“[Ender’s Game] is a story of libidinal children loving and hating each other in a competitive and potentially violent environment. It offers the scapegoating of the outcast as the easiest way to community, but it ultimately rejects such tactics in favor of a more conception that stresses the dependence of the community on what it excludes” (501). –James Campbell.
Campbell’s essay, “Kill the Bugger: Ender’s Game and the Question of Heteronormativity”, quoted above, attempts to differentiate what constitutes the heterosexual and the homosexual within Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985). Through this differentiation he hopes to arrive at an understanding of Card’s conceptualization of homosexuality and homosociality which, though precariously connected to his political and religious non-fiction writing, is ultimately separate from his science fiction (sf) writings, enabling in-turn a nuanced reading of his works.
Although my essay agrees with much of Campbell’s analytic style, I will argue that by taking a closer look at the book’s core interpersonal relationship (the protagonist Ender and his close friend, Bean) as viewed as a by-product of the Battle School’s unique function as what theorist Slavoj Zizek dubs “Object Petite a”, we are able to come to a deeper understanding of the sexual nuance of the Homo-Hetero imperative; or, what I understand the alternating panic between heterosexuality and faux-homosexuality to be actually constituted of: the fear of having one’s “screen” for the projection of desire, destroyed without first coming to an understanding of how the screen will evolve in relation to one’s existential journey.
Ender’s Game is a story of humanity under siege. A vicious alien race known as “the Buggers” attack Earth twice, killing millions. With the second invasion only barely fended off thanks to a lucky hit by a brilliant general, the Earth government rushes to find their new hero to lead them when the Buggers inevitably attack again. Enter: Ender Wiggin, a genius child sent away to Battle School, the primer youth training academy meant to groom promising children into hardened commanders and generals. Once there he is instructed on military tactics, strategy, and command. Like all cadets he is assigned to an army where he participates in mock battles designed to teach students how to fight. Eventually gaining command of his own army, he quickly raises through the ranks, completing every test the instructors present. While training, Ender meets another recruit there—Bean—with whom he is able to forge a special bond of friendship; Bean supports Ender as only a close friend could and the pair share an intimate moment before Ender is hurried to Command School and forced into conflict with the Buggers.
Ender’s relationship with Bean, as articulated through what the Battle School represents and is meant to function as, acts according to Zizek’s premise when he discusses the concept of a “screen”. Elaborated more in-depth in “Looking Awry” (1992), Zizek speaks of a ‘screen’ in the context of fiction and the way it is construed in Patricia Highsmith’s story “Black House”; Zizek expounds that fantasy acts as a conduit for desire, enabling the characters to imprint onto a dilapidated house distorted memories and nostalgia of their childhood (9). In utilizing this run-down house as a centralization of their collective delusion, the men in Highsmith’s story possess an interest in violently defending this delusion against those outsiders whose gaze is able to penetrate the illusion.
Appropriately then it is prudent to mention that the Battle School from Ender’s Game is a place of violence. It is where pre-pubescent children co-mingle amongst one another within a vicious hierarchy of military command. The dreams of all the students depend on excellent performance in order to graduate to Command School and eventually control ships in the hope of becoming war heroes. It is, as Zizek would describe, “nothing at all, just an empty surface… but because of… [this]… is nonetheless well worth the trouble” (8). Well worth the trouble because this surface acts “as a kind of screen for the projection of desires” which though “does nothing but fill out a certain emptiness” manages to act as a space of negotiation between young boys and their subsumed interpersonal desire.
The militarism and sexual policing then functions as a cover for the true happenings within the school’s body politic. Despite Ender facing (sub-textual) threats of sexual violence, and suffering sexual harassment, while even engaging in such behaviors on a milder—defensive— scale, he manages nonetheless to encounter several affable same-sex partners (as seen through Alai and Bean). The heterosexism of the upperclassmen, which acts as a sort of buffer strata between the “launches” (the new students) and the administrators, exists only to reinforce the poignancy of the affectionate same-sex relations, because through the shared space of the Battle School, desire finds a canvass for its projection, since these objects “assume clear and distinctive features only when we look at it… with an ‘interested’ view, supported, permeated, and ‘distorted’ by desire” (12). Heteronormativity functions as this “interested view”; distorting the reality of the Battle School as a place of faux-homosexual longings between the young students, most of whom are male, the desire is seen as false—when in fact—it is the defining characteristic of Battle School, its expression visible within the environs of how the characters interact, a series of events which through oscillation between homosexual panic and acceptance, alludes to the intentional ambiguity of the characters so as to function as the psychological modus operandi needed to make the biological transition from pre-adolescence to adolescent proper. In order to illustrate this claim further we need to define it within a centralized plot point, an area where the characters display this fear of premature existential movement. None other come to mind as powerfully as the ending of the Ender-Bean Battle School arc.
Though Bean is a character introduced late in the novel Ender and he quickly bond. The roots of this bonding stir as Bean is first assigned to his army: being the most brilliant of the inexperienced launchees, Ender noticed his talents and starts to ostracize him from his pack, giving him praise over the others in a stark reflection of the treatment given to him not too long before (160 Card). Such antics call to mind deflected sexual desire expressed through abuse. Solidifying this abuse is murmurs of sub-textual affection: during Ender and Bean’s first conversation, after an argument ensues, Ender growls “And what do you want, love and kisses?” (165). Readers will only understand the potency of these words later, after Ender is hastily sent away to Command School years before his time; but for the moment this encounter evolves from bemused hap-stance to homosocial relationship.
After a grueling battle with two enemy teams at once, an exhausted Bean returns to his bed only to find a message from Ender on his tablet. After reading the message Bean muses on its send date since “The time was… only ten minutes before lights out” (195), and whether Ender had intended to see Bean immediately. Implicit in this scene is hormonal fluster and subterfuge; Ender, utilizing his privilege as a commander, summons Bean—officially—to discuss battle tactics and strategy, but is in fact an attempt to build favor with a romantic interest: this is a calculated move on Ender’s part for the result once the light go out is Bean being forced to stay in Ender’s private dormitory. The text narrates Bean hearing Ender climb into bed, followed soon by Bean himself; the eroticism of this scene is overt— two young, likely nude youths, whom just a breath before in the chapter had been confiding in each other about their emotional problems (196-7), now sleep in the same bed, for at least one night (197).
This night is significant. Clearly it is an intimate—non-sexual—moment between two friends. However, the reader does not know the true weight of this night on Bean’s mind until Ender is deported to Command School. Bean “felt terrible” (224). He “at first… thought he felt bad because he was afraid of leading an army, but that wasn’t true” because the true impact of his response lay toward Ender’s departure: “He felt himself wanting to cry”, an inability to define the feeling within him ensues and so resorts to biting himself “in order to stop the feeling and replace it with pain” which, of course, does not assist him since “he would never see Ender again”.
Campbell asks “if [Bean] does name the feeling, what is its name? Love, obviously, but that of course opens up at least as many emotional possibilities as it delimits. And if love is the missing word here, why is it a love that dare not speak its name” (496)? This question’s answer is multifaceted. If examined within the context of the emotional responses fabricated by the pressures of school, however, and delineated by the unexpected stirrings of close male-friendship, then the net-result, after the pressures of friendship have been cancelled out by the bond of friendship itself, is desire in-itself: this is the desire refracted from that heteronormative “surface-sheen” proliferated by the school’s sex police, the same desire which though emotionally connected, is only relevant insofar as Bean represses his emotional distress, thus revealing the internalized heteronormativity—the medium which, thanks to the school acting as the object petite a, is conceived exactly as homosexual desire due to Bean utilizing it as a means of advancing onto his next existential and biological level, I.E., puberty and the attempt to define himself sexually. Bean is, in other words, reversing the intended function of the school—mandatory heteronormativity—so as to subvert the internalized affects: utilizing Battle School as a launching pad for adolescence, Bean’s arc functions as a ‘coming of age’ tale in addition to the unexpected ‘coming to terms’ story. A science fiction parable, said another way, hidden behind the ambiguous realm of the homo-hetero imperative.
No interpretation of a book as deep as Ender’s Game will likely encompasses all of the novel’s themes of concern for interpretation. However, it would be mistaken to pronounce it a literary work on the same level as Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Because, unlike those works, which will resist any interpretation, Card’s sci-fi epic will eventually be wholly broken-down. Critics like Campbell prove this through their fierce reading of the queer elements within the sub-text; it is what my own contribution, however petite it may be, hopes to illustrate: that the premise of the novel—militarized heteronormativity—can be seen from its inverse—militarized homonormativity—if the correct aspects are deconstructed while keeping a keen eye for psychological details.
Campbell, James. “Kill the Bugger: Ender’s Game and the Question of Heteronormativity”. Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 36, No. 3 (November 2009), pp. 490-507. Web. 13-03-2015 23: 04 UTC.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture”. Cambridge: M.I.T UP, 1992. Print.
Card, Orson Scott. “Ender’s Game”. New York: Tor, 1991. Print.