Before there was Katniss Everdeen to topple an nightmarish government, even before there was Harry Potter to stop an evil wizard, there was Ender Wiggin, who had the gruelling task of saving the Earth from aliens.
In his hit novel Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card tells us about a world where “buggers” – an insectoid alien race had twice tried to invade Earth, nearly destroying our civilization. The “bugger” wars would change not only the world politics and technological progress but the way of life of every family everywhere.
The political map has been re-drawn between two superpowers – North America and Russia, with a fragile peace kept between them out of fear of a third bugger invasion. Card later revised the novel due to the collapse of Soviet Union 1991 to give it a more updated political profile.
The fear of a third invasion not only keeps the superpowers from blowing each other up, but it also serves as means to maintain total control of the civilians, as the military has the monopoly on deciding how many children each family may have. In their search for the strategic genius who will win the “bugger” wars once and for all, the government monitors every child since they’re born. The children that prove to be especially gifted and especially cruel are then recruited into Battle School, where they play strategic games and learn space battles via simulations.
Ender is a “third”, a term used as a pejorative. Nobody wants a third in their family, and Ender’s parents were assigned to produce one, since their two eldest children didn’t meet the military’s requirements. Peter – the older brother is a sadistic psychopath who tortures Ender and their sister Valentine on a daily basis, so he’s out. Valentine is too compassionate to be taught to kill. This leaves Ender, and the grown-ups tell him in no uncertain terms that they have bet all their resources on him, so he better not let them down. The kid is six.
Eventually, Ender accepts the offer to go to Battle School, not so much because he wants to but because he needs to get away from Peter. Little does he know is that whatever sadistic games his brother used to play, it was child’s play compared to what’s waiting for him in Battle School.
Only six years old, not only does Ender have to master the game and meet the expectations the whole world has put on him, but he must navigate the most competitive and brutal institution in the world, as the other children are envious of him, and the adults are going out of their way to test his abilities and his sanity. Ender is quick to learn who the real enemy is.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter and Valentine – the other two child prodigies have begun to understand that the world order is shifting, and they try their hand at shaping public opinion in their struggle to maintain world peace and secure their place (well, Peter’s place) at the top of the food chain.
Ender’s Game is considered by many to be the first YA science fiction novel, and it’s here that we can find a lot of characteristics that have since become popular and, dare I say tired tropes in YA dystopia. We have the young savior, a.k.a. the Chosen One; the antagonistic adults as well as the imbecile parents. We have the oppressive totalitarian society. And games. Lots and lots of games, simulations, and exciting challenges that balance out the dark tone and the violence.
Ender’s Game was originally a short story that Card wrote after having read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (Hari Seldon, ftw!). He later adapted it to a full-length novel which was published in 1985. As he states I his foreword for the 1991 edition, the sole purpose of Ender’s Game was to be a set-up for another book he really wanted to write, titled Speaker for the Dead which he would write and publish in 1986.
For a book that only exists to be a set-up for another book, Ender’s Game can perfectly well stand on its own and not be a part of a franchise. Beneath the pretty straightforward plot lies a complex story, and a good-hearted message.
Since its publication, Ender’s Game has won a whole bunch of literary awards, gained a cult following, and is even a recommended reading on the U.S. Marine Corps Professional Reading List, something I find ironic considering that the book’s ultimate message is that of peace and diplomacy.
Despite all the critical success, Ender’s Game has also received its fair share of criticism, specifically for its depiction of violence among children as well as glorification of violence itself. I do not agree with that line of criticism at all. Whatever violence exists in the book it’s there to illustrate the harsh reality of the world that Ender is a part of. The most infected and destructive conflict the prepubescent Messiah is facing is the one with his own dark side. His strive to suppress his own bloodthirst and prove that he is not like his brother Peter is what drives Ender’s story forward.
According to Card himself, the book also received a lot of criticism from social workers and other child care professionals who didn't find Card’s depiction of gifted children realistic claiming that his characters don’t act like children at all. In his foreword, Card responds to the critics, saying that:
“Children are a perpetual self-renewing underclass, helpless to escape from the decisions of adults until they become adults themselves.”.
He felt that it was important for him to depict children that saw themselves as well-rounded individuals and not the way adults perceive children.
Card also cites a number of fan letters from some of his younger readers telling him how much they appreciated finding characters they could recognize themselves in, and to finally find an author who “gets it”.
I was not a child prodigy, nor did I ever know one, so I cannot speak as to the authenticity of Card’s portrayal of child prodigies. But I think that anyone who has ever been a child and had to navigate the post-apocalyptic jungle that is secondary school will recognize themselves in Ender and in his peers. Boy genius or not, Ender’s struggles did resonate with the child in me, and that’s the reason why I keep coming back to YA.