Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Ender's Game (Book 1 of Ender)

Ender's Game (1985), Orson Scott Card. Paperback, 324 pages. 

Awards: Hugo Award, Nebula Award

Summary: A boy is selected to train in a space-based battle school to defend humanity against an alien threat. For a more detailed summary, click here.

     Ender grinned. "I'm helping you."
     "Like hell," said Bean.
     "Nobody would notice you, except to feel sorry for the little kid. But I made sure they all noticed you today. They'll be watching every move you make. All you have to do to earn their respect now is be perfect."
     "So I don't even get a chance to learn before I'm being judged."
     "Poor kid. Nobody's treatin' him fair." Ender gently pushed Bean back aginst the wall. "I'll tell you how to get a toon. Prove to me you know what you're doing as a soldier. Prove to me you know how to use other soldiers. And then prove to me that somebody's willing to follow you into battle. Then you'll get your toon. But not bloody well until."
     Bean smiled. "That's fair. If you actually work that way, I'll be a toon leader in a month."
     Ender reached down and grabbed the front of his uniform and shoved him into the wall. "When I say I work a certain way, Bean, then that's the way I work."
     Bean just smiled. Ender let go of him and walked away. When he got to his room he lay down and trembled. What am I doing? My first practice session, and I'm already bullying people the way Bonzo did. And Peter. Shoving people around. Picking on some poor little kid so the others'll have somebody they all hate. Sickening. Everything I hated in a commander, and I'm doing it.

Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 7/10

Rounded Characters: 7/10

Well-Developed World: 7/10

Page Turner: 9/10

Kept Me Thinking: 6/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10

Writing Quality: 6/10. I read a lot of Card's novels when I was a kid, and loved them. As an adult, I still love them, but I'm a little more discerning about what Card's inadequacies may be. They're not glaring inadequacies. His actual ability as a wordsmith (in this novel, at least) is above average, just not the bright spot of the novel. He doesn't get bogged down in character monologue or philosophical musing, (see Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule for a whole lot of both), but keeps his writing fairly simple, straightforward, and focused on the action. If you really want stuff to get bogged down in philosophical musing, wait for the third book in the series, Xenocide.

Depth of Concept: 7/10. There are those who hate Ender's Game. Not many, but those who do claim that Card romanticizes violence, or that he is out of touch with the way real children behave and respond to adult situations. I think a person could make a case for those things, but I think that Card's characterization of violence, war, leadership, and "necessary evil" are respectably nuanced, and that his descriptions of gifted children are not wildly unbelievable. Even if they were a little out of place, I think that the scenario Card dreams up in which children fill roles normally reserved for adults during wartime provides a clever allegory that has helped me and a lot of other readers to rethink the ways that wars are conducted. It's no surprise that a variety of military institutions, as well as school classrooms, have used Ender's Game as course reading material. For being a source of multiple meaningful interpretations, I put its depth of concept even higher than George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones (which I gave a 6/10), which is no slouch itself when it comes to depictions of war.

Rounded Characters: 7/10. I considered scoring this a 6, because I was concerned that maybe I just liked a lot of the characters, which is different than them being particularly realistic and nuanced. Still, I think that Ender, the protagonist, struggles with legitimately difficult situations, and does so with a personality and motivation that felt both distinct and well-developed. Not all of the other characters are as well detailed; some are merely likeable side-kicks, and some are sort of generic authority figures. Still, I thought Card set up some really interesting dynamics between his siblings and his mentors. I'm looking at my review for A Game of Thrones, which I scored a 6 in this category, and second-guessing myself . . . but for now I suppose I'll leave the score as it stands.

Well-Developed World: 7/10. Card does a good job of detailing the particulars of the world, particularly the battle school. While you'd never confuse Card's writing for hard science, he does a good job of explaining the limits of technological possibility in his futuristic world, and of describing the wartime situation that makes the battle school and other military services be what they are. It's easy to get immersed in Card's descriptions of tactics, both in the battle school and in the real-time scenarios, and that's a task that lesser authors might botch. 

Page Turner: 9/10. Definitely. As I write this, I wonder if I should have bumped it up to a perfect "10" for being a page-turner. Perhaps the only reason that I don't is that I rarely felt that the stakes were so high that I feared for characters; really, very few bad things happen to the likeable main characters in the book. In that sense, it's more like an episode of MASH (without the comedy) than Saving Private Ryan. I'm sure there's a better example to use, but I hope you get the picture. Also, I found scenes involving Ender and the battle school somewhat more engaging than the scenes with his siblings.

Kept Me Thinking: 6/10. Despite what I think is a clever use of allegory and thought-provoking wartime scenarios involving virtual realities and Machiavellian questions about whether the ends justify the means, I still was mostly reading this to have an action-packed good time. Others may feel they were able to be a lot more introspective during and after reading . . . but frankly, I spent about as much time thinking really critically about the novel just now writing the review as I did during and after reading. Not because there isn't worthwhile stuff to think about but because it's packaged in such a quick, slick, entertaining read.

Overall Recommendation: 7/10. Ender's Game won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when it was released, which is quite rare even for award-winning fantasy and science fiction novels. It's better than a lot of books that have won those awards, though perhaps not the best (I gave Red Mars an overall recommendation of 8/10 because of its immensely nuanced and extremely intelligent and useful look at colonization, though I'll concede that Ender's Game is much more fun to read). Still, if you want a super-engaging science fiction novel to read, that you can still have a reasonably intelligent discussion about afterwards with your friends or book group, it would be hard to do a lot better than this. It's not as earth-shattering as Moby Dick or The Road by a long shot . . . but I need some quick reads in between big emotional undertakings like those. This one fits the bill. I'm going to leave it at a 7, but it possibly deserves an 8 for the simple reason that huge numbers of readers (not just science-fiction and fantasy aficionados) cite it as one of their favorite books of all time. It's really been a huge seller, and in twenty or thirty years, people might see it as foundational as Stranger in a Strange Land, or Dune, or Foundation.

Books To Compare: Ah, the coming-of-age story wrapped in a war novel. You might find some interesting similarities between Ender's Game and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, though Card's novel is a little more action-oriented, and a little less rich in metaphor, symbolism, and irony. Of course William Golding's Lord of the Flies would make an interesting comparison as well, since both consider what happens when children take on adult responsibilities. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Ender's Game on Amazon.


  1. It probably won't happen very often, but here is a book I've actually read. I agree about the page turner score, even a non-sci fi fan like me found it pulling me along, although I was more engaged in the scenes with the siblings, more of the psychological component than the actual battle scenes. By the end, I think I could begin to appreciate the battle scenes, but I certainly couldn't picture the actions he was describing in my head -- "this person pushed off from this wall and ricocheted off that person" read like blah-blah-blah to me. But still it didn't get bogged down in that so much that I was done with it. Although I can't remember too much more about how I felt reading it, I do remember that I found the very end quite elegant and intriguing. I haven't read "Speaker for the Dead" but I was interested in the concept Card was setting up with that (but obviously not intrigued enough that I actually read it, maybe someday).

    1. As I recall, you said you liked this better than Dune. And, while I think I preferred Ender's Game for it's action and for setting up an original story, it strikes me that you might prefer Speaker for the Dead, which carries the moral ramifications from the end of the novel to new places.

  2. My husband recently read this one and he liked it a lot. As for me, I still need to read this sometime. By now, I've already heard a lot about the plus and minus about Card, that I'm curious about how I will find his books.

    1. I'd be interested in how many women loved Ender's Game as much as the men I know. It's no longer my favorite novel, but until I was 15 or 16, it probably would have been at the top of my list.

    2. Also, while Ender's Game is as good a place to start as any, I think that Seventh Son is also an excellent start to an excellent series (at least for the first couple books). In my experience, Card's novels at the end of a series start to fade in engagement.

  3. Neal,

    Just thought to let you know I've put your blog onto my blog roll to let people in on your blog - as free advertising. I think your blog has potential to be great. It has great potential. Have you made it translatable? It's in your settings - so you can reach a wider audience - just a thought. A lot of people in Germany and Europe love to read Sci-Fi and Fantasy.


    (My Reading List: )

    1. Mozette,

      Thanks for the kind words! It's exciting to be spread around to a wider audience. You've got some interesting blogs as well, and I think I'll follow along on a few. Also, I've just said to my wife that we should look into making it translatable, following your suggestion. Thanks!

  4. I read this novel a while ago, and the sequels. I was quite gripped by Ender's Game, but I haven't re-read it or any inclination to.

    I found it was quite intense.

    I prefer 'The Warrior's Apprentice' by Lois McMaster Bujold. (The later books in her new series are a bit soft-porn and repetitive though.)

    1. I've often come across references to Bujold, but haven't tried one yet. I'll think about The Warrior's Apprentice as a place to start.

  5. The Vorkosigan Saga is more space opera than hard scifi.

    "Cordelia's Honor" (2 novels in one book! 'Shards of Honor' + 'Barrayar') In this book, the characterisation feels intensely real. A strong female pov - she accomplishes things!

    "Ethan of Athos" also has good characterisation. I don't know how true the male view is, but I like it.

    One of my favourite is "Falling Free" as our hero is an engineer who likes to do things Right. I have much sympathy with that. Again, great characterisation, and themes of being a parent and caregiver.

    1. thanks! I'll have to check these out.

  6. Agree about the Seventh Son books, but Ender's Game bored me. Card can write some really neat stuff, but his flagellation of Christopher Columbus and frequent theme of how great everything would be if Mormons were in charge is a little off-putting. I wonder how he's viewing the current presidential race?

    1. I think I liked a lot of his older stuff better. I haven't found his more recent literature nearly as engaging. As far as the Mormon stuff goes, I'm not sure I know which novels you're referring to, except I recall that Folk of the Fringe used his religious cultural tradition as the setting.

    2. Mormonism, especially mormonism as the best religion, has shown up in his work more than once. Typically in his standalone novels. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just jarring