Orson Scott Card
Originally published: 1985, US
Rating: 5 = Personal Classic
There is currently debate about women in the military, but what about soldier children? In Card’s celebrated Ender’s Game, certain children are selected to devote their lives to military service, beginning at age 6. Part boarding school adventure and part sci-fi epic, Ender’s Game reveals important lessons about violence and humanity while setting up a huge battle against an alien species.
“Why else do we read fiction, anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody’s dazzling language—at least I hope that’s not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not ‘true’ because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: The mystic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about oneself.” –xxiv, Orson Scott Card, introduction to Ender’s Game, Tor, 1991.
In the future, human beings have engaged in battle with the buggers, an alien race. As the military forces of Earth prepare for another bugger war, they search for a commander among the children selected for military service and training. Ender Wiggen is a Third under a two-child mandate and is selected to participate in military service at the age of six (a normal age for entry). He is gifted and rises to the top in the Battle School by participating and later commanding in the game: fighting armies with laser guns in zero gravity. As Ender grows up and becomes a promising strategist and warrior, he is plagued with isolation, enemies at the school, and reconciling his memories of his bully of a big brother Peter and kind sister Valentine. With the time to the next bugger war running out, could Ender become the savior of humanity?
Having just read this novel for the first time as an adult, I only knew that Ender’s Game was a sci-fi novel about adolescents and involved a space war. I was not prepared for how complex, violent, and philosophical this novel would be.
Card uses interesting devices to tell a story which primarily takes place in Ender’s head. Most chapters begin with conversations between military commanders. Names are rarely used and the scenes are written so the reader feels like they are overhearing a secret conversation. The rest of the chapters are either about Ender’s current thoughts, feelings, and actions or about his siblings, Valentine and Peter, told from Valentine’s point of view. The reader is only privy to Ender’s and Valentine’s minds, providing interesting points of view for the events in the story. Because of this, the reader is easily able to relate to Ender and understand Valentine.
History and Power:
Ender’s Game focuses a lot on the idea that those who have power are able to dictate the writing of history. The military force, the IF, controls the perception of the upcoming bugger war, the two preceding bugger wars, and the war heroes. Peter and Valentine use the nets (a version of the internet) to shield their ages (12 and 10, respectively) in order to write articles under pseudonyms that influence global political policy. Between Peter’s thirst for power and the IF’s “protection” of the people, they are both able to dominate the way history will remember the events of the novel. Ender, though a powerful military figure, does not have power in society and so is unable to influence how history remembers him (even his biography is written by Valentine under her pseudonym).
Violence of Childhood:
The idea of children being capable of violence is one that I have been pondering since I reread Geek Love recently.
“How deep and sticky is the darkness of childhood, how rigid the blades of infant evil, which is unadulterated, unrestrained by the convenient cushions of age and its civilizing anesthesia.” — Katherine Dunn Geek Love, “How We Fed the Cats”
This quote and knowledge of the all-boys boarding school genre (in books and movies) highlight a certain innocent cruelty in children that is absent in adulthood, once knowledge has increased and motivation is more complex. Ender’s Game does an excellent job of highlighting this violence with the character of Peter and his treatment of Ender as well as with Ender’s experiences in the Battle School. Even Ender’s first encounter with a bully at his normal school on Earth is a violent scene where Ender decides to beat Stilson so that he will not want to every mess with Ender again. Today, I think we tend to sterilize childhood and put a false veil of complete innocence around it. We’ve extended childhood to 18 at least (sometimes more like 22/23, the end of 4-5 years of college), but these “children” are capable of terrifying violence and hatred.
This is the only book of Card’s I’ve read yet so this may be the author in general, but the descriptions in Ender’s Game are excellent. They are vivid enough that the reader can picture what is going on and short enough as to not become boring or tedious. The futuristic world of the novel has some parts that are more difficult to imagine than others, like the Battle School and the zero-gravity battles, but Card provides clear descriptions of all of these parts.
The most common criticism of this book is the violence. This is a book about war and the terrible decisions that must be made as well as the effects on people. Ender’s Game deals with battle and the violence all people are capable of; having young children perpetrate the violence only makes the reader more uncomfortable because it is more difficult to rationalize that violent behavior. While the book does involve violence, each episode is necessary to the progression of the plot or characters and is never glorified. Even Ender, the origin of much of the violence in the novel, is uncomfortable with his violent tendencies. I found the level of violence to be indispensable to the story and would defend its necessity.
The film adaptation of Ender’s Game (which shares the novel’s title) is one of the best adaptations of a book I have seen in quite a while. It can be enjoyed just as much by those who have read the book as those who have not. And if you’ve seen the movie you can still read the book without being bored because there is so much more in the novel.
- Excellent casting (Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, etc.)
- Effective technology use in depicting the space bases (especially the Battle School battle room), the alien fleet, and the IF fleet
- Good pacing; the choices to remove some plot points and condense others made sense
- Good use of alternative means to get Ender’s interior dialogue across
- Changing the name of the alien race from the Buggers to the Formics is a change I don’t understand
Ender’s Game has everything you want in a sci-fi novel: epic story, interesting and relatable characters, political upheaval, and philosophical issues. Put it on your to-read list, even if sci-fi isn’t usually your thing. Oh, and see the movie!