Please note: this post contains spoilers!
Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel Ender’s Game is a classic bugs from outer space threaten humanity. In the story, children and young adults are trained in a special school to fight the ‘buggers’ using remote controlled spaceships (created created from captured alien technology). Young people are the only suitable candidates to pilot these remotely controlled ships (because adults have slower reaction times).
I read the book and watched the film back in summer of 2019, but I never got around to posting a review. I enjoyed both versions of the story, but I found the story (especially the novel) quite strange. It’s written in an analytical third person viewpoint, which is oddly engaging, even though it feels like it shouldn’t be. There are sections where Ender’s military commander and his colleague discuss Ender’s progress, which took me out of his story.
Even though Ender is a remarkably young protagonist, the story incorporates a lot of violence, which I wasn’t expecting. His elder brother, Peter, is a disturbing sociopath — a really creepy character. There’s a great deal about bullying and fighting bullies face on, which gets quite dark. At one point Ender has a brutal fight with a bully (the bully later dies, although Ender does not know about this). The fight is viewed by the school’s commander as a sign of Ender’s progress towards becoming a powerful leader.
One of the things about fiction is knowing what kind of a story you are in. I thought that I was in a thrilling action adventure but, as I later found out, the novel has dark undertones. The disparity between the two tonally different parts feels unsettling. The story has been interpreted as a metaphor for European colonialism and genocide in the Americas.
Ender is cajoled by his peers, manipulated by the school’s management and generally has a terrible experience. The theme of the story is about winning against the odds. The ultimate manipulation comes when the school tests him with a simulated battle that turns out to be a real war. In the battle, Ender completely destroys the ‘buggers’ home planet and thereby commits genocide.
I found the ending weird and unexpected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Ender is a broken character in many ways, having wiped out the ‘buggers’, and his extremely unpleasant brother Peter has become an influential character on Earth (through his manipulative political writings). Without a common enemy the world has reverted to infighting and factional wars. Ender takes the only remaining ‘bugger’, a queen egg, to an uninhabited planet for the alien life-form to repopulate (in an act of atonement). It transpires that the ‘buggers’ didn't realise that people were sentient life-forms and the war with the ‘buggers’ was a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, humanity goes on to colonise new planets and systems.
The 2013 film is a remarkably faithful and successful adaption that’s been produced with skill and respect for the source material. The acting and special effects are great. Tonally, it seems more cohesive.
In some ways, Ender can be understood as a ‘chosen one’ character (like Neo in The Matrix), a messiah-like character who is strong and virtuous.
Ender’s Game has been an influential young adult novel — the format of a character being tested (which is a very classical concept in origin). Other YA novels that use the same template include The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner. Ernest Cline’s Armada is pretty much a reworking (a loving homage, if you prefer) of Ender’s Game.
I did enjoy Ender’s Game (the novel and the film) — even if the ending is clearly set up for a sequel — but, ultimately, I couldn’t help thinking how dark the story is.