What would you do to ensure the survival of the human race? What would you sacrifice? Your money? Your freedom? Your life? Most of us probably would if we were up against it. But what about the lives of our children? What if the survival of the species meant giving up your children to violence, war, and possible death?
It is exactly this rather sticky ethical question that Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, takes on. Well, that and a few others, like the morality of xenocide and government manipulation. That's a lot for what is essentially a young adult novel, but Card manages it by creating a version of Earth that is both alien and somehow familiar.
Ender's Game is the story of Ender Wiggins, a genius among geniuses. Bred specifically for intelligence and cunning, Ender is the last, best hope for humanity in their war against the buggers, and alien race that attacked the Earth not once, but twice, in an attempt to colonize it. Sounds like the basic plot of just about any science fiction novel. The twist? Ender is only six years old. He is taken from his family and sent to Battle School, where he learns to fight in mock battles with other cadets. But the real plan for Ender involves him learning to be very good at the game that the military has devised to develop his skills as a strategist. At the age of 10 he is sent to Command School, where he trains with the person who defeated the buggers during the last invasion. As the games become more challenging and Ender begins to collapse under the weight of everyone's expectations, the military's manipulation of him leads to devastating consequences-for the fleet, for the buggers, and ultimately for Ender.
Card's writing in Ender's Game is almost clinical, but that just adds to the "otherness" feeling that you get from the characters. Ender and his siblings-both of whom washed out of the Battle School program-are just as brilliant as he is. Peter, his older brother, washed out for being a ruthless little sociopath whose tendency towards violence and power was not tempered by empathy. Valentine, his sister, washed out for the opposite reason-too much empathy, not enough ruthlessness. The military hopes it is Ender who will present the perfect blend of these two traits-calculating and violent enough to lead a war, but empathetic enough not to kill unnecessarily. And while you feel sorry for Ender, he is certainly not perfect. He is violent, and emotionally distant, and ruthless when provoked. But how much can be blamed on a child, when from birth he was trained for war.
Given the fact that there are children all over Africa and Asia being conscripted as soldiers and made to fight right now, the premise feels more possible than a science fiction novel often does. Ender does his job, and he does it well-but there is a price. I will admit to being surprised to find that the final "games" were real battles. I guess since I knew there were sequels I assumed the war continued. Despite being manipulated into xenocide, Ender feels crushing guilt. While an argument can be made that it wasn't his "fault", it doesn't begin to assuage the remorse he feels for that and so many other things that were kept from him during his time at the school. And after losing his family and never being allowed to have real friends, he loses his home. Concerned that he will be used by the various governments to defeat the other governments, he is forbidden ever to return to Earth. And so the rest of the world blithely goes on with their politics-and Ender pays the price.