Welcome to my “Perfect Book Series,” where I explain why certain books are flawless. You may disagree with my selections, but these are books about which I have only praise.
Today, I’m discussing Ender’s Game, a book released the year I was born and one of the first young adult books I read as I entered middle school. Ender’s arc, which beautifully chronicles a boy’s (forced) transition into manhood before a relatable sci-fi backdrop, reflects the peculiar dynamic between children and adults at that in-between age. My brain was transitioning between the imaginative escapades of childhood to the more grounded thoughtfulness that comes with adulthood, and teachers were attempting to cram into my brain bundles of knowledge that would theoretically become useful as I entered adult society.
I didn’t understand why or how much of the information being relayed in school would help me later in life, nor did I really comprehend what the “adult world” held in store. When Ms. Kalimian insisted we spend months memorizing rocks and minerals so that we could identify them by sight, I wondered about the utility of this seemingly irrelevant knowledge. I thought: maybe there would be a secret cabal that tested my ability to discern fool’s gold from true gold each year, and if I failed, I wouldn’t be able to find a job in corporate America. Sometimes classes felt more like manipulation, or learning topics for a hidden purpose, than ways to absorb helpful information. As it turned out, this feeling was more a reflection of an ineffectual school system than a conspiracy, but in Ender’s Game, Ender is right to suspect his teachers.
Ender’s Game distills a feeling of distrust that many children experience during school into its essence: adults are actually manipulating children in school, plying them with knowledge to serve a secret purpose.
Ender is a genius, the result of a government-led breeding program designed to produce a new generation of super soldiers. The Buggers (also known as the Formics) are an alien race that nearly wiped out humanity, and Earth’s International Fleet (I.F.) is determined to prevent that eventuality from an alleged second assault. The I.F., via Colonel Graff, drafts Ender at the age of six into a training program that ostensibly will transform him into a battle commander in 10-15 years. What ensues is an aggressive program of manipulation, persuasion, and propaganda led by Colonel Graff to craft Ender into a tool for adults to commit genocide.
At first glance, Ender’s arc is that of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, in which the protagonist receives a call to adventure (Ender’s decision to fight the Buggers), faces challenges (learning to command a group of children), has a revelation while staring into the abyss (Ender’s face-off with Bonzo, followed by his time on Earth), transforms (into a great military leader), then returns home. However, Ender is not the hero. He is nothing more than a missile, constructed and aimed by adults, then released at his target with as much knowledge about who he is going to destroy as an actual missile. He decimates an entire alien race, thinking he is playing a simulation.
Colonel Graff expertly crafts Ender’s Hero’s Journey, artificially putting him through a carefully-calibrated series of tests and challenges to turn him into Earth’s hero, or perhaps its greatest villain. Sure, Ender is smarter than most of the adults and other children who surround him, but even this “superpower” is merely another facet of his status as a tool for adults.
There’s additional layers of complexity at work in Ender’s Game, such as the reversal of Ender’s situation in which his siblings adopt false personas to manipulate adults on a global scale. There’s the fantasy game that dives into Ender’s psyche, becoming a conduit for telepathic communication from the Buggers. Then there’s the fascinating dynamic among the students, who are pressed to adopt adult-like traits years before their minds are ready to handle the emotions that come with these situations. Yet all of these other elements served to support the driving narrative of Ender’s trajectory as a missile, constructed and aimed by adults with questionable moral standing.
Ender’s Game is a perfect book because it aligned so well with my thoughts and feelings about school when I was around Ender’s age. Many of the other children were my enemies (or, at least, not my friends), cruel and interested only in forming cliques. A select few children became close friends, allies who understood me through the lens of their own struggles. Ender initially believed Colonel Graff and the other adults were his true friends, as I often felt I got along better with adults than with my peers. Ender soon understood that adults were also his enemies, intent only on manipulating him for their own, cryptic ends. While I wasn’t being trained to obliterate an alien race, Ender’s Game helped me realize that adults have their own motivations. Maybe Ms. Kalimian was making me memorize rocks because she didn’t control the curriculum, and she was judged based on the grades her students received. Ender’s journey helped me make sense of my surrounding at an age when my young mind was more often than not confused.
Ender’s Game is beautiful because it remains relevant, even 30+ years after publication. Despite the shifts in society and technology, its themes are as potent as they were decades ago and should remain so far into the future.
While the book is perfect, I unfortunately cannot end this essay without a comment on Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game. Card is a notorious homophobe and a possible racist. Other writings of his lean more heavily into his personal views, and these works suffer for it.