Since seeing its movie adaptation trailer alongside the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, this book has haunted me. I would be inside bookstores, browsing happily through the comic book sections, only to find myself turning around to face a copy of it perching above a shelf behind me. I’d ignore it and go on with my usual purchases. Until one day while I was merely looking through some collected works of YA books with some slight disdain, I saw the name Orson Scott Card in one of those boxes, and his four books that are collectedly known as Ender’s Quartet. Again, I dismissed the whole thing as commonplace. But a night after that while deciding for my next purchase, that box collection popped in my head all of a sudden. I’ve been collecting SF Masterworks for months so thinking about Card’s books was not unusual because I knew it was a highly-regarded sci-fi work. I just couldn’t resist so I researched more about it and found out that Card was the same author whose appointment as one of the new Superman writers for DC stirred a scandal, all because of his bigoted stance against same-sex marriage. Already intrigued, I read some more about this author and came across his said homophobic articles. I was naturally livid—but also begrudgingly amused. How could someone who writes in a genre that’s all about radical, exploratory themes of the human condition be so discriminatory towards a group of people whose different values he believes threatens his own?
It needs to be stated that this is the motivating factor that made me decide to buy the Ender’s Quartet box. However, I wanted to judge his stories as a literary work, regardless of whatever repugnance I feel toward his own bigotry against LGBT. I proceeded with this mind, and it was surprisingly easy once I began to enjoy the story. My copy of Ender’s Game (which thankfully did not feature the movie cover, no offense intended though) was an author definitive edition so I read his introduction of the novel with a discerning apathy. And then I went right ahead to the story with the idea that this is about gifted children making military strategies; a very peculiar premise that was unexpectedly rewarding and often sublime. What I thoroughly admired about his way of storytelling is the daring simplicity of the prose; and I say ‘daring’ because a lot of today’s writers I’ve encountered in any genre have a tendency to be incessantly verbose which tend to make their narrative superfluous. Granted, verbosity is enjoyable for me when it’s lyrical (Michael Cunningham excelled with this, particularly in Specimen Days), but there is a time and place for such a style, and luckily Card did not find it necessary to tell his story this way. Though told in the perspectives of several gifted children (the Wiggin siblings, primarily) and other adults, the prose itself was not cerebral or too self-aware. The gifted children themselves could have been written as vocabulary juggernauts or savvy scientific savants to accentuate whatever genius they possess but Card did not portray them this because they would have been cartoonish and less believable.
In fact, Ender, Peter and Valentine Wiggin talk like regular children ought to, but once you explore their respective innermost thoughts, you find that because of their high intelligence, they do think and feel beyond their years; able to ascertain their identities and make morally piercing decisions with a restraint and strength that not even adults in their forties have. The burden and frailty of genius is the thematic resonance of this book for me; the titular character Ender (who is stigmatized with the prejudicial ‘Third’ label; since the government-imposed total of children for every household is two) is six years old in the beginning of the story and was twelve by the time he finished his first war with the the alien enemies known as buggers—and in between he was forced to make very adult decisions and the adults themselves (military commanders and teachers) are unable to fully understand how to deal with him; if they would treat his failings compassionately with the knowledge that he is merely a child, or grind him some more for his potentials with the forethought that he is humanity’s ultimate last weapon to survive. The answer, eventually, is a vulnerable balance of both. The painful but redemptive transformations that Ender undergone is too much for any ordinary child to take and it was his uniqueness that truly enabled him to endure the agonies of his training. He was resourceful and calculating yet also reluctant to accept his killer instincts; terrified to emulate his older brother Peter who has a mean streak and a megalomaniac ambition. His humane reflection is his sister Valentine, whose kindness is not as pure as either of them would like to believe but is ultimately the light that brings meaning to the darkness that his life was instilled with.
There is a lot of depth to this story’s structure that makes almost all of the scenes (and supporting characters) unforgettable and pitiful at the same time. The book’s stetting focus is the Battle School, and for someone who enjoys strategies and tactics in game sequences and interplay, I devoured everything that was written. This is when Ender shone the brightest at that; he can always devise and improvise his battle plans that he began to truly excel. But with that came isolation and derision from other children who are insecure of their abilities; but Ender was also able to find respect and camaraderie from those who appreciate and sympathize to a certain extent what he is and what he’s going through. It’s sometimes easy to forget that these are children because they are facing situations that render any innocence of theirs moot. We could just as well blame the adults of the story for their morally ambiguous step-by-step training to turn these youngsters into killers but the truth is far more complex and magnitude in scope to put it in black-and-white terms. There remains a threat to the human race out there in the blackest of galaxies so this justifies everything they have put Ender through— but is it really worth it?
The answer was not an absolute which is to be expected in such a complicated landscape and characterizations put forth by Card for Ender’s Game. Near the end of the story, our child hero has become cynical and worn-out but he’s still a child nevertheless, and he will continue to reach new heights in worlds that he could not always control, but can always adapt to. And though gifted with uncanny military skills and exacting discipline that rivals that of a holy man, it also needs to be said that Ender’s innate goodness is eventually something that makes him more than just a great soldier—it also defined him as a great leader. This ultimately allowed him to put himself in the mind of his enemies and expose the truth that humanity was not fighting against evil forces at all but an alien race that misrepresented itself to us from the beginning, and is just as eager to survive and thrive as we do if we only help.
* Elegant and sublime, this science fiction story revels on both the depth and hollowness of wars within common minds, among unlikely comrades, and across galaxies with an enemy who is not what it seems.