So, Ender’s Game. I hear there’s a film out. I recall it was an enjoyable little novel, albeit nowhere near the ‘one of the greatest SF books ever written’ status it seems to have acquired. Besides, I much prefer the original novelette.
Yes, the novel was an expansion of a fifteen thousand word story that had been published a few years earlier. And I think this is the natural length for the idea. In this version there is no Locke or Demosthenes. No bullying or time for moping; nothing, indeed, beyond the confines of the battle school and the military academy. It’s lean and fast, a vehicle designed to deliver its twist ending payload with maximum force.
Even its opening wastes no time:
“Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember—the enemy’s gate is down. If you step through your own door like you’re out for a stroll, you’re a big target and you deserve to get hit. With more than a flasher.” Ender Wiggins paused and looked over the group. Most were just watching him nervously. A few understanding. A few sullen and resisting.
First day with this army, all fresh from the teacher squads, and Ender had forgotten how young new kids could be. He’d been in it for three years, they’d had six months—nobody over nine years old in the whole bunch. But they were his. At eleven, he was half a year early to be a commander. He’d had a toon of his own and knew a few tricks, but there were forty in his new army. Green. All marksmen with a flasher, all in top shape, or they wouldn’t be here—but they were all just as likely as not to get wiped out first time into battle.
Something that strikes me this time around is that the first half of the story reminds me more of sports stories than military. You have a hero captaining a team of underdogs that he forges into a well-disciplined unit. Against his new tactics and training the other teams they face seem complacent, and he soon has an unbroken winning streak. This catches the attention of distant authority figures (and here I’m especially reminded of the Rollerball film) who try to make Ender lose: by making him play several games in quick succession without rest, putting him up against tougher and tougher teams, and eventually changing the rules to give Ender as much disadvantage as possible. But no matter what they throw at him, Ender and his team solve all challenges and continue to win.
It’s a very likeable setup. Although Ender never loses a game and is essentially devoid of any character flaws, the odds are always weighted so heavily against him that you can’t help but root for him. And I like the design of the sport; with its zero-gee environment contained by walls to propel yourself from, it imparts a better sense of what it’s like to participate in a flying game than something like Quidditch. As for the style, it’s spare and economical, and that only enhances the speed the story delivers.
Want more commentary on Ender’s Game? Here’s an explanation John Kessel offers for why the book is so popular.
(PS: No mention of Ender’s Game is complete without also dealing Orson Scott Card as a person. Except that I’m not. On this website I practice Death of the Author and don’t especially care who writes the stories I talk about; if I like it, that’s enough. By the way, this policy exists in case I ever come across an L. Ron Hubbard story that sufficiently enthuses me. I think it’d be a perverse pleasure to extol his virtues, if I ever had the justification.)
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Availability: print, e-book, film… lots
Word count: 15,200
Awards: Hugo Award nominee
First published: Analog magazine, Aug 1977
Where to find it: Future Games, edited by Paula Guran, 2013, Prime Books
Novel Ideas: Science Fiction, edited by Brian M. Thomsen, 2006, DAW Books
First Meetings: In the Enderverse, collection, 2004, Tor
Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card, collection, 2004, Orb
The Best Military Fiction of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove & Martin H. Greenberg, 2001, Del Rey / Ballantine