There are some novels in SF, you have to read. When one of these books is brought up in conversation, you admit – slightly ashamed – that you haven’t got around to it and agree adamantly that you need to read it next… But after the other “next to read books” that create a looming pile, stacked precariously next to your bed. For me, this was Ender’s Game. With the highly anticipated film release on 25th October, I knew it was time to move the cult classic to the top of my giant leaning tower of books.
Often described as the best sci-fi novel of all time, I wondered what to expect from Ender’s Game. It has a slew of awards to boast its credentials, starting with its inception as a short story in 1977. The original story came in second for the Hugo in 1978, and Orson Scott Card received the Campbell Award for best new writer the same year. The novel, published in 1985 went on to receive the Nebula and Hugo Awards. With all the hype, I was worried Ender’s Game might not live up to expectations. I was completely and wondrously wrong.
Ender’s Game is a powerhouse of a novel, pacing forward with a full throttle momentum from the first paragraph to the explosive climax. It’s a rare kind of book – an action novel that manages to be acutely emotional, character-driven and intellectual.
Earth is recovering from two invasions from the Buggers, technologically advanced aliens who outmanoeuvred mankind to the brink of extinction. It was one Commander who single-handedly, obtained human victory and a brief respite until the predicted third invasion. It is the International Fleet’s mission to prepare for this next attack by finding the most gifted children to train for intergalactic combat.
Ultimately, Ender’s Game is a novel about war. Orson Scott Card presents the war through his central character, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, who is thrown into the Battle School’s military training at the tender age of 6. Ender is a little boy who spends his whole childhood training for war – It takes him away from his family, his childhood and eventually his innocence.
Card deliberately wrote this novel to be simple and accessible. It’s an easy read which helps you get through it at a fast pace. As Ender rushes training, you rush reading and although it’s a book about children, it is not necessarily a book for children. It can be violent, uncompromising and consistently raises questions about morality and indeed, humanity.
Monitored since birth, Ender is from a line of gifted siblings tested for potential to join the Battle School. It soon becomes clear that the International Fleet isn’t just looking for another soldier – They are looking for the next great Commander. One child, set apart from others, to lead the Fleet and save Earth from annihilation (no pressure). The Fleet originally felt Ender’s big brother, Peter showed potential but it becomes clear he too sadistic while similarly his sister, Valentine is too empathic.
Along with hundreds of other children, Ender is quickly assimilated to the schools games. The ultimate game which creates a competitive environment within the school is in an enormous zero-gravity chamber where teams compete in combat. This is pretty much the Quiddich of sci-fi and it’s AWESOME. However, the training is gruelling and Ender is systematically and carefully manipulated (inside the games and out) to become a perfect soldier through whatever means necessary. The novel raises nasty moral implications into how far we should push an individual for the greater good. After all, this is a story about training children to kill. One of the most telling quotes in the novel is from the Graff, Ender’s seemingly cold and pragmatic Colonel:
“Human beings are free except when humanity needs them. Maybe humanity needs you. To do something. Maybe humanity needs me―to find out what you’re good for. We might both do despicable things, Ender, but if humankind survives, then we were good tools.”
In a lot of ways Ender’s Game is a classic tale of a hero’s self-sacrifice. There is a tragic inevitability as Ender, a character who you grow to love, is pushed further and further into the position he is designed for but would not chose for himself.
It’s also a brutal portrayal of war that highlights its ambiguous nature. It’s far from an anti-war novel but it reads that no matter how much practice and no matter how you portray it – War is never a game.