Classic Review: Ender's Game
This book is going to be a touchy subject for a lot of people because of the loudly expressed homophobia of the author. Ironically enough, Ender’s Game, as with most of Orson Scott Card’s earlier work, revolves around the absolute necessity of empathy.
The story follows six year old genius Andrew “Ender” Wiggin as he is sent to a school for gifted children intended to produce the greatest military minds that the world has ever seen to help overcome an insectoid alien race called Formics or informally “The Buggers,” that have twice before threatened the human race. To be sent off-world to study he is separated from his parents and siblings. Losing his parents doesn’t trouble him terribly as they are people of normal intelligence that he can barely relate to but his relationship with his brother and sister remain significant throughout the story, each representing one end of the spectrum of psychology that makes up Ender. His brother Peter is a violent psychopath, a serial-killer in the making who delighted in tormenting his younger brother while constantly manipulating everyone around him. His sister Valentine represents pure empathy and kindness, but uses that empathy just as skilfully as Peter’s more logical approach to ensure that she gets her way.
Ender’s time in battle school revolves around wargames intended to train him in the skills required to command a fleet of spaceships in combat. Most of the novel follows him as he develops the necessary skills and relationships that he requires to fight the war against the Alien invaders but a significant portion is given over to his struggle to reconcile the two different parts of his personality; the little boy who cried when a wasp was killed and the little general who kicked another six year old unconscious when he was already knocked down, just to make sure all of his bully’s friends got the message. Most of the psychological analysis is done through another game provided by the school, a game that is meant to be purely for entertainment but which actually allows Ender to interact with scenarios that he would never come across in his usual training, like a no-win scenario or a simulation of all of his friends turning on him. He is deliberately isolated and kept ill-informed throughout the story to ensure that he is the best possible weapon to be wielded against the Formics. That trickery from his own side is a key element of the book, based on the idea that to be an effective commander Ender must be so capable of empathising with his enemy that he is unwilling to do them harm.
There was widespread criticism of the book when it was first published because the young characters do not speak like children. For anyone that has experience dealing with extremely gifted children this is of course provably false. Much of what we consider to be “childish” behaviour is simply an absence of adopted “adult” behaviours. The objection to Ender and the other children thinking in complex terms instead of simple ones is a part of the lie that adults tell themselves, that children aren’t real people with real emotions and a real understanding of the world around them just because they lack experience.
It is impossible to completely separate a work from its creator and given the vitriol that Orson Scott Card spouts you would be entirely justified in skipping past this book on moral grounds but the person that he was when he wrote it is not the person that he is now and this story still has many important things to say.