Ender’s Game is a science fiction classic written by Orson Scott Card. It’s also a favorite young adult book, and nearly topped NPR’s list of favorite science fiction and fantasy (beaten only by Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
It’s hard to write about a book loved by so many people. So I thought I’d concentrate on the introduction written by the author, because that gave me a different way to think about the book.
As I read Ender’s Game, I thought maybe I’d read this book a long time ago, college or high school even. It sounded familiar and I had a sense I knew what would happen. I definitely felt like the fantasy game with the giant was familiar. Maybe I’d read an excerpt at some point — or maybe it’s one of those classics that is so often imitated, by the time you get to it, you feel like you’ve seen it before.
Anyway, the book was fantastic. I enjoyed every minute of it. So here’s a quick synopsis and then I’ll talk about the intro.
Ender Wiggin is an extremely gifted six year old. His intensity makes him a target for bullies; his chief tormenter is his brother, who threatens regularly to kill Ender, and this threat seems pretty credible even though it comes from another young child. This book recognizes, from page one, that children can be much more violent than adults think they are. Ender is clever enough to defend himself, but he also hates that people force him to defend himself through violence.
Ender is being tested (using a monitor implanted in his head) for a special program that will train children to fight “the buggers”, an alien race that had attacked humans in the past. The Earth has spent its time and technology preparing for the next attack, and this means identifying and even breeding children as warriors.
Ender is selected for the special school, and even at the school he is singled out for a special role: to someday be the master commander of a fleet of fighter ships that destroys the buggers. Impressive right? Also a pretty heavy burden to place on a very young boy. Ender is told he won’t see his family, including his beloved sister Valentine, until he’s at least a teenager. And the teachers at the school deliberately separate him from the other children, so he has little chance to make friends.
Without saying much about the story, Ender struggles but perseveres – not only because he’s brilliant, but because he cares about his fellow students and genuinely wants to be a good friend.
This may be a book about aliens and space battles, but it’s also a book about how we think about children – how we raise and educate them, when we push them and when we let them just be children. It’s about the violence and pressure that children live with, and the feelings of being alone, misunderstood, friendless, and manipulated. Ender is smart enough to know he’s being used, but he’s also smart enough to want to push himself to his greatest capacity — except when that means hurting others. Which sets up a key question in the book: can one lead and be sensitive to others at the same time? Does being a good leader mean letting go of one’s humanity?
Orson Scott Card, in his introduction, talks about conceiving the “Battle Room” idea for this story when he was only 16 years old. He wasn’t ready to write the book at the time, so he let the idea germinate for a while, until one day, while traveling with friends to a circus, he jotted down the story. Published in 1985, this was his first novel.
According to Card, while the book won numerous awards, it also attracted vehement criticism. The main criticism was that he didn’t write about children in a realistic way. Parents and teachers said that children, even gifted children, don’t think or talk the way he writes. What do you think? Card goes on to share the many letters he received about the book from children and young adults who identified with it completely. They felt it was one of the only books that recognized that some children don’t think like children. Some of the writers were gifted children who said, “this is the first book I ever read that really understood how isolated I feel.” Wow. I can only imagine the gratification of receiving a letter like that.
I didn’t realize until reading Card’s intro how much I myself identified with Ender. Not because I was save-the-world brilliant, but as a child I could definitely identify with the feeling of other children hating you because you’re smarter. I remember that having a teacher single me out made me wish I could dissolve right into the floor. Children can be vicious; they pounce on you the minute you say something strange.
I could identify with the worry that your siblings resent you because you’re better in school, even though they’re better at lots of other things (that you wish you were good at).
Ender always stays true to himself and his abilities. He could intentionally fail at things, and that would make his life easier, but he doesn’t. It’s what I would have done in his place.
We talk about children having “old souls” sometimes, but do we really believe that or is it just a cute thing we say? I’ve been guilty of reading books written from the perspective of children and saying, this writer wrote in the voice of an adult rather than a child. Maybe I’m being too judgmental. How do I know what the voice of a child sounds like, when every child is pretty different, and when I haven’t been a child myself for years and years?
On the other hand, some writers I think are just sloppy about writing from a child’s perspective. Card is not. Ender is like no child I’ve ever read about, yet I never once thought, this is not a child’s perspective. I think he captures Ender as a child and as a person who is under incredible pressure.
One reviewer on Amazon, after raving about how amazing this book is, says he would recommend it for any 13 year old. Then, mid-review he changes his mind and says no, too violent for teens. Huh? If we can identify with Ender, don’t we think our children can?
Of course there are books about children are too adult for children, but I don’t think Ender’s Game is that book.
This book gave me so much to think about, and I’ve hardly covered anything. You could spend a lot more time talking about the politics and history in the book, Card’s use of technology and internet communications, or the impact of his religious beliefs on his work. But I won’t go there. I’ll save it for the sequel.
I hope I’ve done the book justice if you love it, and inspired you to read it if you haven’t.