Review: Ender’s Game

Ender's Game Cover

My absolute favorite works have one thing in common: each has a major character that I can deeply relate to. But there are a few pieces that especially stand out; these are the works that almost tempt me to say that the author must have known me, as the protagonists bear an uncanny resemblance to me.

Such works include Calvin and Hobbes, Sherlock, Matilda, Code Geass: Leleouch of the Rebellionand, of course, Ender’s Game. For those familiar with all of these works, you can probably guess which characters I’m comparing myself to. For those who can’t, I’ll give you a hint: the titles are all named for them.

The ones who probably most resemble me are Calvin and Leleouch Lamperouge. In fact, I would go so far as to predict that Calvin will grow up to be remarkably like Leleouch. If you don’t believe me, allow me to list their similarities: both are easily bored, have very dark senses of humor, desperately wish to destroy their enemies, have ridiculously lofty ambitions, are very sensitive and compassionate, and are insanely intelligent.

I’m not going to mince words. I speak bluntly and honestly: I am one of the most intelligent, sensitive, compassionate people I know. All of the traits I have attributed to the aforementioned Calvin and Leleouch I also attribute to myself. But along with their strengths, I also admit to their weaknesses: I’m arrogant, socially inept, completely void of humility, and cruel.

I would argue that sadism and compassion are not necessarily mutually exclusive; I argue that they are two sides of the same coin. The sociopath, I suggest, and the cold-blooded killer can actually be among the most sensitive and empathetic people in the world. Ender’s Game is a novel that understands this little-spoken truth. After all- who but Ender, a cold-blooded killer- could empathize with those who no one else would- those who would have him killed?

The novel opens with the dialogue of a pair of officers discussing how they plan to manipulate Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, which is what opens every chapter. A doctor then removes Ender’s monitor, a device which allowed the Earth-defending International Fleet to experience all Ender perceived. Ender then returns to school, where it is noted by his classmates that his monitor has been removed. He is then insulted by being called a “third,” as the world is under population limitation laws that only allow every couple to have two children and Ender is a third child.

As Ender leaves school, he is stopped by a group of bullies led by a boy named Stilson. They begin pushing him around, and Ender decides to end the fight before it escalates. He convinces Stilson to fight him alone and then attacks him. Though Stilson is rendered prone, Ender decides to preemptively end all other fights they might have, so he continues to attack Stilson until he unwittingly kills him. He despairingly goes home convinced he is like his psychopathic brother Peter.

When Ender arrives home, his kind sister Valentine comforts him. Peter then arrives home, and as their parents are out he tells Ender to play Buggers and Astronauts with him. The game is a pretend battle between a human astronaut and a formic, also known as a “bugger,” which is the alien species that invaded Earth twice and resulted in the International Fleet’s formation. Peter makes Ender be the bugger, and then Peter attacks Ender and positions himself to kill him, which he threatens to do. When Valentine threatens to inform the authorities that Peter murdered Ender, Peter claims it was all a joke and laughs at his siblings for believing him. That night, he apologizes to Ender and tells him he loves him, which causes Ender to cry again.

At breakfast the next day, the Wiggin family is visited by Colonel Graff of the International Fleet, the principal of a Battle School that trains soldiers for the Fleet. He convinces Ender to come, despite his desire not to leave his parents or sister, by appealing to his desire to defend them.

While Ender and several other boys are preparing to launch and fly to Battle School, Colonel Graff isolates Ender and singles him out for hatred from the other boys by praising his intelligence and insulting the others’. The boy behind Ender, named Bernard, begins striking Ender’s head, and after realizing no one will help him Ender breaks Bernard’s arm and throws him through the air of the shuttle. After Graff splinters Bernard’s arm and puts him back in his seat, the shuttle launches and they are taken to Battle School.

Once at the school, the boys (who are known as “launchies” by the older children) are introduced to the facilities and their living quarters. They are shown a game room, where ender plays a strategy game against an older boy and wins a two-out-of-three match after losing (and learning how to play) the first game. This establishes Ender in their minds as a potential threat.

Bernard forms a gang that continues to bully Ender, to which Ender counterattacks Bernard by sending all the other boys a message that reads, “Cover your butt. Bernard is watching. – God”. After Bernard attacks Ender for this, Ender sends the boys another message that reads, “I love your butt. Let me kiss it. – Bernard”. Bernard leaves him alone after this. Ender befriends nother boy named Shen, who knows he did it, but doesn’t yet know how.

The launchies are introduced to the Battle Room, a zero-gravity chamber where the students’ main game is played. Bernard’s best friend, Alai and Ender together acquaint themselves with the basics of moving around the room and learn how to operate their laser guns. Once they do, they fire them at the other boys and freeze them. Alai soon becomes a leader for the other boys.

Ender plays a fantasy game on his tablet. In the game, he always eventually encounters a giant, who plays a game with him involving two shot glasses. The giant tells him that one is poison, and if he guesses which isn’t the giant will take him to “fairyland.” As Ender plays over and over again, he finds that the glasses are always poisoned. Eventually, he decides instead to attack the giant; he digs into its eye until he kills it. A bat tells him he can now go to fairyland, but he doesn’t; he is convinced that he is a murderer and that Peter would be proud of him.

Just after Alai tells Ender that he knows how Ender entered a fake ID for Bernard (by entering a blank space after his name), Ender is given an early promotion to become a soldier in one of the older boys’ armies. Alai gives Ender a kiss on the cheek and whispers “Salaam” to him as he leaves.

Ender goes to the barracks of Salamander, the army he was assigned to. Its leader, a boy named Bonzo Madrid, angrily calls him useless and tells him that he’ll trade him away as soon as he can. However, the army’s best shooter, a girl named Petra Arkanian, befriends Ender and takes him under her wing. Petra teaches Ender shooting, but Bonzo attempts to prevent Ender from doing so. Ender defies him by pointing out that though he can order him to not fight, he can’t keep him from practicing. This causes Bonzo to begin resenting and hating Ender.

During one battle, Ender singlehandedly saves the Salamanders from defeat against Bonzo’s orders to not draw his gun. Bonzo trades Ender off to Rat Army and hits him before he is transferred.

In Rat Army, Ender is placed in the toon of Dink Meeker, a boy who the school attempted to promote several times. He tells Ender that there is no bugger war, and the school is training them to fight on Earth for them. Ender continues practicing with the Launchies and becomes the school’s top student. During one of the Launchie practices, several boys attack them and they are able to escape; however, Ender has to tear the ear of one to do so. When Ender returns to his chambers, he is beginning to believe that no one will help him.

The book takes a brief detour to focus on Ender’s family. Valentine has not forgotten, and celebrates his birthday by building him a little fire. The Wiggins have moved into a wooded area because they have begun to notice troubling behavior in Peter. Valentine finds a skinned squirrel and immediately knows that Peter is responsible. While she confronts him about this, he asks her to help him gradually gain influence in the blogosphere under the pseudonyms “Locke” and “Demosthenes.” Valentine agrees to do so to in order to monitor and keep Peter in line.

Back at Battle School, Ender is beginning to grow depressed and disheartened- as reflected in his continued attempts at playing the fantasy game, where he is always devoured by snakes after smashing a mirror which reflects a bloody Peter with a snake in his mouth looking back at him. The Fleet commissions Valentine to write a letter of encouragement to Ender, and once he reads this he is at last able to make peace with himself- which is reflected in the game by his being reunited with Valentine and gaining the approval of a crowd of Peters.

Ender is again promoted early- this time to being the commander of the just-revived Dragon Army. He then meets Bean, a similarly brilliant young boy who immediately comes into conflict with Ender through insubordination. Ender proves to be an efficient, effective commander, and immediately begins introducing original concepts to them such as that the enemy’s gate is downward, so you should “fall” towards it.

However, Ender finds himself growing more isolated and lonely, and he finds that he has nearly lost all of his friends, including Alai. He decides to channel that anger into beating the teachers at whatever challenges they throw at him.

The teachers begin making Dragon Army perform in unusually biased games- including several battles closely together and battles beginning unusually early. Ender begins to confide in Bean and makes him a toon leader.

As Ender continues securing an unbroken string of victories, he becomes aware that other boys are wishing to kill him. After one battle, he is confronted by Bonzo and a couple of other boys in the showers. Ender convinces Bonzo to fight him naked and alone, and then in the pursuing fight Ender unwittingly kills Bonzo.

Immediately afterward, Dragon Army is called again to another battle- this time against two armies. Using a human shield-based formation, Ender is able to push his men into a swift if unorthodox victory. He then declares that he’s not going to play anymore.

In response, Colonel Graff takes Ender back to Earth for a brief vacation. While there, they bring Valentine to Ender to convince him to complete his studies. Though she has trouble doing so, she ultimately succeeds.

Rather than Battle School, Graff and Ender fly to Command School, as Ender has been graduated early. There Ender is given a tutor: Mazer Rakham, the commander who defeated the buggers in their last invasion. He tells Ender the nature of the buggers: that they all share one mind, and therefore work as one and have no forms of “conventional” communication. Mazer tells Ender that he believes that the inability for the buggers to communicate with humans is the source of their conflict. They begin training Ender to battle the buggers specifically.

The training becomes harsher and harsher, and Ender grows more and more traumatized and exhausted. Eventually Ender is given a final examination where he commands several of his former friends in a simulated attack of the bugger home world. Using a similar defensive technique to the “human shield” that won Ender his last game at Battle School, they reach the bugger home world and destroy it.

Those watching Ender’s examination cheer in celebration, and it is revealed to Ender that he was in fact commanding a real fleet as they invaded the buggers’ home world, and that he had just won the wars between them by destroying them. Ender exhaustedly sleeps for several days, during which there is fighting over him.

Peter takes control of and stabilizes the Earth while Valentine begins a colonization effort of the bugger worlds with some other humans. While Ender is governing one settlement, he goes to an area which is an exact recreation of the world of his fantasy game. As he delves deeper into it, he discovers a bugger queen pupa. The pupa communicates with him, and reveals to him that the buggers are remorseful, ashamed, and repentant for what they’ve done to mankind, as they didn’t realize that every human was an individual in their own right. The unborn queen begs Ender to find her a new home so the buggers can survive, which Ender reluctantly agrees to.

Ender becomes the “Speaker for the Dead,” who becomes a venerated religious figure. He speaks on behalf of the deceased buggers, and later for Peter, who has established peace on Earth. The novel ends with Ender and Valentine beginning their search for a new home for the queen.

My first experience with this book was having it read to me by my father. I took to it immediately; I was astounded at how much I related to Ender. I was actually six (the age Ender is at the beginning) the first time I heard it, so I’ll tell you now: I was not capable of advanced mathematics or computer coding at that age. My days of coding would instead begin at the ripe old age of seven.

I wasn’t as superhumanly brilliant as Ender was, but I was still a surpassingly brilliant young boy. I absolutely loved being told the story of another little kid who could comfortably discuss complex or abstract ideas with adults. It was essentially my introduction to science fiction literature, so needless to say I was immediately hooked. To hear of that same kid going to a cool war academy and play games with laser guns in space was an immensely satisfying experience. I’m especially grateful that the tale was written with uncommonly great skill; after all, first impressions are the most important ones, so they better damn well be the best.

This novel had a special place in my heart from the beginning. However, I found that my love for it would only grow deeper as I grew older- not only because my knowledge and capacity for comprehension of the novel’s ideas grew, but because my identification with Ender also grew.

When I was in elementary school, I was viciously bullied. I was subjected to both verbal and physical abuse by my peers. In response, I threatened to kill them- and part of me meant it. But I didn’t want to kill them for the sake of killing them; I just wanted them to stop hurting me. Just like Ender.

There aren’t enough books like Ender’s Game. This book understands that every action always has a reason behind it. Nobody wants to be evil. Too many works portray their villains as heartless monsters who are and always have been incapable of anything remotely like guilt or remorse. Ender’s Game knows the truth: if everyone truly understood each other, there would never again be malice or wickedness. This, I think, is the true nature of mankind: everyone is born good, but many (perhaps even most) get that inherent goodness pounded out of them.

But this novel also understands that no soul is truly lost; Ender commits that most unforgivable of acts: the genocide of an entire race. However, he is redeemed through his dedication of his life to the atonement of his sin. Valentine, who is even more compassionate than Ender, begins to understand lust for blood. The sociopath Peter develops empathy and begs forgiveness from his siblings. There is evil in everyone. There is good in everyone. Not enough books understand this.

The novel’s astonishing wisdom aside, it’s also ridiculously entertaining. I can think of no book that could be a better introduction to science fiction than this; the games are very fun, fascinating, and suspenseful to watch. It’s the rare author who makes a character a genius strategist- and proceeds to give them truly brilliant strategies. Orson Scott Card is one such author. The drama is excellent; the characters are extremely memorable. The writing is top-notch, as well; it’s rather minimalistic, describing only what truly needs to be described, but that’s all that’s needed. As a result, the novel is very fast-paced and tight. But most importantly, the characters are wholly three-dimensional and believable. The novel knows that Ender is a child soldier, and a great deal of it deals exclusively with the trauma he suffers as a result of it. Friendships are made and lost; much regret and sorrow befalls every character. But the characters also love. In fact, it is the love for his planet, his family, and especially his sister that drives Ender forward throughout the entire tale.

This book is thrilling, compelling, fun, nuanced, and profoundly wise all at once. It is, in my opinion, everything a book should be.

This book is, of course, a masterpiece that I adore.