The book is set an indeterminate length of time in the future, when humans have begun to venture into space but have not yet spread as in, say, Star Trek. They also haven’t met any aliens as nice as the Vulcans–instead, they’ve met the buggers, a race of bug-like aliens who attacked the Earth 80 years before Ender’s Game opens. The International Fleet has been preparing for a renewed war ever since, sending ships to the buggers’ homeworld that are just now getting close to arriving. With war expected within the next several years, the IF is looking for a supreme commander to direct their forces. And they find Ender, a six year old boy with enormous potential.
They ship Ender off to battle school, held in a space station, where Ender and the other children are meant to learn to be soldiers. Their chief focus is the Game, a sort of combination Capture the Flag/Freeze-tag/Paintball held in zero-gravity. The book follows Ender’s very, very swift rise, heading towards the new war with the buggers.
First, this was an extremely engaging book. Between the outside threat to add tension and the exploration of how the school works, and how life in the space station works, it stays interesting throughout. Even the discussions about movement in zero-gravity were fascinating. It’s a very grim, even harsh story, but it also has a momentum and an urgency that keeps pushing the book forward.
Ender is an excellent character, very conflicted and complicated. I think he’s basically a good person, but he’s terrified by the darkness inside of him. And that darkness does push him to lengths that are sometimes alarming and disturbing. Ender is a good character in almost every way–except that he doesn’t feel like a child. And that brings me to my issues with the book.
Let me start with a different though related issue. The book requires an enormous suspension of disbelief in its primary premise: namely, that the IF is so intent on training up Ender to be their commander. It reads almost like a story about a prophesized Chosen One, except there’s no prophecy and it’s solely based on their assessment of his abilities. And fine, perhaps he’s extraordinary–but they need a commander now. I don’t want to give spoilers, but suffice to say that the ultimate fight with the buggers happens years before Ender reaches adulthood. The IF has been planning this war for 80 years, and now at the crucial moment they want to make a child their supreme commander? That seems, um, unlikely.
But maybe they know what they’re doing, because, as I said, Ender does not much resemble a child. It’s not just him, either, it’s all the children at the battle school. Officially they’re seven or nine or ten, but they behave as though they’re in their late teens at least. Which leads me to wonder why Orson Scott Card made them so young to begin with. It’s not a young adult book, so they didn’t have to be that young. Perhaps it was for shock value, or a comment on child soldiers, or to emphasize their manipulation by the IF. Those are perfectly good reasons and the book has some elements of that–but it all has much less resonance when Ender doesn’t feel seven.
I’m reminded of two other books that have parallel elements but actually handled this issue better. In The Hunger Games, Katniss feels like a teenager. Rue, another girl in the games, feels twelve. They’re intelligent, strong, capable, sometimes almost ruthless, thrown into situations no child (or anyone, for that matter) should be in, but they feel like young people dealing with a grown-up situation. I also just read a Star Wars book (more on that in another post) which had a major focus on Leia and Han’s daughter, Jaina, who’s five and has been kidnapped. Again–brave, capable, probably genius-level intelligence, but she still seems five. She gets scared, she wants her mother, and when she is reunited with Leia, Jaina tells her about the kidnappers but also tells her that she lost her loose tooth. If Ender ever loses a tooth, it’s not mentioned.
I also question the battle school’s methods. They are harsh, and intended to isolate Ender and keep him from depending on anyone. I don’t see that as a way to make a good soldier, let alone a commander–or a person. He’s essentially taught not to trust anyone in authority. And how can a child who is never shown compassion or kindness, who is actually prevented from forming close ties, be expected to lead people? They’re trying to create a tool, but they need it to be a tool that is creative, determined, and has a deep understanding for others, and I don’t see where Ender learned any of that.
And now, as tends to happen, I’ve gone on and on about the issues in a book I actually liked! Perhaps because the ways a book doesn’t work are the most interesting to explore, trying to figure out why and how it didn’t quite fit together. But don’t get the wrong idea here–despite the various issues I had with the book, it’s very good. Grim, dark, sometimes bloody (I warned you!) but intense, engaging, and with some very surprising twists at the end. And after the complete devastation of much of the book, in the end there’s a surprising amount of hope. If you like science fiction, it’s worth the read.
I know this is a popular sci fi book–who else has read it? Did you have any of the same issues, or can you explain why they weren’t issues for you?
Author’s site: http://hatrack.com/ (no, really–it’s not orsonscottcard.com, apparently)