I’ve read more science fiction in the past year than I have in my entire life, largely thanks to the influence of Neal Stephenson and Ursula LeGuin. I have some large sections of my sci-fi puzzle missing, and Orson Scott Card was a big piece of that. I knew very little about Ender’s Game going in, somehow having missed the many cultural references that have paid the book tribute for the past thirty years. Much like Neuromancer, which I read a few months ago, Ender’s Game is prophetic and frightening, and one of the best speculative fiction novels I’ve read.
Ender, the book’s child protagonist, is a six year old when we meet him. Six years old is around first grade, and writing this I realized that I have zero memory of first grade. I don’t remember friends or bullies or my teacher. I barely remember the building I went to every day. Ender Wiggin, at the age of six, is recruited by an international army to train for galactic combat against an enemy that nearly destroyed the Earth on numerous occasions. Yes, this is fiction, but I still could not help but feel very delayed in my development as I read his story.
Most of Ender’s Game takes place on Battle School, a floating academy for the most militarily gifted children of the human race. While there, Ender learns how to fight, how to think tactically, and how to command armies. It’s a twist on the traditional boarding school story, but features many of the same elements. There are tough kids and weak kids and lots of coming of age. What makes Ender’s Game different is how severe it is. While it features children, I rarely, while reading, thought that I was reading a book for kids. The writing isn’t particularly dense, but what happens to Ender, what he is forced to do, and what he chooses to do, are decisions and consequences that I would never wish on any adult, much less a child. This book is dark, and by the end of it I felt very strange, like I’d just watched someone burn a bunch of ants with a magnifying glass.
The enemy in Ender’s Game are the buggers, so-called for their bug-like appearance and behavior. They fight like a hive, all connected through signals imperceivable to the human eye or technology. Anyone even remotely familiar with military strategy can understand the value of a single, cohesive unit responding instantly to any stimulus or threat. After two bugger invasions that were only barely staved off, Earth has decided that it needs to attack them on their own turf, and to do that they spend decades honing and training these elite children. Ender is the best commander that ever was, and this book is the story of how he becomes what he becomes, and the results of his development.
There are a few reasons I liked this book as much as I did. One, as loathe as I am to admit to any love of violence, military tactics have always appealed to me. Ender’s Game is in part an explanation of why this is. The word game is the key here. The major component of Ender’s training is engagement in a series of war games played in a gravity-absent dome floating in space. Out-thinking and out-maneuvering the opponent wins the game. One of my favorite type of game to play are ones known as tactical role-playing games. In these, you have a grid of combatants and a goal. You move characters around the grid trying to out-tactic your enemy, who is usually a computer controlled opponent. I can replay these games over and over and always have a good time. They allow for deliberate, well thought-out decisions that make me feel like a military commander. The games that Ender engages in are like this, but much, much faster, with physical aptitude thrown in. It’s like a much more advanced version of paintball, only intelligent people are playing it and there’s no camo anywhere.
The training of children to compete and thrive in this environment is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Olympic games. To win a gold medal, athletes have to master their chosen arena from as early an age as possible. What Ender goes through in Battle School reminded me of articles and stories I’ve read about the lives of potential Olympic athletes, and of kids with the genetics and skill to become professional athletes in general. Their entire lives are consumed with the effort to become better, stronger, faster, and able to succeed where others can’t. These kids, like Ender, do not have a life. They live for that one, impossible goal of being the best. For Ender, the stakes are a little grander, or at least appear to be. His goal is to potentially save the human race. That’s clearly a more important test than standing on a podium holding a piece of metal, but the intent is the same. Where I find the comparison fascinating is that we are seeing this transformation through his eyes, and I felt as though I could have been inside the mind of any young Olympian or future basketball star. The effort to become the best consumes them, and if Ender is any indication, it is a constant struggle between wanting to achieve greatness and wanting to just be a kid.
I’ve been reading some opinions damning this book because of its depictions of child violence and glorification of war, as well as its views of women, but those all seem kind of short-sighted to me. I never once felt, while reading this, that Card was holding up Ender or anyone else as a shining example of humanity. My thought throughout was how tragic it all was, that a life was taken in service of a humanity that didn’t often seem to deserve it. I don’t see glory here, but rather a sadness in the inevitability of war, or the futility of obsession. The book attempts a happy ending, but it falls flat and nothing feels good despite the supposed victory. Damning Orson Scott Card for writing a book about war is like damning J.K. Rowling for writing a book about magic. If you didn’t know what you were getting in to before you started, you should have read the synopsis on the back of the book.
I don’t think I’ll read the other Ender books, of which there seem to be half a dozen or so. This felt like a complete story to me, and what descriptions I’ve read of the other novels feel slightly less grand; almost pointless. Maybe that’s a harsh snap-judgment, but I can’t imagine any story about Ender being as important as the one already told. I didn’t read Ender’s Game for the world-building, which I would guess the subsequent novels enhance. It’s the character development that made it interesting, and the themes of perfection and war. It’s possible for that lightning to strike twice, but I’ve too much to read to hope that it will. Likewise I’m not sure I’ll see the film version released a couple years ago. I watched a preview and even that small chunk, designed to build hype for a movie, left me listless and uninterested. Not even old-man Harrison Ford intrigues me enough!