As with 'Neuromancer', the Hugo Award-winner in 1985 for Best Novel, I've read 'Ender's Game' before and more than once. It won the following year, 1986, and its sequel, 'Speaker for the Dead' won in 1987, marking the first time that any author had won two years in a row. That's quite an achievement and it's perhaps more of an achievement here, because Card was relatively unknown, on his debut novel, which he has said he mostly wrote to set up its lead character, Ender Wiggin, for 'Speaker for the Dead'. That's almost like suggesting that this is an odd example of a prequel written before its original, but hey.
Part of that is in the fact that Ender is going to be the most important human being in his lifetime and quite a distance beyond, but he isn't when this book begins, at least not yet. He's a kid and a young one at that, only six years old when the International Fleet remove his monitor, apparently ending his shot at going to Battle School and perhaps becoming the saviour of the human race by winning the ongoing interstellar war with the Formics, insectoid aliens that Card unfortunately, given his history of speaking out against homosexuality, colloquially dubs "buggers".
Instead, it turns out to be all a test, and Ender passes it by killing his similarly aged bully, not that he is at all aware at the time that Stilson dies. He simply did what he thought must be done in order to stop the bully's inappropriate behaviour. And so Colonel Graff whisks him up to Battle School. It must be said here that Ender is an unusual child in many ways, even before we learn about his strategic genius. For a start, he's a Third, meaning that he's the third child born to a couple in this overpopulated future Earth on which only two are allowed, in a nod to China's famous one-child policy. All three Wiggins are clearly some sort of experiment conducted by the Battle School, whatever the science behind it happens to be.
And all three Wiggins turn out to be massively important, though Ender's elder siblings initially seem to be there as failures that led the way to him. I thought of them rather like Goldilocks's three bears in that. The eldest is Peter, a budding psychopath who bullies his siblings and tortures little animals, but is seen as too brutal to become the planet's great military leader. The second is Valentine, almost Peter's exact emotional opposite, was seen as too compassionate to serve in the same role. So to Ender, half of one and half of the other, who turns out to be just right, if only Colonel Graff can guide him well.
'Ender's Game' began as a short story, published in 'Analog' in 1977, but this novel version expands on it in every direction, starting sooner and ending later. The meat of it, of course, was in the short story and that's all about Ender in Battle School. He's six when he goes there and he's ten when we reach the end of that section of the story, which is the heart of everything, so he's a highly unusual lead character for an adult book. This is not YA whatsoever and it visits places, especially during its most crucial moments, that would be highly problematic in YA. Of course, Ender is also highly intelligent, notably so, and that's another of the book's most endearing aspects. Highly intelligent young readers would find much value in Ender and his story.
What surprised me on this read, and casting my mind back to previous readings, surprised me then too, is that I couldn't put this down. That's one of the routine clichés that book reviewers trawl out to point out that a particular book is worthwhile and it's used so often that it's lost its impact. However, once I'd got a couple of chapters into 'Ender's Game', on perhaps my fourth reading over what must be at least thirty years, I couldn't put this down. I finished it at about five in the morning, knowing I had to be up in far too short a time, because, once I was back on board Battle School with Ender, this novel became the most important thing in my life until it was done. I may have gone to the bathroom a couple of times in that period and I may have cleaned my glasses or paused to take my medication for the night, but, in an abidingly true sense, I couldn't put this down.
Much of that is because there's a real sense of urgency to this. The human race is up against it, because the Formics (sorry, I'm not going to think of them as "buggers") are more numerous than us and better equipped and more advanced. We won our first encounter with them, through a legendary manouevre by a legendary leader, Mazer Rackham, but there's little trust in us being able to repeat that whenever the Formics come back. What we need is a new legendary leader, one whose genius can make up for our lack of numbers, knowledge and technology. And, while it's abundantly clear from moment one that we fully expect Ender Wiggin to fill this role, there's always the possibility that he won't be, that he'll flake out and fail or that he'll merely take too long to become who he's destined to be.
Another part of it is that he's massively sympathetic, especially to anyone reading who is or was a very bright kid. We connect to his abilities, which we never seem to question, even though they're inherently more than ours, however bright we were as kids, because it's so good to be represented. Also, because of how bright we were as kids, we were generally bullied and ostracised. Colonel Graff makes sure from the outset that Ender is isolated even from his fellow students at Battle School, all of whom are bright and many of whom are very bright, so that he gets bullied and ostracised too. He therefore becomes a wish fulfilment version of ourselves. We remember back to what happened to us and relish how Ender's able to stop what we couldn't.
Also, while this is called 'Ender's Game', suggesting that there's only one, there are a lot of games here and they all resonate. The most obvious one is the one that the students play every day at Battle School in a zero gravity environment, a cross between wargaming and paintball. When Ender gets there, it's a sort of sport, with teams and scoreboards and glory. Over time, it becomes clear that it's all about him and the powers that be start to change the rules in order to test him and challenge him, eventually in a transparenty unfair way. So the sport that isn't is Ender's Game because he's so good at it, but there's a larger game in play that's him against the organisers and that's Ender's Game too.
We can't forget that there's also the really big one, the war with the Formics. That's Enders Game over everything else. And there's a personal game that he plays on his Battle School supplied computer, the seemingly open world adventure that gradually becomes something else. This turns out to have just as much importance as any of the other games, though not in ways we expect, and again we're setting up for 'Speaker for the Dead', which I'll be tackling next month.
Looking back at the thirty-plus years of Hugo Award-winning novels that I've worked through before it, there are plenty of thoroughly important books (like Stranger in a Strange Land, Lord of Light and The Dispossessed) that I didn't particularly enjoy and plenty of thoroughly enjoyable books (such as The Big Time, Ringworld and Gateway) that don't seem as important to posterity. It's the ones that manage to be both of those things that resonate with me the most: Way Station, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Dream Snake. And Ender's Game. This is as enjoyable as any previous winner and it does things that no previous winner did. That last part should be underlined by reminding you that its predecessor as Hugo Award-winner for Best Novel was something as groundbreakingly different as 'Neuromancer'. That's a pretty major achievement. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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