As I have intimated in past posts, I’ve never been a huge supernatural fantasy fan. I like the genre, but the Sci-Fi nerd in me always chafed when somehow magic and science get lumped into one category as if because you dig one, you must naturally love the other. So I’m always delighted to see when a true science fiction story comes along to meet my RI&SI format.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Originally published in 1985 with revisions in 1991.
Ender’s Game, Lionsgate. Release Date, November 1, 2013.
10 and up. While this book begins with the main character at six-years-old, it is by no mean a story for children. Indeed, it is very much a story about what happens when children have their childhood taken from them. While not as brutal, there is a lot of Lord of the Flies in this book. So think about that as you consider whether it’s appropriate for your child. On the other hand, there are a LOT of themes of feeling alone, bullied, different, and the struggles of a young mind to adapt to a grown-up world that are very prescient for kids. So by no means is it just a book for grown-ups. I am encouraging my 11-year-old to read it.
Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes. This is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book. Serious nerd cred right there.
I read mine on my iPhone and I know it’s available on Google Books as well. If you’re picking it up in hard copy, I’d suggest making sure it’s the new 20th anniversary version, as Card’s new introduction has some interesting insights on both his creation and reaction to the book that’s worth reading (though frankly, better read after reading the book).
Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t supposed to exist. On an overcrowded planet where population is strictly controlled, even second children are almost unheard of. But as the commanders of the International Fleet (IF) search for the genius who can help them save the Earth from an insectoid alien race known pejoratively as “buggers” the Wiggin family are given permission to have a “third.”
Their first child, Peter, was absolutely brilliant, but certifiably sociopathic. The second, Valentine, was perhaps even smarter, but she was too sensitive in the mind of the IF to be a capable leader. And so Ender was tracked since his government-sanctioned birth (literally, as they implanted a camera in his neck) with the hopes of his being the right cocktail of the first two. After beating back a group of bullies in his school, Commander Hyrum Graff decides that, at the ripe old age of six, this child is the one he’s been looking for. Ender is commanded to leave his family, and the Earth itself, and train to become part of the International Fleet.
Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.
Once separated from his family, Graff has only one mission: shape this boy into a leader brilliant enough to defeat a bugger onslaught that may well be even worse than what legendary commander Mazer Rackham was barely able to defend against decades ago. In addition to learning how to deal with the zero gravity battle room like all other students, Ender is forced to face isolation, depravation, and peer menacing all carefully orchestrated against him. His only escape is into an immersive computer fantasy game, which, of course, is yet another test.
Ender succeeds, but at a tremendous cost to his soul. And when he is promoted to command school even before his twelfth birthday, the doubts about what he has done begin to overwhelm him. That is when Mazer Rackham himself comes to begin a new game, one where the stakes may well be more than Ender could ever have imagined.
Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
There is a LOT to chew on in this book, despite its straight-forward narrative style. At its heart, however, this story is about the benefits and burdens of being gifted. It is about the curse of high expectations, and the cognitive disconnect that adults have, or will even force themselves to have, between intelligence and emotional maturity.
As I noted, the prose is written functionally, which Card says was intentional as he wanted this to be a book that wasn’t artistic or impenetrable, but a morality play that children can also access. In that, he doesn’t present as gripping or fantastic a story of the formation of brilliance as a somewhat similar tale, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. For while both the stories heavily involve the relationship between a child and a fantasy computer game for learning and development, Stephenson’s plot is far more delicately pieced together, while Card is pretty much using a sledgehammer to make his points. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a YA book, but I can understand why it might frustrate older readers.
Without doubt, Ender’s experiences in battle school are the highlight of the book. Card sets things up well so you pull for the kid from very early in the story, and slyly allows you to condone the violence he does, only to make both you and Ender reconsider that position. I also very much liked the very vague understanding of “the buggers” that everyone had. The fact that no one really knew what they were really like, even after two wars, so they were preparing to fight an enemy they really didn’t understand, was an outstanding and thought-provoking concept.
The sections where Card decides to take a break from Ender and focus on his siblings back on Earth felt odd and unnecessary to me. I understand that they are supposed to be deeper explorations into the minds of brilliant children, but I didn’t see a lot of additional insight or, alternatively, a solid device to drive the plot forward. Indeed I found myself very much desiring to return to Ender during those chapters.
And when we do return, and Ender goes to command school, the book returns to its strength, and reveals its most major and interesting point about the morality of war. Questions about whether preemptive war is right, whether genocide is ever justified, and what it truly takes to lead are all explored in a very engaging and challenging way.
Don’t do it, Steven! Just fade to back!
My only major issue with this book, actually, is with what I call the “Spielberg Effect.” For from AI to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg just can’t seem to help but tack on an ending to make sure that you absolutely knew what the point of the movie was, leaving the viewer no room to be a participant in his creation. This is actually something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve written my own book; trying to ensure the dénouement doesn’t strangle the reader’s own interpretation of what transpired.
I feel that, most unfortunately, Card does exactly that. He decides that we absolutely MUST know the true feelings and emotions behind the buggers and give Ender some emotional closure. If that had been the central point of the book, that would have been fine. But it was not, and by forcing each loose end into a square knot, Card took away a number of the lingering questions and doubts about what Ender had done that turned it from a thoughtful morality play into something that felt more sadly apologist. This really squelched my ability to intellectually interact with the story; something, ironically, the author stresses he wants from the reader at the end of his new introduction.
So in all, a worthwhile read, though the ending almost made me revisit that conclusion.
Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Opportunities for Discussion
As I’ve already noted, this book is filled-to-the-gills with interesting discussion opportunities for parents and kids. Here’s a smattering of ones that I’ve come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with more:
The Curse of the Special Child: Once a child has been designated as gifted, are there responsibilities that come along with that? What is the balance between maximizing a child’s gift and ensuring that child has the right to a childhood? How can and should adults push children to ensure that their talents come to the fore?
The Needs of the Many… Ender is forced into his situation because of the perceived imminent threat of another bugger invasion (which is not exactly what it seems). At what point are we allowed to use or endanger others, especially innocents, when a “greater good” is on the line. This is a debate we are certainly having right now as regards issues such as drone strikes that have civilian casualties.
And do the Ends Justify the Means? This particular question is asked in two different ways in the book. The first is in the use of Ender—to do whatever it takes to form him into the kind of leader humanity needs at its darkest hour. But then, the question is raised as to whether this is truly humanity’s darkest hour, which lends real complexity to the story, and the potential discussion. It provides geopolitical, parenting, and playground jungle possibilities for talking about whether fighting to prevent a fight is ever justified.
Can’t go wrong with a Horta!
Ender Hears a Horta: There is very much an underlying theme here about assuming an adversary is an enemy. It is very similar to one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark. While in many ways I actually feel like this part of the plot actually took away from the quality of the overall book, it is very present and well worth discussing.
Is Humanity a Weakness? As Ender is “toughened up” his trainers chip away at his aversion and guilt toward violence. Is building this kind of thick skin something that everyone should do? What secondary ramifications of building up scar tissue toward the inhumanity of violence? What can that do to your perception of such positive human traits as love and compassion?
Violence in Video Games: This is the low-hanging fruit of the book, but is an interesting discussion to have with kids, especially if they dig Call of Duty or some of the other hyper-violent games. Should video games be used to acculturate kids to adult realities? Does it desensitize? How can video games be used to help or to hurt kids?
Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars
What to Expect from the Movie
Looks like they’re aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.
My understanding is that Card has been heavily involved with the film project, including writing the screenplay. Star Trek (2009) scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are producing, and Rendition and X Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood is at the helm.
The book in many was feels made for the screen, as it’s “kid against the world for the fate of civilization” is simple enough to be translated without many tough editing choices to the screen, I’d think. And with Harrison Ford and Ben Kinglsey in the two adult male lead roles, one can see that there is some Hollywood gravitas behind the project.
I have to say, however, that the studio synopsis doesn’t make me overly excited:
In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his school to join the elite.
Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.
The description makes it feel more like “Young Starship Troopers” rather than “Searching for Bobby Fisher…in Space” which is the spirit of the book at its best (though I admit, Lionsgate marketing probably doesn’t see the latter as particularly effective). I’d guess given Card’s involvement, however, is that the underlying themes will remain intact. Of course, I would love to see them fiddle with the ending, but Card’s involvement would likely mitigate against that as much as it would to help save what made the book effective.
Next in this series: Back to the “Spook”-y magic stuff.