The image-bearing equality of Ender’s Game

One of the recurring themes throughout Ender’s Game and the other books in Orson Scott Card’s series has to do with the misunderstandings that inevitably arise out of the complications of communication. It is hard enough to understand our fellow human beings, but when interacting with alien species, the prospects can be dim, indeed.

The significance of this need to understand each other across the boundaries of space, time and species cannot be overstated. The lack of the ability to communicate has disastrous consequences, time and again. In the new film version of Ender’s Game, the Formics - an ant-like species known more commonly and derisively as Buggers in the book - are largely inscrutable. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the only character who has any interest in really trying to understand them, even if it is primarily for the purpose of defeating them. In the film’s opening lines, Ender describes how his empathy for his enemies helps him to win: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them … I destroy them.”

As the story develops, however, it becomes clear that there may be possibilities other than the kind of understanding that leads to destruction. Ender comes to understand the Formics in a way that no one else does, and in a way that leads him to not only love but also to protect and nurture them. The film accomplishes this in a way that differs from the book, as the Formic attempts at communication in the film largely occur without dialogue. (There is no audible dialogue in the book, either, but a dying Formic queen does communicate with Ender through telepathy.)

The Formics had no conception of a species other than their own, so in their first interaction with human beings, they abided by something like the golden rule: the treated humans as they would wish to be treated. For a species similar in social relationship to an insect colony like ants, this meant that the drones or workers were deployed to take over another colony’s area. The lives of the individual workers meant nothing, as they were all part of a larger collective controlled by the queen.

The significant difference in perspective between humans and the Formics comes to clarity in the realization that every single, individual human being is a queen - a center of personality, talent and moral agency. We are all, in the words of Genesis, created in God’s image and likeness. And as the Psalmist celebrates, humans are made “a little lower than the angels” and “crowned … with glory and honor.” The moral calculus of what the Formics have wrought can be inferred from the divine sanction against murder, also from Genesis: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.”

There is a measure of redemption beyond blood reckoning, however. This understanding that turns toward loving forgiveness is the redemptive dynamic of Ender’s Game. The movie has lessons to teach us about how to communicate with and relate to our fellow human beings, who C.S. Lewis once described as “immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” We are all queens.

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