I read most of Orson Scott Card’s Ender books in the spring of 2013, which was a slow period in my blogging life. I wanted to hit a reading goal that I had set for myself (I didn’t make it), so when I finished a book I didn’t slow down to write about it but just went on to the next one. I regret that I didn’t write about this series that spring; sometime soon I would like to reread some of the earlier books (namely Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, and maybe also Shadows in Flight; definitely not the ill-advised Christmas-themed one, which was stupid, and not the ones that contain anti-gay-marriage rants, which are worse than stupid) and write about them here. I think Ender’s Game is the best children’s book ever written, even though its author didn’t intend it as a children’s book – and even though West Point and other elite military colleges cover it in courses on leadership – and I’m a little sad it wasn’t around when I was a child. I would have loved it.
Children of the Mind is certainly not one of the brightest lights in the Ender chandelier, but it was an interesting novel in some ways. If you missed my review of Xenocide a couple of months ago, you can check it out here for some context. At the beginning of Children of the Mind, Ender’s wife Novinha has just joined a religious order called Children of the Mind of Christ, and Ender has followed her. We have known about this religious order since Speaker for the Dead, but we have never learned much about its specific theology or origins. This order is distinct in that only married couples are allowed to join it, but once a couple joins they are no longer allowed to have sex. They take the usual vow of chastity common in Catholic orders, but they share living quarters with their spouses. As far as I can recall, we have never learned exactly why and how this order evolved the way it did, and because Children of the Mind is the title of the last novel, I have long assumed that some of my questions about the order would be answered. But no dice – most of this novel actually takes place on planets other than Lusitania (the one where Ender and Novinha live), and other than the fact that Novinha joins the order and Ender follows her and then Ender curls up and dies there (it’s more complicated than that, of course), not much happens to enlighten us about this religious order.
Like Xenocide, this novel is largely focused on trying to divert the Lusitania Fleet, which is headed to Lusitania on orders from Starways Congress and plans to blow Lusitania up with the M.D. Device or “Little Doctor,” the same weapon Ender deployed against the ‘buggers’ back in Ender’s Game. Starways Congress orders the fleet not to use the weapon, but the fleet is commanded by a rogue officer who decides to deploy it anyway. Since all of this happens in space, where it takes years and years for objects and information to get from one planet to another, our heroes still have time to divert the weapon before it explodes – but of course things get complicated.
At the end of Xenocide, Ender’s unconscious mind accidentally summons up the youthful images of his two siblings, Peter and Valentine, who then become characters in the novel. Much space is given in Children of the Mind to debates about the spiritual identity of Young Peter and Young Valentine. Do they have souls? If so, are their souls the same souls as Old (Dead) Peter and Old (Not Dead) Valentine? Eventually it is determined that Young Peter and Young Valentine each contain a portion of Ender’s soul, which is why Ender weakens and dies so rapidly in this novel. There is a lot of transmigration of souls going on in this novel in general, as everyone tries to figure out how to keep Jane (who is an entity created by the ansible network, which is sort of like the internet) alive when Starways Congress shuts off the ansibles in an attempt to kill her. It occurs to me that Yeats’ lines “Consume my heart away; sick with desire, / And fastened to a dying animal, / It knows not what it is, and gather me / Into the artifice of eternity” would make a great epigraph for this novel, but lately I’ve been thinking these lines should work as the epigraph of just about any piece of art created by a human being – at least if the human being is paying attention.
(What do you mean, that was my unfounded grandiose statement of the year? And who says I only get one? Who makes the rules around here?)
Sooner or later I figured out that the title Children of the Mind doesn’t refer to the religious order. The children of the mind are Young Peter and Young Valentine (who came into being at the behest of Ender’s mind), as well as Jane (who is all mind and no body) and the Hive Queen and the Fathertrees, who communicate through their minds without using any form of vocalization. All of the characters in this novel are children of the mind, except for us – mortal humans who die and who, therefore, are children of the body.
There’s plenty more I could say, except that so much of this novel follows directly from Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead, and you can read my reviews of those novels to get the general idea. I find it interesting that so much of sci-fi and fantasy literature ends up dealing with religious themes. If I had to name one primary theme for the Ender series, it would be forgiveness – and, specifically, the capacity of human beings to commit outrageous atrocities and still ultimately redeem themselves. Ender redeems himself a million times over, and almost everyone who knows the truth about him sees him as almost a saint, but he never manages to forgive himself. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a literary character die – not because I dislike Ender but because he had been alive for over 3000 years and desperately needed an end to his own guilt and suffering, to the idea that he is somehow cursed – that misery follows him around the universe and blooms wherever he is planted.
I recommend this series, even though I am also happy to be done with it. The last two volumes aren’t the best, but that doesn’t change the fact that Orson Scott Card has done something wonderful here: a series that is equal parts morality play, parable, bildungsroman, and adventure story. These novels (especially the early ones) are subversive in the way that Jesus is subversive; by that I mean that they look straight at the human race and see that its selfishness, cowardice, and cruelty are located over and over again in the actions of people who have been given temporal power, while the poor and powerless are capable of endless compassion and justice and generosity. This quality is what I meant when I said that Ender’s Game is the perfect children’s book – and the sequels for the most part maintain the same focus on the courage and dignity of the powerless. I’m happy I’m done with this series, but mostly I’m just happy that I’ve read it. We need books like these.