||Its rare that a book comes
along like this one. Ender's Game is special. It is not perfect, by any
means, but it is special. And I loved it.
The edition I have has an introduction by
the author, describing how it became popular with smart people who are
always being bullied, especially in military circles. In it, he
describes how so many people have mailed him over the years, telling him
why they love or hate the book. Most people who love it have been
bullied because they are smart, and don't want to play the physical
bullying games most people are forced to go through in school. The
people who hate the book can't seem to get over the fact that Ender is
six years old, and is put through this kind of rough training. One
states that six year-olds don't talk like the characters in the book,
using all sorts of adult language in their taunting. The author retorts
that perhaps they don't speak like that when the letter-writer is
around, but they do. The only problem I have with his response is that
Ender and his friends (and enemies) don't change their speaking patterns
between the ages of six and twelve. So is it the six-year-olds who are
speaking like this, or the twelve-year-olds?
Ender is a brilliant child, in a
society of brilliant children. But there is something special about him.
He can see solutions to problems that evade everybody else, or that
nobody considers to be problems. In the opening chapter, he is assaulted
by a gang in school. He hates being bullied and wished everybody would
just leave him alone. But when there is no escape from the gang, he
decides to end the bullying as fast as he can. He knows that if he
submits, he will be submitting all his life, and the others who want to
bully him will get braver every time he submits. He also knows that the
gang will want revenge if he simply embarrasses or hurts them. So he
pounds the leader to a pulp; he never learns that he actually killed the
Ender lives in a society build around
fear. Hive-like aliens that humanity calls Buggers have invaded twice,
so the space military can do whatever it likes to make sure they get the
best kids to fight for them. They thought Ender's older brother would do
the job, but he was much too unstable, so they let him go. Peter
tortures Ender (actually a nickname for Andrew) and torments everybody
and everything. They thought his older sister was too tame.
Ender, being the title character of the
book, and being such a brilliant strategist, even when he isn't even
thinking of strategy, is taken up to Battle School at six years old. He
has already been tagged as the future leader of humanity's forces, so
the chief instructor, Graff, singles him out so that everybody will hate
him. By congratulating him on his inherent understanding of
zero-gravity, Graff has made Ender the teacher's pet. As everybody in
elementary or high school knows, being seen as the teacher's pet is
exactly what you don't want, unless you want to be picked on or bullied.
In his training as a newbie, he manages
to make friends, of a sort, and breaks the hold of the one who tried to
bully him on the shuttle up to Battle School on the others. Ender
becomes the leader by default, because he can do things like create new
security systems for his locker and computer, and can send anonymous
emails humiliating his enemies. In the battle room, where people wear
special suits that can be frozen joint by joint by a special tagging
gun, Ender experiments with weightlessness as the others try to figure
out which way is up. He is bouncing off the walls and figuring out
action-reaction when one of other newbies manages to copy him. There is
his first new friendship.
Just when he is starting to feel
comfortable, he is sent to a new group, at an age and experience level
when nobody has ever been sent to a Team. The leader of the Salamander
Team doesn't want him, so essentially sits him on the bench for the
first few games. Instead, Ender observes, and sees that kinds of
strategies the teams use, and knows instinctively what they are doing
wrong. Nobody uses imagination at all. That changes when Ender disobeys
orders and freezes almost an entire opposing team from behind, where
nobody was looking.
Not yet comfortable with his new team,
but starting to get some respect, he is sent to the Rat team, where he
learns even more strategy by a leader reluctant to have him. And he
learns how to be hated even more. He continues to practice with the
newbies he came to Battle School with, learning how to be more of an
asset to his Teams, and the newbies learn some of his technique.
Essentially, he becomes their leader, or co-leader.
When he starts getting comfortable with
Rat Team, he is shifted out again, this time to Dragon Team, where he is
the leader, and all of his team-mates are newbies from different
shuttles. Without getting practice time, and prevented from practicing
with his old comrades, he forms them into a fighting team to contend
with, and they never lose. Even when Ender gets fed up and aims to
finish the game fast, not caring if he wins or loses, his strategy
always works. Not because the other teams are giving him leeway; just
the opposite occurs. They all hate him and his team. They try hard to
beat him, even to the point of cheating. But Ender always has an
imaginative strategy, and the others are trying to imitate what he had
done last time. He never does anything the same twice.
Add to that the plot to keep him
off-balance, the reason for which is only revealed at the end of the
book. Every time Ender starts to feel somewhat comfortable, the teachers
change the rules on him. When he gets too good, they give him minutes'
notice before a Game, while the other team gets hours. They give him two
games in the same day, something previously unheard of. His first game comes weeks
after forming his team, instead of months. They forbid him practice
time, they ban him from seeing his old newbie team, and finally, they
pit him against two teams at once. Each time, he gets more and more fed
up. Not knowing the rules will put that kind of a strain on anybody.
Each time, he takes on a strategy more and more blatantly direct, to end
the game early and get his team back to rest.
The best part about this book is the
way Ender meets the challenges. Each time he faces a problem, he invents
a solution not seen before. In the video arena, he can mentally
catalogue all the attacks the computer throws at him, or at others, and
handily defeats it every time. He forces the other teams to change their
strategies, because, for example, he froze them all as they entered the
arena. When faced with a team that had already been in the Room for a
long time before Dragon arrived, he sends out a single frozen man,
knowing the opposing team is hidden around the edges of the entrance.
Bean freezes most of that team before they know he is out there. When a
"star" blocks his entrance, so he doesn't know what is on the other
side, he ties his team together in a block and uses action-reaction to
throw five men to the gate to claim it, even though practically the only
person left unfrozen was the one who entered. And every time he does
something inventive, the teachers change the rules on him.
The thing is, the reader can't believe
any challenge can be worse than the one that came before. But enter the
next section, and it is. The reader also can't think that Ender could
ever get his way out of the situation by winning, either, yet he does.
It's that amazing.
Two parts of this book drag it down a
little, and I didn't think they were necessary, though perhaps they are
to the sequels. The first is the Giant's Drink. It is a virtual reality
computer game, I think. In it, the players fight their way up to the
Giant's table, and choose one of the drinks the giant lays out for them.
The players always die. Even the teachers don't know what is beyond that
point, because as few students ever reach the Giant's Drink, none have
defeated that part of the game. Yet Ender kills the giant after being so
frustrated with everything around him. He enters a fantasy realm, which
becomes very bizarre. The sequence becomes important in the last chapter
of the book, as humanity colonizes the worlds of the annihilated
Buggers. One Queen egg remains, and as he was defeating them, they took
from his mind the image of the fantasy realm, so he could find the egg,
and the story of the Buggers, how they didn't even realize humanity was
sentient, because humanity cannot share a common mind, so they didn't
even know they were invading. They just thought they had found a
habitable planet to colonize, with all sorts of animals on it. So the
Giant's Drink was used as a method of communication.
The other slow part of the book
concerns Ender's brother and sister. As they get older, they see how the
world is falling apart. They are ten years old, and nearly as brilliant
as Ender. So they become on-line personalities, taking different sides
on worldly issues, even inciting people against certain governments,
especially the Russian confederation, which they know will make a bid
for world domination after the Buggers are defeated and the space
military is obsolete. They do a good job of it, too, and Peter becomes a
world leader at a very young age, reducing the turmoil of the
So how does Ender defeat the Buggers?
He nearly doesn't. After humiliating one of his old leaders in the Game,
Bonzo tries to kill him, but he kills Bonzo, just like he did in the
first chapter of the book with the gang leader. Everybody leaves him
alone after that, but he is promoted to officer's school, after a short
rest time on Earth, because he is just not willing to go on. But the
leaders recruit his sister Valentine, which they know will make him
continue, because Valentine is the only thing in his life worth saving
the world for, and the only person he loves. Valentine hates the leaders
for using her like that, but she knows the risk of losing Ender, too.
At officer's school, Ender finally
finds somebody smarter than him: the person who defeated the Buggers in
the last invasion. He is put through more drills, until he gets good
enough at defeating potential Bugger maneuvers. He finally gets to see
the footage of the last battle, where the Earth military destroyed one
ship, which sent the rest out of control, killing all the Buggers. It
becomes obvious that they had destroyed the Queen, who telepathically
controlled or at least maintained the sanity of the "worker bees".
Ender is given his old Dragon team as
commanders in his next drills, and he defeats Bugger attack after Bugger
attack. What he doesn't know is that these are real attacks against real
Buggers. Humanity has invented the means of communicating instantly
across space, to ships that are already hopping out of near-lightspeed
travel to the known Bugger worlds. We don't get to figure out how
humanity knows where all the worlds are. In the final battle,
which is less climactic than the Games were, he annihilates every living
thing on the Bugger homeworld, destroying all the Queens.
Throughout the entire book, even to the
final battle, he just wishes people would leave him alone. His guilt
when he finds out what he has done makes him very receptive to the last
Queen egg when he finds it, and he knows, when the time comes, he will
be able to let it hatch to recreate the species.
Although not perfect, I liked Ender's
character a lot. We are in his head the entire time, and not much of the
story is wasted with conversation. We get Ender's thoughts on
everything, so we can see him strategizing, analyzing, and get to know
him so well. He is not the most likable person, but it doesn't matter,
because he is incredibly creative, which makes it so much fun to watch
him defeat everybody with the deck stacked against him so unevenly. The
first chapters were quite low-key, which made me wonder why so many
people thought this was such an amazing book. What I didn't realize was
that the book was ramping up and accelerating, so it had to start that
way. It barely let up on the acceleration until the end. While it might
be hard to understand that all of this his happening to a six-year-old,
if the reader can get over that, and treat Ender like just any other
character of any age, watching that acceleration, and Ender's response
to it, is what makes this book so special.