I was a young teacher when I first noticed the boys running around my sixth grade classroom with Ender’s Game under their arms. I had recently seen commercials for a movie that seemed like every other young adult tale of the time, all action and little or no substance. I had determined then that at some point I would read it and find out what all the hype was about. When I finally picked up Ender’s Game and read it earlier this month, I was struck by how inappropriate it was that my sixth graders had been reading this book; it is violent with foul language and racial slurs. As I continued to read, however, I was soon pulled in by the gritty writing style, the intricately written characters, and the unique plot. As an adult, I enjoyed the book well enough to justify reading the remaining three books of Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse series, and for the sake of this review I am glad I did. The first book of the series is very different from the books that follow it. Ender’s Game has virtues and vices that are distinct from those of the other three books in the series, and parents should consider their suitability separately.
The stark contrast between Ender’s Game and the later books of the series is a result of how the the series came to be written. This series is really several separate writing projects that Card crafted into one larger tale. Card wished above all to publish his central project, The Speaker for the Dead (1985), but he felt that the protagonist, the speaker, had not been given an adequate backstory. Card had already written Ender’s Game as a standalone short story in 1977. He decided to find a way to write Ender as the the boy that would one day become the speaker for the dead. This process of grafting the multiple stories together disrupts the consistency of the development of the protagonist’s character. The Ender we come to know in Ender’s Game seems very different from the one that appears in the remaining books of the series. Many of the hidden shortcomings of the later Ender are not apparent in the younger. For this reason, Ender’s Game can be read as a standalone work by a young, but not too young, audience without significant fear of distorting their overall understanding. The violence and vulgarity aside, it is a simple tale about a boy struggling to preserve his mind and soul in a dark and desperate future. The ray of light in a largely dark tale is that Ender keeps his heart relatively pure, even though he is manipulated into doing despicable things by despicable men.
Book One: Ender’s Game
Ender’s Game is set in a far future version of earth. The various nations are deeply shaken by the memory of a recent alien invasion that humanity was only barely able to repel. As a result, the global preoccupation is with preparations for the imminent return of the alien invaders, commonly called buggers. The hopes of humanity are vested in the training of battle strategists that can command the united earth space fleet with sufficient brilliance to again repel the alien invaders. Children with promising traits are recruited by age six to live a life devoted to preparation for service in the new military. While many good candidates are found in the general populace, the overall commander of the fleets intended to save earth has to be exceptional.
Ender Wiggin was not simply discovered as an ideal candidate for supreme command; he was born for the task. When his two older siblings came close to being ideal candidates, the U.S. government requested that his parents have another child in hopes that it would be a superior combination of the two older siblings. Children born in excess of the first two in a given earth family are treated as social pariah because they are considered to be an unpatriotic waste of limited global resources. Ender was therefore born an outcast, and his unique destiny establishes an exceptionalism and isolation that nearly breaks him at various points in the story. He is never intended to live the normal life of a boy; his conception and birth were only permitted in hopes that he would grow to be a perfect machine of the state. While Ender is given a choice whether to assume the role that he has been born for, he is forced into making the decision when he is only six years old with only minutes to consider the consequences. The cruelty of Ender’s older brother and the tensions inherent in his being a third born child make life on earth so intolerable for Ender that he opts to leave his family altogether and live a life of pain and loss for the sake of humanity’s survival. He is candidly told that the hopes of humanity may well rest on him alone.
The story has two major plot paths. The majority of the book is occupied with Ender’s struggles in the military schools. For the survival of humanity, Ender is engaged in various war games designed to push him to his mental and physical limits. They succeed in making Ender a hardened mechanistic genius of strategy. His struggle to preserve his soul while being compelled to live a life in pursuit of perfectly coordinated violence, constitutes the meaning of Ender’s early life. His fellow students in the military schools are brilliant, ruthless and self interested. Violence, vulgarity and self-interested manipulation of the system and each other are the required skill set that the students are constantly refining. In this machiavellian playground, Ender finds a core of students who are wise and good enough to preserve their humanity, though he is never permitted to fully enjoy an intimate bond with any person or group for long.
The other plot path follows the accomplishments of Ender’s equally gifted siblings, Valentine and Peter. Peter is the oldest sibling. He was the first hope for a supreme commander of the human fleet, but his violent and sadistic nature make him an unsuitable candidate. His rejection makes him all the more unhinged, and the chief occupation of his young life is with torturing Ender, who still has a chance to become what he once hoped to be. The sister, Valentine, was also rejected as a candidate for supreme command, but for the reason that she was too sympathetic and nurturing. Valentine is primarily occupied with protecting Ender from Peter. After Ender departs for military school, Peter and Valentine surprisingly become a team, using their collective genius to manipulate earth’s politics by writing articles online. They set themselves to changing the path of earth’s political landscape, while in the far reaches of space Ender struggles in hopes of preserving the very existence of the human race. This single set of genius siblings will alter the course of all human and all alien life. Powerful youth characters is intoxicating to young readers who have most of their lives dictated to them.
Watching Ender progress through the various phases of the war school, each time becoming a more impressive and self-possessed version of himself is satisfying. Each time he must dig into his inmost reaches and find new meaning and new strength. Necessity and the gifts of nature make Ender more brilliant and jaded than the most senior of generals. His character is simultaneously awesome and awful to witness. The path of the siblings Valentine and Peter is equally engaging. They are only ten and twelve years old when they begin, by brilliant manipulation of internet propaganda, to reshape political dialogue, and set the path that earth will take when the threat of alien invasion has passed.
The story climaxes with an early and forced confrontation with the bugger invaders. Ender acts with desperate abandon to preserve some semblance of his humanity, but his actions will have greater consequence for him and the whole human race than he could have imagined.
The two significant elements that parents ought to consider before giving this to young children are the violence and the language. For the violence, I usually distinguish between “rambo-esque gun capades” with walls of foes falling on the horizon and realistic, grotesque violence. To read about a soldier killing an enemy combatant in war is one thing; it is quite another to be read a long drawn out scene in which a ten-year-old boy steps on the groin of his six-year-old brother while promising to violently murder him and his sister. Just such a confrontation happens within the first few pages of the book, and just prior to this gruesome scene, Ender, only six years old, kicks a bully to death after school. This act seems like self defense, but just prior to the act, Ender thinks to himself that his intention in the fight to come is to go farther than he has to in confronting the bullies to ensure that they never threaten him again. The book does not condone these actions. In fact, it sets them up as the worst form of abuse Ender is made to endure, but they are too dark and gruesome for some young readers.
The early fight scenes also highlight the emotional and spiritual violence that permeates this book. The adults who are engineering Ender watch and permit these scenes of violence to play out because they believe them to be part of Ender’s training. Throughout the tale, adult figures are seen sacrificing the good of individuals, mostly children, for the sake of being prepared to face the threat of invasion. The commander in charge of training Ender, Anderson, is aware that he has willfully manipulated and distorted Ender’s mind and soul in order that he might better serve the cause of humanity. While Anderson shows some pain and disquiet at what he is doing to Ender, he makes it very clear that he believes that his evil acts are justified by the greater goods that will result from it. Anderson as a character is the personification of the false principle that ends can justify means. Again, the book does not endorse this principle, quite the opposite, but parents should consider what age would be appropriate for their child to read this book and tangle with these questions.
Orson Scott Card is a mormon, and particularly in the later books of the series it is easily perceived that religion and theological truths are of central importance to him. While no particular religion is lauded in Ender’s Game, religiosity is given a nod in the relationship between Ender and another boy in the military school named Elias. Ender’s parents are Catholic and Elias is a Muslim. The military school is an areligious space, and faith is never discussed or shared by the students as a rule. The war games and the self-interested micropolitics that surround them are the practical religion that dominate daily routines and form the “moral” character of most students. Elias and Ender form an authentic bond of friendship based on selfless consideration of the other’s good. When Anderson separates them, the boys seek to find words or actions which can impress upon the other the conviction that their bond is greater than their separation, that some understanding of good unites them in opposition to the inhumanity that surrounds them. Ender is at a loss, but Elias solemnly whispers “Salaam” to Ender. Salaam is an abbreviation of the phrase salam ‘alaikun, which means “peace be upon you” in Arabic. Elias, a muslim, is invoking God’s peace upon Ender. Ender does not know the meaning of this phrase, but he senses that it is sacred, that Elias has seen fit to trust him with the knowledge that he is a man of faith, even at the risk of opening himself up to ridicule and disrepute. Elias’s hidden faith is the treasure that supports and sustains him in a dark world. The gesture moves Ender profoundly, and recalls Ender to his own roots, remembering his mother praying over him in secret as he slept.
Ender’s loose conviction that somehow faith is the only real anchor in this world seems an expression of Card’s own attitude towards organized religion. All of the books in the Enderverse series have characters with profound religious convictions that result in actions and conflicts that do not manifest a clear opinion on the credibility of any one set of beliefs or philosophical principles. Religiosity is considered a sufficient virtue in itself that has no need to be grounded in a particular religion or set of beliefs. This vague spirituality should be presented to readers as misguided and debilitating. In a wretched place like the military school, this amorphous spirituality might be presented as a substantial improvement, but the bar should be set higher for an audience which lives in a free society where considerable time can and should be spent coming to know the particular virtues and deficiencies of various belief systems. Many novels have fallen into this trap while trying to avoid controversy.
All in all, this book has an energy and passionate intensity that endears itself to a wide audience, despite the violence, vulgarity and racial slurs. It is grand and meticulously constructed, with dialogue that is satisfying to anyone who understands man and his journey as the homo viator. I recommend this book for a mature youth audience between the ages of 14 and 17 depending on intellectual maturity. The remaining books of the series are likely to be appealing to an older and more mature audience and they should be reviewed in more detail before they are handed to a younger audience.
The movie is disappointing. To be fair, capturing a story like Ender’s Game is no easy task. The movie focuses on the theme of whether the ends can justify the means. It presents this theme adequately in the real tension characters feel about using children for military purposes, but all of the characters have been made into such generic stereotypes that it reduces the impact of the theme and the joy of the experience. The most problematic character change is in Ender. The challenges that Ender faces and the faculties that he faces them with are too much those of a typical fourteen year old boy. He must confront bullies, deal with mean authority figures, and navigate something like a romance (not at all part of the book). As a result, the depiction of Ender feels very one dimensional. Neither Ender nor his accomplishments seem larger than life as they do in the book. He is not isolated, but surrounded by a core of friends from very early on. He is no longer David confronting Goliath. In fact, he is a full head taller than his greatest nemesis at the military school. The movie cuts out the Peter and Valentine plot entirely, which is understandable, but debilitating to the richness of the tale. The character of Commander Anderson was also re-written so vanilla that even Harrison Ford could barely make him interesting. I give the movie a two out of five stars. The violence in the movie would make it only appropriate for children older than fifteen. In short, the movie is safe enough, but pointless.
- Is Anderson justified in what he does to Ender to preserve the earth? Can the ends (saving earth) justify the means (intentionally distorting and deceiving Ender)?
- Ender intentionally harms his opponents more than he has to at two points in the book in order to ensure that they never have the strength to threaten him again. Is this morally acceptable? Is that a healthy thought process for an individual to have? Is that a healthy thought process for a leader of a country to have when dealing with an aggressive neighbor?
- Many characters in this book lie to bring about a good result. Is it acceptable to lie in certain circumstances? If so, when and in what circumstances? Does it matter who tells the lie and to whom they tell it? Does it matter what information is being requested and by whom? Is silence ever a better or the only option when asked certain questions?
- Is holding back the truth the same thing as telling a lie? Is it ever justified?
- Should the government of a country have the power to restrict the number of births that are allowed to families if there is not enough food to sustain an indefinite number of children? Should they have the power to set a tax penalty on families that are larger because they will consume more food and domestic product?
- What would you do if you were asked to destroy an entire alien race with the press of a button? Would it make a difference if they had the ability to think and make choices like we humans have?