Book review: Ender's Game (1985)
Orson Scott Card on the title:
“I wrote the word Ender’s Game, because of endgame from chess. Ok, the kids name is Ender.”
Spoilers occur. Review is intended for those who have already seen the movie or read the book.
The story is set in the future. The world is at war against aliens (buggers). The main character Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin is 6-year-old at the beginning of the novel. Ender is clever for his age, and it is noticed he could stand up for himself in a fight, and settle his own problems.
Ender has the choice to join Battle School and not see family until he is 12 years old. The company are connected to the brains of the children, monitoring them. Parents feel uneasy about third child (Ender). This interferes with parents efforts of assimilation into complying society. Ender’s parents vowed never to have more than two children, as only first two kids get a free education. Petra becomes friends with Ender, Petra is an outcast among older boys, and called “crazy as a loon”. A denunciation of population limitation law is published, people should be allowed as many children as they want, surplus population should be sent to other worlds to spread mankind.
Peter is Ender’s older brother, and likes to tease and torment Ender. There is also a sister, Valentine, whom Ender prefers. Peter is jealous that Ender is rated better, and that Peter didn’t pan out as well.
Peter can always see what other people hate about themselves, and bully them, yet he is also ambitious and wants to save the world from self-destruction. On the other hand, Valentine could always see what people liked about themselves, and flatter them.
On the journey to Battle School, Ender breaks Bernard’s arm by accident, Bernard holds a grudge and with other boys gang up on Ender. Ender is praised, and the other boys don’t like he is favorised. Ender does however make friends with Alai. Bonzo is in command of salamander group. Ender is promoted.
Ender gets into a fight in shower with Bonzo, Bonzo is accidentally killed, and as a cover up Battle School pretend Bonzo graduated, to protect Ender, who is their most promising soldier.
Ender goes on leave, he doesn’t want to continue with Battle School, because he feels he is controlled as a puppet. Ender: We may be young, but we’re not powerless”
Ender visits Valentine, who convinces him to return to the Battle School. Valentine page 237: “We play by their rules long enough, and it becomes our game”
As Steve Aldersley wrote in his review, everyone in the school is a genius, but Ender is a good leader because he gains the trust, loyalty, and even love of his followers.
Late in the novel, the mysterious bugger enemy is elaborated on. Page 238: “There was no evidence from their bodies that smelling, tasting, or hearing were particularly important to them.”. Page 249: “Their communication, however they do it, is instantaneous. Lightspeed is no barrier”
Page 252-53: Why are we fighting the buggers, asks Ender
“I’ve heard all kinds of reasons, said Graff. Because they have an overcrowded system and they’ve got to colonize. Because they can’t stand the thought of other intelligent life in the universe. Because they don’t think we are intelligent life. Because they have some weird religion. Because they watched our old video broadcasts and decided we were hopelessly violent. All kinds of reasons.” (…) We used every means we could think of to communicate with them, but they don’t even have the machinery to know we’re signaling. And maybe they’re trying to think to us, and they can’t understand why we don’t respond. So the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other. If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you”
Page 268: Buggers: “All their thoughts are present, together, at once”
Towards the end, the battles are real, no games, but Ender is not told.
Ender has problem with being the killer of all the buggers and bugger queens, and doesn’t perceive himself as a killer. His teacher Mazer takes responsibility.
Plans to colonize the bugger colony, as buggers are now dead. Then the thirds and fourths and fifths will get on starships and head out for worlds known and unknown.
Valentine convinces Ender to travel to the dead bugger colony and start over. Ender becomes Governor. Ender wants to learn from the buggers past, some things that humans could use.
Thoughts on the novel: I empathized with the young Ender, despite violence towards other boys, as it feels like self-defense, and Ender doesn’t appear to know his own strength.
The battles are not especially frequent, which surprised me considering the book artwork. The scenes between the battles are entertaining to read and take up most of the book, presumably because the author is most comfortable writing about this.
The boys are remarkably mature for six-year-olds, though it must be said they are very bright kids.
The joy of a normal family upbringing has been robbed from the young boys in Battle School, so obviously this adds to the reader’s sympathy for them.
The fake war comparisons to our own time are quite striking. About a system maintaining power by making people on earth afraid.
For me, the weakest and most implausible part of the story is when a boy as bright as Ender can’t see the big picture, and needs convincing by sister Valentine why he is an important fighter, with clichés like “trying and failing is better than never trying at all.”
The story in print feels ideal for cinema. Interested to see how filmmakers handle the Giant, the wolf-children, cliff at the ledge of the world, the castle tower with the snake and mirror.
Favorite quote, p265: “They studied bugger tactics and strategies from many angles. For the first time in his life, a teacher was pointing out things that Ender had not already seen for himself. For the first time, Ender had found a living mind he could admire.”
From Ender´s Game introduction, by the author Orson Scott Card:
”The novelet Ender’s Game was my first published science fiction. It was based on an idea – the Battle Room – that came to me when I was sixteen-years-old. I had just read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which was (more or less) an extrapolation of the ideas in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, applied to a galaxy-wide empire in some far future time.
The novel set me, not to dreaming, but to thinking, which is Asimov’s most extraordinary ability as a fiction writer. What would the future be like? How would things change? What would remain the same?
“To me, though, the military didn’t mean the Vietnam War, which was then nearing its peak of American involvement. I had no experience of that, except for Bill’s (brother) stories of the miserable life in basic training, the humiliation of officer’s candidate school, and his lonely but in many ways successful life as a noncom in Korea. Far more deeply rooted in my mind was my experience, five or six years earlier, of reading Bruce Catton’s three-volume Army of the Potomac.”
“It wasn’t the soldier’s who changed. It was the leader. And even though I could not then have articulated what I understood of military leadership, I knew that I did understand it. I understood, at levels deeper than speech, how a great military leader imposes his will on his enemy, and makes his own army a willing extension of himself”
“Soldier’s and commanders would have to think very differently in space, because the old ideas of up and down simply wouldn’t apply anymore. I had read in Nordhoff‘s and Hall’s history of World War I flying that it was very hard at first for new pilots to learn to look above and below them rather than merely to the right and left”
On why the soldiers are so young:
“Maybe it was because of the children in the car on the way up that I decided that the trainees in the Battle Room were so young. Maybe it was because I, barely an adolescent myself, understood only childhood well enough to write about it. Or maybe it was because of something that impressed me in Catton’s Army of the Potomac: that the soldiers were all so young and innocent. That they shot and bayoneted the enemy, and then slipped, and then slipped across the neutral ground between armies to trade tobacco, jokes, liquor, and food. Even though it was a deadly game, and the suffering and fear were terrible and real, it was still a game”
“I designed Ender’s Game to be as clear and accessible as any story of mine could possibly be. My goal was that the reader wouldn’t have to be trained in literature or even in science fiction to receive the tale in its simplest, purest form. And, since a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without meditation is worthless drivel, it is not surprising that they found my novel to be despicable. If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability“
“Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along – the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from the perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.”
“Ender’s Game is a story about gifted children. It is also a story about soldier’s. Captain John F. Schmidt, the author of the Marine Corp’s Warfighting, the most brilliant concise book of military strategy ever written by an American (and a proponent of the kind of thinking that was at the heart of the Gulf War), found Ender’s Game to be a useful enough story about the nature of leadership to use it in courses he taught at the Marine University at Quantico.
Watauga College, the interdisciplinary studies program at Appalachian State University – as unmilitary a community as you could ever hope to find – uses Ender’s Game for completely different purposes – to talk about problem-solving and self-creation of the individual. A graduate student explored the political ideas in Ender’s Game. A writer and critic at Pepperdine has seen Ender’s Game as, in some ways, religious fiction.
All these uses are valid; all these readings of the book are “correct”. For all these readers have placed themselves inside this story, not as spectators, but as participants, and so have looked at the world of Ender’s Game, not with my eyes only, but also with their own”
As Tim Blackmore points out in his article, the story is on a thematic level about choice, individuality, and a mechanistic view of humans:
“At the core of the military paradigm is a mechanistic view of humans, who are to be shaped to the purposes of the machine. The military paradigm abides by a strict utilitarian philosophy in which ends overcome any and all means; human costs are unimportant. Physical and psychological pain are necessary if Ender is to be deformed for the machine's uses. The amount of pain indicates the degree of injustice the individual meets at the hands of the system. Card forces the reader to move between two viewpoints: that of the suspicious, manipulated child and that of the paranoid, utilitarian machine worker. The post of officer, or supreme commander, does not make Ender an individual; it simply gives him a higher function in the machine. Here is the paradox of one stripped of his individuality in order to protect the ideal of individuality. For a long time even Ender rejects himself: "[Ender] didn't like Peter's kind, the strong against the weak, and he didn't like his own kind either, the smart against the stupid" (21).
Source: Ender's Beginning: Battling the Military in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1991), Tim Blackmore, Extrapolation 32, no. 2 (summer 1991): 124-42.
Film critic Mark Kermode in his film review thinks Ender's Game (2013) would work as a double feature with Starship Troopers (1997), in that both deal "with humans engaged in a battle with bugs, that in order to win, the humans have to behave in a way, which is frankly, inhuman"