and now, for something completely different.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card – book review

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I recently did a two-week stint on the road for work. In preparation for the trip, I loaded a few books on my Kindle Touch. One of those I’ve already posted about on here (The Enlightened Cyclist), and another one was Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. I didn’t know anything about it, save that it is considered a modern sci-fi classic, and that there have been some rumblings about a possible movie adaptation. Anyways, I can’t say I’m versed in sci-fi without reading this book, and now I’ve done it.

Ender’s Game is the story of a boy named Andrew Wiggin who goes by the name of Ender. He is possessed of extremely high intelligence. He is the third of three children (eldest brother Peter and middle daughter Valentine) in a future Earth so over-populated that many nations have limited childbirth to two children per family. Ender has been allowed to exist because Peter and Valentine were so far mentally advanced that a third child was actually requested of his mother and father. There is a war on, and Earth is taking the brightest and most capable children on to mold them into what Earth needs to defend herself against a future invasion of an insectoid alien race known only as the Buggers.

The defense effort identifies promising children based on intelligence, genetics and other markers. They then implant monitors in these children so they can observe how the children grow and develop. They are looking for signs of how intelligent and capable each child will be in the future. Ender’s siblings were both monitored as very young children, but then had the monitors removed when they were not chosen. We find out later in the book that Peter was not chosen because he was too violent and unpredictable (though undeniably brilliant) and Valentine was not chosen because she was on the other end of the behavioral spectrum – too meek and gentle for the likes of Battle School. The hope with Ender was that understanding his brother and sister’s genetics, he would turn out to have both of their brilliance, but a disposition squarely in between them: equal parts decisiveness and compassion.

As a third child, Ender is not popular. “Thirds” are ridiculed by other children as they should technically never have existed. At the age of six, his monitor is finally removed, and everyone takes that to mean that he has not been chosen. No longer monitored, bigger children pounce on the opportunity to gang up on Ender without repercussion. Understanding that he has no choice but to defend himself decisively or forever suffer persecution at the hands of his judgemental peers, the much smaller Ender surprises and beats up the leader of the gang – decisively. Watching from afar, the Battle School has seen all it needs to. Ender’s determination to survive is the final stroke that lands him in Battle School, where he will be separated forever from his brother (whom he fears and hates) and his sister (whom he loves and cherishes). His parents are only secondary to him (and indeed the book!) emotionally as compared to his siblings.

In Battle School, he joins as a “launcher,” a first year student with children all his age – around six. Battle school teaches children to fight in mock battles in a zero-gravity room called the Battle Room. Students are grouped into “armies” which all battle each other for points and ranking. As a launcher, Ender isn’t attached to an army immediately – they are all too young. The focus for them is learning zero-gee movement and fighting skills. The children also take regular school classes, but the main focus is the battle.

After taking his launch group and training them on his own in secondary practice sessions how to move and fight (the regular program was too slow, I guess!), Ender is moved much earlier than children are ever moved into an army. The chief of that army is furious about it. So furious that he forbids Ender from fighting for fear that he’ll cause the army to lose. For every battle, Ender is allowed only to enter the Battle Room four minutes after the battle has commenced, and even then he is not allowed to participate. He has to stand by a wall and do nothing. Ender, while he thinks this is stupid, still follows orders and doesn’t participate. He also takes the opportunity to observe from afar, and understand what skills he needs to develop better in himself and his old launcher peers to excel at Battle School. While one of his commanders tries to forbid his practice sessions, he continues them and older kids from other armies also start to participate.

Ender is quickly moved from one army to the next, and the next army takes more advantage of him. Eventually, Ender is awarded his own army – the youngest child ever to get the post. All the while, Ender wonders why he is being advanced so quickly – it seems that whenever he reaches a point where he is getting comfortable, he is uprooted and moved again. In his new position, Ender is pushed to the brink. Where armies are generally made to battle once a week after three months of preparation, Ender’s army is given its first battle after only three weeks. After winning that battle decisively, they are given a battle on the very next day. They win that one decisively, too.

Through it all, Ender sees that if he fails at any point, he will suffer the consequences from his older peers. His response is to take every challenge, and win it; there is no other option. Eventually, his tired and ragged (yet fiercely loyal) army is made to battle two times a day on consecutive days, and then as a final stroke two armies at once. He wins that too, out of sheer anger for the teachers and commanders who seem to be targeting him personally, and making his life miserable.

This escalation all has a purpose and a conclusion, and Ender is pushed to the brink as he finds out the secrets of the Bugger Wars and its hero from humankind. Through it all, there’s always an adult who is pushing him to some new extreme, and he responds out of a refusal to play their game. If he has a limit that they are trying to find, Ender is determined to never let them find it.  He has several almost parent-figures throughout the book, and they are at once tortured by doing “what must be done” with Ender, and fascinated by his determination and inability to fail or ever lose himself or his values.

The story is multifaceted in the politics of the war, the politics of the Earth should the war ever finish, the gifted children who are being trained to fight in this war, and the children (specifically Ender’s siblings) who have been left behind. Ender is dynamic, isolated and determined, and you find yourself rooting for him and all the other children against the adults within the same race that is supposed to be under threat of extermination. There are many surprise twists and turns, and one of the most satisfying things about them is that Ender always comes out on top. Because of his pedigree and his assumed brilliance, his failure to do so would mean that there just wouldn’t be a story in the first place!

The end of the book is both triumphant and tragic, and yes, you can be guaranteed that Ender wins. What he wins, though, is questionable to the human race and to him personally, and he goes on a journey of discovery after he’s freed from the rigor of Battle School and the bugger war.

I have to highly recommend this book. It’s a really fast and easy read, but it’s also immensely satisfying with many twists and turns that keep you interested and wondering if Ender just might not make it this time. If you haven’t read it, definitely pick it up.


One response to “Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card – book review

  1. Olivier Mireault July 10, 2012 at 9:23 am

    One of the best books I have ever read. Thanks Mike for the really good refresher.

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