Here is a brief spoiler-free synopsis. In the near future, humanity encounters a bug-like alien race, and they promptly go to war. Humanity is grossly outnumbered and is losing badly. A savior is needed, and one is found: a boy named Ender Wiggin. He is brilliant but too kind-hearted. If humanity is to survive, he must be molded into a soldier and a leader in the Battle School. There, he is denied a normal childhood and pushed to his physical and mental limits though a series of simulated war games. Ender finally reaches his breaking point and does something that he regrets for the rest of his life.
Now for my thoughts and analysis, which contains SPOILERS. If you intend to read the book at all (which I highly recommend), then skip the rest of this article.
Ender’s Game contains several interesting concepts, not all of which are new:
- “Goldilocks children” – Ender is the youngest of 3 kids. Peter, the oldest is brilliant but ruthless and too old to change. Valentine is also smart, but she is too kind. It is suggested that this partly is because she is a girl and protects Ender like a mother would (which some female readers might take issue with). Ender is just right: brilliant and kind but still mold-able.
- First contact and misunderstanding – The first contact between the “Buggers” and humans did not go well. This misunderstanding led to an all-out war that virtually annihilated a sentient species.
- Political debate – Peter and Valentine started writing articles under these pseudonyms to influence politics on Earth. Locke (Peter) argued for a strong expansion-minded government, advocating a war with Russia (remember, Ender’s Game was written in the 1980s). This later opened the door for him to become the Hegemon, Earth’s strong man. Demosthenes (Valentine) opposed him unsuccessfully, just as the real Demosthenes failed to stop Alexander the Great. It’s always nice to see some history and real-life commentary incorporated into fiction, and sci-fi often excels at doing this.
- Ethical dilemma – Are you guilty for “crimes” that you committed unknowingly? The American criminal justice system says “no.” To be guilty of a crime, you must have committed a guilty act with a guilty mind. Since Ender did not knowingly commit xenocide, he is not guilty of the crime, yet he feels terrible. In fact, he spends the rest of his life trying to make up for (the theme of the subsequent books of the Ender series).
The thing I like most about Ender’s Game is Ender himself. Sure, both the story and the Battle Room are cool, but without Ender, we would never have heard of this book. His experiences and feelings resonate with many gifted youngsters who know what it’s like to be different and bullied and ostracized for it.
One of my favorite parts of Ender’s Game isn’t even part of the story – it’s the Introduction. Orson Scott Card writes how one guidance counselor argued that gifted youth just “don’t talk or think that way.” But Card felt that Ender’s character was the truest part of the book, and his feeling was confirmed by numerous letters from young readers. To know that someone understood them and created a hero like them gave them hope and inspiration. To be able to reach his or her audience is a writer’s greatest reward.