Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that you don’t like school. That sitting in class can be boring and maybe feels pointless because stuff like geometry (for instance) doesn’t seem all that useful in the real world. (We’re just pretending, right?) Well, what if you could play video games all day at school? That might be less boring. But what if you also were helping to save the world by playing video games? Then school really wouldn’t seem pointless.
Now let’s think of the flip side: if you have to play games, they become less fun, right? So instead of just being boring, school would actually ruin your fun. And if you were helping to save the world, wouldn’t that be a lot of pressure? Way more pressure than learning about a hypotenuse? Yeah…
This is the situation in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game: after aliens attack Earth, the government decides to train some special kids in how to defeat the aliens. This training is done primarily through playing games. (And not just video games – they also play laser tag, which just happens to be in zero gravity because they’re playing in space.) And Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is the most special of these special kids – which means that he’s also under the most pressure and he’s the loneliest little kid in the world. (Well, in space.)
So maybe you can see one reason why Ender’s Game has been so popular with readers: we get to identify with Ender because: a) we like to think we’re as special as he is (well, we are, aren’t we?); and b) we’d like to play video games all day long.
And Ender’s Game has been very popular with readers since the moment it was released. So popular, in fact, that Orson Scott Card wrote it twice. See, in 1977, Orson Scott Card wrote a short story entitled (wait for it) “Ender’s Game,” which was his first published work. Card won an award for it – the John W. Campbell Award for best new science fiction writer (in 1978). The core of the book was already in that story, which was about Ender’s training at Battle School to fight the aliens, and about….actually, we don't want to spoil the book for you.
Card expanded this story, and in 1985, he published the full-on book version, which added all the stuff about Ender’s family. Rather than say, “Eh, we’ve read this already (and by the same guy, no less),” people still really liked Ender’s Game. It even won two more awards: the Nebula Award (1985) and the Hugo Award (1986). (Those are probably the two biggest awards in the science fiction community. Impress your geek friends with those names.)
Card soon wrote a sequel to Ender’s Game, and then another after that, and…well, to sum up, right now there are ten novels set in this universe (with one more about to be published soon) and twelve short stories. There are also a few comic book series of the books by Marvel (check out “Best of the Web” for more on that), and there’s been talk about a movie version since the invention of fire (it seems like that to us). So, if you like Ender’s Game and want to see more about what happens to Ender, then there’s a lot out there for you. So, Orson Scott Card not only made his name with Ender’s Game, but has managed to come up with something of a small industry.
But, before you get overwhelmed by all of the crazy reading possibilities (that leave zero time for learning geometry), remember you can just as easily read Ender’s Game as a complete, stand-alone novel.
So where did Ender’s Game come from? Where did Card come up with the idea of kids playing games to train for war? (Which isn’t all that crazy – the US military has been putting money into video games to train and recruit soldiers (source). And if you think that Card wasn’t being very inventive with that idea, let’s remember that when he wrote Ender’s Game, people were still playing Pong. Pong! (If you don't know what Pong was, check it out here – and be sure to scroll down for the photo of the dad and son having just a golly gee whiz great time together playing Pong.)
In his introduction, Card notes that a few things came together to give him the idea of Ender’s Game. First, there was his love of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, where Asimov would take one idea and see how it would affect people. Second, Card’s older brother was in the military, so Card got to hear about how terribly hard training was. And third, Card was fascinated by Civil War history and how important generals seemed to be. Then Card came up with a new way of training for war – the video games and laser tag – and built the story of Ender around that.
At least, that’s how Card says he came up with Ender’s story, but it seems to leave out the most important aspect: Ender. And Ender is really the central issue when it comes to how people read this book…and why this book is controversial.
Did we mention that it’s controversial? Well, it is. There are scenes in which kids graphically beat up other kids, so, yeah, the book is a little controversial. People have reacted to this book pretty differently: at least one author thinks that Ender is meant to be like Hitler and that we’re supposed to see things through his eyes and thus have some sympathy for Hitler (source). That seems a little unlikely to us. (And Card says that theory is garbage.) Meanwhile, the US Marine Corps assigns Ender's Game as homework in its academy because they think it teaches valuable lessons about leadership and teamwork (source). Oh, and from a certain point of view, Ender looks kind of like Jesus (saves people, sacrifices part of his childhood). So if nothing else, Ender’s Game is a great topic for one heck of a conversation.
Does your life suck? Do your parents and your teachers keep telling you what to do – while at the same time telling you that this your teens and early twenties are the best time of your life? Or do they tell you that you have all these amazing options in front of you – that you can do anything with your life – but you can’t choose any of those options yet because you’re still too young? Or do they just start singing “the children are our future”?
Well, Ender knows how you feel. OK, his situation is a little more extreme than most of our lives. But other than the facts that Ender is a) in space and b) fighting aliens, Ender’s problems are pretty ordinary.
Think about it: if we take away the aliens and the problems of the future, what do we have? We have someone who doesn’t quite fit in. We have someone who has to deal with bullies. We have someone sitting alone at lunch – and who hasn’t eaten lunch alone? We have someone who feels lonely and homesick. (But, hopefully, when you start feeling like this, you don’t beat other people to death like Ender does.)
But let’s not throw Ender – or ourselves – a pity party too soon. (For one thing, no one ever brings presents to a pity party and there’s never any good cake there either.) Sure, Ender has it rough in some ways, and we all know what that feels like. But Ender also has it pretty good in plenty of other ways, and hopefully we know what that feels like, too. For instance, Ender may feel lonely at school, and he may have enemies, but he knows his sister loves him still, and it turns out that (some of) his classmates really care about him also.
These are two reasons why we care about this book: because Ender faces some problems that we face (or faced), and because no matter how bad things look, Ender survives and learns that there’s always a way to get through those problems.
Which sounds like a cheesy after-school special – but luckily there are aliens and Ender’s in space, so it’s still pretty cool.