My new year’s resolution was to read more widely, even wildly; I asked REaD ALERT subscribers what I should read and received many strong suggestions. From these suggestions I created a short list. Given my reviewing duties at Booklist, I was sure it had to be a short list, and I was right; it wasn’t until my older son’s spring break that I found myself with time to tackle it.
And so, in April, while camping in the Utah desert—in surroundings that reminded me of a beam-me-down episode in Star Trek—I found myself reading Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. I’m sure that many of you are aghast: how can I not have read Ender’s Game, an award-winning, best-selling novel that is surely a modern sf classic?
Well, I did read sf growing up. I read Bradbury, and Heinlein, even the odd Larry Niven, but by the time Ender’s Game was published, my tastes had changed. Reading the Beats, I had become more interested in the North Beach scene than a journey to the Crab Nebula. And while William S. Burroughs definitely incorporated some sf imagery into his works, I think I thought that spaceships just weren’t cool. Uncoolness isn’t my objection to anything as a grown-up—and I often read reviews of sf in Booklist that pique my interest—but, like a lot of adults, my tastes grew narrower as I got older. As we refine our interests we sometimes forget to explore. But that’s what this project is about: trying to save my reading tastes from atrophy.
I will admit that, to some degree, I feel uncomfortable discussing the reading of best-selling and beloved novels as though it were new and uncharted territory—but hey, the world of literature is large, and we all have our galaxy-sized blind spots.
So, anyway: the book. I really, really enjoyed it. To say that I loved it might be too strong because I do think that my aesthetic tastes are just less oriented toward space and starships than cities and forests and creaky wooden floors. But good stories and characters are universal, and I was completely sucked in by Card’s tale.
There’s probably not much point in recapping the plot: if you don’t know already, it’s about a young boy, Ender, who is recruited as humankind’s last hope against an alien race, the “buggers.” Ender is sent into space, to Battle School, where he progresses through a series of war games designed to test him and develop his ability as a leader. We are privy to the conversations of his superiors as they manipulate him, pitting him against their other recruits and making the challenges harder and harder until it seems that Ender is about to break.
Even if Ender is destroyed in the process, it’s worth it, of course, to save humanity. But is humanity really in danger? Ender begins to wonder. Rumors spread that he’s being used as a pawn, that the threat of the buggers is just a tool in a complicated political game. This doubt introduces a wonderful ambiguity to Ender’s journey. Are the buggers the enemy—or are we?
(Side note: Ender’s mentor-slash-nemesis is named Graff, which certainly gave me pause the first time I saw it on the page.)
A secondary plotline, with Ender’s brother and sister effecting political change on earth through the adoption of anonymous online personas, is less successful. Although that may be in part because, with the benefit of hindsight, the idea of two anonymous bloggers swaying worldwide opinion just isn’t credible. In the mid-1980s, that was probably more plausible. Nobody yet knew how crowded and cacophonous the blogosphere would become.
The thing that struck me most about Ender’s Game was Card’s decision to use children as the protagonists. Not just young adults, but children. Ender is six years old when he’s taken from his family, and the oldest recruits are in their teens. All of them seem prematurely aged. Their lack of normal childhoods and their inability to play is poignant and adds a real edge to the story. And, in some ways, it seems to anticipate a recent trend of old-before-their-time protagonists such as Katniss in The Hunger Games (also on my reading list). Rites of passage and young characters thrust into the roles of adults are, of course, as old as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Flies, and adolescent suspicions that adults are manipulating them are naturally going to resonate. But it feels to me as though young people’s worries about the future are making them respond to darker and darker visions of it. And Card’s vision of a six-year-old who is solely responsible for saving the world is a signal moment in literature.
I know there are more Ender books but, much as I enjoyed this one, I doubt I’ll get to them. It’s whetted my appetite for reading exploration and, the next time I get a break from reviewing, I’ll be on to the next book on my list.