About the Book

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, 1977
Tor Books, ISBN-0-812-55070-6
324 pages


Synopsis

After two almost-lost invasions by the alien race called the Buggers, the International Fleet, the space defense forces of Earth, have launched a special programme: The brightest children of Earth are sent to Battle School, a space station where they learn how to fight the Buggers in space. The kids are organized in „armies“ of forty plus a commander. These “armies” stage mock wars in special zero-gravity Battle Rooms. This training effort is so important to the IF that they even permit promising couples to ignore the birth control laws, which normally limit couples to two children.

Ender Wiggin is such a “Third”, a child conceived with the permission of the IF, provided that his parents turn him over to the IF if he tests out well. The two other children, Peter and Valentine, also looked very promising, but were rejected because Peter is too cruel, while Valentine is too mild. At the age of six, the monitor device that protected Ender so far is removed from his neck. Without this device, he gets picked on by a bully called Stilson and his friends. When it comes to a fight, Ender attacks him so savagely that Stilson is killed. Ender gets sent to Battle School, leaving his siblings behind. There, he is isolated from the other children by excessive praise. This is done in order to make him want to win the respect of the other children. He does that after some initial struggles. At the age of seven, he gets promoted early to soldier in Salamander Army. He doesn’t get along at all with the commander of Salamander, Bonzo Madrid. Finally, he is traded to another army.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter and Valentine, who are just as incredibly intelligent as Ender, plan to take over the world. They take the roles of two political demagogues on the Internet, Locke - Peter and Demosthenes - Valentine. They manipulate public opinion, Locke by appealing to the intellectuals, Demosthenes by pandering to the masses.

Sometime later, Ender gets the command of his own army - at least two years early. He makes his Army the best by introducing new, far more dynamic tactics than previously used by anybody. The teachers start stacking things more and more against Ender. Unlike normal armies, who get one battle per week, Ender’s Dragon Army get a fight every day. But even this proves possible for Dragon Army, so the teachers give them two fights a day. Ender starts getting weary. When he wins in an unfair fight against Bonzo Madrid’s Salamander army, Bonzo and a few other envious commanders decide to get rid of him. They confront Ender in the shower room, just after a game. Ender bluffs Bonzo into single combat and manages to kill him. Ender’s last battle is against two armies at the same time. But he has had enough, he doesn’t want to play the teacher’s game anymore. So he performs the victory ceremony at the enemy gate even though his army is losing, ending the battle. Shortly afterwards he is taken on leave on Earth. Valentine visits him there by request of Graff, the commander of Battle School. She persuades him to continue with his training.

Ender gets transferred to Command School. On the way there Graff tells him that the third invasion he has been preparing for is in fact a counterattack on the Buggers, a human invasion of their space in a desperate attempt to prevent further attacks. At Command School he learns to use a space combat simulator. When he has achieved mastery of the simulation, a new teacher appears: Mazer Rackham, the hero of the second invasion. Together they analyze the enemy. When the simulations resume, Ender now commands several subcommanders - comrades from Battle School. Together they battle the Buggers in simulations that become progressively harder as the enemy learns. Ender has trouble sleeping now - in his dreams he relives the worst moments of his life, he dreams of Buggers dissecting him. He fears that his performance will suffer.

The final battle - the graduation test. His last fight. Many people have come to watch it. It features a new element in the simulation - a planet around which the vastly overwhelming alien forces are clustered. Ender knows that he has the option of destroying the planet, killing millions of Buggers. But due to the special nature of his weapons, this would also destroy most of the enemy fleet. Ender realizes once again that he doesn’t care any more, just like in the last battle at Battle School. He decides to tell his teachers to go to hell by blowing up the planet. Despite overwhelming odds, he manages to do that, even though most of his ships are lost. When he unhooks from the simulator Mazer Rackham explains to him that the battles he fought weren’t a simulation. They were the third invasion. He has just destroyed the home planet of the Buggers. With the Bugger menace gone, a fight for power breaks out on Earth. Locke and Demosthenes manage to stop the fighting with their huge influence. To prevent getting used by Peter/Locke for his purposes, Ender and Valentine leave for a conquered Bugger colony. There, Ender finds the last hive queen of the Buggers. He writes two books: „The Hive Queen“ and „The Hegemon“, which set the stage for the sequels.


Discussion

Ender’s Game is not about winning or losing, it’s about ending. Ender doesn’t care about winning, but he wants for his problems to end. He never is happy about winning. After killing Bonzo, he asks why they can’t just leave him alone so he doesn’t have to hurt them. Four times he gets into such a situation where the only way to end his problems is by winning. In his fight against the boy Stilson, in his fight against Bonzo Madrid, in the last game at Battle School and in the final battle against the Buggers. In all cases he doesn’t care about winning, he only wants to end it. In the fights with the boys, he wants to make sure that they can’t hurt him anymore, so he hurts them so badly that they die. In the game in the Battle Room, he doesn’t want to play anymore, so he performs the victory ceremony even though his army is being destroyed. In parallel he destroys the Bugger planet in the final battle. He doesn’t want to kill the Buggers - he just wants to go out with a bang to tell the teachers he won’t play anymore. But why didn’t he just retreat in these battles? Because he has to be sure that the problem will never return. He does this with these gestures. Also, he knows that he never can lose. After all, only by being brilliant and unbeatable he was able to win his place: „Be so good that they can’t ignore you.“ Thus his name: Ender, for ending, not winning is what he does.

A recurring theme in Ender’s Game is destroying an enemy to prevent him from hurting you. Ender did it to Stilson and Bonzo Madrid, and he commanded the human fleet that almost destroyed the Buggers. Is such behaviour legitimate? Preventive self-defense? Preventive war? The Germans discussed such a preventive war before World War I. The fear of such a sneak attack was a mayor factor in provoking the conflict. In fact, the concept of „preventive war“ is ridiculous. Prevent war with war? However, the situation in Ender’s Game is somewhat different: the Buggers have already attacked twice before. So is it just self-defense? Yet the manner is extreme: wouldn’t it have sufficed to hurt these boys instead of killing them? On the other hand, if you attack, you must be prepared for retaliation at any scale. It is hopeless to expect of people that have been hurt not to retaliate disproportionally. Often, only the irrational element of revenge is involved, but sometimes the aim is to end the threat, an entirely rational response. Ender clearly isn’t interested in revenge, so he is more rational than most people or even countries. Many acts of violence, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the death penalty, are only based on revenge. (No, the argument that the death penalty scares people into not committing crimes doesn’t work. After all, these people plan on not getting caught, so they’re not scared of punishment.) Conclusion: Attacking because of revenge is despicable. Attacking in order to end a threat isn’t nice either, but understandable. The question is, however, whether complete extermination of the enemy is really necessary to protect yourself.


Recommendation

Ender’s Game is one of the best SF books ever written. If you are looking for a good book to start reading science fiction, then give this one a try. Also recommended for those who don’t believe that SF can be literature.

The true essence of Ender's Game cannot be understood until one simple fact is really absorbed: Ender is a CHILD. At one point in the book, Dink points this out to Ender:


"...you think these people are normal. Well, they're not. We're not. I look in the library, I call up books on my desk. Old ones, because they won't let us have anything new, but I've got a pretty good idea what children are, and we're not children. Children can lose sometimes, and nobody cares. Children aren't in armies, they aren't commanders, they don't rule over forty other kids, it's more than anybody can take and not get a little crazy..."

The loss of childhood is a recurrent theme:

Does it ever seem to you that these boys aren't children? I look at what they do, the way they talk, and they don't seem like little kids.
They're the most brilliant children in the world, each in his own way.
But shouldn't they still act like children? They aren't normal. They act like -- history. Napoleon and Wellington. Caesar and Brutus.

Of course, Card tends not to write anti-utopian fiction, in general; he addresses current concerns. As Card notes in his introduction, children that read the book tend to identify with Ender on multiple levels. I know that when I read it, at age 8 or 9, I was amazed: adults really did act the way they are portrayed, those manipulative bastards! Children don't have childhoods, they have schedules and strictly enforced limits on their personal lives.

I know that I function best when I have a couple of days off to crash once every month or so (aside from weekends). In high school I could do this and it did wonders for my sanity. (And it didn't hurt my GPA too much...) Could I do this in grade school? No. In fact, even on weekends I had youth league baseball games to play. I never liked playing baseball but I was a child and so I couldn't make any decisions for myself.

This is what Ender's Game means to me: Children cannot cope with the expectations of others. Peter and Valentine managed just fine on their own, while Ender had multiple nervous breakdowns. Which ones were ultimately more successful? It's really a tie, though Ender did his best work after the pressure let up.

"Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone..." - Pink Floyd

I wish to add further elements to the discussion about the essence of Ender's Game.

The story is about a child being turned into an adult way too early. But it is also about being alienated. Ender is not like the other kids that are recruited to the IF. He is sharper, and way more intelligent; and last, but not least, he is younger.

He is always regarded as something less than the other kids in battle school, because he is several years younger than the others. The commanders of the school see this alienation, and ignore it, knowing that it will turn Ender into a more efficient soldier/commander than he would ever be were he to rely on others.

I believe that this book is also about being alienated, and having to offer more of yourself, trying to win some respect for the human being that you are. It is a story that, (in my humble opinion), tells you that for some people the only way to be acknowledged is to excel in what you do, and be so good at it, that no one can question you.

It is also a story about giving up your humanity. That is really what Ender is forced to do in order to defeat the buggers. There is no man in the IF who is capable of destroying an entire race in one swift blow. That is the reason they elect Ender to the role, and they shape him, and drive him on, just for this single purpose; being so separated from humanity, that you can destroy an entire race.

We see this same separation from humanity among statesmen all over the world. The ability to disconnect or disregard every emotion you have for other human beings, in order to act on behalf of the state. And I believe this is a major theme in this story, alienation and separation from humanity.

Ender's Game incorporates a lot of themes. It's hard to pin down just one theme that it's focusing on. Whether it was Card's intention or not, the book appeals immensely to "smart" kids who've been ostracized and isolated for their perceived difference from others in terms of intellectual ability.

Understanding Ender's state of mind in this case provides some insight into how real kids like this feel. Ender really isn't happy about being the forced into the role of being better than everyone else. He didn't ask for it. He knows what it entails and he ultimately doesn't want to do it. This is how the kids this book appeals to feel. They feel their intelligence is often not a blessing, but a curse, and there have been many instances where they would gladly trade it for the social acceptance that their peers seem to enjoy. At other times, though, they revel in being a cut above the rest, even if it leaves them lonely and outcast.

Secondly, it offers a systematic breakdown of social ostracization that occurs between children. If you haven't been the victim of it first hand, you probably wouldn't realize this, but the pattern of the ostracization that Ender undergoes is nearly identical to how it happens in schoolyards across America. There's very little variation. The oppressors have it down to a science. It happened to me, repeatedly, and the methods and techniques used by my torturers were the very same used by Stilson, Bernard, and Bonzo against Ender: the ringleader, the weak-willed cohorts, and the systematic ridicule and belittling of the target. Card has some knowledge of how this pattern works, and he is succinct and direct about portraying it. He does not oversympathize with Ender. Ender responds to it as best he can. He ultimately holds his own against it, which I think is the only unrealistic part about it. Usually kids are powerless against this sort of attack, and even the best and brightest tend to be the hardest hit. Ender's defenses are admirable, though his execution of them is perhaps a little optimistic on Card's part. When the targets are forced into contact with their attackers daily, there's simply no effective defense when they're as outnumbered as Ender is.

Finally, the last major theme Card plays on is societal expectations of brilliant children. Ender has a greater mental aptitude than everyone around him, but he doesn't really rejoice in this. In fact, he rejects it (in his return to Greensboro after his stint at Battle School). His higher than average aptitude leads his adult guardians and teachers (so to speak) to expect more of him than they do of most children, and he ultimately must tax himself beyond the limits of endurance to deliver. He is extremely adverse to playing the IF's game, but he goes through with it because he is pushed so hard by the IF and because he sees himself as realistically having no choice in the matter. They force him to play a game that he must win or lose. Ender doesn't see the point of the game, and all he really wants is just to stop playing. This particular theme resonates especially at the end of the story, when the IF gets the bright idea to use this for their purposes, channeling Ender's desire for the games to end into the utter perdition of the Formic homeworld. Just as he ended the games with Stilson, Bernand, and Bonzo, now he ends humanity's game with the Buggers.

My edition of Ender's Game begins with an introduction by Card including a letter written by a younger teenager who was part of a gifted and talented literature program which focused around Ender's Game. He claims the book rang true for him and for the other kids in the class in a way few books ever have. Card's introduction maintains that he knew all along that kids who read the book would empathize intimately with it, while adults might not get it and might even be put off by it - especially if they weren't willing to face up to the fact that their pre-conceived notions about the puissance of gifted children might be horribly wrong.

I believe the secret to Ender's Game's success was just that it spoke very plainly, maturely, and unapologetically to the fears, desires, and problems of exceptionally brilliant children. There are enough of these children who read the book and saw it as sort of a Catcher in the Rye for their niche that it became the cult classic it is today. Remember, it was published in 1985 - just in time for the first kids who read it to just now be coming of age, and not without the memory of a book that was so important to them and to their notions of childhood.

NOVEL, n. A short story, padded.

- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

By now, you have read several accounts of how Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel changed people's lives, and of the complex web of themes that makes it one of the greatest works of science fiction. It is not my purpose to do that, but neither am I here to take away from their experiences. I too felt the same when I read the opening pages of Ender's Game, packaged in its SFBC edition with the sequel, Speaker For The Dead.

In fact, I want you to join us. Feel the angst all over again. Feel the thrill when Ender kicks Stilson that last time. Feel redeemed all over again. Now let it out.

Wasn't that cleansing? Good. Because I'm here for an entirely different reason.

"Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember -- the enemy's gate is down."

Long ago, there was a magazine called Analog, edited by Ben Bova, who had stepped into the shoes of one of the giants eternally looming over the genre.

Bova accepted for publication a novelette by a new writer, whose work had rarely been seen outside the likes of The Friend (a Mormon youth magazine). This story appeared in Analog's August 1977 issue.

At the beginning of the story, ten-year-old Ender Wiggins, the youngest commander ever at Battle School, is training his ragtag army of six-year-old greenhorns how to play the Battle Game. He's about to blow the game wide open, stringing up an unprecedented string of victories despite all of the ways the adults running the school could bias the game against him, and, and -- well, you know the rest. Or at least, you think you do.

"Ender's Game" was received well, earning a Hugo nomination (the award that year went to Joan D. Vinge's "Eyes of Amber"). Orson Scott Card's career was well launched.

There's a war on, they said, and that was excuse enough for all the hurry in the world. They said a little password and flashed a little card at every ticket counter and customs check and guard station. It got them to the head of every line.

If you can imagine it, the novelette that appeared in Analog is far darker than the novel that followed. "Ender's Game" is Ender's Game trimmed to its sleek, black, nasty core. The overriding theme of the story is adults using children for their own purposes. It contains none of the "unappreciated bright child" or "alienation" themes some find in the novel. There is no Valentine, no Peter, no Stilson, no Bonzo Madrid, no Demosthenes or Locke. The character's name is "Ender Wiggins" -- no childhood mispronunciation here, no explanation at all.

"An enemy, Ender Wiggins," Maezr whispered. "I am your enemy, the first one you've ever had who was smarter than you."

Also absent are the "buggers" -- no insectoid horrors here; these children are being trained to destroy a nameless, faceless enemy. I am reminded of The Towers of Toron, the middle third of Samuel R. Delany's The Fall of the Towers.

In the early 1980's, Card was bogged down in a sequel to "Ender's Game", a morass provisionally titled "Speaker of Death". He decided that without an expansion and reworking of "Ender's Game", the latter work would die. By 1985, Card had produced the novel everyone talks about. And so now you know why the last chapter of Ender's Game seems to beg a sequel. Card probably considers his novel Ender's Game a better work, but for some reason I find the short story "Ender's Game" cleaner and more powerful. If I had been prepared to give the novel * * * * * (explanation) in the past, I must now demote it by half a star (for it still surpasses nearly everything else you will read) and put the short story in its place.


Maps In A Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card
Omnibus trade paperback, 1990, Tom Doherty Associates. ISBN 0-765-30840-1

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