Adrian Graham

Ender’s Game book cover

Ender’s Game

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game is a classic bugs from outer space threaten humanity. In the story, children and young adults are trained in a special school to fight the ‘buggers’ using remote controlled spaceships (created from captured alien technology). Young people are the only suitable candidates to pilot these remotely controlled ships (because adults have slower reaction times).

Even though Ender is a remarkably young protagonist, the story incorporates a lot of violence, which I wasn’t expecting. His elder brother, Peter, is a sociopath – a disturbing character. There’s a great deal about bullying and fighting bullies face on, which gets quite dark. At one point Ender has a brutal fight with a bully (the bully later dies, although Ender does not know about this). The fight is viewed by the school’s commander as a sign of Ender’s progress towards becoming a powerful leader.

I found the ending weird and unexpected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Ender is a broken character in many ways, having wiped out the ‘buggers’, and his extremely unpleasant brother Peter has become an influential character on Earth (through his manipulative political writings). Without a common enemy the world has reverted to infighting and factional wars. Ender takes the only remaining ‘bugger’, a queen egg, to an uninhabited planet for the alien life-form to repopulate (in an act of atonement). It transpires that the ‘buggers’ didn't realise that people were sentient life-forms and the war with the ‘buggers’ was a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, humanity goes on to colonise new planets and systems.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 literary fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale (which I read last year, during the summer) is one of the most significant and influential dystopian stories in contemporary culture. I read the book, then I listened to the audiobook (read by Elisabeth Moss). I watched three seasons of the TV series (when they aired), it features Elisabeth Moss as Offred. I watched the film, which was originally released in 1990.

The novel is a work of ‘Literary Fiction’ and this is reflected in it being a character study Offred, the main character. The world around her is explored through her eyes. In classic literary fiction mode it’s an interior monologue that spends a lot of time inside her head. This produces somewhat mixed results. The reader gets to know Offred and care about her as a character, but it also slows the narrative down. I found the pace to be pretty glacial, and I had to force myself to complete the book. I appreciate that much of this criticism is subjective, and many readers will delight in Atwood’s rich literary language and the opportunity to live inside Offred’s head.

Offred’s thoughts are often capped by a slightly weird question, or a desirous thought. She’s a remarkably intelligent and observant character. The novel, which is a ‘feminist dystopian tragedy’, does a great job of handling the politics of this repressive society. It takes a nuanced approach rather than a comic book ‘all men are evil’ tone. The society it depicts is hierarchical, not all men have equal power, some women have more power than men lower down the class ladder, but at the same social level, men always have more power than women. There’s also a power dynamic between the female characters, with many of the women being complicit in maintaining the system.

The story is revealed to be a historical document, a transcription made from audio cassette recordings. Offred’s testimony is being discussed at an academic seminar. In literary fiction, the found letter or journal is as old as the form itself, as is metafiction, but I still didn’t understand why it was necessary to frame the narrative in this way. The final chapter is a parody or a satirical take on an academic seminar, which discusses Offred’s account and how authentic the transcript is. It implies that the reader should question everything that he or she reads.

The Ipcress File

Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File was published in 1962. It’s a product of its time, but it features a protagonist with timeless appeal. His resilience and plucky attitude make him easy to empathise with. Deighton’s unnamed anti-hero appeared a year before John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Len Deighton’s protagonist is a first-person character, an updated noir detective turned into a quintessential 60s ‘man about town’. Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is a third person character. He’s from the old world, a bygone age. He’s adjusting to the new world, a washed-up figure who espouses the outdated values of self-sacrifice, and chivalric honour. The unnamed anti-hero of The Ipcress File is more interested in seducing women and the quality of his morning coffee. He’s not exactly frivolous, just part of the fashionable 1960s consumerist society. Unlike Leamas, he belongs in the modern world.

The Ipcress File is a young work in some respects, a bit rough around the edges, but it comes with its charms. Its hero is hardly a counterculture rebel. He is a talented ‘small man’ who is locked out of ‘the system’, a popular character type in British storytelling. Twenty years later, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game (1982), introduced a new hero. This time the central character did have a name – Bernard Samson. Samson is middle-aged and jaded. He’s seen it all before, or at least he thinks he has. Bernard isn’t a young, single lad about town. He’s a family man and the spy ‘game’ is deeply affecting his family, wife and children. Deighton’s eye for social politics is even more acute than before, but with less of The Ipcress File’s trademark movie dialogue sarcasm.

American Stories

The western story is the frontier story, the wilderness trek, the ramshackle small town, one where European settlers come into conflict with the Native American Indian. The Western is a celebration of the heroic individual, the rugged individual, the American pioneer spirit. The Western story is based on myth and legend, and frankly a whole lot of nonsense. The Cowboy was the good guy and the Indian was the bad guy. It was clear who the audience was supposed to identify with. The settlers, the Cowboys, and the US Cavalry were making a safer and better world, not for the Indians (they were the bad guys so they didn’t matter).

The Western is a story about power and empire – the power to tell the story that Americans wanted to hear and believe about themselves. That they were the good guys, thus creating an empire of the mind, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in De La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), in 1835:

I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people which is commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World; whilst the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote its energies to thought, and enlarge in all directions the empire of the mind.

The gangster story is the story of free market Capitalism taken to an extreme. It’s deregulation paradise. It’s the story of family, of personal sacrifice, of loyalty, and of extreme violence in the pursuit of the American dream. ‘Get rich or die trying.’ The only things that matter in life are money, power, and status, and in the gangster story characters will do anything, risk anything, to get what they want. This is a story about winners and losers. It’s about the deluded charisma of the fanatic, a central character’s mania for attaining riches beyond belief. And everyone is just a sucker. Unlike The Western it’s a less appealing vision of America. The action has moved from a vast landscapes and small towns, to an urban environment, the ruthless city. There’s little in the way of the noble hero here, but plenty of car chases and gunfights, and doomed romance.

The American dystopia story has many versions of itself. There’s the conspiracy story where the government is lying to its people, pod people are being grown in the local farm, and the hero doesn’t know who to trust. There’s the post-apocalyptic story where the whole world has gone crazy and there isn’t much left to salvage. A lone hero or a small band of heroes struggles to maintain their humanity and restore a semblance of civilisation. There’s the 1970s disaster movie where greed and incompetence has compromised basic safety. Impossibly tall buildings will burn, ships will capsize in the ocean, and dams will crack apart, and nuclear power stations will go into meltdown. Government is ineffective at solving even the basic problems and the corporations are running out of control. There will be wide scale corruption, and a crazy religious cult will eventually take control. But, crazy as this world is, there will always be a hero willing to make a difference.


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