Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has been receiving increased attention of late due to the upcoming movie based on the work. I read this book about ten years ago, and have since listened to the audiobook and re-read the book. Here, we will delve into some major themes which run through the novel. There are major plot SPOILERS ahead, so you have been warned.
Ender himself is a child. Yet throughout the book he ranges from trying to simply be a child to an admiral. He has a calculating, almost “killer” mentality and cannot bear to lose. He insists on excellence. Yet he is shaped by his past, while trying to avoid it. When he is confronted with a situation of survival–or at least one he perceives as such–he reacts with the cold efficiency of a practiced soldier. He escalates the scenario to the point that the “enemy” can never cause harm to him again.
Ender has been selected to be the future leader of Earth’s International Fleet, which is heading off to the worlds of the “Buggers” (also known as the “Formics”) to destroy them. The Buggers are a race of sentient creatures who have attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed humanity both times.
Ender’s brother, Peter, is a sadist. There is no other way to describe him. He loves to inflict pain and scare people. He uses his power to attack the powerless. The scenes in which Peter abuses his brother and sister, Valentine, are disturbing. He also tortures animals. He is evil… or is he?
Valentine is perhaps the paradigm of good in the book. She was “too soft” to be the commander of the International Fleet. She ends up reforming Peter to some degree, though she loses some of herself in that process.
There are a number of children with whom Ender interacts with in Battle School, and they range from friends to enemies. He ends up killing one of them, Bonzo, in self-defense, though he doesn’t learn he actually killed him until much later.
Death, Evolution, and Ethics
The death of Bonzo leads to a number of interesting moral issues. Did Ender step over the line? He continually thinks in terms in which he needs to destroy any possibility of an “enemy” coming back to hurt him, but this mentality is fostered by those who have trained him. Ender has to learn to become a military leader, and he is guided in this learning by Colonel Graff and Mazer Rackham. They guide him, but they do so with a distinctly hands-off approach in which they try to teach him he can rely on no one but himself. This gives Ender a kind of do-or-die mentality that becomes literal a number of times throughout the book.
Bonzo’s death is viewed by Graff as a necessary sacrifice for the fate of humanity. Both Ender and Graff reflect a kind of evolutionary morality wherein the strong survive. They view the war with the Buggers as yet another aspect of this morality. If it comes down to it, it may be that either the Buggers or humans can survive. Graff and Ender seem to agree that this means that humans must be the ones to survive; they are tied to their evolutionary mentality. They must choose to survive.
Yet the book does not seem to actually endorse that kind of morality, for it leads to an untold amount of suffering and indeed the destruction of an entire species of sentient beings. Not only that, but when Ender encounters more knowledge about the Buggers later, he mourns with the Buggers who lamented over the fact that the two species could not reconcile.
Just War and Genocide/Xenocide
The fact that the Buggers did not know what they were doing gives Ender’s Game a spectacularly unique way to look into the issue of “Just War.” The Buggers don’t have writing, they haven’t developed spoken language. Instead, they have a kind of “hive mind” which allows them to communicate instantly across space. The Queens control all the various workers, which are almost extensions of themselves. Because of this radically different culture, the Buggers did not even realize they were attempting to exterminate other sentient creatures until after the second war. After that, they did not attempt to mount another attack.
Was this lack of effort a realization that humans were sentient? Was it an offer of peace?
Card seems to write that it is, though he never makes it explicit in the book. Yet humans have been attacked and nearly destroyed twice by these aliens, so they mount a counter-offensive. Ultimately, this counter-offensive destroys the Buggers entirely. It is an act of genocide–in fact, it is xenocide, the destruction of an entire species.
However, Ender continues to think that what he is doing when he is commanding the International Fleet is just a game. They never inform him that he is commanding the real army. He ends up making a decision which destroys the Bugger homeworld, and with it, their entire civilization. It kills all the Buggers [except one, as we will see].
One is forced to grapple with the questions that this raises. The fact is that the Buggers attempted to exterminate humanity in order to populate Earth as another colony. But it is possible that they didn’t know what they were doing, and stopped once they seemingly realized humans were sentient. Conversely, humans didn’t know what the Buggers were doing in not attacking. For all the humans knew, the Buggers could have been preparing themselves to attack again with better weapons and even more superior numbers.
I think this book would be a great one for bringing up discussions of Just War, because it doesn’t portray it as a black-and-white issue. Is it possible for war to be just? The issues Card raises here will foster some great discussion of that very question.
Yet the book does not end with the destruction of the buggers. Ender goes to colonize one of the planets, now devoid of intelligent life, which make perfect colony worlds for Earth’s overflowing population. The realization that he has destroyed an entire species haunts Ender, but he chooses to go to one of the colonies with his sister.
While he is the governor of this colony, he discovers that one Bugger has survived. A queen larva had been hidden by the Buggers in such a way that only Ender could find her. She shares the memories of the Buggers with him. Here we see one of the most poignant scenes in the book:
If only we could have talked to you, the hive queen said in Ender’s words. But since it could not be, we ask only this: that you remember us, not as enemies, but as tragic sisters, changed into a foul shape by fate or God or evolution. If we had kissed, it would have been the miracle to make us human in each other’s eyes. Instead, we killed each other. (322, cited below)
Ender publishes a work which reflects on the Buggers.It begins a new spiritual/religious movement, which has someone called a “Speaker for the Dead,” who speaks the truth about people who died, no matter how painful it would be. The teachings of this faith are from Ender’s book, which reflects the need for harmony and truth.
Ultimately, redemption is left open. Ender travels the stars in search of a place that the Buggers can be planted such that they live on. He seeks to undo the evil he caused. We are left with the last line of the book: “He looked for a long time” (324).
The concept of overpopulation is found throughout the book. People are limited to only two children. Ender, however, is a “third,” which means that the government had to explicitly let his family have another child. The complexities of this issue are only touched upon, but couuld help drive discussion in a small group or reflection for an individual.
Religion only makes a few passing mentions in the book. It is largely feared/suppressed in the book, though the “Speaker for the Dead” becomes a new religion or kind of spirituality. It is unclear of how this religion is specifically apart from any other religion, but it seems like it is because the teachings come from the “Speaker for the Dead” as a kind of religious text.
Ender’s Game is a highly compelling tale of justice, war, and horror. The complexities of human nature are not often explored in such a straightforward way as is done in the novel. Is Ender a hero? Is he a savior? Or is he just a poor child thrust into increasingly intense situations? What is justice, is it possible to have a just war? These themes and more will come up in discussions of the book. It is a classic, and for good reason. I highly recommend the book, and I’ll be one of the first in line to see the movie. The book explores a number of extremely important themes, and it does so in such a way that leaves the answers open-ended. Readers are almost encouraged to think about the topics themselves and come up with reasonable answers.
I can’t help but share the picture on the right of me (about 7-8 years ago) with Orson Scott Card. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. I found Card to be a gracious, wonderful man who was perfectly willing to sit down with a fanboy teenager and discuss heady issues about philosophy, teaching children about moral issues, and science fiction.
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (New York: Tor, 1991).
Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber- I take a look at how science fiction has dealt with theological topics, with a particular focus on dialogue about religion.
Be sure to check out my other looks at popular books [scroll down on this link for a number of posts].
Also look into my reviews of several popular movies.
There is No Combat Without Movement- A very different look at Ender’s Game which explores the use of military tactics in the book.
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