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.