JAN / FEB 2017: BY VICTORIA WILLIAMS
If you’re looking for a female character who is extremely intelligent, who sets that intelligence against very unique challenges, and who emotionally invests deeply in her loved ones, you can’t do better than Valentine Wiggin.
However, you might not choose her for an impressive character full of charisma and charm. Valentine is neither a beautiful heartthrob, nor an influential matron of her community. She is a child. (“They have a word for people our age,” she reminds her older brother Peter. “They call us children and treat us like mice.”) Valentine does not come into view as an overt leader. She comes as a sister. Her contribution and influence won’t make her name famous; she works in the background. But when we see Valentine’s heart and thought life, we find her remarkable.
That thought life was viewed up close when Peter and Valentine made it their goal to save the world from its own insanity. Peter foresaw one likely future coming: war devastating continents, a plunge into poverty, and the entrenched chaos of nations emptied of legitimate leadership. But he had a solution: He and his sister would turn the world aside from this course before it was too late. Hiding their youthful identities behind the online personae of “Locke” and “Demosthenes,” Peter and Valentine would participate in political discussions in the most prestigious online forums. But to get there, they would need attention. So they “stirred up the pot,” with provocative debate tactics and abrasive dialogue. They crystallized existing polarizations, gained readers, and became the de-facto leaders of two newly-formed factions. Then, “Locke” and “Demosthenes” could use their followings to influence world policy on a massive scale.
But the risks were immense: who is sufficient for such things? Thus, Peter’s first battle was to convince Valentine to take those risks. But why should she help him? If the scheme could succeed, Valentine doesn’t want so much power to land in Peter’s hands. And she has a simple reason for this: she knows him. Peter is a sociopath. He has threatened Val, threatened Ender, and threatened Valentine with harm to Ender. And this is how it has been for their whole lives. But in such a battle, both sides will grow in skill; over the years, Valentine has become the person whom Peter constantly wants to test his ideas against. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses intimately. They can refine each other’s ideas, plans, and theories, “as iron sharpens iron.”
These conflicts play out on the “home front” while the youngest and most high-profile sibling, Ender, is far away in a space station orbiting earth. He has been sent for training in a special Battle School filled with children who are gifted. Their future mission? To fight an incomprehensible and innumerable foe, a feared alien race with an insectoid appearance and obscure ways. But here too, there is an enemy much nearer at hand. Ender’s life is set among the vicious conflicts that rage among the children at Battle School – and the deeper conflict in which the children are pawns of the adults who make the official decisions.
The machinations of those official decision-makers don’t end at Battle School, though. Their work to turn the brilliant, capable Ender into a fine-tuned machine for leading armies in an epic space battle works almost perfectly. Until one thing that they can’t fix goes wrong. In that moment, Valentine’s love for him is profoundly influential — it stands alone as the reason for Ender to take up an enormous weight of responsibility after he’d decided to give up on it all. And her love is so powerful because of the ways it’s been unconditional: “….Valentine, the person who loved him before he ever played a [combat practice] game, who loved him whether there was a bugger war or not…” But even that love can disappoint sometimes.
Valentine’s failures to love her brother disappoint her, too. When she started thinking of Ender less often because he was distant and unreachable, she felt guilty. If love is about doing good to the one loved, it looked as though her love had shifted to Peter: she was side-by-side with him in his schemes, helping him accomplish his purpose in the world. For Ender, she could do little. But how could she turn her back on the brother who is good, and constantly help the brother who is evil? In all this, Valentine disentangled relational problems that adults flounder over while solving strategic problems that adults wouldn’t solve, and wrestling with her own demons every step of the way.
Ender’s Game is a story that is eminently relevant — not because of its clever tactics, or amusing technological thought experiments — though those are delightful. No; Ender’s Game is so relevant because it cuts out the heart of a false story our society tells. Society says young people are not capable of individual responsibility, but only of responsibilities that existing society defines for them. Ender’s Game says, “No; even when the society you are placed in seems to be against you, you have a responsibility. Even when the system is against you and is very, very confining, you have a responsibility. You may need to be creative. You may need to approach things from an angle nobody else would attempt. You may need to throw yourself at your work with your whole heart, and constantly be alert and ready for action. But what are our minds for, if not to do good?”
As all three Wiggin children shoulder their responsibilities, they are are caught between the tension between a call outward and a call inward. We all have “a call outward” — to find our place rescuing and strengthening a needy world filled with people whom we will never meet, and “a call inward” — to bring healing in our relationships with nearest friends and family — the people whom we know so well.
And the way Valentine copes with that tension makes her a fascinating character to watch. She can call out the best in the heart of her greatest enemy while still standing firm against his dangerous wiles. Yet she can crush the heart of the person she loves most in all the world with a few heavy-handed words. But she loans her brothers to the world to fulfill their destinies. So it’s no wonder that Valentine’s love for her younger brother is treated as a critical resource by international authorities. And perhaps it is, but perhaps not in quite the way those authorities understood it to be.