He had no control over his own life. They ran everything. They made all the choices. Only the game was left to him, that was all, everything else was them and their rules and plans and lessons and programs, and all he could do was go this way or that way in battle.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game is one of those novels I’d heard about for years but never picked up until now. It’s probably because it’s usually branded as “military” science fiction, and I’ve often found myself bored by military fiction…although I of course acknowledge the importance of novels about war and its implications, I find myself bored by descriptions of lengthy battles and the tactics used to win them.
In Ender’s Game, the battles are more engaging. The concept of children fighting in zero-gravity environments, kind of reminiscent of laser tag, is at first horrifying, fascinating, and refreshing. But as the novel drags on, the battles remain mostly the same, only increasing in frequency and difficulty as Ender rises in the ranks and is faced with fresh challenges. As a reader, I acknowledged that Ender was facing more difficulties, but I knew that he would simply rise above them, as he always had.
Ultimately what I found interesting about the novel was Ender himself. Near the end of the novel, after Ender has completed his final mission, Graff claims that Ender was the perfect commander due to his empathy: “We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers.”
But is Ender empathetic? Is he sympathetic or relatable? As I read the novel, I recognized that the situations Ender undergoes are unfair, but I didn’t necessarily feel sorry for him, even on account of his age. At the beginning of the novel, Ender is only six years old, yet he is capable of thought and language far beyond his years, like all of the children in the novel. Although Peter and Valentine remark that they are not like normal children, so few normal children appear in the novel that it becomes easy to assume that all children are as competent as Ender’s peers.
Although Ender is able to understand others’ feelings, it’s unclear whether he actually cares for other people. He seems to long for companionship from characters like Valentine and Alai, but his actions are always calculated to achieve certain effects on other characters and don’t seem to come from genuine compassion.
Even Valentine, to whom the peaceful side of Ender’s nature is attributed, admits that she uses her powers of persuasion to manipulate others and their own desires. While Valentine and Ender care for each other, their relationship with each other (and with every other character) is one of control and manipulation. While I admired Valentine and Ender’s intellect and desire to save humanity, they simply weren’t likeable characters.
In Ender’s case, too, I found it difficult to be sympathetic to Ender because of his violent nature. Being that it’s a novel about war, Ender’s Game depicts violence often, but the most troubling occasions of war are those outside the Battle Room, in Ender’s encounters with Stilson and Bonzo. While Ender feels remorse for these encounters after they’ve happened, it was difficult for me to see him as a child rather than a violent killing machine, especially in the encounter with Stilson, which happens before his training at the Battle School. Violence is everywhere in the novel, but the first instance of it made it hard for me to ever sympathize with the protagonist.
YES OR NO?: YES. Despite my lack of sympathy for Ender, I simply couldn’t put this book down. And although the plot of the book can get repetitive, with Ender simply overcoming obstacles, winning battles, and rising in the ranks again and again, I found that the characters: Ender, Valentine, and Peter especially, were written in a complex enough way to keep me engaged.