Oppressive mobilities in Ender’s Game (1985 & 2013)


I lacked any sense of 80’s sci fi story Ender’s Game until 2013 when the film adaptation came along.  I had a quick look into it then, noted some controversy as a story and from comments of a homophobic nature by the author Orson Scott Card.  It was notable also that the book has been a staple on the US Marine Corp reading list.  While I was intrigued that the book was apparently enthusiastically endorsed by what Deleuze and Guattari called the Statecaptured nomad war-machine  – I had no real intent at that point to encounter it.  (war machines post).

The thought would return occasionally that perhaps I should watch it.  I think in part this was also coming through the fact that the film was being marketed as an extension to the trend of Young Adult fiction adaptations  (Hunger Games, Twilight, Maze Runner etc.)  Elements of which have shown imagination toward ideas which Hollywood has been predominantly unable or unwilling to consistently approach (of course it has to catch up eventually as it can never ignore a zeitgeist before bloating it).   But In many ways, these films have marked a return for high-concept science fiction (as well as bordering genres) and world-dreaming.  In Maze Runner, there is the vast shifting phalanx of the maze walls within a complex in the desert, Divergent has its marooned, stratified city (and the virtual hallucino-space of its testing procedures), while of course there are the eponymous Hunger Games.  They each also comprise some form of experimental existence / survival-scheme in which the perpetrators challenge the extent and confines of the elitist / systemic powers governing and encasing their lives (and in some cases, an underlying cognitive reality which goes with it).  Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent also all pitch a young adult individual (female in two of those three) becoming a key agent in resisting repressive /murderous dystopic State regimes.

Although there are common thematic concerns, each of these stories in whichever form is its own crucible of meaning and event, interactions, intensities of character and feeling, so what if anything makes Ender different?  In terms of its story, circumstances and movement, Ender is coming through a vastly different set of concerns, predominantly stemming through the preoccupations of power and control, and in the context of its story, forms a circumstantial framework that ultimately valorises its own strategic context as the only practical reality available, while subjugating an idea of love to be an empathic tool of victory.


*spoil your pudding, it was made of endings anyway*

By the conclusion of this film, we witness the pre-teen child strategy-genius Ender Wiggins win an all out species war between humans and a hostile alien race; the Formics, directing a single battle in space which he is led to believe is actually only a simulation.  As If this weren’t enough, the manner of the victory and what it represents (which the film repeatedly reasserts), emerges from a story whose parameters serve as an incubator for the expression-as-success of a nest of strategies-of-ends, whose focus entail winning at any costs (and allowing a creativity to emerge in the context of bringing an outside only to reinforce the known interiority of the battle) as well as a rationalised excess of violence as a force of future moderation (totalitarian justification out among the kids).

In terms of its strategic reasoning, the goal is always the same, win by any means, strike the decisive blow; bigger, harder, repeatedly, secretly – formulate ultimate weapons, make the decisive destruction (immobilisation does not seem lesson enough in the pure strategic world of Ender).  These are some known principles of violently ending battles (from within one) and in this film they are enshrined in a reality which never allows an outside to this as a cognitive-ontological mode.  As such, the strategic motion can move uninterrupted, even though for example, Ender’s formulations consistently pitch everything into a single act of decisiveness where the moment will decide the win or loss of the encounter.   A methodology reliant upon surprise, but also upon chance and pitching each encounter upon a single surprise stroke is itself challenging the unknown and chance to a degree which suggests unsustainability as a broader ongoing methodology.  Effectively that when the surprise approach is all or nothing then it will reach the point of also being nothing and in this sense, reveals itself not to connect with a sustainability ethos of existence, but rides a wild wave of inspiration, allied to power and the ends of arriving destruction (which will reach oneself under such circumstances in time enough).

Of course such a strategy could show every indication of adapting and making contact with different polarities of action and understanding, in fact as a combat pragmatics it is immensely close at all times to this very condition (of breaking out of the overarching control-power modality of its direction at any one point in time)  but as we see, when it does claim contact with another pole of being (Love) it is to finally and irrevocably cut itself off from that connection in all but the nefarious allocation of name.


To ensure the success of the strategy’s success, the story is sculpted as an impoverished reality of abject desperation that ensures nothing here is left to chance.  In fact the circumstances of the story are such that they can instance (in this fiction-space) social-macro-pressures under which this seed nucleus of a pragmatic ideology can be formed and can grow to the apotheosis of its own logic.  That the ideology is ultimately disinterested in the ‘end’ of its own agent suggests that the characters in the story are more or less puppetised to the context of interests elsewhere, which the story names as survivial of the species, but which are more accurately images and kinds of State operations and their prescriptions.

Specifically, the desperation in Ender’s Game stems from human beings facing the prospect of annihilation, after an unprovoked colonisation attempt (barely repulsed) 70 years ago which has led to a desperate programme of militarising children as strategic commanders, due to their adaptability, sensitivity and flexible thinking.   Only the best are selected through successive military programmes and training, all to select the one candidate to command human forces in battle against the second wave attack from the Formics which is near imminent and which it is assured will wipe humanity out.   It should also be clear that the Formics are a handy avatar for a distinctly recognisable brand of qualities, a mirror for the human-capitalist mode in its most rapacious forms (they’ve used their planet up and fancy this one).

Through the film we get to see pre-teen Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins (an innocuous sounding surname hailing from Northumberland originally) rise through the ranks, earmarked by the military-child goader-in-chief (H. Ford;  he’$ in there somewhere) who happily watches Ender’s precociousness thrust him into (apparently) unavoidable conflict with those other students he inevitably surpasses.  But clearly this social world of ours is no less a place of strategy (especially in the military school!) and Ender’s strategy when he cannot stop a violent confrontation, is to beat his opponent then carry on beating him after he is inert, this in order to – as the film puts it ‘stop all future battles’.

This is the conceptual / strategic lynchpin around which the story spins.   The lesson is immediate and lasting, a rational response to unprovoked or hostile violence is to conclude the outcome of the engagement in your favour but then continue the violence beyond its immanent necessity as a means of imparting a lesson against future violence.

This tactic of Ender’s is endorsed immediately as an articulation of the strategy of necessity within the story with him its exemplar and prover-in-chief and is initially applied to and comes out of the social.  This attempts an equivalence between the violent and hostile interactions of humans (intra-personally / socially) and a potential war for survival between planetary species.  Even if we were in the position of seeing the forces involved here as analogous in some way, the context is not and yet here the two situations are effortlessly bridged as the apparently natural heuristic of Ender’s early experiences (helpfully and immediately affirmed by H. Ford character).


All or nothing what?

The story plays out with Ender adopting (in what he thinks is the simulation) an ‘all or nothing’ strategy of abandoning his fleet and all its personnel to be completely destroyed in order to protect the mega-weapon which he deploys to destroy the home world of the enemy and wipe out the species (the excess that prevents future warfare; annihilation).

That the story structures Ender’s approach as a ‘pure’ strategic initiative is one of the more cunning involutions, you’ve saved the species, get over it.  Which means his remonstration upon finding out the reality of his victory that it’s not simply about winning, but about ‘how you win’ is rendered inert.  The film may think it can portray as a warning what occurs when a strategy of win-at-all-costs-strategy is given free rein, but if this was an intent – it never truly undercuts the logic of its ‘victory’,  having set its stall so vehemently in the first place.

As it happens the film contains a redemptive thread for Ender.  It transpires that he has missed attempts to make contact with him by the enemy alien the Formics and a final miniscule possibility for their survival exists which is something he must take sole responsibility for, having realised his unwitting but pivotal role in their annihilation.   This feels like another outcome which reveals like a kind of barometer – the horror-tectonics of the story, he is spared the responsibility of knowingly annihilating a species, but must live instead with the responsibility of having done it.  Thus, when the same strategic imperative is applied inward at its molecular composition, to be controlled out of knowing one’s context and wider meaning becomes a normative action to achieve whatever ends are positioned as necessary, which can be seen again as an ongoing State instruction.

It feels like the story wants us to see the strategy playing out in a space of contingency,  that the Formics tried to make contact, that they waited and did not initiate the final attack, that Ender did not know the battle was real and would have responded differently otherwise.  To which the response he receives (from H. Ford) is the story’s true resonant voice:

‘We won, that’s all that matters.’

‘No, it’s the way we win that matters.’  If that were truly the film’s understanding then it would have found expression other than as an adjunct to the cataclysmic human victory.

In fact, by the point in the film when this is being said to him, Ender is already ended himself, he has served his purpose, completed his mission and ended the war.  That Ender subsequently sets off into the unknown with an alien egg is moot, he has destroyed himself in the act of destroying his enemy, which is a truer price of the win at any cost strategy and something which seems unconsidered here on any level other than Ender throwing up and looking understandably distraught (and the performance by Asa Butterfield is a very good one).  That Ender then ejects himself from society is apt, as a genocidal personification carrying the egg of the species he has annihilated.  It allows for both that society can have a genocidal function while not having to live with its continuation-in-human-form.  Ender can at this point be abstracted into a story of the hallowed (but grave and sombre) victory and survival, while not being around in the same human form as everyone else as a reminder of the destitution of reality in the strategy of victory.

In that sense the story also shows its understanding that a personified Ender function is incompatible with the State-social’s image of itself, while being its most pertinent product (in the context of the story).  It is not a paradox that a figure such as Ender emerges who pitches a human war to genocide, it is part of the reality underpinning the State’s production of its existence, it seeks to exist at all costs (partly and ironically as it has a story of its existence as a bastion and pillar in the rise of civilisation) a cost which can definitely include the death of much of its people. Think how Dr. Strangelove suggests the human race (read Strangelove himself and the other figures of patriarchal statehood) can be sustained underground in the event of the oncoming armagheddon, but that ‘the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.’

The handy self interest of the State in Dr. Strangelove

In this sense, the story is actually better understood as both an homage and a prayer (which simultaneously manifests its own deity) from the State to the idea of strategy-as-power.  That the story ultimately separates the components and personification of the strategy (away from society), gives its body a heart (Ender ‘loves’ those he defeats) is another bravura act of dark story-telling power itself, ultimately and finally tied off with personification of the strategy-as-power (as annihilation) being in the form of the child; traditional cypher of love and innocence.  Reborn here in a semi-christianised mythos as the form of an embedded total-war-machine child who sacrifices himself and is given to love those he defeats (as they love themselves) in the moment of knowing them and thus also defeating them.

As well as giving a machine for Christianising military (‘I can love you as I kill you’), what is invoked as ‘love’ by Ender’s description is more akin to a subordinated-style movement which is calling itself this, but is actually (the mode of) understanding the other’s self-love – simultaneously then an aperture to defeat/destroy the being which it is claimed at that point is now being loved.  A subordinated love is not love, and a love harnessed to defeat or kill is not love as I understand these things.   Much like to beat an opponent after they are already inert (on the basis of future battles) is fear and power and control, not love.  Love here is invoked at a point which seems to require for the story and our empathy that Ender not be a psychopath, but retain the quality of being a child, that this diversion is also an arrow of battle victory is more apposite to the story’s intent and its ultimate understanding.


Published in 1985 at the height of Reaganism, Ender’s Game as a story is exorcizing any anthropology of childhood (while disregarding its autonomy as a world, as being)  – instead it is yoked in the name of (the gravity of) species survival – but which is more actually a fictional-yet-real birthing pool for the crystallisation of this conceptual space as a force of reality.  Transforming children into individualised State war machines, whom here are incapable of grasping overture signals of the alien, while being entirely capable of victorious genocidal war games, their personalities rendered in a solution of dog-eat-dog conflict and violence.

All this appears the very personification in story-form of a Hobbesian underpinning to neoliberalist doctrine (especially considering Wacquant‘s recent notion of the Centaur State which punctures neoliberalist myths of minimising State apparatus) and whose most desperate invasive power here is doubled.  First that childhood is invaded and destroyed in the name of the species – and as soon as we see this most Grave of commands, its clear here too that the State has created or usurped a position as the one voice of the human species (another nefarious effect within the story).  Additionally, that the creativity, lightness and flexibility (the lack of gravity, lack of rigidity – all the hallmarks of what they are being made to serve) – in essence the quintessentially unknown-as-transformative human qualities more evident with joy and love in children, are fused towards the dark end of State warfare and control.

ender 3.jpg


What stays with me in respect of this story and its uniquely ingenius setting of parameters is the ‘nestedness’ of the concepts which prescribe the movement of the story in extrapolating a series of strategic innovations that are also crucible events for the expression of power across a series of thresholds upto and including the act of annihilation (held behind a curtain of power in ‘the simulation story’ fed to Ender).

These concepts, ideas, principles form a story strata that define the terms of their own necessity, specifically coming through; the precise desperation and nature of the conflict, its imminent back-dated apocalyptic deadline, the war-fascism of militarising children.  Here combined as conceptual stanchions for the transformation via the same concepts of a series of directions, understandings and commitments to a wider modality of conflict whose unknown nature makes it eminently dangerous.  Fundamentally however it is simply available to occupy anyone who reads or comes across it as a story of great desperation and its apparent necessities.

In a way, it seems as if the story’s one real gesture is to concede that when the contact with the alien is offered, it is missed.  In this sense, the story always confirms the conceptual matrix of the dominant militarised, State formation, whose primary war-reason is resource depletion (even if it’s the ‘enemy’s’).   Meaning it is encased within the capitalist mode, in the context that capitalist states provide war as a means of furthering capitalism which itself makes for the most direct exploitative route available in relation to resources.

Through this it seems we get only the slenderest of acknowledgments as to the dimension outside these parameters of the desperate and destituted (although given the power involved and its direction it might be more accurate to say utterly ‘corrupted’) but that it is there seems the most crucial thing.  That amid its battery of impressive, pragmatic, fast moving unfurlings, is the necessity that an anomalous call or form of contact was there, was available and looking to break through, carrying with it potential to transform the system of this contingent-reality.  It may not be much, but in such integrities, among the rubble, oxygenated survivors may stay for some time, before finally emerging once more…


I hope to bridge this with a second piece on a television show from the 1970’s that could bring a different understanding to the ideas of force, violence and opposition.

*                                *                              *