restricted access Liars and Cheats: Crossing the Lines of Childhood, Adulthood, and Morality in Ender’s Game
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Liars and Cheats:
Crossing the Lines of Childhood, Adulthood, and Morality in Ender’s Game

The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of having that horrid monitor. Well, I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”

Ender nodded. It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future. Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth.

Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game

Set in a future world in which the human race faces extinction at the hands of alien “buggers,” Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel Ender’s Game follows six-year-old Ender Wiggin as he leaves his home, trains as a soldier, and becomes the hero of mankind. It also traces the complicated systems of dependence and deception that surround him as he develops into the powerful tool the adults need him to be. One of the central projects of the novel, in fact, is to illuminate the manner in which Ender’s childhood, and childhood in general, is constructed by the adults who seek to control children’s attitudes and behaviours. In the process, the [End Page 207] novel ostensibly insists upon the corrupt nature of adulthood, from the fib told by the nurse in the passage above to the great deception, revealed near the novel’s conclusion, that Ender’s final “game” has actually been a real battle in which the child soldier has inadvertently destroyed the alien race. Throughout Ender’s Game, adults lie. They cheat. They change the rules in the middle of the game. Adults, in short, refuse to fight fair—and children know it.

Even as this emphasis on the apparently corrupt nature of adulthood would suggest a dependence on a traditional adult-child binary that highlights the innocent, moral nature of childhood, Ender’s Game resists conventional expectations about the nature of the relationship between children and adults by insisting instead upon ambivalence and ambiguity. In other words, the relationship between childhood and adulthood comes to be understood as much more complicated and interdependent than a simple binary; instead, over the course of the novel, Card challenges, resists, or rejects outright many of the distinctions often drawn between these two states, particularly in regards to the figure of the moral child. Adults in Ender’s Game may not fight fairly, but neither, in the end, do children. Far from simply being the good, innocent, justice-seeking opposites of deceptive adults, the young characters who populate Ender’s world also demonstrate a capacity for cruelty, dishonesty, and injustice. In the process, Card’s characters, regardless of age, draw attention to the ways in which the typical concept of morality itself depends on often arbitrary binaries of right and wrong that, when challenged, grow slippery. As both adults and children cross the lines between moral and immoral behaviour, then, the distinctions drawn between childhood and adulthood become increasingly unstable, forcing reconsiderations of both states and the relationships between them.

The passage above demonstrates the manner in which Card’s interrogation of childhood as a constructed state intersects with his interests in moral ambiguities and deception. The nurse’s lie that the medical procedure “won’t hurt a bit” rests upon several implicit assumptions about childhood, ranging from the general assumption that Ender will be frightened to the more specific assumption that she can and should deceive him in order to alleviate his anxiety. This lie also depends upon a belief that, as a child, Ender knows and understands less than she does as an adult; in other words, her decision to lie is grounded in the belief that Ender will accept her words willingly. These assumptions and beliefs all stem from a more general construction of children as purer, more innocent, and less knowledgeable and experienced than adults. In drawing attention to the...