Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Battle school

I didn't like Ender's Game when I read it a couple of years ago, but I understand that it is most popular with teen readers. I have trouble getting my head around the whole child soldier thing; how adults will use children -- and their vulnerable gullibility -- to achieve some adult ends. I wish I didn't know as much about Orson Scott Card as I do now, because this also gives me pause. However, I am a professional and can evaluate this audiobook on its own merits!

In a society that has battled with alien beings called "buggers," the military establishment is on the lookout for great strategists who can face the enemy with new, annihilating tactics ... and they look for these warriors among their children. Young Andrew "Ender" Wiggin appears to be a prime candidate. He is a third (not truly sanctioned) child, essentially bred for his military possibilities. At the age of six, he is recruited (although not really voluntarily) and sent off to battle school in outer space. There he learns how to fight in zero gravity, and his talent far exceeds his age. Isolated in leadership, Ender suffers profound loneliness and horror at what he is trained to do, but in a final confrontation with the buggers (a confrontation he thought was merely another military exercise), he defeats them. Finding who he has become too much to bear, he becomes a settler on a distant planetoid, trying to rid himself of his warrior impulses, but sadly he remains burdened with guilt.

The audiobook is kind of a "full cast" production. In between Ender's story -- read by a single narrator -- are two-narrator dialogues from other characters who advance the plot with additional information. We also hear a single (?) vignette from the point of view of Ender's beloved sister, Valentine. This is a very effective rendering of the story, giving you a vivid illustration of how manipulative the adults are with Ender and how successfully they've isolated him. They appear almost puppeteer-like in the way their conversations loom over the narrative from Ender's point of view. However, I so wished the production had named all the narrators and what role they had played. There were a few well-known names among the readers (if you look up the audiobook in our catalog) -- including the author and Harlan Ellison -- but you'd never know it in the listening. I was very curious what part each had played.

Alas, I couldn't like the main reader, Stefan Rudnicki (who, it appears, also directed this production). As I'd said in an earlier post about another book that he read, he is way too old to be portraying children (these boys aren't even teenagers). As a result, I had difficulty empathizing with Ender, I had difficulty in believing that he was even 11 years old (which is as old as he gets in a story that starts when he's six). I kept forgetting that he was a child, which ultimately ruins the impact of the story.

This audiobook is actually a reissued version of one originally published in 2004; our committee was able to consider it because new material was added. The original came with a lengthy afterword by Card; the new material was an additional afterword that Card made for the Young Reader's Edition (Young Listener's? ... I don't have it here to look at). Both afterwords were kind of painful to listen to as we are given a fairly intricate account of how the book came to be published and why he thinks it has such appeal for teen readers. Suffice it to say, Card doesn't do humble very well.

This is always a tricky part of evaluating audiobooks: Do teen listeners continue on? Does it matter if they don't? If it's so bad (either in content or execution [the afterword in Jenna Fox was a poor example of audio quality]), does it detract from what came before? Personally, I wasn't that enamored of the audiobook for this to be an issue for me, but it may come up in our discussions.

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