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Nerdy Book Reviews: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, is pretty much required reading for all self-respecting nerds, and therefore I have no excuse for having just recently read it. I should warn you that this review is going to be rather spoiler-y, but since this book is almost 30 years old, I don’t consider it poor form.

Like most fantasy and science fiction stories, Ender’s Game starts off showing you a small segment of the narrative’s world and slowly pulling back as you are told more about the world events. In other words, you’re learning about the world right along with Ender, the small child who is the book’s protagonist. Ender is the youngest of three children, which is remarkable, because third children are usually born to “noncompliant” families – due to the desire for population control, all families are expected to have no more than two children.

The “world” in which the story takes place is our own, at some point in the future, and in this world, small children are monitored and trained to defend the Earth in the seemingly inevitable event of a third attack from an alien race known as the “Buggers.” The nations of Earth are somewhat united under the International Fleet; it’s an interesting idea that being attacked as a planet would unite the world’s countries, and this concept comes back later on in the book.

Ender has been chosen to attend the International Fleet’s prestigious Battle School to train to become a soldier. The Fleet was interested in him not just for his high intelligence but for the cold reasoning that he used to justify his actions against the bully at school. Once he arrives at Battle School, though, Ender is no longer the smartest person around. The story shows Ender struggling to adapt, learn, and eventually excel at battle training while larger events (of which he is largely unaware) swirl around him.

The reader knows more about the big picture because each chapter begins with two people, whose identities later become clear, discussing Ender and the events taking place. While helpful at first, this device becomes tiresome later on, especially when the reader needs less and less information and the conversations themselves suffer for some serious editing. Perhaps Card continued this pattern to the end for consistency’s sake, but by the last few chapters the overly-expository conversations were largely unnecessary.

Ender eventually proves himself to be the great leader the International Fleet had been searching for, and they put him through a series of increasingly difficult tests and tasks to ensure that he is the one. The leaders at the school break nearly every one of their pre-existing rules testing him and the team under his command. After passing all of their tests, Ender is rushed to Command School. Command School turns out to be an elaborate battle simulation in which Ender is directing fictional combat ships against the Bugger army. (Warning: last chance to get out before major plot spoiler!)

Ender’s game, of course, isn’t a game at all. Once Ender passes his “final evaluation” with the simulator – with a room full of unusually agitated commanders watching him – he is told that the simulations were all real; he has actually exterminated the entire Bugger species. While the battles at Battle School were exactly what they seemed like, the entire purpose of Battle school was to find the one, which was Ender. That’s why, once they had focused on him, the rules and structure were thrown out entirely; Battle School didn’t matter anymore. They had their soldiers, and more importantly, they had their leader. Ender’s physical and emotional exhaustion after the reveal caused him to go into a long, deep sleep, and the book picks up when Ender wakes up.

We push quickly through the war that immediately followed the big battle (which Ender conveniently sleeps through) and on to the years and decades immediately following. Once the Buggers are defeated, the nations of Earth fight for supremacy in the absence of their common enemy. It is decided that with his intelligence and battle skill, Ender is too dangerous to be allowed back on Earth and is instead made head of a human colony on a former Bugger planet.

It’s common for a book to end with an epilogue, but Ender’s Game concluded with a strange, rushed sequence of events; it’s as if Card was confident that, now that the reader knows what’s happened, we’re ready to move on to a completely new set of concepts and events. There were many things in the last chapter – too many to name, really –that are clearly intended to be elaborated upon, or resolved, in the subsequent books. The Ender books are a series, after all. But this book specifically could have stood on its own; the narrative arc, plot, and conflict are introduced and resolved within this book. An extra 30 pages or so to make the post-climax narrative flow a little more smoothly would have made all the difference.

Perhaps the ending feels so strange because, despite being in Ender’s head for most of the book, we don’t really know him. We’ve watched him analyze the world around him, we’ve seen him murder two children, and we’re told, but never really shown, how much he loves his sister, Valentine. His guilt and struggle after the climactic battle are handled with the same emotional detachment as the rest of the book, so when he ends up lovingly cradling a Bugger queen pupa, it seems kind of out of left field.  The ending absolutely demands a sequel, and while I’m certainly interested enough to read it, I imagine the Ender of Speaker for the Dead to be a completely different character than the one from Ender’s Game.

8 replies on “Nerdy Book Reviews: Ender’s Game”

Definitely the best takedown of Card’s philosophy behind Ender’s Game, and the stuff that subconsciously troubled me while reading it, is here: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi/Killer_000.htm.

Here’s a little snippet:

In relating Ender Wiggin’s childhood and training in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card presents a harrowing tale of abuse. Ender’s parents and older brother, the officers running the battle school and the other children being trained there, either ignore the abuse of Ender or participate in it.
Through this abusive training Ender becomes expert at wielding violence against his enemies, and this ability ultimately makes him the savior of the human race. The novel repeatedly tells us that Ender is morally spotless; though he ultimately takes on guilt for the extermination of the alien buggers, his assuming this guilt is a gratuitous act. He is presented as a scapegoat for the acts of others. We are given to believe that the destruction Ender causes is not a result of his intentions; only the sacrifice he makes for others is. In this Card argues that the morality of an act is based solely on the intentions of the person acting.
The result is a character who exterminates an entire race and yet remains fundamentally innocent. The purpose of this paper is to examine the methods Card uses to construct this story of a guiltless genocide, to point out some contradictions inherent in this scenario, and to raise questions about the intention-based morality advocated by Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.

I read Ender as part of an assignment for a fancy-pants gifted class when I was in the 6th grade. The kind of gifted/talented program where they pull you out of ‘regular’ classes and send you to to the overstuffed cave of a classroom inhabited by the nerdiest (but secretly awesomest) teacher in the school. And the time you spend in that classroom is magical and enriching, but the hell that awaits you when you return to your ‘regular’ classroom nearly ruins the experience. Because there is nothing like making the smart nerdy kids look smarter, nerdier and yet super-specially-privileged by publicly removing them from the rest of their classmates for ‘Gifted Education’, even if said classes are worth it in the end.

My point, I nearly lost it. Anyhoodle…the teacher assigned us to read Ender and the entire point of the exercise was, as ‘exceptional children’, to identify with the Battle School kids. We were encouraged to read Ender as a way to explain that we could do more than we thought possible and that adults were inherently fallible.

Looking back on it, it was a weird thing, both the teaching and our collective reaction to the book. But, at the time, it was incredibly empowering. Ender was one of my all-time favorite books for a VERY long time. It made me feel proud to be smart, proud to be special.

But re-reading Ender as an adult is an entirely different exercise. Thinking about my former love of the book makes me a little ashamed of my childish hubris, naivete and self-centeredness. It makes me feel angry that this beloved book wasn’t nearly as well-written as I thought it was. Card isn’t nearly as clever as he wants to be and, while the alternate (future?) universe he created is fascinating, the dialogue is god-awful and some of the plot belabored. I am also absolutely blown away at some of the details and nuances that I totally glossed over at a kid.

In short, Ender’s Game makes me feel like a recent college grad that finally figured out that Atlas Shrugged makes for a crap life manifesto and that Ayn Rand is full of shit.

yep, I think you nailed it. That’s how I feel about a bunch of books I liked in middle school and high school (why hello, Brave New World!). I wish more sci fi by people who are not “rugged individualist” white dudes got famous (hello Left Hand of Darkness!) because rugged individualism has become the predominant narrative of sci fi and apocalypse lit. If every thought experiment about how society might be/ might become is like Ayn Rand/Card etc. we begin to think Human Nature (note the caps) somehow is too.

I missed this book when I was younger than avoided it many years because I find Card, in real life, to be a fucking asshole, but I finally read it last summer. I really enjoyed it and I think its one of the few books where I hadn’t guessed the ending. I knew something was up with Ender’s games, but I thought the big surprise was going to be that he had somehow killed all his friends/commanders, and he had been interacting with computer simulations of them (or that he really wasn’t a child — I think I had gotten this book confused with the plot of another). The reveal is still awful though.

Card’s still a douche, though. I can’t bring myself to read the rest of the series.

I read this book for the first time just a few years ago and absolutely loved it. I know what you mean about the end though.
It’s so easy to forget how young Ender and his classmates are, which is why I think an animated feature would be fascinating (because there is no way you could make a live-action version and cast appropriately).

I know of a guy who only ever read one book, this one, and named his kid Ender too. I guess he’s a bit fanatical about it. I never could make it through it, largely because of the tell-rather-than-show writing style, and the author-avatar character (more deridingly known as a Mary Sue). True, there are some good Sues in literature, but Ender didn’t strike me as an interesting character.

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