In my brain I got Ender’s Game mixed up a bit with Ready Player One. Huge faux pas I’m sure. I don’t know why I got them mixed up, I sat down ready to read it like “Ah I watched the movie let’s see how the book holds up” and then was like “hmmm this is not the same thing at all.” Though there is also a movie for Ender’s Game which I haven’t seen. Albeit to an extent, there are similarities: both are set in the future, are within the science fiction genre, deal with war (to an extent), and video games.
Ender’s Game is considered a huge part of a lot of people’s childhoods. Even talking to a teacher friend recently it’s still something middle school kids pick up and read. I, however, didn’t end up picking up Ender’s Game as a kid or teen. And I do wonder if some of the appeal is lost in the same way when you grow up and re-watch The Little Mermaid you no longer agree with Ariel throwing away her whole life because she fell in love with a prince she saw and rescued but never actually met or interacted with.
So let’s break down the world of Ender’s Game first. We’re clearly in the future. Children up to a certain age are installed with “Monitors” in the back of their neck that allows the government to know everything. They know how the kid is feeling, what they’re thinking, and to an extent protect them from abuse. Usually, the monitor is removed before a kid turns 5 years old.
The Earth is overpopulated so a ban has been placed on having more than two children. And on top of this most religions are shunned. No one openly practices religions though this seems to be a newer thing since both of the Wiggens parents come from different religious backgrounds that they’re now ashamed of and hide, however it does seep out when they think no one is looking. So they are still secretly practicing just not in front of each other.
Humans are in an intergalactic war with Buggers, a species of aliens that they have been able to keep back in the past but there’s a lingering fear that they might return. The last battle was won by Mazer Rackham, who is considered a hero.
The book follows a format of military personnel discussing Ender Wiggens and sometimes his family as they watch him and then we follow Ender and sometimes, somewhat sporadically his siblings. All three siblings are highly intelligent and don’t really act like kids. But their personalities are vastly different. Peter, the eldest is cruel, his sister too sweet and caring, so the Wiggens family is allowed to have another child, a third which is very rare, and results in “Ender” Wiggens. As if parents can keep trying to have a child like Goldilocks trying porridge until they find the one with just the right temperament.
Ender is six years old and still has his monitor though it’s set to be removed. He’s bullied by his classmates and his elder brother for being a third, for existing at all, and for being allowed to keep his monitor for so long. They assume that because it was removed that he’s not better than the rest of them, but instead the military comes to collect him and offer him enrollment at Battle School after he confronts his bully and defeats him without honor by pummelling him so hard that there was no way for him to try to corner Ender again.
Colonel Hyrum Graff escorts Ender to Battle School along with a bunch of new recruits or “launchies”. Launchies are left pretty much alone by the older kids because they’re usually so young and fresh off the rocket. But while the major draw to school isn’t their classes but their version of sports, a warlike game where teams with an animal mascot battle in zero gravity against one another. It’s like freeze tag, paintball, and capture the flag combined but without gravity. Soldiers are given uniforms and a laser. The laser when hitting someone freezes that part of their body, sometimes all of it. They have to get to the enemy’s gate with 5 players. Four to open the door and one to go through that haven’t been frozen or damaged (partially frozen). It’s a team sport that requires a leader whose a good strategist and trust.
Ender, however, was singled out by Graff on the launch to the school for being smart. And by being treated like a smart kid who the teachers liked he was instantly taunted before they even left the ship. Because he did not understand how everything in space works he ends up breaking one of his tormenter’s arms which did not win him any points with the rest of his group.
Enders’s life in Battle School follows a pattern just like the book itself does. The adults make his life uneasy and so he has to work very very hard to make himself safe amongst his peers and win over any friends to stave off loneliness. Then as soon as his life is stable and he makes a friend the adults move him. And every time they do it, it’s to a harder place with more “enemies” caused by his expedition through the process at unprecedented speeds. He starts off with his launchies and plays pranks to put the bullies in place, then makes friends by learning quickly, and then instantly he gets reassigned. He moves in with the older kid’s troops where he no longer has any privacy and they didn’t want him because he is only 6 years old and hasn’t finished any of his basic training. In this troop, he’s told to sit on the sidelines and befriends the only girl in the troop (and in the whole school) who takes her time to teach him since no one else will and then practicing what he learned with the his old launchies. Then he gets traded.
It’s fairly repetitive while also moving him forward and through the ranks. But it’s also fairly normal for school, or as some have pointed out, for people in the military. Ender is able to see things that others don’t and so the teachers keep throwing more and more things at him, eventually doing the unthinkable, putting him in battles daily and then multiple battles a day until he’s beyond exhausted. Meanwhile, at home, his family has moved and they’ve stopped writing to him. His elder brother has mellowed somewhat but is still torturing small animals and has come up with a scheme. He and his sister are going to get online through their father’s access code and start commenting on the nets. In forums essentially to and try to seem like adults to take over the world. Each of them with polarizing opinions, the opposite of their own, get they picked up by news outlets and become household names to the point Valentine who doesn’t agree with her nom de plume’s opinions is embarrassed to hear her father repeat it.
I would say 80-90% of the book is Battle School which can be frustrating as you find yourself closer to the end of the book as Ender gets transferred to Commander school and trying to figure out how the book is going to end since everything is preparing him to battle the Buggers which are creatures we know almost nothing about and who Ender is having difficulty finding anything out about because it’s all classified.
In general, this book wasn’t my favorite. It was written in the late ’70s as a short story then flushed out into a novel published in 1985 which honestly was before I was born. I don’t know how different the world was then but there are some things that feel like they’re thrown into the book too casually or without the actual necessity that came off as shock factor like multiple uses of slurs that felt like they fell heavily into that category. I don’t know if the author was thinking “oh in the future all the slurs will be reclaimed” or what, but I guess I’d hoped that a novel set in the future wouldn’t use so many (or any at all). I also was hoping, that while there are students from all over the world that there’d be some more gender equality.
There’s also a grand total of two female characters within the whole book beyond the mother because:
“All the boys are organized into armies.”
“A few girls. They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them.”
That’s just a big yikes. The only girl in the entire battle school is the one that teaches Ender how to shoot but also is the only other character besides Ender physically assaulted throughout the novel (other than bullies who started their fights off scene) and is the only character who gets emotional besides Ender and the launchies their first night. The other female character is Valentine, his older sister.
Valentine is emotional but smart. She spends her entire childhood caring for Ender until he leaves, and is the only family member upset that he leaves. She then spends the time Ender is gone helping Peter with his projects and caring for him. She usually gets used as a tool to move Ender forward when he wants to stop and no longer work or by Peter to get what he wants. She’s the carrot. No female characters hold high ranks that are shown or introduced, there are no adult females in the book besides Mother whose not shown much and both girls are just supporting roles that could easily be swapped out for anything. They hold practically no drive or goals of their own and just have been molded into what they’ve been given which seems to just be to help Ender. It’s disappointing. Valentine actually undermines herself when offered a job by saying:
“I can’t do a weekly colunm,” Valentine said. “I don’t even have a monthly period yet.”
I don’t know about you but a “monthly period” doesn’t make someone an adult. It’s so arbitrary, people who get periods don’t all get them at the same time. I’ve met someone whose niece is going through precocious puberty and hasn’t even started school. There’s no way that child is an adult and for this to be a marker of adulthood is just…ughh. And for such a smart and intelligent child you would think she’d have some sort of drive and views of what makes herself worthy of the praise she gets for her writing beyond menstruation. You would think in the future where humans are flying to distant planets we’d be beyond all this.
There also didn’t seem to be an actual reason for Ender to meet new students and immediately use slurs to their face and then be forgiven for it. But that was a theme in general. Ender could do no wrong. He committed absolute atrocities unwittingly and no one held him accountable. No one thought to sit him down and be like hey, I get it you didn’t know you did this but you did, so how about we work on this. Even if it’d just been something at the end. He was in a constant upwards trajectory. He’d climb up to a new plateau, learn and then move on up not paying attention to the carnage below because it was hidden from him. He spent his whole life fearing he’d turn into his older brother, Peter who he knew was bad and who his teachers had dismissed for the exact reason only for them to push him closer and closer to becoming Peter, just unwittingly.
I think, honestly the only part I enjoyed in the novel was a small part near the end. But even then it was just barely and such a small thing that I don’t think it fully redeemed the book.
Beyond all of this, there’s also the problem of the author. It’s a book that falls into that debate of can you separate the author and their views from their work? Can you still enjoy the work of someone who advocates against the rights of others or is just an awful human and still be like yeah their works great, but they suck? In general, it’s something I’m still working on. But this book is not for me. The author is also not for me and there’s just a small thing that because he is the way he is just made me extra uncomfortable while reading it. It made me doubly question the use of slurs thrown haphazardly about as well as the lack of female characters and sexism that might have gone unnoticed when it was published. None less or more so than reading the signing note at the beginning of the book where he called the book a “child-rearing guide”. It was probably supposed to be a joke, we’re going to hope it was a joke.
I’m honestly really glad I didn’t buy this book and just borrowed it off my uncle’s bookshelf out of curiosity. It’s part of a series but I don’t think I’ll continue it. Even though I’m sure my uncle has them all somewhere. This book has won multiple awards, been translated into many languages, and even is on multiple militaries suggested readings. But I think I’m good. Curiosity sated. If I want more I’ll read fanfiction.
Want to read Ender’s Game and make decisions for yourself? Support a local bookstore and get your copy here. Do note however that there are different editions to this book and there are at least two that are somewhat different due to being rewritten.