Monday, April 23, 2012

Ender's Game Series is Science Fiction Gold

Orson Scott Card's fabled Ender's Game Science Fiction novel series uses rarely seen writing technique of "companion novels" to perfection.

Readers were first introduced to Andrew Wiggin in 1985. Many science fiction readers know him better by his nickname Ender. Orson Scott Card released the novel Ender's Game in 1985. It went on to win the Nebula Award as well as the Hugo Award for the best Science Fiction novel of the year.

The chronological sequel, Speaker for the Dead, written just a year later, went on to win both awards as well. This story takes place after the events of Ender's Game. It is a sequel by definition.

The more interesting "sequel" to me however is the one written to take place during the exact same time frame as Card's original. The book Ender's Shadow was written in 1999 as a companion novel to Ender Wiggin's first adventure.

Companion Novels

The challenge and skill in writing a companion novel cannot be exaggerated. To write essentially the same story again, yet make it all the more interesting is a testament to Card's brilliance as well as to this world he created.

Writing a companion novel is usually the last technique used by writers, or movie directors for that matter, to continue the story of a beloved character/world. First comes a sequel. This is obvious. Continuing where we, the reader, left off previously and telling us what happens next is the common thing to do. If readers loved a character or enjoyed hearing about a tale set in a distant land, they will want to hear how things progressed.

If a sequel is not an option for some reason, say the main character dies, then the next best choice is writing a prequel. Again, obvious. Tell us how this character came to be who we saw them as. Tell us the back story and past events that shaped our main character's life.

Of course sequels and prequels are child's play. The writing of a companion novel is rarely seen because it is hard to make it interesting. Imagine reading a story you liked. Now imagine the author trying to write another novel that takes place during the exact same time frame, with the exact same characters and covers the exact same events. Would this be at all interesting to read? Simply writing from a new point of view is nice but it does not totally solve the problem. Just look at the movie Vantage Point for an idea of how that can fail.

So when Orson Scott Card wrote Ender's Shadow covering the exact story that took place in his award-winning Ender's Game, I am sure people were skeptical. It would be told from the point of view of a different character, namely Ender's Battle School associate Bean, but still. Would it work?

Ender's Shadow

Well, we got our answer. Now this book did not receive the critical acclaim that Card's first few stories did. I am not a science fiction awards expert so I don't know if it wasn't as well received or there was stiffer competition. Nevertheless, I actually was more entertained by the companion than by the original.

In the introduction to Shadow, Card tells us this story can be read before or after reading Ender's Game. Since they cover the same time frame, there is no need to read one before the other. I actually disagree with his sentiments. I felt like reading the original helped to buoy my enjoyment of the companion. Sure, I knew the ultimate outcome already and where the plot was going, but to see events take place through another character's eyes, getting a completely new view of an event I already made judgments on was fascinating.

The best example I can give is when Ender Wiggin and Bean first meet. Bean is a newbie to Ender's new army. In the first book, the relationship is shallow, if there at all. Ender sees Bean as a little version of himself a bit, the smallest yet smartest launchie in a new army. So he is hard on him, thinking it will help him in the future, just as the teachers were to Ender when he first arrived at Battle School.

However, in Ender's Shadow, we find out oh so much more. The relationship is deeper and more confusing than I ever could have imagined. Without giving too much away, it turns out Bean was not put in Ender's new army by accident or even by chance. And even though Ender may not have known who Bean was, Bean certainly knew an awful lot about his new commander. The relationship from Bean's point of view is just one thing that completely turned my perceptions around from one story to the other.

I wish more authors tried the companion novel strategy. Although it does seem hard to pull off successfully, if done correctly, the outcome can be grand. Ender's Shadow may not be historically remembered but what it did for the award-winning books that came before it cannot be overstated. In fact, it made me want to reread the original tale again, just to see those very same events after knowing how other characters reacted to them.

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