There is an exception to every rule. I hate the sci-fi genre. I hate dystopian novels. I have no use for alien races or novels with outdated-yet-futuristic cyber graphics on the cover. Except, naturally, for one. Orson Scott Card’s novel, and frankly the entire series that it spawned, Ender’s Game, proved in both the year of my birth and now 25 years later, that it will forever surpass all boundaries.
For example, while searching for a copy of the novel in a book store you’ll find it in the Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult and Popular Fiction sections. It’s often required reading in high school and is also on the U.S. Marine Corp Professional Reading list at all levels. It can be found on both the Modern Library “100 Best Novels” and the American Library Association’s “100 Best Books for Teens,” and can boast of winning both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel in 1986. For people who know Sci-Fi, those are mighty prestigious awards.
Yet looking outside of awards and lists, Ender’s Game is one of those novels that can be something completely different to each person who reads it, and even to the same person who reads it at different times. I first read it when I was a senior in high school under the recommendation of a friend. I’ve since read it every year thereafter, and not once have I taken the same message from it twice. At each new age and place I am in my life I read it entirely differently.
At first glace, it’s easy to see how Ender’s Game could be a young adult book – the main character never ages past his early teens. It begins with a six year old Andrew “Ender” Wiggins, the third child in a world that rarely sees more than a two child household. His parents, who are quietly brilliant in their own way, had two older children, one far too cruel, and one far too kind. The government commissioned the Wiggins to have a third; a child small for his age, terrified of his brother, and ostracized for being incredibly brilliant. It was for this reason that the government chose him to attend Battle School, an elite school designated to train children from a very early age for combat in the next Formic War.
The Formics are an alien race, nicknamed “Buggers” by most people, who attacked Earth. Barely able to defeat them once decades earlier, the world’s governments united as one under the Hegemony on Earth and the overarching space military, the International Fleet. The common enemy and fear of oblivion did what no man could accomplish, and because of that the power the IF maintains is vast and all encompassing. The Battle School is seen as the only hope for mankind, and by having a trained army at the ready, the Earth will be able to protect itself from the inevitable next invasion of the Buggers. At this macro level, this novel seems highly futuristic and sci-fi, but rest assured, I wouldn’t have kept reading it if this was all there was to it. The alien invasion and the IF are plot devices, but moreover they are symbolic of a novel written during the Cold War when the detente between the Soviet Union and the United States led many to believe the oblivion of man was not only possible, but at times inevitable. The Hegemony parallels the limited enforcement capabilities of the United Nations in a rather ingenuius way. Ender’s brother and sister become anonymous web demagogues, taking the names of famous theorists, Demosthenes and Locke, to shape the politics of the world. Honestly, this series takes a lot of the responsibility for me majoring in International Relations and Political Philosophy – it was quite literally life shaping.
The heart of the novel though, is not its setting or its background politics, it’s the character of Ender. He’s taken into space to Battle School, isolated instantly and deliberately targeted by Commander Graff as the smartest, and therefore least liked kid in school. He is taught to be distant from everyone around him and forced into horrific situations by bullies that taught him that it’s never enough to stop an enemy temporarily – they must be put down permanently. What is most remarkable about Ender, though, is that he is created to destroy, but it is only through his all encompassing ability to love that he is able to do it. The phrase, “Love thine enemy” is taken quite literally; first an overgrown six year old bully on earth, then a teenage wannabe commander in Battle School, to ultimately the Bugger Queen, in succession Ender’s relations with each shape who he becomes as a person. Ender, the child created because his sister is too kind and his brother too cruel is the Wiggin that learns his enemy until he loves them and is finally the one to kill them.
The book has serious Machiavellian overtones ala Cesare Borgia – do absolutely anything to put down the enemy and the end always justify the means when it comes to survival. Ender is a tool of the government, of Battle School, of his peers, and of humanity. He was created for the purpose to destroy and yet is never once told that’s what he’s doing. He’s not informed that he’s killed two children (he thinks he hurt them) and when he kills the Buggers it’s done in a simulation of a final exam. It’s only afterward, when his life’s work has been completed and he’s being heralded as a hero that someone clues him into what he’s done. He’s committed xenocide, taking out an entire race of sentient creatures all before he’d normally graduate high school. It destroys him and effectively separates him from humanity for the rest of his life. It’s a powerful and gripping look at human nature as a whole, sociology, psychology, warfare and child development.
As a young adult, this novel reads as a great adventure; how one kid saves the world. In college it’s a genius portrayal of all those classes you’re sitting through – history, politics, philosophy, physics, psychology, etc, applied into a novel without you realizing it. Now as an alleged adult, I read it and it breaks my heart what’s done to this child – and I see the strength and the power of his character – both entirely naive and yet naturally cynical, and I want to protect him. I’m compelled to give him the childhood that was stolen and allow someone who is naturally benevolent the ability to grow up without knowing what it means to kill. Most of all though, at every age, through a novel about space aliens and warfare, from a character who becomes entirely disconnected from mankind, I learned about humanity and the strength of man.
For these reasons I chose this novel as my Flashback Friday choice. It shaped me as a person and how I’ve learned to see the world and others and it has never once made me stop thinking. The sproceeding novels, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind and Ender in Exile are far more oriented toward adults, particularly delve into politics and philosophy. The secondary series, tells the story of Bean, a member of Ender’s jeesh (Battle School Army) who is far more coldly calculating and who after the war returns to Earth to be apart of a world now at war with itself in Ender’s Shadow. I cannot recommend them enough, and I hope they come to mean as much to you as they do to me.
Comment below and tell me about your favorite sci-fi novels or if you’ve read the Ender series!