Those are high standards, folks, and I generally like my sci-fi a bit light but I'm pleased to say that while I'm not itching to read an entire series or even careen off in to space with a stack of sci-fi novels, I appreciated Ender's Game and its story. Andrew "Ender" Wiggins is the third child in his family at a time when families are restricted to two -- but the government specifically sanctioned Ender's conception in the hopes that he would turn out just as brilliant as his elder siblings, but a more tempered mixture of their strong personalities. Older brother Peter is, well, kind of a much-too-clever sociopath whose violent tendencies underlie a need for control and older sister Valentine is brilliant, persuasive, kind and caring, but both of them washed out of the soldier-training program before Ender had his chance. Ender is forced to learn early on that adults don't always play by the rules when they believe they have just cause and so Ender advances to Battle School at age six with the knowledge that the only person he can truly rely on is himself. Teachers have to play carefully if they want to shape Ender in to everything he has the potential to be -- the best military general the Earth has ever seen and the only one who can save them all from annihilation by the "bugger" race of insect-like creatures that have twice fought humankind before. But in manipulating Ender into the general they need, are they destroying the humanity within him? Of course, while most of the attention is on Ender and his impressive trajectory (and depressing isolation), there's still the question of what geniuses Peter and Valentine will do while on Earth. While only one is expected and groomed to go down in the pages of history, these three children ultimately have the power to remake not just the world but the universe.
Readers who cannot sympathize with Ender will find this book hard going but anyone who has ever felt the pressure of adults to succeed beyond one's peers should find that ample grounds for a good connection with him. (Indeed, it makes it even more obvious as to why smart kids urged by parents and teachers to fulfill their potential might seize upon Ender as a character that strikes a chord within them.) Ender is endlessly pushed, driven, and manipulated in his carefully mapped-out destiny to be a great general. Drafted to be a solder at age six, there is no real childhood for Ender and he's not even truly allowed friends. Occasionally, there's a figure who comes close to meaning something but Ender is forced to be in a position where isolation will sharpen his self-reliance, only emphasizing that everyone else is truly relying on him. The child's concept of "cheating" becomes an interesting refrain when games are twisted and manipulated, forcing Ender to come up with new ideas that defy expectations. Additionally, those readers that really enjoy fast-paced action sequences will surely find many of the clearly detailed war games to be just up their alley. It's a rush to read of hard-fought battles and victory until one is again reminded that children are fighting these simulations at the expense of their childhood. There are many moments (taking in to account the parameters of the world established within the book) that one might sigh and think "really, is this realistic?" but Card carefully toes the line, making his child geniuses such powerful players in a corrupt and twisted system. In the end, you simply have to accept a few things as we go for the sake of the story's progression, as insufficient details are given about some of the hazier topics. (Is communication so centered on the net that Demosthenes and Locke would really achieve such fame without any physical representation? Would Ender really not ask more questions that might lead him to understand the true events taking place? Are the military justifications given the kind of things it would take an adult like Dumbledore to say about trusting the instincts of children or would anyone actually ever go for this ludicrous plan?)
In the end, I suppose I really appreciated the book but had a hard time "enjoying" it. Many people might focus on the action and adventure of young kids being given such responsibility but I found this highly unsettling. Did wait too long to read this book? I had added it to my "30 books to read before I turn 30" for the express purpose of reading it before I got too old but I think I missed my window. It seems impossible that anyone could read this without appreciating just how dark it is (Card makes sure of that, particularly in dialogue between adults who know exactly what they're doing and while they might have heavy hearts and some misgivings, they do it anyway), but there is probably an age where one would still feel a thrill at certain scenes. As it is, all I can do is sit back, feel deeply unsettled about how much responsibility we often place on thin and fragile shoulders, and wonder if this is so far off in how we push kids today and present them with skewed views of the world. I didn't have this same response to Harry Potter (though at many times during that series, we're reminded to feel the unfairness of how much rests on Harry) so perhaps it's the involvement of the military that has me shuddering. It might be sci-fi but the underlying issues are very, very real and we're not exactly fighting off an evil villain that can be so squarely blamed for being classically "bad."
Here's an example of perhaps the hardest part of the book for me, which occurs towards the very end... just when you think poor Ender has endured so much. (Spoiler alert!) After the buggers have been destroyed and Ender is now on the colonized planet, he finds the last bugger, the fertilized pupa of a queen, and knows that this is the last hope for the bugger race to ever be able to continue. When he finds her, he immediately envisions what must have happened and shockingly describes the scene: "Ender could see in his mind the slug-like males clinging to the walls of a dark tunnel, and the large adults carrying the infant queen to the mating room; each male in turn penetrated the larval queen, shuddered in ecstasy, and died, dropping to the tunnel floor and shriveling." The rape of the infant queen bugger for the sake of species survival is a very succinct and graphic description that isn't altogether different from what was done to Ender. He was also, in essence, raped by larger adults who had a plan that he had no say in; he was stripped of childhood and any human connection, forced to submit to a future that his genes dictated for him, and all of this far earlier than anyone should have been, all for the sake of saving the human race. Do the ends justify the means? It's an interesting question and one that's incredibly uncomfortable to spend time thinking on, particularly in this context. (Side note: I also think that uber-religious Card gave people too much credit to think that, overall, they'd find such meaning and value to the book Ender wrote from the perspective of the Bugger queen, but maybe that's just cynical me.) Ender represents all that is good about humanity and we're rather beaten over the head with that; he only ever kills without meaning to unless he's in (what he believes to be) a game, where he is ruthless. When given the challenge in the real world, he fails his training and refuses to destroy the queen. He allows her and her people the opportunity to rebuild, trusting that they understand each other despite the inability to explicitly communicate. It's the first naive and innocent thing Ender has ever done and even if one secretly believes this is a big mistake and the buggers will come back to kill us all, well, there's beauty in even the hope that creatures can learn from their mistakes.
So I'm incredibly glad that I read Ender's Game, even if the experience wasn't quite pleasant. It's so unsettling but also so important for us to challenge our view of the child hero story to explore the darker ramifications, which can translate to real life on a smaller scale. Sci-fi is at its most compelling for me when it strikes a nerve in the real world and Ender's Game absolutely did this. I recommend with caution, if only because it's a book that will leave you thinking for quite a while -- I would suggest you not plan on reading anything too important or meaty after this, as subsequent reads might get a bit of a short shrift as you'll still be thinking about Ender.