This was my first time reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and I have to say I actually really enjoyed it. I think the multiple awards that Card won for this book have been justified, and I have no problem with its status as a classic. So allow me to discuss some of its flaws because that’s what I like doing!
The novel follows Ender Wiggin through his recruitment and training as a military fleet officer in a futuristic war against a race known as the Buggers (a slur describing a race of aliens who look like insects and therefore had me confusing Orson Scott Card with Robert A. Heinlein for about two days.) The buggers are threatening to exterminate the human race, apparently, though the actual existence of the threat is less important to the plot – the scope remains small and focused.
Ender is a third child, a rarity on the futuristic Earth from which he hails, and while he’s off at the Spartan, space-based Battle School, his psychopathic older brother Peter and calculating-but-kind sister Valentine are left at home to scheme world domination under parents who are seemingly oblivious and largely absent from the plot. That last sentence sounds like a joke but it’s played completely straight and it works, if you overlook the fact that the children in question are under 13 for the first half of the novel, and under 18 for the second half.
To be perfectly honest, this was the biggest issue I had with the book. I had to hang my disbelief altogether too high to find the dialogue at all suitable for the characters. Card makes these kids talk and think like adults or at the very least latter-half teenagers. My edition of the book came out in 1991, 20 years after the original release, and features an introduction that spends several pages indicating that my problem is not unique. Card retorts with a series of letters sent to him by gifted teenagers, who unsurprisingly write in a manner on par with the older children in the latter half of the book. Ender is 6 when the plot begins, however, and I find that he talks and thinks in a manner eerily similar to that of an adult sci-fi author.
Maybe I’m nitpicking – well, of course I am. Card’s annoyance with readers choosing to focus on this issue is clear, but my opinion is that he should either write children like children, or create adult or young adult characters. I guess I haven’t met any properly gifted children, or I don’t remember what it was like to be a child myself. The failing of anyone who reads a novel and can’t believe that those kids would have talked like that, perhaps.
It’s also possible that what bothers me about it so much is that you could dial up the ages on the characters and have a functionally identical version of the novel – the only real reason why these characters are children (that I could discern) is because this is supposed to be a young adult /children’s novel. Admittedly I normally stay away from young adult fiction for this very reason, so my distaste is pretty heavily biased, I will admit.
Naturally I have to talk about the role of women in the book. At the beginning I was concerned that I was getting into yet another story that would leave me wondering where all the women were being kept. As luck would have it, though, the female presence in the book is sparse but strong. There’s a brief and unnecessary remark by one of the characters at the beginning of the book – something about women not going to battle school because evolution is working against them – that sparked my worry. Yes, there is only one female character in the battle school, but within the novel that fact functions more as a comment on the misogyny of armed forces in this imagined universe than on the author’s own personal opinions.
The plot develops to feature two female characters who are integral and not singled out, and as the novel develops, that one comment seems all the more unnecessary until it sticks out in my mind as a sliver of awkwardness like Card was worried that he’d lose his main male demographic of readership if he didn’t note that women are weak at the starting gate. Which is incredibly lame, but if we get past that and just ignore it, women are represented quite strongly and satisfactorily though the rest of the novel.
Valentine proves to be an instrumental part of the whole machine. Where Ender is taught to be cold and violent, Valentine wrestles with her own fears of being too compliant and too good, versus giving in to the psychopathic calculations and manipulations of her brother Peter. She’s never a foil for anyone else’s personality and she never gets killed so anyone can have feelings. She has her own power and her own influence and her own struggles with the responsibility surrounding that.
Over the course of reading the novel no one’s gender is ever made to be more important than it is, or pointed out unnecessarily. It’s rather refreshing.
The novel is tactical, but not to the point that those who are bored by detailed discussions of military strategy would be driven to abandon it. The final twist is a little odd in that it struck me as extremely contrived and yet by that point I was so invested that it came as something of a triumphant relief. It actually caused me to set aside my analysis of the book to just be satisfied that something good was actually happening to the characters, which, once again is an occurrence that I should just sit back and enjoy.
Some might find the ending a bit much. I know I did, though as I previously stated I don’t tend to enjoy young adult novels so I was expecting it to be a bit rough. Just… so much catharsis – all the loose ends are tied up, characters that were no longer necessary are conveniently killed off while those who will go on to be included in sequels are placed at their appropriate starting positions.
Speaking of sequels, this book has a number of companions, a couple of which I have already purchased so you can look forward to those in 2016.