A Child Commander

Another sci fi book I’ve been meaning to read for years is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  Now that I finally have, I enjoyed it very much–and had some serious issues with it too!

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)

Other reviews:
Book Club Babe
End of the Game
Truly Bookish
And no doubt masses more–like yours?

27 thoughts on “A Child Commander

  1. I didn’t mind Ender’s age, and I thought you could definitely see how the kids acted like kids despite being forced into an adult world. Little things, like the dynamics between them, or those moments where you get a glimpse of a commander’s internal struggles and you realize just how young they are. I didn’t think their intelligence was unrealistic; in general, I think that a lot of adults tend to underestimate what kids are capable of feeling and thinking, especially in our society, whereas in the past it would be completely normal for people to be married and independent by the age of 15. I think maybe I didn’t have a problem with him because I was one of those kids who got made fun of in grade school for talking like a grown up and using big words that people didn’t understand. It wasn’t till I got older that I realized how obnoxious I must have been… Also, the tactics weren’t really any different than playing a video game, and kids tend to be quick learners with games.

    The Speaker for the Dead ending was fantastic. It gave a completely different dimension to the story, and I don’t think I’d have been half as impressed with it if it hadn’t been there.

    1. Well, as you can see from the comments, there’s been all kinds of debate on Ender’s age, and on the end of the novel. It seems to be a very personal/varied thing on whether Ender seemed his age. For me, they all just seemed too mature–it wasn’t an intelligence thing so much as a maturity thing (although a six year old studying trigonometry makes my head spin). You do make a good point about kids taking well to video games!

  2. I thought the ending to Ender’s Game was very satisfying, however, I don’t consider the last chapter (titled ‘Speaker for the Dead’) as the ending of the book, but the start of the next one. I’m halfway through reading it now, and Orson Scott Card states in his introduction that he was originally writing (and re-writing) Speaker for the Dead for years when he realised that the perfect Speaker would be Ender (Ender’s Game was a novella/short story at this point), so he rewrote it into a full sized novel to flesh out and mature Ender’s character, and in doing so, to inspire his role in Speaker for the Dead. Card then thought that Speaker for the Dead’s opening chapter would have been too dry and long if it had to explain how Ender came to be Speaker for the Dead, so he decided to tack it on to the end of Ender’s Game. That chapter certainly felt out of context, but once you start reading the second book you’ll be glad you read it.

    1. That’s fascinating! I love knowing how books came about, and it certainly makes sense that the last chapter of Ender’s Game was originally meant to be separate–it does have such a different feel from the rest of the book. Although I also think Card was right that it would have made a slow book opening too… I’ll have to see if my opinions about Ender’s Game make any significant changes after I read Speaker for the Dead.

  3. I read Ender’s Game years ago, and a few more books in the series. I remember them being very readable and enjoyable. But I’m not sure about the whole rationale behind Ender. I mean he is a hugely violent individual who goes to far, but is still the hero… I just don’t know about the politics behind it.
    And then finding out about Card’s homophobic rants I sorta lost interest in reading more by him.

  4. Great review! Beedril’s comment below sums up nicely what I was thinking in response to your critiques; Ender and the other kids needed to be so young because that is the age when they are most impressionable and can be moulded like playdough into whatever the adults want them to be. It also gives the book a depressing layer, as these kids are never allowed to live normal, heatlhy lives that children are supposed to enjoy. It’s almost a dystopic vision of the future, and asks the question: will our children one day be born into manipulation and bred for warfare? Parents have already faced the anxieties of seeing their 18 year old sons shipped off to fight in Vietnam, is Ender’s Game the next step? I agree with you though, you never get to see Ender lose a tooth, it just doesn’t seem like he is his age. And if he’s such a genius, how does he not realise that he’s being manipulated so badly? I also don’t get why Valentine and Peter act like such adults when they aren’t in the same position as Ender, they don’t have to save the world and yet they become politicians out of their own free will – that was certainly out of character for a child to do.

    1. Great point about Peter and Valentine. I suppose they’re from the same genius stock as Ender, so perhaps that’s meant to explain it…? I might have felt more comfortable with the unchild-like Ender if other children acted their age…but ALL of them acted much older (at least any with significant roles) and that just felt funny.

  5. I agree that Ender’s age was a problem, I don’t think that even a genius 12 year old who had military training for years would be able to work things out as well as he did. I also don’t think that it would have been a problem had he been older, even if he was 18 or 20 by the end of the book. If you’re raised to never question your elders or superiors, you’re not going to.

    All that said, I still really liked the book, and while his age is a weakness, I can look past it because the rest of the book is good enough. One of the other posters said this already, but I also highly recommend the sequels to this book. Speaker for the Dead was brilliant on about 37 different levels, and Xenocide and Children of the Mind are also quite good.

    1. Yes yes YES to your entire first paragraph! Exactly! And I agree I’ll look past it because it was still a really good book. If Speaker for the Dead is really good on 37 different levels (I love that!) then I’m glad I have it on my list.

      1. Quick and shameless plug for my blog. I have a review of Speaker for the Dead on there (and I try to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible) and that post is pretty much just my ranting about how much I liked the book. The one warning I would give about it is that it is almost completely flipped from Ender’s Game. Pretty much all of the themes from the first book are looked at from different angles, but it’s amazingly well written. In some ways I think it’s actually better than Ender’s Game, but both books are so good that I highly suggest them both.

  6. You picked the right time to read this — it’s (finally!) going to be a movie in 2013.


    I love this book. I also recommend the sequels, or at least some of them — there’s a series of books that follows Ender’s life as an adult (starting with “Speaker for the Dead”) and another series about Bean and the other Battle School kids (starting with “Ender’s Shadow”). I like “Speaker for the Dead” a lot, but other than that I generally prefer the Bean-focused sequels. Some of the later adult-Ender ones get really bizarre.

    1. I wonder if a movie would work for me better–I could constantly SEE that he’s only seven or ten and that wouldn’t end up forgotten. I’ve heard good things about the later books, especially Speaker for the Dead. It’s on my list of series to finish! My long list…

    2. ensign_beedrill

      A movie version scares me, because the acting has to be good. And it is going to be hard to find as many good child actors as they need. Looking forward to it with trepidation.

      1. Well, yes, of course, any movie version of a book has the potential to be horribly, catastrophically bad. But as you mentioned, Card was reluctant about a movie for a long time…if it’s finally going forward, hopefully that means he feels comfortable about it–which is at least a good sign.

  7. Maybe the author does want to comment about child soldiers, in making Ender and the others at the battle school so young. You might read “A Long Way Gone,” by Ishmael Beah, a memoir by a former child soldier in Africa. Here’s a link to the web-site for the book: http://www.alongwaygone.com/index.html. Ishmael was “recruited” by the government army in Sierra Leone at age 13. His book has been a best-seller. Good review of “Ender’s Game.” I think your points about what you didn’t like about it are well-taken.

    1. I’ve heard of this book, and seen some interviews with child soldiers. I think that was another aspect of the book that bothered me–when you have the idea of real life child soldiers, it’s disturbing that the battle school (the supposed good guys) are training up child soldiers and child officers and expecting them to fight a war… And probably it was meant to be disturbing, but at the same time, that situation never actually changed.

  8. ensign_beedrill

    I loved this book; it’s one of those you can get lost inside of.

    I didn’t have the same issues you did. If you have access to it at your library, pick up a copy of the 20th Anniversary Edition audio book and skip to the end; Orson Scott Card gives a bit of commentary where he explains some of the things you mentioned. I can’t seem to find a transcript of it online.

    The kids are so young because they’re being indoctrinated. Young kids are still at an age where they’ll believe the things adults tell them without question. The older they are, the harder it is to shape them into what you want them to be. He says one of the reasons he’s been so reluctant about a movie is that the producers want Ender to be a teenager and have a love interest. But he wants Ender to be played no older than twelve because a teenager would certainly be questioning these adults and the story wouldn’t work. (Just a summary of what he said, and probably a pretty bad one as I’m doing it from memory.)

    As for Ender, he sort of is the chosen one. IF knew they needed a commander, and they had seen potential in Ender’s brother and sister, so coerced his parents into having him even in a society where having more than two children is frowned upon. He might never do anything childish, but his whole life, he never was treated like a child (except perhaps by his sister), and he’s smarter than all the kids his age and this, along with being a “third,” ostracized him from their influence. It is easy to forget he’s a small child, but I feel like there are moments when you’re reminded and it hits you all the harder. Ender has to grow up fast.

    The Battle School’s methods are harsh, but they have to be. They don’t have time to grow Ender into the soldier they want; they need to pressure cook him. I’m not saying it was right, but thinking from the point of view of the commanders, it had to be that way. But there were moments when even Graff questioned himself. It was a very fine line they were walking with Ender.

    My issue was that the ending felt like a cheat and I was let down. Not only the way Ender finally defeated the Buggers (I was more angry on behalf of Ender than anything else, and I can get over that, realizing it was quite a brilliant plan), but just the rest of it. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it felt rather hollow after the rest of the book.

    1. I love how your comments make me look at books in a new way. 🙂 I see your point about how he needed to be young for the indoctrination…and it’s really interesting to hear Orson Scott Card’s thoughts on it. Maybe if the book had been over a longer time frame? Grab him when he’s young, get him indoctrinated, but don’t have him actually fight a war until he’s old enough for that to make sense. Card didn’t have to bring it all to a head while Ender was still so young.

      I also think it would have worked for me if I had occasionally been reminded, in a deep emotional way, that Ender was just a kid–but I almost never was. Which may be as much me as it was the book.

      Interesting that you didn’t like the ending. Was it the part after the Buggers were defeated? That was definitely very different than the rest…but I was really intrigued by it. And I suspect it was to set up the next book, which I’m now curious to read too!

      1. ensign_beedrill

        Naw, he had to be a kid during the war. For one, they didn’t have time to wait until he was grown up. For another, all of the adults were babies and didn’t have the guts to use their super planet killer.

        I felt like I was reminded of how young he was… all the times he got so tired. When he wanted to cry and couldn’t. When he found his brother in the game and retreated into himself. The parts where his sister was thinking about him as just a little kid. The part where he laughed at Graff “being upside down.” Little stuff like that. I got the feeling that he really wanted to make some friends and just be “one of the boys,” but he always felt left out, set apart. You said above that it was weird that all of the children acted older than they were. Remember they were handpicked for that personality and genius… top one percent or whatever. Maybe one in ten thousand kids is like that, but each of those ones were picked up and dropped into Battle School. Also, most of the other kids were older than Ender.

        Yeah, the part after the Buggers were defeated. Can’t put my finger on it, but it just felt hollow. Maybe like it wasn’t needed. But Card actually wrote this book as a set up for Speaker for the Dead (which I haven’ t read). He was writing Speaker and then realized that he really needed to write this whole other book first to set up Ender’s character. So it could just be segue into the sequel, which might explain why it left me feeling so flat.

        1. But the only reason they didn’t have time to wait for him to grow up was because Card SAID they didn’t…he could’ve changed the timeline. I like your second point about the adults, though–and it’s sadly true!

          I wonder if I read this a second time if I’d feel more like he was a kid? Because I accept the validity of the points you cite, but they just weren’t strong enough for me–only they might be on a second read-through, when the subtleties might stand out more.

          1. I suppose he could have changed the timeline… but the sense of urgency and desperateness is something I liked about the book. The intensity of Ender’s training, getting him ready, one thing after another, putting all their hopes in this child who is their one last chance. And if it goes wrong we’re all dead. That’s what I meant initially by getting lost inside of it… I really felt drawn in by all of the tension.

            Maybe I have a dark side!

            1. Yeah I definitely agree, the book just worked and nothing about it should have been changed. Sometimes in fiction you have to suspend your disbelief – the characters didn’t seem their age, but then again that ‘was’ the point, these kids never get to be kids because they were born as adults (supremely gifted) in an adult world, and given adult responsibilities. Why is it that we find it so hard to believe that a kid can be as intelligent and mature as Ender even though we can easily believe a 60 year old man to be a little child..?

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