The setting of Ender's Game is really five places: North Carolina, Battle School, Fairyland/the End of the World, Command School, and the Colony. But first, let’s talk time.
Here’s the one thing that’s the same across all five locations: the time. This book takes place some time in the future. When? We don’t know. Here’s what we do know: people have learned how to create laptops (or tablet computers) and how to manipulate gravity and how to disrupt molecules. OK, maybe that first one doesn’t sound very, um, futuristic, but keep in mind that Card first worked on Ender's Game in 1977, when it was just a wee little short story. So just pretend to be super impressed by the computers Ender uses in school. OK?
So, wow, we’re in the future and look at all the cool things they have. Aside from laptops, do you know what else they have in the future? Buses! And cars! (Check it out at 5.130.) Isn’t that exciting? Well, no, it’s not – we have cars and buses right now, so it hardly seems futuristic in that way either.
Here’s the question: how do you feel when you read a book that takes place in the future and people are still riding around in cars instead of, you know, using matter transporters or jetpacks to get around? When we first read this book, we thought this was evidence of how hard it is to really imagine the future. Science fiction books are hilarious about this, because their authors will really put a lot of energy into imagining how something might be – and then totally forget or miss some other part of the future. (For example, William Gibson’s Neuromancer has this amazing view of the Internet. And then has this spooky scene with a computer calling on a guy on a payphone. When was the last time you saw a payphone?)
But here’s another way of looking at this: maybe people have cars in the future in this book so we have an easy time getting into it. Think about it. So much of Ender’s future matches up with our present – there are cars and bullies and the sky is blue (we assume) – so that we all don’t have to do a huge amount of work to imagine this future. The weird future things – like flying in space and being in zero gravity – is military stuff. In other words, all the stuff that’s new to us as readers is also new to Ender. So maybe we’re more sympathetic to Ender because we feel the same way about the future as he does.
Ender’s family moves to Greensboro, North Carolina, after Ender goes into the army. It seems like a perfectly fine place to raise two super geniuses because it’s quiet and far from the centers of power. Which is maybe part of the point: Val and Peter aren’t being confronted by the uprising in the Islamic States (which are part of the Russian empire here, 14.451). They’re not faced with political conspiracies in Washington, D.C. (or wherever politics takes place in this future). Hanging out in Greensboro allows them to take a step back and see the big picture…and then take over the world.
(Additional note: We should also say that Ender and Valentine meet in a house in the middle of nowhere. And Ender seems to have lost his way – he can’t see the big picture when he’s on Earth in Chapter 13. Why is that? Why does Ender have to come back to Earth to realize there’s something worth saving?)
In our copy of Ender's Game, Battle School goes almost from page 34 to page 226, or what we in the lit biz call “a large chunk of the novel.” And what do we have to show for that? We get a lot about the armies the students are in and the games they play; we see how the administrators are manipulating the students for their own purposes; we get hints about the hidden realities of this future (humans can apparently control gravity now, but it’s a big military secret).
Even as weird as this school is (located in a space station, no less), it’s a pretty normal school in some regards: the real issue here is who has friends and who is a bully. (In some ways, the null-gravity laser tag and the armies seem like an ordinary football rivalry – in space! It’s like Friday Night Lights minus gravity plus laser guns.) So, it’s just an ordinary school with ordinary super genius kids and some ordinary bullies.
Even though Fairyland/the End of the World isn’t a real place (it takes place all in the mind game that Ender plays), it’s still pretty important since this is where Ender can work through all of his greatest fears. Which fears, you ask? We're thinking his fear that he’s like Peter, that he’s lost Val, and that there’s no way out.
It's all a game, though. And as we know from our piece on the symbolism of games, what makes games great is that they’re safe: you can die a million times in games without hurting yourself in real life. (Though we do sometimes hurt ourselves when playing Wii Sports and Wii Fit.) In other words, Fairyland is important because it’s a place where we get to see Ender deal with himself and work through his personal issues.
Command School is just more school, except not. The teachers are still lying to Ender, but there are no other students to deal with.
The most interesting thing about Command School is that it's located on Eros, a former bugger outpost. Humans have taken over this bugger colony, which foreshadows humans taking over other bugger colonies later. It’s also interesting that Ender is uncomfortable on Eros because of this – which isn’t really foreshadowing, since Ender isn’t uncomfortable on the colony world that he and Val go to. If anything, it’s ironic for Ender to be uncomfortable here since he’ll turn out to be the first person to really understand the buggers.
OK, we can’t hold it in any longer: the buggers build something for Ender to find on this colony world, but how do they know that he’ll come out to this particular world? After all, it was Val’s idea to get away from Earth and go to a colony world. Do you think the buggers built this fake Fairyland on every single planet they lived on? (If so, no wonder they lost the war – they were too busy focusing on that.)
But strange musings aside, what’s interesting about the colony world (that shows up for ten pages)? Well, it’s the place where we finally learn all about the buggers (news flash: they don’t want to kill humans) and where we learn that the buggers aren’t entirely extinct. Basically, the colony is a place where we get shocked a lot.
The colony is also a place where Ender can finally get away from all the old lies and manipulations and tortures – no Peter, no Graff, no Bonzo. In that sense, it’s a place where Ender can reinvent himself away from all his nightmares. It’s the place where he really learns what’s what (Ender doesn’t want to kill the buggers, the buggers don’t want to kill humans).
It also seems interesting that a lot of these discoveries come out in a place that looks just like Fairyland. Try this on for size: if the mind game allowed Ender to work through his feelings, the colony world allows us to work through what actually happened in this book – all the lies and all the torture. At least we get a second chance to make things right.