I carry around, in my head, a long list of books I ought to read. The list of seminal science fiction books I ought to have read but haven't dates back to when I was 12 or 13, when I was first getting into genre fiction. The list in my head was almost entirely composed of things I had seen on Prisoners of Gravity, which I watched diligently every week. Almost all of my SF education came from Commander Rick's clandestine broadcasts.
I am pretty sure that was where I first heard of Orson Scott Card and Ender's Game. It feels like one of those books that I have known about forever, although now that I have actually read it, I realize I hadn't really known anything about it. I probably stayed away from it thinking it was hard, military SF, not the squidgier, character-driven "what if" stuff that I generally like. Whatever the reason, it took almost 20 years —and the intervention of a friend— before I finally sat down with the book.
I'm not sure if Ender's Game was specifically written for a youth audience, or if it got coloured as a book for teens because of the age of the protagonist. In many ways, it reads like a "young adult" title. It's a quick read, not the kind of book in which you need to spend time savouring the language or pondering character motivations; it's straightforward. This isn't to say it's an insubstantial book. There are some very chewy ethical issues that present themselves, but even if they don't interest you the story moves forward in a compelling way. The book works as a superficial read, and as something more ponderous.
In the future, aliens have threatened Earth, and though we won the round, it was not a reassuring victory. The military machinery is hard at work, trying to figure out how to make the victory permanent, how to protect the planet from the inevitable second round. To do this, they turn to children. The goal? Find children with the right temperament and sufficient intelligence that they can be molded into soldiers in an army that can win decisively. Unlike his siblings, who were too empathetic and too sadistic, Ender turns out to be the most promising candidate seen by the top brass. The book follows him as he is taken away from his family and trained to become, well, all that he can be.
These kids are young when they are taken from their homes, barely school-aged. Ender is six years old when he begins at the Battle School, and it is sometimes jarring to be reminded of this. My suspension of disbelief wavered at times, but it held, simply because there were so many affirmations that Ender was extraordinary; the constant reaffirmation that Ender was virtually uniquely gifted made the flashes of insight and wisdom seem plausible in spite of his youth. Still, I don't think I ever pictured the children in these books as young as they are described. I just couldn't.
This effect, this unfathomability, may well be intentional. One of the interesting ethical questions that the book raised for me was about what we, as a society, are really asking our soldiers to become so that they can defend us. Several times in the course of the books, Ender expresses his discomfort with the traits that his teachers and mentors seem to be trying to draw out, yet even when he rebels, it's generally by being what they wanted but more so. After all, children are wired to try to please the people who care for them. As hard as it is to picture six-year-olds put in this position, the people that we, today, put in the equivalent position are themselves still children, still malleable, still short-sighted and innocent. To me, the age of the Battle School students is an amplifying of the stakes for dramatic effect.
One of the most fascinating things about this book might be the amount of room there is for interpretation. To me, this is a classic story of how we turn into what we despise, how maybe sometimes that might even be a necessary act of preservation, but is still, even then, a tragedy. I know, though, that this interpretation tells you far more about me than it does about the book. My biases about what it means to be a child, what is good and what is evil, and how things grow to become one or the other determined how I read the book. This book, to me, is an articulation of my ambivalent feelings about the way the military works, about the price we sometimes pay for peace. But looking through the text itself, I can see that those are my feelings, that the book never quite comes down on any side of the issues.
It's probably because of these ideas that I was most interested in Admiral Graff, of all the characters in the book. (Most interesting moment: When Valentine is questioning him, and he begins to explain, before declaring "I don't have to defend myself to you.") Ender was like tofu; his point was to pick up the flavours of the environment. This meant that all of the secondary characters in the book are the ones with quirks and pasts and personalities. Most of these are left undeveloped (though I hear that some of the unanswered questions are answered in the sequels) but the hints we get about them make them intriguing. How did Graff wind up where he did?; he seems as ambivalent as me, and I know I am not general material. And then there is Bean; what makes Bean so plucky? (This question, I know, is answered in the sequels.)
While many of the secondary characters are intriguing, I have to admit that I was somewhat uninterested in the subplot involving Ender's Battle School reject siblings, Peter and Valentine. Woven in among the scenes at the school, we see the Peter hatching a plan to manipulate the political climate and Valentine (one of two characters with clunky signposts for names, kept company by Ender's first friend, Alai) follows along in spite of her initial misgivings. Was this subplot simply designed to set up a sequel or is there a point that I missed? The only thing I took away from it was maybe that if you have the skills, and they aren't harnessed by something like the military, you will find a way to use them on your own?
Battle School is a formidable training ground, full of careful manipulation in the name of creating great soldiers. One of the main training methods is through what are, essentially, virtual reality games. This is the kind of speculative technology that can quickly make a book seem dated. Ender's Game does not suffer that problem, however. It's been 20 years since the book was published and the technology still holds up, although some of the politics in the book are frozen in the Cold War era. Still, the political references are never so much to make the book feel old. I never had flashbacks to the 80s as I read.
I do have to say that I wasn't surprised by the ending — and, yes, this is the time when those of you who don't want to be spoiled should probably move along. It is possible that this is the original of the "not dead! actually real!" surprise endings in the genre, but I had it figured out fairly early on that the old war hero, Mazer Rackham, was going to make an appearance as Ender's teacher and that the battle would be fought without Ender even knowing he was doing it. (This particular aspect in fact seems prescient, rather than dated, in an era where armies put out video games in the hope of enticing recruits.)
I actually liked this enough to read the sequels, which is high praise considering I read this book for SF literature context, rather than its own merits.