by Orson Scott Card
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Ender's Game began as a novelette, first published in the August 1977 issue of Analog. It was the first of Card's science fiction to be printed, and it was nominated for a Hugo the following year. The novel came eight years later, and it won both a Hugo and a Nebula, establishing Card as a major player in the genre. There are a few continuity and character differences between the shorter and longer works, but the novelette does include the major focus of the novel, the Battle School and Command School training of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin and other children. The action in the novelette comprises about the last quarter of the novel, so the book gives us a lot more background for the characters and the reason for their training.
Years before, Earth had been attacked by an alien force, and either by sheer luck, or maybe an extremely intelligent perception by one commander, Earth forces were successful in foiling the invasion. The time period varies in the two versions of the story (as well as in the new film), but it was approximately fifty years prior to Ender's story. In the intervening years, Earth's military has planned a counterstrike against the aliens, building a succession of starships and weapons for the assault on their homeworld. Card borrowed a technology from another author, Ursula Le Guin's ansible, a simultaneous communication device which will enable a commander in our solar system to direct the starship forces light years away when they arrive at the alien's home system.
Thus the military leaders are up against the clock, needing to find the best commander for the task by the time those ships arrive at their destination. There isn't an indication in either of the stories how long the Battle School has been in operation, but it is possible similar training was already used prior to the invasion, just greatly expanded for the future campaign. It had already been long established that children were more adept at the complex games systems in use, and over the years the recruits become younger and younger, both because some have diminished cognitive ablility as they age, as well as many burning out from the stress of the training. Children are monitored from infancy to determine those best suited to the training. Before Ender, his older brother Peter and his sister Valentine were in the running, but both were ruled out for what were perceived to be personality faults. Both were as intelligent as Ender, but Peter was too volatile and violent, perhaps even sociopathic, while Valentine was seen as too empathetic. The hope is that Ender will strike a balance between those extremes. He is only eight years old when he enters Battle School, and he is promoted quickly as he proves his abilities, and becomes the youngest ever to graduate to Command School. Colonel Graff, the head of Battle School, had personally picked Ender, and he feels Wiggin is not only their best prospect, but possibly their last and only hope. For if Ender fails to live up to the challenge, it is likely there will not be enough time to train anyone else to take his place.
There is a lot more to the novel than just Ender's training. The societal and governmental structure is well described, albeit with several dated elements. For instance, this was written before the end of the Cold War, before the Berlin Wall came down, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Most of the developed world is united in the League, while Russia and other Eastern European countries still operate under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact. While there is an uneasy alliance between the League and the Pact, they each maintain separate military forces, the League's headed by the Strategos, with the Polemarch in control of the WarPac's troops. There is an undercurrent of fear that if the alien menace is eliminated, that alliance will break down and there may be another world war. It would be a total spoiler to reveal how Peter and Valentine figure into that part of the narrative, but it is a story almost as interesting as Ender's ordeal.
Card's religious upbringing is evident in his depiction of the family unit, how strong bonds within the family (in this case between Ender and Valentine) can shape a person for good, as well as how a fault in the family structure can lead to stress, anxiety and anti-social behavior. Another highlight of the book is a look at how a society harms its citizens when the over-riding focus is on military might. Long before Suzanne Collins used The Hunger Games as a metaphor for how governments continually send their best and brightest young people to die in wars, Card showed us how such a single-minded purpose as hatred or revenge can strip a society of any of the freedoms it had attained in the past. It isn't really a spoiler if I reveal that Ender is not always a sympathetic character, in fact there are times you might feel guilty thinking he is a hero. In the end, even he does not think of himself as such, at least not until he makes a discovery that transforms him into a Speaker for the Dead.
I had not read this book since it first came out in paperback, shortly after its Hugo and Nebula wins. I liked it then, and still do. Card may hold some opinions with which I can't agree, but I do recognize him as a very good writer (at least when he doesn't allow his prejudices to show), in tune with the emotional core of what it means to be human. I won't say it was the best book of that year, because it did have quite a bit of excellent competition, but it will have to wait until I read or re-read the other nominees to decide where this one should reside in the history of the genre. I don't think it is even the best of the Ender series, but at this time I do give it my recommendation.
My review of Ender's Game, the movie.
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