By Orson Scott Card
As Earth’s only hope, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is packed off to Battle School at the tender age of 6 to become a great military leader. He is, of course, already a genius, and in spite of all the psychological torment the school puts him through, he manages to survive and shine.
But why has he been sent to battle school? Because mankind is fighting a war against the buggers.
Buggers?! Yup, buggers, Card’s (Scott Card’s? NB. Americans, please choose sensible names) unfortunate term for the race of insects against which the human race has fought two wars and is on the verge of fighting a third.
Having endured Battle School, Wiggin is sent to Command School because time is running out. He’s reunited with some of his classmates from Battle School, and after a series of supposed tests, the pass mark for the final exam is genocide (insecticide?). Wiggin becomes a great hero, but can’t return to Earth, and having been sent to a former insect colony, he discovers something unexpected.
While Wiggin is at Battle School, his psychopathic brother, Peter, plans to conquer the world along with their sister, Valentine. Together, using the pseudonyms Locke and Demosthenes (writing as their alter egos to muddy the waters further), they establish themselves as major commentators on the nets, influencing politics and international relations. Wiggin is a blend of the other two. He can be decidedly deadly (the incidents with Stilson and Bonzo Madrid), but he also has a conscience (the egg). It seems strange that although both of the older Wiggins were rejected from Battle School, no one seems to have considered that they, being just as brilliant as their younger brother, might pose some danger to Earth in the right or wrong hands.
Ender’s Game is an odd book in that it’s a story of institutionalised child abuse and, ultimately, casual genocide. Card writes Wiggin as a highly resilient child who endures everything that is thrown at him and yet survives largely unscathed by his experience. The book is about war as a game, and although the characters of Peter and Valentine are used to explore political ideology, Wiggin isn’t subject to any sort of racist indoctrination. (Tellingly, this article on Wired says “The only time his beliefs came up in our conversations was a comment he made about fiction being a totally inappropriate venue for any kind of ideological proselytizing.”)
The original story goes back to 1977, and the book was first published in 1985. At the time, the Vietnam War would’ve been recent history, but the Cold War had not yet come to an end. Although the threat to Earth is external, in a bout of unintentional foresight, Card writes of the Russians preparing for a terrestrial war in spite of a treaty which is intended to keep the peace on Earth while the insects remain a threat. The alien race could still stand for the Russians at the time or Communism (totalitarianism) in general.
Thus, if Ender’s Game is a Cold War yarn, is Ender Wiggin a reflection of Card himself, who, it seems reasonable to suppose, was quite possibly a child whose precocity isolated him from others? Wiggin perpetually shines throughout the book, coming close to defeat in some battles, but never losing one. His fatal fights with Stilson and Bonzo Madrid are the sort of scenes of wish fulfilment that would appeal to clever people who have been bullied by stupid ones.
Ender’s Game is well written, but ambiguous. Wiggin’s treatment raises intermittent comments; the extermination of the insects ultimately doesn’t bother anyone; and Wiggin’s discovery of the egg potentially undermines his genocidal victory. What is the reader meant to think? What’s the message? And do you have to be a Mormon to understand it?