“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card

This week’s selection for Books and Bars, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, is a sci-fi classic. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it came out. The short story it grew out of was published in 1977, the same year Star Wars came to theaters. Card expanded the story to a novel, published in 1985. Ender, a nickname for Andrew, is not unlike Luke Skywalker, or any number of other mythical heroes whose story follows what Joseph Campbell called a monomyth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Ender’s Earth was attacked and almost destroyed twice within the last century by an alien race, called “buggers.” Since then, peace has existed among the countries. Children are monitored for excellence, and a very few are selected for the International Fleet’s battle school. Ender Wiggin is 6 years old. He’s a third child, a rarity, and something not allowed for most people on Earth. His parents were not only allowed, but encouraged to have a third child, after his older brother, Peter, proved a brilliant sociopath and his sister, Valentine, too pacifistic. In conversations between the military adults that preface each chapter, readers learn that Ender is a hoped-for synthesis of his siblings: brilliant and strong and empathic.

As Ender progresses through battle school, he is faced again and again with challenges, some of which are situational, and many of which are manufactured as the adults try to manipulate him into the military leader they hope him to be. Peter and Valentine, meanwhile, take on a challenge of their own when the fragile peace on Earth is threatened. They patiently and thoroughly build reputations for themselves online as political commentators known by the pseudonyms Locke (Peter) and Demosthenes (Valentine). Both siblings continue to affect Ender throughout his education. Peter is the violent killer Ender fears he has become, and Valentine is twice manipulated into urging Ender on in his training.

The book is a chilling meditation on the power adults have over children in the control of environment and information. It also ponders the relation between the military and the state, and what each person owes, or doesn’t, as a citizen. Ultimately, it wonders what it takes to be a killer, and whether killing is an inevitable result, whether out of fear, self-preservation or power. Card’s thorough and complex characterizations of Ender and his siblings, as well as the momentum created by a strong plot, make this an engrossing and provocative read for fans of science fiction and heroic myths, like the Harry Potter saga.

I am assured by fans of the series that the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, not only equals but surpasses and completes the saga begun in Ender’s Game. It, too, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the year after Ender’s Game did. There are several more books in the Ender tale, and some about other characters.

4 Responses to ““Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card”

  1. weirleader Says:

    That is one of my all-time favorite books. The funny thing is that I think I like it for mostly different reasons. For me, I think I fell in love with the character of Ender and enjoyed vicariously succeeding against whatever was thrown his way. Now that I’m reading your analysis, I easily see the other level that I had hitherto ignored and I’m thinking I should re-read it with that in mind.

    As for Speaker for the Dead, I definitely need to give that a re-read. When I first read it as a late-teen I think a lot went over my head. I found it both interesting and oddly disconcerting. And I got halfway through Xenocide before I decided that I was seriously missing the point.

  2. girldetective Says:

    N, I am unsurprised you’re a fan. Like LoTR, it’s a geekboy rite of passage, I think. I read it within the last decade or so. Unlike LoTR, I liked it, and didn’t feel I missed the bus by not reading and getting imprinted with it around age 11. (Which I did with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series.) Ender is a fabulous character, and it was my husband who pointed out to me the skill with which Card wrote his character, and his siblings’. A lot of people at the discussion got bogged down in whether child geniuses are believable, why Ender was picked over Peter, and whether Ender’s Game is a YA novel; these questions didn’t interest me. What hit home this time around was the juxtaposition of the manipulating adults and how they often told the truth in such a way that it perhaps wasn’t the truth (like how Bonzo goes home). It reminded me of the frequent little white lies I tell my own kids to get them to do what I want, e.g. “No, I don’t have any money, we can’t buy that right now.” And of particular spookiness, which wasn’t true the last time I read this, is that I have a six year old son, who shares a name with a character in the book.

    My husband loves Speaker, but hated Xenocide, and didn’t read further in the Ender series after that. A good friend once told me, though, that the fourth book, Children of the Mind, makes the third book better in retrospect, and on Wikipedia it notes they were intended to be read together.

  3. Seth Says:

    Speaker is probably my favorite book right now. It’s definitely a deeper story, and it’s less of a Young Adult novel. However, it’s also not nearly the page-turner that Ender’s Game is. But I still prefer it.

    I have the whole set, including the series following Ender’s Shadow. I think they’re all excellent, though Xenocide is probably the weak link, and also happens to be the longest, which isn’t a good combination. I listened to it on audio the first time, so that helped a great deal.

    On the whole, I prefer the Shadow Series, but Speaker is my favorite single book.

  4. DamnedConjuror Says:

    Ender’s Game/Speaker for the Dead are two classics and, unfortunately, Orson Scott Card has never bettered them.