Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review of "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

There are very few “best of” sci-fi/fantasy lists that do not feature Orson Scott Card’s 1985 Ender’s Game near the top.  The story of a young boy’s rise through a space academy tantalizing and highly inventive throughout, the reasons are obvious.  Card hit upon an idea, mined it for every penny of entertainment, and cashed in—a wholly absorbing novel with humanist elements tacked to the end the reader’s reward.  

Ender’s Game is the story of Ender Wiggins and his often exciting, always visceral fight for place in a space academy.  Though he had a bit of trouble fitting in on Earth with his classmates, Ender proves himself more than capable of surviving in a system intended to separate the Darwinian wheat from the chaff.  But it’s at the price of his relationships.  The war games the children and teens play anything but light, laser-tag is only the appearance.  The challenges Ender faces in the game rooms—social, authoritarian, and strategic—break and mold him into a young man.  But what kind of young man does he become? 

Card’s imaginative span great entertainment, the scene is brilliantly set for one challenge after another at the Battle School.  Readers are constantly kept guessing how he—Card and Ender—will top himself, each new setup the next mission impossible.  Yet, it consistently happens, and in the process Ender must use every molecule of brain power to overcome the American Gladiator-like obstacles placed in he and his team’s path by the academy’s authoritarian overseers.  Card portraying the war games in video game fashion, the levels only get more difficult, creating a mountain of suspense in the process.  The war games, in fact, provide the main draw of the novel and are undoubtedly the reason it is regarded so highly by readership.

Aside from neither brilliant nor dull prose, the only other potential fault of the novel is its moods.  The story of a boy at a space academy innately juvenile, a young adult feel prevails throughout.  Card attempts to make the story more “adult” by splashing strong language here or there, adding some graphic details to the challenges at the Battle School, and moralizing at various points, but the overall effect is not very subtle.  There is the sudden prominence of a theme fully adult at the novel’s conclusion, but it doesn’t help.  The story retains a tone that could be either YA or standard.  

Love it or hate it, the most subversive aspect of Ender’s Game is its conclusion.  Events taking a major turn, readers can not expect things to transpire as they do.  Holding a mirror to the story, Card uses a suddenly new perspective to bring Ender to the next stage of his development.  The manner in which Card pulls the literary rug out from under readers’ feet to accomplish this, however, will either have people nodding their heads in better understanding of the novel’s true message, or shaking their heads, preferring such an adventure come to a more conventional ending, the plummet from action to anthropological sci-fi perhaps too quick to handle.  In a genre featuring all too much derivative, Card should be lauded for this, however.  

In the end, Ender’s Game is some of the most exciting entertainment readers of any genre can have.   The sharp left turn of an ending, while poignant to Card’s larger aspirations, may leave some readers disoriented, but will certainly interest those looking for sci-fi with more depth than the standard fare.  Enjoyable at many levels, character to setting, plot to theme, it’s difficult for this book to disappoint save the overall lack of maturity in tone.  Having some thematic points in common with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Forever Peace or Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, readers who enjoyed those two novels but have (somehow) never read Ender’s Game will want to check it out.  The same is true vice versa. 

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