REVIEW: ENDER'S GAME
Few books are as widely revered as Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME. It's widely referenced and I always had an idea of what the basic plot points were but never actually experienced the cultural phenomenon for myself. I went in with some pretty lofty expectations, hoping this piece of classic science fiction would live up to it's sterling reputation.
5/5 ENDER'S GAME is not only a brilliant scifi ensemble, but also a deep and occasionally harrowing examination of what it means to be both a part of and apart from humanity.
One of the toughest aspects of this story is that nearly all of the key characters are young children. Ender, Petra, Bean, Alai, Valentine, and Peter are some of the more notable members of the cast, but there are a host of others who play an important part in Ender's journey towards saving humanity. All of them are children who never really get to have a childhood. They're picked as the best and brightest that humanity has to offer and are asked to be brilliant for the rest of us. It's a big burden to bear and Card paints a stark picture of how this pressure molds them into pseudo-adults. All too early, these characters learn the meaning of evil and are exposed to injustice much sooner than they should be. But in spite of their early maturity, it's also evident at times that they really are just kids trying to play the role of something more.
Ender's character is one of the most compelling I think I've ever seen in a piece of fiction and I found myself relating to certain aspects of his character throughout the story. In spite of being extraordinary in every physical and mental way imaginable, he's also flawed in just enough ways to make him someone my heart ached for. I don't know if I've ever routed for a character more than I did for Ender Wiggen and there was this bizarre sense of responsibility I felt for his pain by simply reading through the story. What's most interesting about him though is how dangerous he is. The idea of having a boy his age be as deadly as some of the most powerful action heroes is definitely a disturbing one. It also messed with me a little since there's still an innocence about Ender that can only come with a character of such youth.
The Ender Universe is one that is both glittering and shrouded in darkness. There's a certain timelessness to a lot of the science fiction technology that shows up. From the spacecraft, to the "desks" that the kids use for their schoolwork, there was just enough description to give me an idea of what these things were capable of, but never so much that I didn't find myself using my own imagination to decide what exactly they looked like. It was really interesting to read a piece of science fiction with such and open-ended set of visuals since most novels in this genre painstakingly describe each technology employed or reference common science fiction fare which most readers will instantly be able to see in their mind's eye. It's a rather bold choice to build up a world in this way, but I liked it quite a bit. It gives the book a lot of flexibility in that I would have no idea what year it was written in by simply reading through it. This may be one reason why the story continues to resonate so well with audiences so many years after it's publication.
There are three main areas in which the story takes place: earth, the battle school, and a third, more secluded locale where the finale is set. Each is crafted with a loving hand and without spoiling too much, I will say that a lot more time is spent on Earth than I expected. This is a good thing too because the political intrigue it holds is quite entertaining and learning about things happening there helped bring some clarity to events taking place in space. It's not quite a dystopia, but rather a world that is eerily as dysfunctional as the one that exists today. The battle school is a whole world unto itself. The rules are different there and so are the people. This is a place that's entirely meant to raise up a generation of soldiers by nearly any means necessary. This is also the most interesting setting in the book, largely because of the battle room where gravity doesn't really exist. It's in this room that Ender grows into the warrior that his teachers want him to be. It's where he discovers himself, defines his values, and develops his strategic capabilities. This may not be The Hunger Games, but some of the mock battles held in this room are definitely not gentle either. In the interest of having no spoilers, I'll just say that the end of the book brings readers to a couple of wonderfully exotic locations where the story's climax and resolution take place. There's also a very interesting virtual space referred to only as the "fantasy game" where some intriguing, albeit trippy, moments take place. All in all, there's plenty of science fiction goodness going on in this world and I found every inch of it to be worthwhile.
It has been a very long time since I've read something as emotionally draining as this piece of fiction. I just wanted to see the suffering end for these children, but Card gives short enough respites from the darkness which helped keep things from getting heavy enough where I wanted to put the book down. It's an elegant mix of pain and relief that kept me rushing through the pages with a desperate need to know how it would all end. That said, this story is certainly not for the faint of heart. It's unapologetic abuse of it's young characters is really quite difficult to bear and what's more disturbing still are the implications it has on what it means to be human. It's actually sort of hard to imagine this as a piece of Young Adult literature. I know YA being a genre or sub-genre is more of a recent development in how people categorize books, but there are some distinct indications in Card's writing that this is supposed to appeal to younger readers.In my opinion, this isn't really who I would recommend the book to since I feel like it's about as much of a kid's book as LORD OF THE FLIES is. I suppose on some level the story does appeal to anyone who's felt like they're different for one reason or another and it does do a good job of trying to reconcile that type of pain. That said, it just felt a lot more like a look at the adult world through a child's perspective.
This idea is reinforced by the brief moments that feature dialogue between the adult characters who run the school as well as with two key members of Ender's family. In these moments, readers get a break from the excitement of Ender's life and are offered some deeper insight into the finer points of how this world works and what it takes to be an important part of it. The socio-psychological depth that is explored is partially what makes me think this is almost more of an adult book. There are a lot of insightful statements made about the topics of politics and war which, while not totally inappropriate for kids, probably wouldn't really be fully appreciated by them either. In his prelude to the book, Card argues the point that children are often very adult-like in their thoughts and actions. As someone who's still fairly young himself, I definitely don't disagree with this statement, but I think there's also a number of things that a child shouldn't have to worry about or experience until they are older. The kids in this story are definitely not shielded from very much and in some cases are even manipulated into maturing way earlier than they would if given a normal childhood. It's the way that they're robbed of their innocence that I found to be the most disturbing and the shocking twist at the end definitely lands the final blow. Fortunately though, there's also a lot of childish charm scattered throughout which helps lighten the mood. Sometimes it's a funny quip and in other's its an inventive way of dealing with bullying, but in all cases, it definitely reminded me that these really are just kids trying to find their way like any other person their age.
As a completely unrelated side, one thing that made me genuinely uncomfortable about this story is how frequently the characters are described as being naked. It's never in a sexual way, but I still found the nudity to be confusing and unnecessary. Maybe it's just a generational thing, but I don't think it's too much to ask for the kids to have been wearing underwear at the very least during scenes where they're hanging out in their bunks.
I'm definitely glad to have finally read this classic piece of science fiction. It exceeded all of my wildest expectations and I can easily see why this is such a cherished story. A part of me is glad that I waited till adulthood to read it though. I think, like many YA titles, I got more out of it coming in with a more mature point of view than I ever would have as a high school or middle school reader.
There's a lot of very deep thought that went into crafting this narrative and I love how much it made me pause to think about what was really going on. I felt very deeply for each of the characters and became invested in their world very quickly. There's not much to say other than that if you haven't read ENDER'S GAME already, you should definitely pick it up.