This was a book I avoided as a kid for yet another stupid reason—because it had to do with superkids fighting a war. In my defense, I was a child of the 1980s, and as such had every reason to think that this was not a winning combination. I became conditioned to think that anything pandering to kids but trying to also be a serious adventure was the kiss of death.
And that was my first mistake, assuming the book was meant for kids. It’s not.
Ender’s Game is a military science fiction novel with a twist. Well, several twists, really. The first of which comes right out of the gate: the superkids I mentioned. From the get-go it’s made clear that this is about forging leaders, not front line soldiers. The government keeps tabs on potential geniuses to recruit, and Ender ends up being one of chosen. In fact, those in charge have very specific hopes for young Ender because…
…oh, screw subtlety. Ender’s Game is Harry Potter in Spaaaaace.
No, wait, stop throwing tomatoes! Hear me out!
A young boy growing up in a toxic family environment is taken away to a special school because he is the Chosen One (substitute prophecy with science). There he makes some friends, but some very specific kids are willing to go to great lengths to put him in his place. The schoolmaster who likes him is limited in what help he can provide (and knows full well of the hardships he’s going to eventually face). By the end, it leads to a climactic war whose victory hinges both on force of arms and an unforeseen twist tied to the dynamic that exists between the boy and the Enemy.
Don’t get me wrong, you can bullet point the plot of a number of movies or novels to make them sound like another. This is not a point-for-point comparison I’m making. I just found the general arc similarity surprising, is all. And I’m not the only one; the New York Times once said that summarizing the plot made it sound like a “grade Z, made-for-television, science-fiction rip-off movie.” But they also admit that it rises above that.
Unlike the Harry Potter series, Ender’s Game is one novel, not seven. And while young adults could read it easily enough, it was not written with kids in mind. Hell, even the kids in the book go out of their way to point out just now much they’re not like kids. Not as a way to cover up poor writing, but to point out how gifted kids can be forced to grow up too fast and have burdens and obligations placed on them that “normal” kids do not. These are kids who, from the age of six or so, are taken away from their families and can’t see them again for years. They are intentionally cut off so they can focus on their training.
The morality of this novel is a very, very gray one at times. And at others it is black and white. But it’s the necessities mandated by that black and white realities that create the gray.
On the one hand, we’re expected to accept what these kids are put through because of the greater threat looming over everyone. You’re asked to debate “ends justifying the means” morality. Not just regarding the school, either, or how Ender is treated, but the war itself. By the end, this questioning is heightened even further, as are the methods that are used to achieve their goals.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the novel for me doesn’t even have to do with Ender. You see, Ender has two siblings who are also geniuses, but both were denied training in the school for different reasons. Ender’s sister, Valentine, has too much empathy, while his brother, Peter, is a frickin’ sociopath. But in a couple of key chapters we learn that they’re not idle while Ender is away. Far from it. And what they end up doing is such a spot on reflection of modern day social media manipulation it’s downright frightening in its prescience.
There are critics who have said that the book is meant to rationalize people like Hitler, while others point out the lengths the novel goes to in order to keep Ender “morally clean” and criticize how nothing is ever his fault. Some see it as an attempt to justify historic western colonization and genocide.
At the same time, the US Marine Corps has had the novel on the Marine Corps Reading List since its inception, because it “provid[es] useful allegories to explain why militaries do what they do in a particularly effective shorthand way” and that it offers “lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics as well.”
My take is that there is something to all these views (except the Hitler analogy… that’s just nuts). And I think that’s the hallmark of a good novel, when you take something complex and present it in such a way that multiple interpretations can be made from the same material.
While I highly recommend the book itself, my feelings on the author are another matter. I am familiar with the controversy surrounding him, and so I bought a used copy of the novel, rather than a new one. Feel free to do the same.