There comes a time in every adolescent boy’s life when he must read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Unfortunately, I did not read it until I was an adolescent boy of 30, which is far too late, I think, to appreciate it. Instead, to my too-mature sensibilities, it came off as a lame adolescent power-fantasy, and one with somewhat disturbing political implications to boot.
We’re back in the world of military sf, though rather than the shifting society and questionable war of the Vietnam-era Forever War, we’re back to distinct villains of Starship Troopers. In fact, there’s a lot of Heinlein here, including the villainous “bugs” (called "buggers" here) as enemies (lots of ambiguity comes in at the end, but it really comes very suddenly out of nowhere). Card even clarifies Heinlein’s metaphor by having both the “bugs” and the Soviets they were meant to represent as villains. The big difference is that rather than everyman marine Rico as our hero, we have super-genius, future commander, six-year-old Ender – the smartest, wisest, toughest, best-at-everythingest six-year-old you’ll ever see.
Most of the novel involves Ender’s training to become the perfect bug-killing machine as Earth prepares for a counter-attack against the invading pests. The Earth’s military commanders repeatedly throw increasingly ridiculous challenges at Ender while various bullies threaten his life (I wonder if the repetition here is the result of the fact that this novel started out as an acclaimed novella – it certainly reeks of padding). Ender, being the awesomest boy to ever live, overcomes it all. I understand now why the poor kids who got bullied the most in middle school would obsessively read this novel again and again. As a grown-up, it all comes off as morally simplistic, and I couldn’t see Ender’s amazingness as anything other than a shallow, ridiculous power-fantasy. You could argue that Card makes an effort to temper the power fantasy by making Ender regret much of what he does. He has to hurt and kill, and he has the ability to do both amazingly well, but he always regrets it. This really just adds to the power fantasy though – not only is Ender physically and mentally perfect, he’s also morally perfect! Oh, and since he’s morally perfect, if he commits genocide, it was surely justified, right? Scary.
I know this is a beloved classic. The final two chapters take some very interesting turns, and I’ll give Card credit for predicting the blogosphere (though all of the material with Enders’ siblings is even more ridiculous than Enders' own unblemished perfection). It’s certainly an easy read, and, as I said before, I understand the appeal to alienated and bullied young adults. But, to me, a not-so-alienated-or-bullied, over-thirty man who believes that no one is perfectly good or perfectly evil, this novel was both incredibly dull and somewhat disturbing in its single-mindedness and simplicity.