What I’m Reading: Ender’s Game

My book this time is about a bright young boy who is oppressed at home and school, but one day receives an invitation to attend a very special school, a place where life is far different than the normal, boring existence of everyday humans. Upon arriving at the school, he is immediately hailed as a potential savior against an ancient evil force, but first he has to make friends, do well in his classes, and most importantly, excel in the school’s special sport that all the students are obsessed with. No, I’m not talking about dumb old Harry Potter. This is a far better book: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card.

This is the third time I’ve read Ender’s Game. The first time was back in high school, not too long after the book came out (it was published in 1985). The second time was ten or so years ago–apparently before I’d started this blog, though it couldn’t have been too much before. Now I’ve read it again for my readers’ club at work, another classic science fiction book. While I remembered the plot and characters pretty well, what I hadn’t remembered was just how entertaining Ender’s Game is–it definitely kept me flipping pages for this read!

Ender Wiggin is a six-year-old boy, the third of three children in a family who are part of a special government program to breed geniuses. Decades before, the Earth’s governments united to fight an invasion by an alien race, nicknamed the Buggers because they look like giant insects. The Buggers mounted two invasions, and both times humanity nearly lost. In preparation for an expected third invasion, the Federated Governments believe they need a specially bred commander for the Space Forces, a person with the quickness of thought and near-instant conception of battle tactics and strategies necessary to meet the fighting prowess of the Buggers. Ender and his siblings are the most promising candidates for this effort– except that his eldest brother, Peter, has been rejected from the program for being a sociopath, and his elder sister for being too nice. It seems only Ender has the needed combination of intellect, empathy, and cold calculation.

Though small for his age, living with Peter has taught Ender to not back down from conflict. After fighting off a gang of bullies at his school and nearly killing the head bully, he is sent to Battle School. Battle School is where all the most promising potential Space Force commanders go to train. It’s set on a space station in deep space, and the cadets study physics, astronomy, astro-navigation, and other relevant subjects. But most importantly, they fight in 40-man armies in the battle room in total weightlessness. Armies are ranked and soldiers and commanders rated on every aspect of how they fight.

From his very first battle, Ender finds a way to impact the fighting in novel ways. He soon rises to be a commander of an army himself, the youngest ever at Battle School. In fact, when his army quickly dominates the ranking system, the school instructors start challenging Ender in unprecedented ways–giving his army a battle to fight every day, for example, when most armies only fight once a week. And it’s not just that he himself comes up with novel ways to fight–he also empowers the captains in his army to come up with their own plans as the battles take place. It’s this very flexibility of Ender’s army, its ability to come up with new tactics on the fly, that makes him such a great commander. His finest skill in command is using his empathy to make others better as well.

But the question is, as Ender approaches graduation, will he have learned enough to defeat the Buggers during the third invasion, which the leaders of the Space Forces forecast will begin soon?

I think the main thing that makes Ender’s Game so readable is that Orson Scott Card doesn’t wimp out, and give us Ender’s battles only in the abstract. He actually shows how Ender wins various battles, what new tactics his soldiers use in the weightless environment, and how the fights go in some detail. Since he’s supposed to be describing the workings of one of the greatest intellects in history, obviously this requires some ingenious writing on Card’s part. But he’s up to it! The descriptions of the battles flow so well, and each battle is unique and interesting, as is the lives of the students in between classes.

Ender himself is a sympathetic and likable character. He didn’t ask to be a genius and the savior of humanity. In fact, he’d rather not be. He hates that he has to fight others all the time, but he does it anyway because he doesn’t want to let people down. There’s a computer game that the students play in the book, a sort of fantasy world that responds to their emotions and anxieties. Some of the most interesting and saddest parts of the book are Ender’s sessions playing this game, as we get real insight into just how much pressure he’s under.

Ender’s Game is considered a classic of science fiction, and rightfully so. But more than that, and like the works of Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card transcends his genre to write a book that works as literature, not just genre fiction. I can easily recommend this book to any science fiction lover, but also to any Harry Potter lover, or any reader generally of multi-layered, secretly profound adventures stories.

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