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Ender's Game is an Understated Story of Uncertainty

I've spent nearly all of my free time over the past two years studying different aspects of software engineering that I had let languish after college. I've quite enjoyed picking up learning again after a long hiatus, but recently I've felt the need to take a small breather, and watching the occasional movie wasn't going to cut it this time. I haven't played a video game in the past two years, but I tend to get sucked into those to a point that they take up weeks of my life.

I haven't read any novels in that time, either, and I love reading fantasy novels. The last ones I read were The Lost Chronicles Trilogy from the excellent DragonLance series. I've read most of the series, and I've enjoyed it immensely. But for this little break, I wanted something a bit lighter. Since Ender's Game is coming out as a movie very soon, I thought I'd pick up the book and see if I liked a classic work of science fiction as much as I like fantasy. I read it in three days.

Three days might not sound fast, but it was for me, considering I only have a couple hours a night of free time. The first couple chapters were slow and awkward, as if Orson Scott Card didn't quite know how to begin. And the last chapter was a bit off, too, as if he didn't know how to end it, either. But the middle was excellent, and I couldn't put it down.

I had forgotten how nice it was to sit down with a good book and get entirely lost in another world, to set your imagination free and dream while you're awake. I especially liked Card's sparse descriptions. He stayed away from specifics about the battle room or the simulators or any other settings so that you could imagine it for yourself. If a scene was taking place in a corridor, you were free to build up the environment in your head in your own way on the fly. It helped put you right there in the middle of the story because you're not working to figure out what the author is trying to describe, but witnessing the unfolding of the events on the page.

I also thoroughly enjoyed reading a book that only showed you what was happening. There was no telling you what to think. This feature is common in novels. But it's something I had forgotten, and it's in stark contrast to all of the technical books I've been reading. I know they're not really comparable, but please, bear with me. Some of the best technical books are very good at showing with examples or anecdotes or what have you, but even the best ones still fall back on their own analysis to make their points. They end up telling you what you should think or do. "This is the best way to format your code, for these reasons," or "that is the proper way to build a web form because the user is going to want to do this."

In all fairness, it is essentially unavoidable. People expect the author of a technical book to give plenty of advice on the right way to do things, and they would criticize any book that didn't give a complete analysis of the material being presented. I would, too. After all, we read technical books to get an expert opinion on the topic at hand. But boy, is it refreshing to get away from all of that telling, telling, telling for a while. In Ender's Game there was none of that. The story showed you what happened. It took you inside Ender's mind and showed you his feelings and reactions to what he had to deal with. And then it left you to sort everything out for yourself, to draw your own conclusions.

Ender's Game covered a lot of ground. It dealt with bullying, social hierarchy, and violence. It dealt with loyalty, authority, and responsibility. It dealt with self-reliance, teamwork, and perseverance. It never beat you over the head with any of these themes, but it left you thinking about them. The more I thought about all of these themes and others, the more I thought that the overarching theme of the book was that nothing is certain.

I would like to explore the way the book presents this theme, but I don't want to give away any spoilers for anyone who hasn't read it, yet. I hate having plot surprises spoiled for me because I love the thrill of experiencing them first hand, and I want to protect that experience for others as well so forgive me for being somewhat vague. People who have read the book should know what I'm talking about.

Nothing is black and white in the book. Characters that appear to be evil end up doing things that could be considered good, and characters that appear to be good end up doing things that are incredibly evil, when viewed from a certain perspective. Sometimes the character is not even aware of the consequences of their actions. Nothing is as it seems. Everything depends on how you look at it. And events, motivations, and intentions can be interpreted multiple ways.

Once I found out what was really going on with the I.F., (because it should be obvious that all is not as it seems) I immediately began to wonder what would have happened had the course of events been different. Everyone was so focused on the current strategy and the tools they had developed that no one questioned whether another path could be taken or if there was an alternative explanation for past and current events. What if different decisions were made? It seemed to me that there was not a single, definite path to achieve the final goal, but numerous possibilities. The outcome that resulted was by no means necessary, but now that what was done was done, could the reconciliation at the end be adequate? That is left for the reader to decide ... and ponder.

That line of thought is where the questions lead out of the book and back to the real world. Coming from software engineering, where almost everything is supposed to have a definitive answer, or at least most people believe that they have the definitive answer on any number of topics, it is important to come back to reality every once in a while. The reality is that there is no right answer. There may be wrong answers and mediocre answers and possibly some good answers, but nothing definitive. The best that can be said is that you have an answer, one of many that could possibly work.

The point is to consider whether the methods, practices, or standards being advocated are indeed the final answer to the subject at hand, or are the good outcomes resulting from those practices due as much to luck or coincidence or pure randomness as to the processes that were followed. Does the programming language you use really matter that much? How about the design methodology, or the development environment? Is it possible that the positive results that were achieved in successful projects could have come about in any number of other ways, and that the most important factor might have been the people involved?

After all, software engineering is mostly a human endeavor. We are not so much dealing with the physical laws of nature as the continually evolving rules and constraints of human design. Software is built on top of hardware and other software designed by humans. The design constraints matter, and as they change over time, best practices will change with them. We are also continuously gaining new insights and information about how we can be more productive both as individuals and in teams. With new information comes new ideas and new ways of doing things, so we shouldn't hold on to old practices too tightly just because we've already committed to a certain course of action, like the I.F. in the book. The goal should be to always evaluate the current context for the best way of achieving the most positive outcome for all parties involved.

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