Book Review: Ender’s Game

Orson Scott CardI recently finished reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It’s the first of his novels that I’ve read (and it has been on my ‘to-read’ list for ages). It is Card’s break out book, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. He has since published a series of books featuring the character “Ender” (a nickname for Andrew) as well as a number of other series.

Ender’s Game is part Harry Potter, part Hunger Games, and part Tron. Though, it’s fair to say that all of those stories borrowed from Ender rather than the other way around. The earliest copyright date listed in my edition is 1977, so Card’s book preceded the stories I just listed by more than a few years.

Ender Wiggin lives in a future earth in which families are allowed to have only two children a piece. Third children, like Ender, are permissible only by the government, and only if they need them as soldiers. Ender is a social outcast (a “third,” which is a bad thing) but unusually brilliant. At a young age he’s taken by the government to Battle School and trained as a soldier. The human race had faced near extinction against the Buggers (a giant insect-like race that wanted to invade the planet) in recent history. Though the Buggers were defeated there is still a threat that they might one day return. The government is therefore proactive in its search for new military leaders and Ender is one of their best candidates.

Most of the book takes place in the Battle School. We see Ender grow up a few years while he’s there. He experiences some of the normal “coming of age” trials that you might expect, but it’s all set against the backdrop of a boot camp-like military school for kids. Unlike The Hunger Games these kids aren’t fighting to their deaths. They use video games and a simulation room for their practice battles. (This room is something like the Star Trek “holo deck” or the “Danger Room” from X-Men comic books.) I was glad it wasn’t a book about kids killing other kids. (That was one thing about the The Hunger Games that just didn’t sit well with me.)

There are many things to praise about this book. The writing, the story, the setting – all of it is top-notch and highly believable. I was completely sucked in to this future world and couldn’t wait to find out how it was all going to end. I both listened to this book on my commute to work and read the novel at home at the same time. Whether I was reading or listening, I hated to stop.

I think Card’s greatest strength is his ability to create varied, dynamic characters. Like the gang of kids who fill Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter series, there is a full cast of dynamic characters that fill the Battle School in Ender’s Game. I have clear pictures of each of them etched in my brain. The way they look, the way they talk, they way they interact with Ender … I know them like they are real friends (or enemies). I recently blogged about a book by Card called Characters and Viewpoint. I read Ender’s Game so that I could see how Card put into the practice what he teaches in that book. I was not disappointed! Card can create vivid characters that readers will care about as well as any of the best popular novelists today. And he is head and shoulders above other writers in the genre of science fiction. (I usually find that sci-fi novels have interesting plots, unique ideas, and flat characters. Not so with Ender’s Game.)

In addition to telling Ender’s story, Card also raises questions about military training, how and why the future world might value religion and family, to what end humanity should go to for self-preservation, and a few other thoughtful questions. I wouldn’t say the book is about those topics, but they are certainly there in the background.

I only found one element of this book a bit unsatisfying, and that was the ending. I wanted more resolution between Ender a few key characters, specifically, between Ender and his brother Peter. I was also surprised by how much of Ender’s life was covered in the last chapter. It felt like one of those movie endings where the story is left open enough to come back for a sequel if they need to, but also closed enough that it could really just be the end of the story. I always find that a bit ambiguous. Maybe at the time it was written Card or the publisher wasn’t sure about a sequel? Who knows … However, Ender’s Game did indeed become the first in a whole series of books, so perhaps there’s more to the Ender-Peter story coming. I guess I’ll have to read more to find out!

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