Ender’s Humility

Thanks to Chris Wenham’s short story Clear as mud, I’ve been craving a good science fiction novel. So I started reading Ender’s Game

by Orson Scott Card. It’s an excellent book, and though I have not yet finished the book, Card makes a lot of interesting choices. For those interested, there will be spoilers ahead.

The story takes place in the distant future where aliens have attacked earth twice, almost destroying the human race. To prepare for their next encounter with the aliens, humans band together under a world government and go about breeding military geniuses, and training them. The military pits students against each other in a series of warlike “games.” Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one such genius, but his abilities are far and above everyone else. This is in part due to his natural talent, but it is also due to certain personality traits: curiosity, an analytical thought process, and humility (among others).

The following passage takes place just after Ender commands his new army to a spectacular victory in just his first match as commander. It was such a spectacular victory, in fact, that Ender becomes a subject of ire amongst the other commanders.

Carn Carby made a point of coming to greet Ender before the lunch period ended. It was, again, a gracious gesture, and, unlike Dink, Carby did not seem wary. “Right now I’m in disgrace,” he said frankly. “They won’t believe me when I tell them you did things that nobody’s ever seen before. So I hope you beat the snot out of the next army you fight. As a favor to me.”

“As a favor to you,” Ender said. “And thanks for talking to me.”

“I think they’re treating you pretty badly. Usually new commanders are cheered when they first join the mess. But then, usually a new commander has had a few defeats under his belt before he first makes it here. I only got here a month ago. If anybody deserves a cheer, it’s you. But that’s life. Make them eat dust.”

“I’ll try.” Carn Carby left, and Ender mentally added him to his private list of people who also qualified as human beings.

One of the interesting things about Ender is that he’s not perfect, and he freely admits it all the time. His humility is essential. Failure doesn’t matter unless you learn from your failures (the ceramics parable is a recent example of this sort of thing). Ender doesn’t fail much, but he’s not afraid to confront the reality that someone might think of something he hasn’t thought of. He relies on others to help him all the time. The passage above shows how much Ender values humility in his peers as well.

I don’t know why Ender’s humility surprised me, as Ender is, after all, only human. But it did. It’s an interesting perspective, and I’m enjoying the book a lot. As I said, I haven’t finished it yet, so for all I know, he becomes an arrogant and ignorant prick towards the end of the novel, but I doubt that. Ender’s humility is integral to his success, as humility plays an important part in success. We’ll need to keep this in mind, and point out failures we’re making as they happen so that we can learn from them and apply those lessons. Naturally, everone will disagree with each other as to what constitutes a failure and what lessons must be learned from which actions, but criticism never bothers me unless it’s of the mean spirited unproductive variety. In short, I take Lileks’ Andre the Giant philosophy:

Look. I’m a big-tent kinda guy. I’m willing to embrace all sorts of folk whose agendas may differ from mine, as long as we share the realization that there are many many millions out there who want us stone-cold bleached-bones dead. It?s the Andre the Giant philosophy, expressed in “Princess Bride”:

I hope we win.

That’s all. If you can agree with that without doing a Horshack twitch, intent on adding conditions – oh! oh! what about genetically modified soy? – then we understand each other. We know that we have many disagreements, but we agree: I hope we win. Oh, we can argue about every word in that four-syllable statement. But when it comes down to it all, we’re on the same page.

I hope we win.

Now let’s pick it apart. Who’s we? And what does win mean?

Well, I hope we win.