I first read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card about 10 years ago, and it blew me away. Part space opera, part boarding school story, part meditation on war, it was exactly what a good science fiction novel should be. I revisited the story a few years ago by reading Ender’s Shadow (the same story from Bean’s perspective), but this past week was the first time I went back to the original tale—this time in audiobook form.
Ender’s Game tells the story of Ender Wiggin, an extraordinarily gifted child who some believe is humanity’s last hope of defeating the buggers—an alien race that attempted to colonize Earth many years ago and was eventually defeated. Since the Bugger War, humanity has feared another invasion and, in hopes of preparing the best possible fighting force, has been sending its most gifted children to a battle school in outer space. The primary means of teaching is a game in which the children are divided into armies and, under the command of student leaders, fight each other in a zero-gravity battle room.
When he begins battle school at age 6, Ender is immediately set apart. He gets promoted quickly, and the adults keep changing the rules of the game in an attempt to keep Ender sharp and turn him into the leader they’ve been hoping for. Meanwhile, on Earth, Ender’s older siblings, Peter and Valentine, are attempting to influence Earth politics by posing as adults and publishing provocative articles on the “nets.”
Ender’s Game works very well in the audio format. The BBC audiobook that I listened to used different readers for different sections, and most of them were quite good. The dialogues that open several chapters of the book were read by multiple actors, each taking on a specific character’s voice, and they are very effective. The reader for Valentine did have a breathless, slightly whiny quality to her voice that I found grating at times. It didn’t help that the Earth-focused sections involving Valentine were, for me, the least interesting parts of the book.
The battle school concept is terrific, and Card does a good job explaining the complex maneuvers and strategies. Ender’s schoolmates are each given distinct and interesting personalities, and I liked seeing how Ender learned to bring out the best in each one. Whenever the story shifted back to Earth, I got impatient. These interludes just didn’t feel all that important, and I always wanted to get back to the battle school and to the characters I cared about.
Card’s storytelling skills shine when he focuses on action and character development; his philosophical and political musings, which dominate the Earth-oriented sections, just don’t work as well. I think some of it has to do with the fact that the ideas Peter and Valentine present are not terribly profound and didn’t challenge or expand my own thinking much. Actually, the same is true of Ender’s own musings on what it means to be a fighter, but the difference is that I cared more about Ender as an individual, and so I cared about his thoughts. Valentine and Peter are only important as they relate to Ender, and most of what they do in the book has little to do with Ender’s situation.
Overall, however, I do recommend this book for anyone who likes science fiction, and even people who don’t. I think a lot of what has made Ender’s Game so popular is the same as what made the Harry Potter books so successful. Both books deal with one special boy who, not through any choice of his own, is made the focus of everyone’s hopes and fears. Both stories involve an interesting cast of classmates and teachers, all of whom live together in a place that, for much of the story, is kept separate from the rest of the world. True, there are no manticores or phoenixes, no magic wands and spell books, but other than that, the thrust of the story is much the same. Interesting stories are interesting stories, whether they take place in an ordinary school, a fantasy world, or a space craft.