It will shock approximately no one when I say that I am a public reader. That is, I do most of my reading in public, especially during my work commute, although I also happily read in cafés, on the street corner, and while waiting in line. I read everywhere, and generally, no one notices. Or, at least no one obviously notices. I do see people peaking at my book cover from time to time, but only very, very rarely does anyone ask me about my book, or try to use it to start a conversation. (This is where I should add that every single time someone has asked me about my book, it has been a man. I'm not saying they're trying to pick-up, but it does seem fishy.) Anyway, all of this is to say that I rarely get interrupted when reading in public; that is, until I started Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Apparently it's a sort of seminal text for men of a certain age, because in one week I had at least three men tell me what a good book I was reading. One guy didn't even stop: I was standing on the subway platform and, somehow he caught the cover and timed his "that book is awesome" comment for just when he was walking down. It wasn't a conversation starter, it was a commendation, and while it was surprising, it was kind of nice. Who doesn't like a little positive reinforcement every now and then, after all?
Anyway, enough of that. The novel, written in 1985 but set well into the future, presents an Earth that has barely survived two massive wars with the extra-terrestrial buggers and is on the verge of a third. It is the fear of this third war that has led them to start training children – some as young as five or six – to be soldiers. These potentials are connected to a monitor (and by connected, I mean it's attached to their brain stem and thus records both what they see and what they think and feel) so the adults in command can determine whether the child has potential. The book opens with Ender Wiggin, age 6, having his monitor removed. He assumes this means he was a failure and is simultaneously pleased – it means his older brother Peter (also a failure) might stop bullying him – and disheartened (he is a Third, the third child born to his family despite the two-child policy, and the only reason his birth was permitted was because of his brother and sister's potential). Of course, this wouldn't be much of a novel if Ender wasn't recruited, so when it turns out that the military merely removed his monitor to then see how he would handle himself when no one was watching, it all makes sense. Ender is recruited and taken to military school in space.
The school is a pretty brutal place, all things considered. To start with, Ender is small, and because he's the military's last hope (not that he knows that), they're especially hard on him. He's kept pretty isolated from his peers, worked harder than everyone else, promoted crazy-early, and despite all that, he thrives. It isn't easy, of course, Ender's mostly a natural, but he also puts in a lot of extra hours and, for the most part, is more than happy to help others learn his skills. Perhaps his most important talent is being able to think beyond the familiar. This becomes especially handy when playing war games in the anti-gravity room. While most of Ender's peers are stuck thinking of everything as up or down, and are thus easily disoriented, Ender quickly realizes that in zero-gravity, you decide where up and down are, which frees his perspective to craft new and innovative battle strategies.
His rise to prominence is relatively quick, but it certainly isn't easy. More than one student would like to see Ender killed for his success, and although Ender is a soldier, he's also a little boy, and not having friends puts a real strain on his mental health. Apart from short snippets and a couple of chapters on Earth (involving the exploits of Ender's brother and sister), we spend the novel seeing everything from his perspective.
I don't read a ton of science fiction, but when I do, this is they style I like. For one thing (and this may just be me), I really appreciated that all the names were pronounceable (even Ender is just a nickname – his real name is Andrew). Additionally, the Earth is still recognizable. The novel is set in the future, so there are changes (and especially so from 1985), but a population boom seems not unreasonable. Similarly, Scott Card seems to have extrapolated from the state of world politics in '80s to create the world of his novel, specifically that Europe and much of North Africa are now under the Warsaw Pact and North America is unified under an American Hegemony. It's the Cold War gone large, and the only thing keeping the peace on Earth is that both sides have united to fight the buggers, a common enemy. Thus, ending the bugger war will mean chaos and war breaking out on Earth. It's a precarious situation, and a really interesting one to watch play out in the background of Ender's training, which fulfills the more gadget/futurey side of the story.
Ludwik has been telling me to read Ender's Game for years, and I will admit that I put it off thinking it was one of those books you have to read by a certain age in order for it to be awesome. While that may be true for some people, I have to say that it was highly entertaining, and certainly hooked me after only a few pages. Ender is a great character, and the future he inhabits is so fully realized that you'll suspend your disbelief without even realizing it. I now totally understand why those guys were so enthusiastic about the book that they would stop to tell me so, and even if that isn't quite the approach I'll take in the future, I will say that if you're on the fence about it (there's supposedly an Ender's Game movie forthcoming), I'd say go for it. It's a fun and interesting read, and who couldn't use that?
by Orson Scott Card
first published in 1985 (cover image shown from TOR edition)