Origin Stories: Ender’s Game

Over at The World Is Yours, Sara P. started a series called Origin Stories about children’s and young adult literature that shaped her adult worldview and the way her perspective on these pieces has shifted as she’s grown older. She has opened up the series for multiple contributors, and we are looking forward to featuring some of these reflections here at Persephone. To request consideration to contribute to this series, please comment here or at the original post.

“”¦you think these people are normal. Well, they’re not. We’re not. I look in the library, I call up books on my desk. Old ones, because they won’t let us have anything new, but I’ve got a pretty good idea what children are, and we’re not children. Children can lose sometimes, and nobody cares. Children aren’t in armies, they aren’t commanders, they don’t rule over forty other kids, it’s more than anybody can take and not get crazy.”

– Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

I read Ender’s Game at, oh, probably around six or seven. I’ve since read it at least eight or 10 times, as well as its parallel-not-really-a-sequel Ender’s Shadow (which is both better and worse than this novel). It’s easily one of my favorite young adult sci-fi novels of all time. It’s also fairly disturbing, very sexist, quite racist, and full of messages I disagree with. And I still love it.

First, a plot summary: Ender Wiggin is the quiet, lonely military genius born specifically because his older brother was a brilliant but burgeoning sociopath, and his older sister was also brilliant, but a girl and therefore too gentle to be a military strategist (no, really. That’s the explanation). Ender, the rare third child in a society with population controls, is supposed to be the best of both worlds: brilliant without being vicious, nice without being soft. That he is probably just as troubled as his older brother, or that Ender’s problems are much worse specifically because he seems kinder, is a discussion I’m happy to have.

Ender is chosen to go to Battle School, an orbital space station where children are trained in military strategy and tactics, divided into “armies,” and made to compete in a zero-gravity “war room” game that is admittedly a lot of fun to read and would probably be a lot of fun to play (assuming you aren’t prone to motion sickness or vertigo). In short, they are turned into future soldiers in the war against the Buggers/Formics, the ant-like aliens who have invaded Earth twice and been only barely defeated. The children of Battle School are being trained in preparation for an expected third invasion. Well, sort of.

Because, see, it turns out that Ender is actually learning how to command the force that attacks the Bugger homeworld and destroys it, not the other way around. And he doesn’t know this, not until after it’s over. Nor does he know that the video game he plays during the last chunk of the novel – the one he’s been told is a training simulation – is actually the real interface for the real invasion that is really happening. The ships he lost contained real people. The planet he destroyed was a real planet.

There is more plot to the story, of course: Ender is incredibly isolated and lonely, he kills a bully in the showers in what was probably self defense, and he pulls a Frodo at the end, never healing from his experiences. Also, his siblings are creating political change on the Earth below him, using message boards and blogs as the vehicles for revolution, and there is political unrest, and Ender creates some social change of his own in Battle School by winning victory after victory and killing that kid in the showers, etc.

The characters in this series are, mostly, wonderful. Not all, but most. I love Bean, the very short (I hesitate to use “dwarf” because of Bean’s literal growth over the series) student who becomes Ender’s second-in-command. I love Petra, the only girl we meet at Battle School and the first one to “break” during the final battle – that these two facts are linked is, I think, inarguable. I love Valentine, Ender’s seemingly gentle sister, who is just as manipulative and cold-hearted as the alleged villains in the story. I even (sort of ) love Peter, who is no more or less frightening than Ender, but is more vocal and obvious about it.

As a kid, I loved the characters even more. I especially loved Alai, the North African student Ender befriends. I loved the science fiction aspects, the battle scenes, and the game. The game, by the way, is this amazing virtual reality sort of artificial intelligence RPG. There are some set obstacles or opponents to encounter, but much of it is extrapolated from the user’s mental state and records. That fascinated me as a child, and still does, really, even more so now that I know a little about game therapy.

Now though, as an adult, what I really love about it is that the story is basically talking about the ways that violence and strict control work together to result in children who are”¦ strange. And the ways that violence and lack of social support leads to irrevocably messed up children, and the ways society reacts to violence, and the ways adults sidestep responsibility by focusing not on the real children before them but on the “big picture” alleged greater good. That’s what strikes me now.

Because really, to me, that’s what the book is about. I still enjoy the battle scenes, and I love the way Ender plays the tablet-based VR game, which dramatizes his own internal struggles. I still like reading about a young, ostracized genius coming into his own. I still like the pacing, which (fair warning) a lot of people hate. But the heart of the book, for me, is the way that the children in the story act in ways children never really do. Having been raised in a culture built around answering the threat of alien violence, having been taught to strategize and lie and plan and fight in every given situation, having been forced to compete at war games as the only way to earn respect or fear, these kids are messed up.

And yes, Orson Scott Card is an epically off-putting person, and I disagree with him on almost any given political or religious issue. I squirm when he writes Petra and outright groan when I have to read his treatment of Rose da Nose or any of the Battle School students of color. I grit my teeth when Card justifies Ender’s behavior, when he excuses the actions of the adults in the situations – when he lets them make it worse because it will make Ender a better commander in the end. It hurts, and I hate it, and I cannot in good faith ignore those facets of the story.

That Ender is made a better commander at the expense of being a better child or friend or human being, I think, is the point. By exploiting children as military commanders, as soldiers, by removing them from their homes and families and putting them into Battle School, the adults in the situation have betrayed their trust. The adults are not helping these children develop into whole, functioning adults; they are sacrificing the future of these kids to kill aliens. That is not a coincidence, and while Card and I may disagree on the usefulness or wisdom or virtue of that trade-off, we both seem to see it as vital to the story.

Even Peter and Valentine, safe on Earth, are affected (or infected) by this strangely un-childlike culture. They use the Internet to write political essays; their brilliance attracts actual real-world change and attention. These moments used to bore me, as a child – I wanted Battle School and the game – but now I find so much hope and meaning in these interludes. Peter learns to funnel some of his megalomaniacal tendencies into political writing, and Valentine emerges from her brothers’ shadow as the genius she is. Their words make real, lasting change, for better or for worse.

As a child, the fantasy was that I would go to Battle School and kick some ass, beat the Buggers and save the world. As an adult, I want to change the world with words and emotions, with nonviolence and logic and kindness. As an adult, my hero is much more likely to be Valentine than Ender. My hero has changed, my reading has changed, but my love for the novel hasn’t, not really.

And that’s the point to these Origin Stories some friends and I will be writing in the coming weeks: looking at old favorites with fresh eyes, seeing how they shaped or changed us, understanding what made us love them then and what we love about them now, and working through the issues that have arisen with the work as we’ve become more aware of the world.

If you’d like to submit an Origin Story of your own, please leave a comment on this post! We’d love to have your voice.

By Sara

23, Oklahoma, happily married white cisgender woman. BS in Language Arts Education, working on my MLIS with a focus on teen services. I want to be Donna Noble and/or Minerva McGonagall when I grow up.

One reply on “Origin Stories: Ender’s Game”

Ender’s Game was my younger brother’s favorite book as a kid. He reread it every year and still gets excited to talk about it. I never picked it up — I’m a good bit older than he is and the cover art on the edition he had somehow made me convinced it was a children’s book. And then as I got older, I read and heard plenty of crap from Card himself. I am totally the type of person who dislikes supporting awful bigot with my money, so I never read it.

However, I finally read it as one of our book club selections last year and I was surprised at how much I liked the book, flaws and all. I totally got why so many people love the novel and identify with the characters. I don’t, however, have any desire to read the rest of the series.


On the other part of the post, titles for consideration, I’ve often thought about going back and rereading the Narnia books as an adult. Those were novels that I read repeatedly and voraciously as a child — and despite going to Catholic school, somehow managing to miss all the Christian allegory stuff until I read The Last Battle. (I can, in fact, see from where I’m sitting one of my complete collections of the novels given to me for Christmas when I was 12.) I’ve often also wanted to revisit The Hero and the Crown, which was another important book from me as a young, horse loving, odd little girl.

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