Book Vs. Book: Card and Pratchett

We here at Olivia Waite earned our masters degree in Comparative Literature, and old habits die hard. The Book Vs. Book series will compare one book to another book similar in plot or theme or based on the same material. We will not care (much) about arguing which book is better, but we will care a great deal about what the books' differences mean for the story experience. It goes without saying that Here There Be Spoilers.

Welcome to the first installment of Book Vs. Book! Let's get down to business.

The cover image from Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game

Enders Game by Orson Scott Card


Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

The cover from Terry Pratchett's book Only You Can Save Mankind

Full disclosure: I read both books a while ago, and memory might be a little hazy.

Further disclosure: I am a diehard Pratchett fan, and Orson Scott Card's books have become a little tainted for me by some of his politics in the past decade or so. So if the question were Which book do you like more, Olivia? the answer would not require a thoughtful blog post.

But the question here is something else: If your main character has a life-changing revelation that will alter the reader's perception of the entire story, where in the plot do you put that revelation?

Both books involve a boy playing an alien-slaughtering video game that turns out to be real. Which means all those video-game deaths are real deaths. Ender's Game was published in 1985, and Only You came out in 1992, but the question of how video game violence intersects with real-life violence is evergreen. It's not clear that violent games cause violent acts, as many have claimed—but it's also not clear that violent games and violent acts exist in totally separate ethical realms, either.

This revelation—that the fictional deaths each boy has caused are in fact the death of real alien beings—comes at different points in each story.

With Ender's Game, the revelation is held back until the climactic point of the story's arc. It is a twist ending, a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-them surprise. It's been some years since I read the book, but I remember thinking: What on earth does he do now? And Orson Scott Card spends the rest of a lengthy series exploring precisely that. In fact, the original story was a novelette, meant to establish the character of Ender as the protagonist of Speaker for the Dead (at least, according to Wikipedia, so feel free to rebut my ignorance in the comments). So this first book is really a set-up to an exploration of the question, rather than an exploration itself.

Meanwhile, in Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny Maxwell learns that he's been killing real—or mostly real—beings about halfway through the book, and the second half is him trying to fix what he's done wrong. The tone of this book is quite different—Pratchett is funny even when dealing with weighty issues, where Card is all about heavy moral angst—but what really matters is that the realization comes halfway through. It's the obstacle, rather than the reveal.

The trouble with saving the question for the reveal is that it makes false all the things that seemed important before, and not in a way that feels satisfying. For instance, in Secret Window, or Identity, or Shutter Island, or even Inception (possibly), the twist at the end lets the audience know they've been mistaken the whole time. There can be a pleasure in this—The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense both use the twist ending rather beautifully, to solve a mystery and to help a child move forward, respectively—but the pleasure comes because the twist responds to the stakes we've been working with the entire time. In Ender's Game, the stakes are suddenly changed, and just as suddenly the book is over. The reader has spent the entire reading experience caring about conflicts that ultimately do not matter. This is why the twist ending can feel like cruelty.

Ultimately, I want stories to explore questions, rather than simply pose them. I want to come to the end of a book and feel as though I've gained something, not lost something. If the stakes change, I want the characters to work through what that change means.

In short, I want answers. Even answers I disagree with—even multiple answers. But there must be something offered to the reader, in gratitude for their work in bringing the story to life.

Please feel free to agree, disagree, and offer evidence in the comments below. If you have a suggestion for a future installment of Book Vs. Book, please let me know as well.