Friday, April 09, 2010

Book Review: Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


Before I read Ender’s Game for the first time, I had heard a lot of hype from others about how life-changing this book was for them. It didn’t live up to the lofty expectations that the hype had set up and I was disappointed.

I read it again recently, though, and this second time I think I was able to appreciate the book much better for what it is.

The story is set in the future, when we on Earth are nearing the end of an 80-year break in an interstellar war against another species, the Buggers. The Buggers’ original two invasions were brutal and all of humanity is united in preparing to defend Earth against the expected Third Invasion. Governments have begun genetically engineering children to be soldiers in the coming war; they run them through a series of tests when they are little to see if they will be good candidates for Battle School (when they are elementary-school age) and then Command School (when they are teenagers). In school, they run the children through battle simulation after battle simulation, teaching them how to fight and kill.

The main character in the book is Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a six-year old military genius (who is good at many other things as well). He is lonely at Battle School, ostracized and sometimes hated by many of the older students who are threatened by his skill. They do everything from not eating with him at meals to trying to kill him in the hallways. But he is so good that he still rises rapidly through the ranks at Battle School, leading first small groups and then whole battalions of his fellow students, entering Command School several years early.

Ender enjoys what he does. He is creative and adaptable. He learns his opponents’ patterns quickly and exploits them. The problem is that he doesn’t like to kill. And the more successful he becomes, the more agonized he gets inside about what he is doing. He knows he is being used as a tool and it makes him miserable.

What he doesn’t realize until it is too late is that the humans don’t just want to defend themselves against a Third Invasion – they want to completely annihilate the Buggers and their home world. And that at some point, the battles he is fighting have changed from simulations to real encounters with the enemy that he is commanding by remote control.

He does, finally, lead the human forces to victory over the Buggers, with huge loss of life. When he finds out what he has done he goes through a profound breakdown and decides to completely redirect his life and honor the memory of those he has killed.

It is a very good story and Ender is a very likeable character. I definitely identified with his loneliness and I liked the way he was always able to think his way into succeeding against huge odds. I just had a couple problems with the book.

One was that the ending seemed too abrupt. It was very quick. I guess I thought that Ender would eventually be on the actual battlefield himself, or that we would actually meet a Bugger, and when neither of those things happened, it was a bit unsatisfying.

The other was the more minor story of what was going on back home while Ender was at school. Ender’s brother Peter and sister Valentine are geniuses in their own rights, but Peter was too aggressive and Valentine too pacifistic to make good military leaders. Left out, they begin writing columns and editorials in global political nets, widening divisions between political factions (mainly between America and Russia). I didn’t really get into their story as I did Ender’s.

After reading Ender’s Game, I read the sequel, Speaker for the Dead. I just loved it. It was moving and complex and I enjoyed seeing what Ender had become as an adult, after he had turned away from the military. Later I read that Orson Scott Card originally meant both stories to be in the same book, but that when he got into it, he realized that it was too much and he should split off what was then just a backstory about Ender’s youth into its own book, which would then be a set up for Speaker. If that is indeed what he intended, it totally worked for me.


Eve's Apple said...

I remember the first time I heard about Ender's Game. I was in NYC visiting a friend. We were on the subway, and she said, I'm sorry, I can't talk to you right now, I have to finish Ender's Game. OK, must be some great book, I thought. When we transferred trains and were sitting on a bench, a stranger struck up a conversation with us about it (well, with me, cuz she was still reading). So of course the minute she finished I had to start reading it. I went back to Boston, and she mailed me each sequel as soon as she finished, except Children of the Mind, which I had to buy cuz she wasn't reading fast enough. Very addictive!

Kathy O. said...

Thanks for the review. Very perceptive, as always. I just read Ender's Game, which I've heard about for years. Based on your advice, I will read Speaker for the Dead, particularly because I thought Ender's Game was just starting to warm up near the end. The one problem I had was the ages of the kids. After years working in an elementary school, I found the kids in the book sounded too old, even for bright six through ten year olds.

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