The movie version of Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel Ender's Game comes out today in theaters throughout the US and Canada. I have many friends who read this book as kids and absolutely love it, so I approached it cautiously as someone who may have missed the window, but I was going to try anyway. The idea of adults using children for stuff that even some adults shouldn't even be doing is always intriguing to me, as is the idea of children growing up too fast too soon because of the world around them.
The Situation: Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a third. What that means is that his parents had more than the regulation two children allowable under Earth's two-children policy, so Ender is the youngest of three, after his older brother Peter and his sister Valentine. Because thirds are not common, and are technically against the rules, Ender is tormented relentlessly for it by the kids at school, and even receives constant reminders about it from his parents who endure their own hardship for making the decision. But even though Ender is a third, he is the only one of the three Wiggin children that is accepted into the Battle School. He has been recognized as somewhat of a prodigy, and becomes one of the youngest kids admitted into the Battle School: a school made for training young children to serve in the military, and ultimately fight against the alien race that has twice fought against humanity. Ender enters the school when he is only six years old, but the teachers and leaders believe they have made the right decision. And if they are wrong, it could mean the end of the human race.
The Problem: It was bad enough when Ender was picked on at school. It was even worse that he was picked on and tortured at home by his older brother, Peter. But much to his frustration, it looks like he will be picked on in Battle School as well as he is immediately singled out as one of the best and brightest, and the other children resent him for it. Ender just wants to do well and make friends, and while he is allowed and encouraged to do well, making friends is never really an option. Just as he starts to get along with someone, the rules change or he is transferred to another group. The better he does, the more intent some students are to hurt him. And it doesn't look like the adults plan to ever step in and do anything about it, and are constantly hiding the truth from him. Meanwhile, Ender also fears that he does so well at the Battle School only because he is more like his sadistic brother Peter than he wants to be. Why is he so good at the games? Why is he so good at hurting others? And at what point do the games stop, and the real fighting begins.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel set in the not-so-distant future. Aliens, referred to mostly as "buggers" because of their insect-like appearance, have twice threatened the human race so that now much effort and resources are put into making sure that never happens again, even if it means taking children as young as six years old and making them into soldiers. It's pretty much war at its absolute worst. It's life under the constant threat of invasion, and what human beings are willing to do to remove that threat. But kids are almost bred for this as all three of the Wiggin children were monitored to see if they were even right for Battle School. In the end it was decided only Ender was up to the task. And the fact that he was even monitored a year longer than Peter becomes a sore spot for the older brother, making the teasing and torturing even worse. For the entire book, despite his best efforts, Ender is never really in control of his life. The book is like a crash-course in manipulation. But it is also like a case-study on gifted children and how their differences affect their lives, for better and for worse. There are many moments when Ender would prefer that he wasn't so special, but then again, he enjoys it, and he likes being the best, even if it means dealing with the isolation, and also the unwanted attention from everyone else.
My Verdict: It makes me sad that it took me so long to read this book, because now I doubt I will take the time to not only read the other four books in the Ender Saga, but also the many other books that make up the Ender's Game series. Seriously, there is a whole Enderverse out there that Card dreamed up. Fortunately for me, Ender's Game does just fine as a stand alone novel. Actually, it does more than just fine. The ending does not leave anything hanging, but it also doesn't just wrap everything in a neat little bow either. People die, people are manipulated, lives are changed, for better and for worse, and relationships are broken. And Ender himself will never be the same...actually, most of the people in this book, adults included, will never be the same. But even so, Card manages not to crush the reader's soul. There are plenty of tense moments, moments that show the evil that human beings (even kids) are capable of, but also some glimpses of kindness and hope that make anyone believe, even Ender, that we're not in fact all monsters.
Favorite Moment: I pretty much enjoyed it whenever Ender outsmarted someone, and that happens a lot. No matter what they threw at him to challenge him or push him, sometimes even to trip him up, he bested them every time.
Favorite Character: Ender does manage to make some friends in both Battle and Command School, one of which being Alai. He is one of the few people who remains a comfort to Ender throughout the book, even when they weren't in close proximity to each other. It is these types of friendships that will help Ender make it through.
Favorite Quote: From Dink, an older kid at the Battle School: "I know, you've been here a year, you think these people are normal. Well, they're not. We're not. I look in the library, I call up books on my desk. Old ones, because they won't let us have anything new, but I've got a pretty good idea what children are, an we're not children. Children can lose sometimes, and nobody cares. Children aren't in armies, they aren't commanders, they don't rule over forty other kids, it's more than anybody can take and not get crazy."
Recommended Reading: I highly recommend Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. It also takes place in the not-so-distant future, but instead of fighting an alien race, Cline's characters are fighting a large corporation in an elaborate video game built around 1980's pop culture references. Yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.