Ender’s Game: Journey of a Child-Hero

(Book review)

Mankind needs a hero.

We found out that we are not alone. We were invaded by an alien species of “buggers” seeking to colonize new planets. We were somehow able to repel the earlier invasions, but we must be prepared for the next one. We must train future military commanders for the next wave of war. The most promising of them all is six-year-old Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. He, along with other carefully-selected brilliant children, are drafted into military training.

This is a very unique set-up for a military science fiction novel — to start training six-year-olds  for war. Unlike the Jedi order, which is a philosophical warrior school in a space opera, this Battle School is strictly military. But it is revealed eventually why they choose to start them so young. Mazer Rackham, hero of the Second Invasion, admits that “…it had to be a child, Ender. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart.”

From the start, it is apparent that Ender is the focus of this training. They throw everything at him, including the kitchen sink. “Just when I think I can handle things, they stick in another knife,” observes Ender. At this point, I feel the same way, too. The exercise sequences seem to go on and on, with too much detail, without advancing the plot. But this is the only extraneous element I find in the book. The rest of the details are important  not only to the latter part of the story, but also to the sequels. Especially the computer game that Ender is playing. So if you haven’t read Ender’s Game yet, don’t gloss over those parts.

Also, while reading the book, you have to remember that Ender is THE genius among geniuses. This helps in the suspension of disbelief, because Ender acts, reacts and analyzes in such a mature manner for one so young. Very impressive, actually. More intelligent than most adults, in fact. Of course, this is balanced by some honest-to-goodness child-like emotions and reasoning. But for the most part, his abilities border on the incredulous — though I withhold judgment because I am no child genius. I am not in a position to verify the accuracy of this fictional character’s talents. I find myself thinking, “Really? A child can figure that out?”

After being used and abused, pushed and pulled, manipulated and deceived, eleven-year-old Ender Wiggin passes every test and delivers on every expectation. Good job! And this is where every story usually ends: a huge hometown welcome, a parade, hurray, the end.

But not in this novel. At this point, Ender learns the whole truth: how far the deception goes, and what they ultimately tricked him into doing. He is enraged. Hurt. Disillusioned. And this is what makes Ender’s story different from other heroes’ journeys. The still-young hero does a complete one-hundred-eighty-degree turn. “It did not occur to them that this twelve-year-old boy might be as gifted at peace as he was at war.”

The pendulum swings, and a second major story emerges. The first, Ender training and warring against the buggers. The second, Ender understanding and advocating for the buggers. From Ender the follower to Ender the leader. From Ender being ignorant to being aware. From killer to savior. From pawn to king.

Even the tenor of the book changes. From battle sequences to philosophical discourses. From physical to intellectual.

Though this second major story is only about twenty percent of the book, it is a critical set-up to Ender’s new career. His latent insight into the buggers inspires him to write a book about them from their point of view, “telling all that they had meant to do, and all that they had done. Here are our failures, and here is our greatness.”

This kind of truth-telling gives birth to a new religion, where a believer would stand beside the grave of a loved one and “say what the dead one would have said, but with full candor, hiding no faults and pretending no virtues.” Such a eulogist — Ender’s new “career” — is also the title of the book’s sequel: Speaker for the Dead.

My only concern in this part — and a minor one at that — is that there seems to be no process in Ender’s acceptance of his new role as defender and protector of his erstwhile enemy. The transformation was too abrupt. Maybe if there were less of the protracted battle exercises in the earlier part, there would be more time for the transition here. Otherwise, this is an exceptionally good book with a healthy science fiction element, a protagonist you would care about , and a story with depth and realism.

What makes the story uniquely profound is that there are no archetypal villains in this book. No Megatron of the Decepticons who are hell-bent on world domination. The characters react to their upbringing, or to the exigencies of the situation. The bully Bonzo is upholding his pride, which Ender inadvertently wounds.  The Battle School head, Colonel Graff, is making sure he develops the kind of commander that mankind needs to win the war, even if it means putting Ender in danger.  Even the invading alien buggers turn out to have reasonable motivations for their actions.

There are no clear delineations between good and bad. Though it is not honorable to manipulate people, the end-result is the safety of the human race. Does the end justify the means? The book presents the kinds of moral dilemma that we encounter in real life. And, just like in real life, sometimes there are no obvious right and wrong answers.

Battle scenes with strange aliens, check. Unique plot, check. Sympathetic protagonist, check. Intelligent issues that will leave you thinking, oh yes, check. Perhaps, all these elements are what make Ender’s Game the number one science fiction novel in so many lists.

(p.s. Please, don’t judge a book by its movie.)

Rating: Four hearts out of five ♥♥♥♥

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Ender’s Game: Journey of a Child-Hero

  1. I agree, the book was good and better than the movie, although I liked The Shadow of the Hegemon better than this one. Have you read all of the sequels?

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    • Kadri, I have read the second (Speaker for the Dead) and the third (Xenocide) only, and have just started on the fourth (Children of the Mind). However, I have heard how awesome Ender’s Shadow is, and I can’t wait to start on it.

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  2. Hm, I liked Orson Scott Card’s “Pathfinder”, but I held out from reading “Ender’s Game” because the blurb didn’t really appeal to me. Now you’ve made me rethink. I like how detailed your plot synopsis was; how you summarised the character development, as well as plot points in the novel. Good stuff 🙂

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    • “Pathfinder” is on my to-read list. Because you said you like it, it will get bumped up. When you do read “Ender’s Game,” make sure to follow it up with “Speaker for the Dead”–the sequel which has more depth than the first book. It is more ideas-driven rather than action-driven.

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