'Ender's Game' by Orson Scott Card

So I finally got round to reading Ender's Game. It's a very well-known and widely celebrated novel, and is currently being made into a film, with the screenplay being adapted from the novel by Card himself.

I read a lot of SF, but I'm quite picky about what I read. I find a lot of it rather tedious - centered around spaceships and derring-do, with cardboard characters and bad dialogue. SF is supposed to be the literature of ideas. Too many SF novels are really just adventure stories for boys. In recent months, I have picked up more than one SF novel by more than one widely-acclaimed and bestselling author, only to put it down in disgust less than halfway through. Sometimes it has felt as though the author was just coasting through the story, as though they couldn't be bothered to care about what they were writing, as though they were just fulfilling their contractual obligations to a publisher. And sometimes, the writing itself has been bad - so bad that it distracts me from the story. I don't want to waste my time reading crap, and when it comes to the big names - the people who I know can write well - I want to be dazzled.

Orson Scott Card is one of the most respected names in SF, and Ender's Game is probably his most famous novel. My expectations, therefore, were high.

Warning - some spoilers ahead!

The story takes place several years after a near-disastrous war between humans and a somewhat mysterious alien race, nicknamed 'the Buggers'. The war was won by the humans, but only by luck. The humans know that the Buggers have regrouped, and are on their way to Earth with a vast armada, intent on wiping out humanity once and for all. The Buggers are so superior to humans that the military top brass on Earth are terrified of them. The only way they can win this coming war (they believe) is if they can find a new military genius, a sort of Napoleon figure, to lead their forces into battle against what are sure to be overwhelming odds.

They have therefore initiated a program to search for very gifted children, who are then sent to battle school to undergo an extremely brutal military training programme with the aim of producing a military leader with the necessary skills. The story centres around one such child, Ender Wiggin, as he progresses through this horrendous training programme.

The book is full of cruelty and violence. The adults who run the training school arrange for Ender to be hated by his peers. He is bullied and attacked. He is given no comfort. He is small and emotional, and he cries a lot. He misses his family. He is given hell. Ender is stretched to breaking point by both the adults and the other children, and ultimately emerges as the best of the best. But is he really the great leader they have been searching for? Can he save humanity by wiping out the Buggers before they can reach Earth? Or have they pushed him too hard? How much more can he take before he snaps?

Ender's Game has sometimes been criticised for glorifying violence and child cruelty, but I certainly didn't read it that way. The fact is that in the real world, the soldiers we send off to fight our wars are often very young, arguably little more than children. To get them to fight and kill our enemies, we have to train them, and this training necessarily involves a large measure of brutalisation -- we turn ordinary people into trained killers and send them to fight, and to die. The wars are never of their making, and they are not encouraged to consider the rights and wrongs of what they are asked to do. They are systematically traumatised; all the compassion is beaten out of them, just so they can do their job; so they can kill other human beings when ordered to do so. This process of dehumanisation, it seems, is a necessary part of warfare.

But can it ever be justified? This, to me, is the question that Card explores in Ender's Game. He deliberately sets up an extreme premise - if they don't put the children through this brutal training programme, then all of humanity will be destroyed. They must find and train a saviour, but by doing so, they run the risk of turning that saviour into either an inhuman monster, or a self-hating nervous wreck. Can this ever be justified?

In Ender's Game, Card does a wonderful job of convincing the reader that yes, under certain circumstances, it can be. If it's the only way to save planet Earth, then surely it must be done. And then, right at the end, he turns it around. He asks another question: can we ever be sure it really is the only way? How do we know when we've got it right? And if, later, it turns out we could have saved humanity some other way - peacefully, perhaps - how should we feel about that? Was it all for nothing? And how does Ender feel about what has been done to him?

Ender's Game has been interpreted by some as a thinly-veiled reference to Hitler, and a justification for everything that happened in Nazi Germany. I interpreted it more as a condemnation of the sort of thinking that led to the rise of Hitler, to the Vietnam war, and to the second invasion of Iraq.

But which is it really? The answer, I think, is both and neither.

The book is a little over three hundred pages long, which makes it very short for an SF novel. The story moves along at a rapid pace, without ever feeling rushed. Card makes every word count. It's beautifully, sparsely written, with compelling characters, cool tech, and a fascinating premise. It's a cracking read, and it's intensely thought-provoking.

SF doesn't get any better than this. A true gem.