'Ender's Game' by Orson Scott Card
It is difficult to categorise Ender’s Game. This difficulty comes not from its genre – Ender’s Game is very clearly science fiction -- but from the fact that it is not clear who this novel is aimed at; it features a child protagonist, yet is not a children’s book. Young adult? Arguably; the main character is young, gifted and bullied, someone who is both The Chosen One and yet The Underdog at the same time; popular character tropes in young adult male protagonists. There are also plenty of action scenes and ADULTS ARE EVIL to keep young readers entertained and self-righteous. But it features themes that perhaps may be overlooked by younger people. The politics, the background, the psychology of the book are quite very gritty, and the ADULTS ARE EVIL aspect of the book doesn’t feel like it panders to the younger readers, it feels – oddly ̶ realistic; like it’s aimed at the adults. So is it an adult book? Not necessarily, but possibly. Although the writing may be too simplistic and some of the messages are hammered home a bit too bluntly (and it’s also quite short) there is nothing to say that adults, myself included, won’t enjoy it. Indeed, the majority do it seems; it is critically acclaimed and recommended reading for some American military organisations (according to Wikipedia). This blurring of the target demographic is no bad thing from a reader’s perspective, but makes things difficult when it comes to criticising the novel.
Wait…maybe it’s a bildungsroman?
Wow, ok. I’ll come back to that.
The first thing one notices when reading Ender’s Game is that it has aged extremely well. For a 1985 science fiction novel it feels remarkably current. Card seems to have anticipated the rise of the blogosphere and the impact of the internet had it remained purely in the hands of the elite and the academics. The novel even predicts the military’s use of computer games to train soldiers, and interstellar colonialism does not look too outlandish in today’s climate. The novel seems plausible, contemporary and yet still futuristic, which is very impressive. The second is that it reads very much like an action movie. The tactics of battle scenes are lovingly detailed but, crucially, are not boring (a boon considering how many of them there are). The dialogue has near Top Gun levels of slickness, and the expositional segments at the beginning of each chapter never seem to pass up an opportunity for a pessimistic one-liner. In any other book this could be tacky but Ender’s Game is among many things a commentary on the military, so this style of speech is appropriate, not grating. The slang that the boys adopt is also palatable, much better than most authors’ attempts to replicate teenage dialects. The problem that initially arose with this action movie format is that in many ways the novel also retains the predictability of an action movie: The underdog is ostracised, eventually through innovation and risk-taking he becomes the best, he is ostracised even more because of his brilliance, he triumphs even more until, in spite of everything, he and his ragtag group of outcasts defeat the main bad guys all by themselves. At one point Ender Wiggin even has an old mentor who turns out to be a war hero.
The plot was very standard fare until the ending, however. The ending was almost anti-climactic, but ̶ and here’s the key thing ̶ in a good way. After the previous gung-ho attitude and the message of ‘Winning is more important than anything’ being plastered through every chapter it was extremely refreshing to have an ending that performed a 180 ͦturn and reversed the meta-heroic theme. Because of this the novel almost deserves the predictable format, since the consequences were so profound. The resolution was not a clean one, and it worked.
So…is it a bildungsroman?
Well, yes and no. And more ‘no’ than ‘yes’. This statement does not extend to the series as a whole, since I have not yet read the other books but Ender’s Game on its own cannot really be classed as a bildungsroman. The online edition of Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A novel that has as its main theme the formative years or spiritual education of one person’, and this could be true if you count the physical, mental and spiritual thrashing Ender receives at as an ‘education’. But I would hesitate to define it as such because it does not edify him. He doesn't learn anything he didn't already know. Ender emerges by the end not a man, but a broken individual trying to trying to undo both the damage inflicted upon him and the damage he has wrought. If anything, it is an atavistic coming-of-age tale. It’s Lord of the Flies in space.
It is easy to see why ‘Ender’s Game’ remains a seminal novel. It occupies a bracingly grey moral area, raises questions on the issues of military ethics, child soldiers and challenges the notion of victory. The majority of characters are well developed and psychological effects are deftly dealt with. It handles mature themes but, appropriately, in a childish way, which highlights the inherent childishness of war; even the title emphasises this. Every aspect of the story is relevant, again contributing towards that movie impression. This is a positive thing, though it does make the novel rather lean. Some of the morals are overt and heavy-handed, as though the author was afraid that the readers would otherwise miss them. But that does not detract from the novel, which achieves the perfect balance of cautionary wisdom and entertainment.
Review by Shana Laurent