Published in 1985, Ender’s Game has won Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel, been adapted to a movie, and has led to six sequels and related novels. It is regarded by the internet as a foundational entry in the sci-fi genre.
For the first half I wondered why anyone would praise it (and despaired for the culture that would). Then, somewhere in the second half, I acknowledged it had gained something worthwhile.
Aliens have attacked Earth. For over fifty years, the entire world has been held under the rule of a truce, focusing resources and manpower to preparing for the aliens’ return. One resource the military desires is a brilliant strategist to act as commander for their fleets.
So far so good, eh?
Then the first chapter almost made me put the book down; but I was stubborn, and love to write scathing reviews, so I kept going.
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is interesting enough as a main character – if not overwhelming. He’s a third child – an anomaly in his totalitarian dystopia. We meet him at the tender age of six, and his child-like view of situations, events, and relationships bring a unique flavor to the narrative.
Perhaps it’s this youth that also makes him less relatable. Ender is a genius; there’s no question of that. And yet, his inexperience and naïvety mean that he sometimes misapplies his brilliant ideas, which adds realism to the world. Perhaps what I’m missing is an essential “heroism.”
(Note: The Master Chief was also trained as a weapon from a young age…and he’s fully awesome. A full comparison of the world of Halo and the world of Ender’s Game is beyond the scope of this review.)
Ender agrees to go to the military’s Battle School because he believes in the alien threat, he believes they want/need him to serve as a potential genius strategist, and he wants to protect the world. A self-sacrifice born not of experience, but of logic and head-knowledge. We’ll take it.
At the same time, he wrestles with 1) his instinctive self-preservation, and 2) his squeamishness. What I mean is, Ender is repeatedly attacked by other children – from jealousy, or simple bully-ness. Ender responds with what I’ve been taught is the standard male reaction: stop the threat until it’s not a threat anymore. When Ender does this – by instinctively targeting his opponent’s weak point, and seeking to short-circuit future conflict – people get hurt. His opponent gets hurt. And Ender hates himself for causing pain and injury.
Why? Ender’s home life has done little to train him in pacifism (see below). There is no Old Testament in his consciousness to dictate, “An eye for an eye; you shall not murder.” Where does Ender get his morale high ground to protest, “I’m not a killer!” (or even to define what a killer is) when he’s simply acting in self-defense?
The book does not answer this with, “They have the Law written on their hearts,” nor even, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” but with the vague notion of good people, bad people, we’re all a mix that is part of a worldly philosophy.
Peter Wiggin should be locked up as a protection to himself and others. In the very first chapter, he beats up his little brother after he comes home from school, and casually threatens to kill both his younger siblings, then shrugs it off as I was only joking. In the words of Proverbs 26, he’s “like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death”.
After I didn’t throw the book across the room, and kept reading, we leave Peter behind when Ender goes to Battle School – except for the massive figure he plays in Ender’s consciousness, and the tricks Peter plays back on earth (see below).
Ender’s parents are not only ignorant of the abuse their oldest son dishes out to everyone he meets, but don’t seem very engaged in the lives of their other children, either.
The officers of the military monitor all the children’s thoughts up to a certain age. While their logic later became clear, I started off incredulous and disgusted that they hadn’t wrapped Peter in a straitjacket yet.
In the beginning, adults are portrayed as manipulative puppet-masters, oblivious, or both. While that changed a little when we got to see their point of view (see the second half), it was still irritating.
The role of parents is to teach, discipline, exhort, build up, and love their children. The role of other adults is to act as those little sticks around baby trees, pulling them straight until they can grow in the right direction of their own. While I eventually understood the officers’ strategy (see themes) the Wiggin parents remained virtually non-entities, with Ender’s most cherished role model being his older sister.
Lord of the Flies
Ender starts Battle School isolated – deliberately. Meaning, the officers want him to not make friends, to harbor his genius and husband his mental abilities without the interference of kindred spirits.
A lot of the other boys don’t need the encouragement to be bullies and jerks to the small, newbie teacher’s pet.
There’s a reason my parents didn’t send me to institutional school. Maybe the name-calling and rudeness is more “realistic” and “gritty”, but I for one am not convinced it’s necessary to the book. It sure didn’t add to the “entertainment” value, and until the book developed into something deeper, made me wonder what on earth people were raving about in it.
And with all the butt jokes, fart jokes, and child nudity, I was surprised Dreamworks didn’t grab the film rights.
The humans in Ender’s Game are facing extinction by aliens. Dire circumstances indeed. The governments and military authority respond by controlling their people and gauging their entire society for military defense.
They have both the outlook and the attitude of Red v. Blue‘s Director:
[I]t is undeniable, and may I say a fundamental quality of man, that when faced with extinction, every alternative is preferable.
Perhaps. But what does this make the humans into? Mr. Card doesn’t shy from showing us the fall-out of their methods, but he also has no one higher than himself to rely on. The narrative is laced with a desperation that does make gripping reading, but also leaves an emptiness behind it.
What is the governmental philosophy of Ender’s Game? Ruthless, driven…and depressing. This is not the sprightly optimism of Destiny, nor even the steeled self-sacrifice of Halo. It is the ends justifying the means —
It is a world without God.
The Grown-up Viewpoint
I enjoyed getting more insight into the adult commanders’ plans. As their philosophy about how and why they were shaping Ender’s mind became clear, I sympathized with them and agreed with their aims.
The Home Front
Ender’s siblings are not idle the years he’s away. While I still found Peter irritating and revolting, it was interesting to see two such intelligent children at work.
[SPOILER] I admit Mr. Card was pretty clever to foresee the internet, and the powerful influence anonymous talking points on the internet can have. This side-road of the plot was clever, even if we did have to endure a chapter or two about Peter to witness it.
Also, while I never saw repentance from Peter, he did seem to mellow with age, making those sections bearable.
I did appreciate the ending. It took all the preceding elements and combined them well, while also dealing frankly with the strain (mental, physical, and spiritual) on Ender.
After watching a YouTube clip from the movie, though, I think they really messed up the climax. Mr. Card juggles the officers’ manipulation of Ender and Ender’s own intelligence so that everything made sense, both from the adults’ perspective (they’re doing what they believe necessary to win the war) and Ender’s perspective (he thinks he’s training for a future battle he’s not even sure will happen).
The whole psychology aspect is nuanced and effective, and also cleverly written. Having only see three minutes of the movie, I don’t think they captured that.
The resolution has elements of realism, but seems to imply that humanity can redeem itself by itself.
Mr. Card honestly walks through some of the political and moral fall-out of the war. Reference the R v B quote above — if the world is no longer at war, what is justifiable? If it’s not justifiable after the war, was it during the war?
After this is smoothed over, Ender does a little long-distance reconciliation with his brother. However…Peter Wiggin’s problem is not that he’s misunderstood. He has a wicked heart that can only be cleansed by Jesus.
It is still a world without God, even if they mask it more pleasantly: even if the dystopian society has softened and the threat of global extinction has relaxed. The god Mr. Card worships is a vapor, a shadow, an idol – it is the phantasy that humanity can ever, on our own, change our twisted nature and become “good”.
Jesus said, “Only God is truly good.” Being God, He ought to know.
Stuff I Like
Having finished the book, I can mention a few things that I liked independent of the characters, plot, and worldview
- Ease of continuity. I don’t know if it’s because I was reading a paper copy, not an ebook, or if it’s Mr. Card’s writing skill, but I was able to follow the narrative even across short, disjointed reading sessions on my lunch breaks, and the story was able to keep my interest while I was in it.
- Aliens. We don’t get to learn much about them until the last third (or less) of the book, but Mr. Card’s aliens are so far different than humans in their communication, thinking, and way of life that they echo the creations of C.J. Cherryh (and make Star Trek look like a kid’s show).
- Actual strategy. Part of the reason I read Ender’s Game was for the military instruction, and I felt like the strategy actually had a part in the story – not like some mystery stories that bandy about “irrefutable evidence” that is never shown to the audience in detail. This was not a “war story” where the characters’ relationships take center stage over vague “maneuvers” that are less informative that a Wikipedia page — Ender’s Game incorporates relationships, but just as importantly dwells on the psychology, tactics, and strategy of actual military actions.
I am glad I read it if only to know what all the fuss was about. The insights into military strategy and combat psychology were interesting, as were the aliens.
I could have done without the schoolyard immaturity, and the philosophical conclusion just made it clear the Mr. Card and I don’t agree.
Read it if you like puzzles, war games, space stations, and thought experiments…and don’t mind a little crudity, language, bullying, and a smattering of violence. Compared to what you can find on prime time television, it’s probably more thought-provoking.