacked by the Formics (called the Buggers in the original novel), a technologically superior insectoid species looking for a source of water. In the final battle between the two sides, the Commander of Earth forces, Mazer Rackham, flies his nuclear bomb-bearing fighter into the alien mother ship (ejecting just in time) which contains the alien Queen, and by destroying her, achieves victory because the other aliens are dependent on her hive-mind directing them.

Determined to prevent another attack by the Formics, the International Fleet trains selected children for the future war against the aliens, monitoring their development carefully in the course of training by means of a “monitor” installed in their neuro-cortical system. Ender Wiggin is a quiet, highly intelligent boy, but an unlikely looking candidate for leading young soldiers into conflict. When his superiors notice the ruthless manner in which he deals with a bigger, stronger boy who threatens him, and because his “monitor” has just been removed, Colonel Graff of the IF visits him at his parents’ place to find out why Ender continued attacking the other boy when it was apparent that he would not get up. Ender’s answer, that he wanted to preclude any future assaults from his adversary, is the answer the Colonel wants, in as far as it reflects the personality traits the IF is looking for in their recruits, most notably, ruthlessness.

Ender is offered a position at the elite Battle School, and he soon impresses his officers with his almost uncanny tactical brilliance in simulated combat. He also continues picking up trouble from another jealous rival, and as before, he deals with it relentlessly, with his opponent being injured critically. As earlier, too, Ender exhibits empathy with his defeated adversary — something that sets the pattern for a growing awareness that his own actions, required by his IF trainers, are despicable to himself. To cut a long story short, and not to be a spoiler for readers who have not seen the film or read the book, suffice it to say that the IF officers supervising their cadets perceive in Ender the desired qualities of a future commander of Earth’s forces against the Formics — qualities that would guarantee an inexorable quest for “total” victory over the aliens — and he is put in a position of command to prepare him for this day.

The title of the film/book is ambiguous: the final battle preparation assumes the form of an elaborate “game” of simulation orchestrated by Ender with the support of his officers, involving all the IF forces as well as those of the Formics (directed by Mazer Rackham). Even before this, in a huge zero-gravity space, we witness a combat “war-game” between teams of fighters wielding non-lethal “freeze-guns” (where Ender first displays his tactical genius). But there is another “game” in the narrative: a game that Ender plays on a tablet, which seems to blend with his dreams, and the development of which turns out to be only partly determined by his decisions and moves, and partly by what emanates from “others” in the game or dreams, arguably through his own empathy. As might be expected, the alien “others” are implicated in this.

This is crucial in the long run as far as Ender’s decisions for his own future are concerned. What interests me here, in particular, is the strange psychological ambivalence of the central character — being caught between those abilities some of which enable him to become the supreme commander of Earth forces even at a very young age. These are exceptional intelligence and the ability to be ruthless in combat, for the sake of “conclusive” victory, on the one hand, and his ability to show empathic identification with his adversaries, on the other. With the kind of power that comes with “post-nuclear” capability at Ender’s fingertips, it is not difficult to anticipate events that will cause him extreme psychological discomfort.

The reason for my fascination is that one might expect someone with the capacity for empathy to curb his or her actions before an enemy is utterly annihilated, and not only feel it afterwards. Admittedly, in the narrative the demise of at least one, possibly two, of Ender’s adversaries is partly due to unforeseen factors, and cannot be ascribed solely to his intentions. In addition, without spilling the beans, the factor of simulation (as opposed to “reality”) also plays a part here, as far as one can judge in retrospect.

Add to this that I read somewhere (I forget the source) that Ender’s Game (the first in the series of what is regarded as “military science fiction” novels by Orson Scott Card) is compulsory reading for cadets in military training somewhere in the US, and it becomes even more interesting as far as the motive behind such prescribed reading goes (on the assumption that it is true). This makes one think of the saying among US sports teams, that “Winning is not everything; it is the ONLY thing!” Clearly, the time for what used to be known as healthy sportsmanship is over, and gamesmanship reigns supreme in this context.

One gets the uncomfortable feeling that an ethos is being cultivated here that smacks of an unsavoury kind of social Darwinism, mitigated only by the ostensibly redundant personality trait of empathy on the part of the role model for ruthless competition, if not conflict, namely Ender Wiggin. Not that this is at all surprising in a world where the norm for subjectivity is one of merciless economic competition, at the cost of all those human qualities that speak of cooperation, compassion and kindness.

Orson Scott Card has compensated for what may be perceived as a dangerously flawed character by developing the quality of empathy on his protagonist’s part, as one of the motive forces in some of the sequels to Ender’s Game. I am thinking specifically of Speaker for the Dead, which could be described as a narrative of redemption. Even in the novel, Ender’s Game, this motif already stirs conspicuously nearer the end (much more so than in the film), and were it not for this fact, it might have been less convincing as a display of insight into human psychological complexity.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment