Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Ender's Game

Hi, I'm Sue, the enemy's gate is down, and I am an Anomaly. About a year ago (or maybe it was two...), a friend said to me, “You know how during the battle against Rat Army, Ender and Bean...” My face went blank, and I said, “Who did what with rats?” Which lead him to discover that I had never read Ender's Game. He was shocked. Looking back, now that I have read it multiple times, I'm shocked that I hadn't read it before then, and it's since become one of my absolute favorites.

Ender's Game was written by Orson Scott Card and originally published as a short story in 1977, and expanded to novel length in 1985 and won both the Nebula (1985) and the Hugo (1986) for best novel.

About 100 years in the future, Earth was (is? will be?) invaded by an insectoid race known to the general population as the “Buggers.” The human race only survived thanks to the heroics and tactics of the leader of a small reserve patrol force. In the following 80 years, the governments of world have come together, relying on tenuous treaties in a difficult political climate, in an effort to improve Earth's security. A selective breeding program was established in the attempt to produce brilliant military minds - a family can only have two children without special governmental approval. Each child wears a monitor on the back of their neck until it is determined whether or not there are suited for military training and taken to the Battle School, a space station in Earth orbit.

Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a third. His parents were given special dispensation from the government to have a third child (really, it's more like Ender was commissioned) because of the promise shown by their other children, Peter and Valentine. All three children are absolutely brilliant, but Peter was found to be too violent (and perhaps, unhinged) for military training, while Valentine was too philosophical and passive.

Ender is taken away to Battle School at the ripe old age of 6. He attends mathematics and physics classes, studies military history and tactics, but the real education comes from “the game.” Armies of students are pitted against each other in a zero-gravity battle room at the center of the station. Ender is able to observe these battles, quickly evaluate the strategies used by other students, and then innovate and employ methods that no one else at the Battle School has ever seen or imagined. After participating in only one battle, he has changed the way that the game is played.

Ender advances quickly through the Battle School, becoming the Commander of Dragon Army by the age of 10. His teachers see his brilliance and potential, and are convinced early on that he will be the one to command the International Fleet when it reaches the Bugger homeworld. They often walk the very thin line between what is best for Ender as a living, breathing, human boy, and what is best for the IF – they alienate him from the others so that he learns to depend on no one; they encourage bullying so he feels the underdog; the put him in seemingly “impossible” situations and watch him figure out how to win. It's absolutely brutal on Ender, and each chapter at the Battle School begins with teachers arguing over how far he can be pushed, physically and psychologically, before breaking.

While Ender is at Battle School, Peter has come up with a plan to gain influence using “the nets” (Card basically predicted usenet and the blogosphere with this book), and employs Valentine's help. Valentine writes as Demosthenes, advocating war with Russia, and Peter writes as Locke, who has a moderate voice and calls for diplomacy. They both gain audiences throughout the population, including the highest seats in the government, who have no inclination that they're reading the works of children. Peter, the true evil genius, is hoping to create a climate of political upheaval and emergency, so that he can reveal himself as the mastermind behind the great Locke and seize power.

And that's where I stop, for fear of spoilers. Believe me when I tell you that I'm barely scratching the surface. There is so much depth in this story, so much richness, and so many plot twists that are truly surprising. At the same time, it's full of classic sci-fi conventions (that may not have been “classic” yet, at the time – I don't know).

I've obviously never been to military training, and I don't claim to be a super genius, but I identify with Ender. I know what it's like to be the odd kid in the "gifted" classes with no friends, singled out by teachers for one reason or another, and wishing only to fit in. Seeing Ender begin to understand the "why"s of his situation helped me to reconcile some things of my own from my public school days (some I didn't even know needed that reconciliation). But it didn't just give me a new perspective on my past - For months after my first time through this book, I saw and experienced it everywhere. Nearly every situation I found myself in, I could relate back to Ender's Game, and I think I my reactions at those times would have been different if not for how this story affected me. It sounds crazy, I know, but it's true.

There's no real antagonist. We don't deal with the Buggers, or the war, but for a few pages. Peter's not a villian, just a political genius bent on world domination. Ender's Game is not about the war, or any obvious conflict. It's about the training to prepare for that war. It's about determination, commitment, innovation, experimentation, failure, and the fear of failure. It's about acceptance, fitting in, changing relationships, trust, self-realization and self-doubt, exhaustion, and resignation. It's about children, but it is not a children's book.

Conclusion: Read this book. And after you rear this book, read the rest of the series. Ender's story continues in Speaker for the Dead and 4 other novels. Card has also written a parallel novel, Ender's Shadow, which is a retelling of Ender's Game from the point-of-view of Bean, a member of Ender's Dragon Army at Battle School. Bean's story then continues in 3 more “Shadow” novels, with one more in the planning stages.

My rating: 4.9/5 (Nothing's perfect.)

Anomaly Staff Writer
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1 comment:

dinda said...

Great review!

I found this book after asking everyone I knew if there were any SciFi, futuristic books that depicted schools of the future as any thin other than what they are now. And also after having visited the SciFi Museum in Seattle, only to discover that 90% of the "future" imagined by most involved weapons technology. Very disappointing.

Even TNG's few classroom scenes were not much different from what today's classrooms are like. I was/am doing research on TCOT - The Classroom of Tomorrow and while Ender's Battle School was using advanced settings, the premise, to teach our children to fight war, was again disappointing in that respect.

I loved Ender's Game for all the reason you said and at the heart, Card hit the nail on the head with the isolationist writing but still feel a little sad that I can't find a SciFi book that shows a completely innovative learning environment for kids. And maybe that's been my calling all along, to make the new world of learning happen.