Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way: this book is called “Ender’s Game” because it’s primarily about a kid called Ender, who happens to spend most of his time playing games. So Ender + games = “Ender’s Game.”
But wait, not so fast there – why is it called “Game” and not “Games”? Ender plays lots of games: he plays video games in the games room, and he plays laser tag in the battleroom, and he plays the simulation war games at Command School. And while we’re at it, why is it called “Ender’s Game” and not “Ender’s War”? After all, almost all of his games are war games.
We’re not 100% sure, but how about this: you wouldn’t want to call this “Ender’s War” because that would give away the plot of the book – that all of his games are really about war (or really are war). If you named it “Ender’s Games,” then the reader might think about Ender playing all the little games that he plays. But what’s important is that all the little games he plays all are really parts of one big game. A game called…life.
Just kidding, this game is called “Blow up the alien homeworld and hate yourself for killing off an entire species; but you never knew it was really war, you thought you were just playing a game; and maybe you’ve learned your lesson that war isn’t really a game, after all – or maybe all games are really versions of war?”
One last thought: “Ender’s Game” sounds a little bit like “endgame.” Besides being a play by Samuel Beckett (1957) and an album by Megadeth (2009, insert heavy metal guitar riff here), “endgame” is a chess term referring to, well, the end part of the game, when the players probably don't have a lot of pieces left. When you don’t have a lot of pieces left, you have far fewer options and it’s a lot easier for one small mistake to snowball into a catastrophe. To connect it to the book, we could say that Ender’s Game is like a chess endgame because there aren’t a lot of options left – it’s kill or be killed. (Or at least that’s what the characters think it is.)
That is a very good question: what is up with this ending? Or, should we say: what’s up with all the different endings? You ever notice how some recent films seem to wrap things up…and then go on and wrap things up again. By the time they’re done, they have several moments where you thought “this is the ending”? This book is kind of like that. Let’s try to figure out what those endings are here.
Ending #1: We have the end of Chapter 14, when we learn that Ender has been fighting a real war against the aliens. Once you throw in all the stuff about what’s going on down on Earth, what with the war between someone and someone else (does it really matter?) – that could be a very satisfying ending in and of itself.
Ending #2: Next, Card throws in a bunch of stuff about Ender leaving Earth for one of the colony planets. He’s a governor there and he lives with his sister. That seems like an interesting ending: Ender getting to reconnect and start over with his family (well, with the good parts of his family, at least).
Ending #3: After that we have Ender discovering the bugger queen pupa, which is pretty cool. He talks to it and learns all about the buggers, and then he hatches (sorry for the pun) a plan to live with them in peace after he resurrects them from the brink of extinction. Awesome, right?
Ending #4: Finally, Ender invents a new religion. Which is totally how all novels should end – just have a character in the last few pages invent a new religion.
Yeah, what’s up with those endings?
Well, let’s start with the least fun answer: setting up the sequel. Card actually had an idea for a book that he titled Speaker for the Dead. When he turned “Ender’s Game” into a novel (from his original short story), he decided to connect the two. Which is why the last chapter in Ender’s Game has the same name as the next novel in the series. Makes sense, right? Some parts of this ending mainly exist in order to set up the next book. That is, the next book has Ender on another colony world (ending #2), looking for a place to restart the bugger species (ending #3), while dealing with certain philosophical and religious issues (ending #4).
But looked at another way, all four of the endings help tie up some major issue that we’ve dealt with in the novel:
Ending #1: The adults trick Ender into killing an entire species. Why this ending? Ender really will do anything to survive. And adults are liars who can’t be trusted. (Which was pretty much the first thing we learned in the book, what with the nurse telling Ender that getting his monitor removed wouldn’t hurt one bit.)
Ending #2: Ender and Valentine go to a colony. Why this ending? Remember when Ender beats the level in the mind game in which he and Val get to be together forever? Yeah, from one angle, that brother-sister relationship is weird, but from another angle – well, it’s pretty weird, but at least it’s nice for Ender to finally not be lonely anymore. This ties up the “Ender is alone” aspect of the book.
Ending #3: Buggers are not totally extinct. Why this ending? On one hand, this gives Ender a second chance to make something right that wasn’t totally his fault in the first place. (Well, we can debate how much of it was his fault.) Remember when Val tells Graff that Ender would like to undo the evil things Peter does (9.281)? Well, here’s Ender’s chance to undo that extinction he caused. Also, now that the buggers are talking to Ender, we can finally see things through their eyes too. And remember, according to Graff, the whole war might have been caused by the inability to communicate. Here we have communication, which equals no war. Yay.
Ending #4: Ender starts a new religion. Why this ending? This might be the weirdest of the four endings, but it does give Ender and Peter a chance to reconnect.
Through all four endings, Ender defeats or overcomes his old enemies: he defeats the adults by escaping to a new world, defeats the other kids by reconnecting with his sister, overcomes the buggers by realizing they’re not enemies (which is a kind of defeat), and he defeats his brother by finally making peace with him.
Now, are you ready for the sequel?
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.
This isn’t a book for children – just look at how much violence is in it, and the dirty language these kids use (everything is all “fart” and “your butt”). Oh, yeah, it’s chock-full of scandalous language like that. However, though Ender’s Game was not written for children, it sure easy to read. That’s what Orson Scott Card says in the introduction and we here at Shmoop agree with him on that. (And we don’t always agree with him on everything; for instance, we have mixed feelings about his goatee.)
The most confusing parts in this book are the discussions that start out the chapters because we don’t know who’s talking. But you can generally figure out who is – and it probably doesn’t matter all that much if you can’t figure out exactly which adult is talking anyway. All you need to know is that the adults are always manipulating Ender. Besides those moments, everything else in this book is pretty clear.
Ever notice that sometimes people use “simple” as a negative word? Like, you can imagine someone saying, “this book is simple,” and they really mean “this book isn’t very smart.” Well, that’s not what we mean when we say it. Sometimes a book might be simple for a reason. Which happens to be the case with Ender’s Game and its writing style.
We had a little fun in the summary of the plot about how Orson Scott Card sometimes is so clear in what he’s saying. On occasion, didn't Card seem overly obvious? As if he was afraid that you wouldn’t get his point if he didn't hammer you over the head with it?
For instance, remember when Ender plays the mind game and he finds a playground full of wolf-children (in Chapter 7)? And when he tries to use the playground, Ender’s character falls through? It sure looks like this game is telling us that Ender a) can’t play children’s games and b) can’t play with children. But this is just a game, it’s not Ender’s real life, so we might ask ourselves why this scene is important. What does it tell us?
But this scene is important because the situation in the game is exactly the same as what’s happening in Ender’s life: he can’t play with children’s toys because…well, there are a few reasons for that. And he can’t play with other children because…well, actually, there are also a few reasons why he doesn’t play with a lot of children. For instance, one reason is that the other kids – kids like Bernard and Bonzo – are kind of like monsters, or wolf-children.
This scene doesn’t use complicated symbolism to tell us something we don’t know. Actually, it uses pretty clear symbolism to tell us something we already do know from earlier scenes, and something that will come up again in later scenes. There are a few scenes like this, where Card comes right out and tells us about Ender’s life in a simple way (or tells us the same thing about Ender's life over and over again).
In this way, Card writes simply – by which we mean that he wants the readers to get his point. His writing style may be simple and clear, but it’s not stupid. He’s being clear for a reason. Once we understand the things that are simple, we can really start digging into the more juicy and complex questions the book raises.
If you haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s introduction to Ender's Game, you might take a look at it, if only for the part where Card says that he avoided all the literary tricks that make reading hard (Intro.32). (You can read his introduction here.) But that doesn’t mean that Card avoids symbolism. Mostly, it tends to mean that his symbolism is rather clear. For instance, when Ender’s character in the mind game can’t play on a playground, that kind of seems like a symbol for his lost childhood.
There’s a curious thing we noticed, though: it’s hard to pin down any single image that runs through the whole book. What we generally have in this book are larger categories, like “games” – it’s not like Ender’s life is symbolized by any particular game, but games are all over his life. We’re going to talk about our top four categories for symbols/images that are pretty common in this book.
Here’s where you say, “duh!” That’s what we say, too. Ender’s entire school life is made up of games. But here’s the thing: even when Ender isn’t playing games, people talk about games. Games are closely related to some of the big themes of the novel: youths play games; “game” is sometimes a synonym for manipulating people (check out 13.266); the games these kids play are war games; the kids compete in games; games are tests of strength and skill.
Games are central to the Battle School and Command School: games aren’t just fun, but are also a) for the education of the students and b) for the mental health of the students. Ender learns how to fight in null gravity by playing null-gravity laser tag, and he learns why to fight from the mind game. In the Battle School, the games are “what they lived for” (5.90). As Anderson notes, the game is the source of identity and status for the students (8.11). Dink even says that the “Game is everything” (8.126). It’s pretty much unanimous: games = awesome and important.
When Anderson talks about his upcoming career as a football commissioner, he gives some reason why people might prefer games over real life: “Give me the game. Nice, neat rules. Referees. Beginnings and endings. Winners and losers and then everybody goes home to their families” (15.43). So games are neat, while life is messy.
But that’s not really how it works out with Ender’s Game’s games: no one really goes home here after them. (Well, maybe Bonzo, but he goes home in a coffin, which is… less than ideal. No one goes home in a coffin after a game of Monopoly. Hopefully.) Not to mention, many of these games have fluid rules and no referees to call out cheating. Put simply, the games that Ender faces are serious work.
We should remember that these kids are playing the game for a reason. The game is practice for an actual war. Ender’s dad seems to agree with this when he lets his kids keep the bugger mask: “Better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the buggers came again” (2.30). Of course, the games that Peter and Ender play don’t seem like great practice for an alien invasion. In order to be really helpful, a game has to match the reality a little more closely. But not too closely – in order to be practice, a game must to have no serious consequences. As Ender notes, you die a lot in games until you get the hang of it (6.96), but you can’t do that in life. (Another difference between games and life: despite what Mario teaches you, mushrooms don’t make you taller.)
Which all leads to two funny observations. First, Bean notes that the game isn’t as fun as it used to be (14.293) – which is what happens when you turn a game into work. Second, when Bonzo is attacking Ender, Bernard notes that this is “no game” – which shows that Bernard really doesn’t understand what it means to play games at Battle School. Because games are super serious – and not always fun – in Ender’s Game.
How many times does someone say that the enemy’s gate is down in Ender’s Game? Oh, maybe, nine times or so. (Here are a few of them: 7.255, 7.277, 7.281, 10.57, and 14.352.) Well, we could say that the phrase just appears a lot and that’s that. But we think there’s something bigger behind the phrase: an interest in perspective. That is, one of the big issues in this book is point of view.
For instance, check this out: what’s the first line in the book? “I’ve watched through his eyes” (1.1). Wow. That pretty much proves it, right? We could just stop there. But, no, we’ll go on.
One of the big issues with Ender is that he can see the world as his enemies see it. This causes him all sorts of problems because then he sympathizes with his enemies. Ender has this super power so much that he can almost empathize with the buggers before he’s even met any: when he puts on the bugger mask in Chapter 2, he realizes that, to them, this mask is a face and they must see the world differently than we humans do. Sounds like an issue of point of view to us.
Actually, Ender’s siblings seem to have this power also, which is how they’re able to manipulate people: Peter understands what people fear and Val understands what people want. This ability also helps Val to get more into the role of Demosthenes because she can see things through this “character’s” eyes (13.39), though she doesn’t always want to.
Point of view is really related to identity. Or at least, that’s what it seems like when Ender tries to figure out the center of the bugger fleet: he eventually notices that “the eyes of the fleet” are the same as “the I of the fleet” (14.122). And the ending of the book comes when Ender starts to understand how the buggers see the world – which they can tell him because they’ve seen how he sees it (through his memories and dreams).
In other words, maybe Graff is right. Graff notes that peace can be made when you can tell the other person your side of the story – when you can make the aliens see things from your perspective. We think that’s good advice even if aliens aren’t involved.
Compared to games and perspective, this is a tiny issue, but it comes up in at least two scenes that we think are interesting to bring together.
The first is the blink-and-you-missed-it reference that one of the military administrators makes. When describing his job, this guy (Graff?) puts it in fairy tale terms: “We're the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive" (2.10).
The second is harder to miss; it’s that Ender finds his way to Fairyland in the mind game. Unlike Ender’s guess that Fairyland will be stupid – some sort of “three-year-old’s Fairyland that probably had some stupid Mother Goose or Pac-Man or Peter Pan” (6.109) – Fairyland turns out to be the not-stupid place with the dead giant’s body and the wolf-children on the playground. And getting through fairyland is how Ender reaches the End of the World.
OK, once we notice these two references, what can we say about them? First, they’re very serious even if they seem silly at first. That is, the military man is joking when he compares them to the wicked witch, but it’s not a bad comparison: they both take children away and put them through some terrible situation. And while Fairyland is in a game, it’s a game that tells Ender some serious things about himself. So how about this: just like games, fairy tales are something that may be related to childhood, but that are also very serious here.
Second, in these references, we find that things aren’t how we expected them. For example, the adults in the military aren’t saving Ender from the witch – they are the witch. And instead of having the children eaten by wolves, in Ender’s Fairyland, the children are the wolves. This is a subtle point, but it’s one that we should remember in this book: sometimes, things aren’t the way we suppose they’ll be. This sets us up for another unexpected twist: the Third Invasion is not the buggers coming to Earth, but the humans going to the bugger homeworld.
Peter looks like Alexander the Great (2.14). The children at Battle School “act like – history” (7.10). Peter chooses the pseudonyms Locke and Demosthenes after two big historical figures (9.126). Val thinks Peter might be a little bit like Hitler (9.91). And there are a few more times when characters are compared to history and historical figures. What do all these historical shout-outs mean?
Honestly, we’re not entirely sure that all of these references together mean anything really big, but we did notice that these comparisons pop up. Here’s one thing, though: these historical comparisons do help remind us that these youngsters are actually doing something really important. After all, once she’s done helping Peter take over the world, Val starts to write a history of what just happened and what they all did. They may just be kids, but what they do will affect everyone on Earth. (And possibly some people off Earth as well.)
Now, that said, we also might want to pay attention to the particular comparison and historical references. For instance, when the military administrator says that the kids act like history, he offers two pairs: Napoleon and Wellington, Caesar and Brutus. Now, these pairs are not actually people who worked together – they were huge enemies, which reminds us of how tense the relationships are at Battle School. (Like, Bonzo and Ender are never going to be friends.) Also, when Ender thinks that Peter looks like Alexander the Great, we could connect that to his sister’s pen name of Demosthenes: in real history, Demosthenes was a big enemy of Alexander the Great. Although she ends up working with Peter, Val is never really comfortable in this role and ultimately ends up getting herself and Ender away from Peter’s power.
What else can these historical references tell us about this book?
Listen to this:
Father and Mother said it, so often it made Valentine want to scream at them. It isn't the new Peter! It's the old Peter, only smarter!
How smart? Smarter than you, Father. Smarter than you, Mother. Smarter than anybody you have ever met.
But not smarter than me. (9.39-41)
Who is telling us this? Well, notice in that first sentence that the narrator is outside of the characters, including Valentine: the narrator tells us what Val wants. Yes, folks – that would be a third-person narrator.
Now notice that the rest of this section slips inside Val’s own thought process, including that last line – “not smarter than me” – which is Val’s narration. The narrator may be outside of the story, but the narrator totally dips into the thoughts of the characters and shows us what they’re thinking. Because the narrator seems all-knowing, and can drop into the characters' minds, we call that an "omniscient" narrative voice.
Except we don’t hear everyone’s thoughts, so it’s really "limited omniscient" narration. Throughout most of the book, we stay firmly attached to Ender’s mind. Well, more like firmly attached to Ender’s shoulder – we see the things he sees and every once in a while we get to hear what he thinks about them too. We also sometimes hear what other characters are thinking, such as the quote above where the narrator is giving us a glimpse into Val's mind.
Interestingly, we never actually get to see inside Peter’s mind. Think of that: Ender learns to communicate with aliens and we hear how the aliens think about things. But we never really hear what Peter thinks. Same deal with Bonzo.
It seems like that’s a way for Card to keep our sympathy going for certain characters. After all, we never really get on board with Bonzo because we never see the world through his eyes. He might have very good reasons for trying to kill Ender. (Yeah, he probably doesn’t, but still.) Instead of showing us why Bonzo does the mean things he does, all we see are those mean things. (Kind of reminds us of the buggers. Humans think the buggers are evil because they never get a chance to see the invasions from the buggers' perspective.) That’s why we don’t sympathize with Bonzo and we do with Ender.
Also, we’re never sure if Peter is a serious psychopath or just a regular jerk because we never get to learn what he’s thinking. When he threatens to kill his siblings, is he joking or serious? Like Ender, we never know.
Final note: There’s also the way the chapters open, with the military adults discussing Ender. In a way, these sections kind of let us see what’s inside these guys’ heads since these military people share their thoughts pretty openly. Unless, of course, they’re lying to each other. But they wouldn’t lie, would they?