Orson Scott Card’s 1985 classic Ender’s Game begins with a dialog between two unidentified speakers deciding to “take” someone they believe is “the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” Then we meet six-year-old Andrew Wiggin, aka Ender, in the process of having his “horrid monitor” removed. He has what is apparently an uncharacteristically spasmodic reaction to its removal. Back at school, Ender is worried he will be picked on now that he’s not protected by being watched through the monitor, and is soon proven correct when the bully Stilson and his gang come around picking on him for being a “third.” Though smaller, Ender ends up knocking Stilson to the ground, then kicking him repeatedly when he’s down to send a message to the other gang members not to mess with him again. At home, Ender is immediately picked on by his older brother Peter—again thanks to the absence of the monitor—and Peter almost kills him in a game of “astronauts and buggers” (Peter being the astronaut, Ender the bugger) but Ender is saved by the intervention of their sister Valentine.
The next morning, Colonel Graff from the International Fleet shows up on the Wiggins’ doorstep. After Ender tells Graff why he beat Stilson so harshly, Graff says that Ender is wanted for Battle School. He says it is Ender’s choice, though the parents already agreed to let him be taken to be allowed to have him in the first place, two being the legally allotted number of children. Ender agrees to go after Graff explains the disruption he’s caused to the order of his parents’ house as the third child.
The dialoguing soldiers from the beginning discuss plans to isolate Ender. On the space shuttle to the school, Graff tells the other boys that Ender is smarter than all of them. The boy behind Ender starts hitting him in the head until Ender grabs his arm and flings him out of his seat; the boy, Bernard, ends up with a broken arm. Graff affirms that the boys shouldn’t mess with Ender. Graff talks to Major Anderson (these turn out to be the dialoguing soldiers) about how they’re going to make Ender “the best military commander in history” and how Ender:
“…can never come to believe that anybody will ever help him out, ever. If he once thinks there’s an easy way out, he’s wrecked.”
Ender feels homesick and grateful to Peter for teaching him how to hide what he feels. In between classes they play computer games that are a part of their training. Ender masters them so quickly he’s able to beat much older boys at one he hadn’t actually played before. Everyone in his launch group treats Ender as an enemy for breaking Bernard’s arm on the shuttle. Bernard is a bully who often makes fun of others; Ender conquers Bernard by figuring out how to send messages to the group through their desks:
“I LOVE YOUR BUTT. LET ME KISS IT. —BERNARD”
The boys learn how to maneuver in an anti-gravity battleroom and Ender quickly trains himself not to think in traditional terms of up and down. He figures out that the gun that comes with their flash suits freezes people, and practicing with it during this training session he makes friends with Alai, one of Bernard’s cronies. Ender plays a game in Free Play where he’s gotten to a level with a Giant making him choose between poisoned drinks; no matter what he chooses, he dies, until he kicks the table over and burrows into the Giant’s eye (while the Giant calls him a cheater). He finally makes it to “Fairyland.” Ender feels depressed he had to choose between his own death and murder in the game. Soon he finds a slip transferring him to the Salamander Army even though by normal standards he hasn’t been in enough training to warrant the promotion. He and Alai say a tender goodbye. Ender goes back to the Fairyland game and sees the Giant’s corpse has become part of the landscape, and he plays on a playground where nothing will hold him. He then walks through woods to a meadow where he’s attacked by wolves with the faces of the children from the playground. Eventually he figures out how to kill them and goes down a well to a cavern with a door that says “THE END OF THE WORLD.” The door leads onto a high ledge, which Ender jumps from, landing on a cloud that carries him to a castle. A rug on the ground turns into a snake that tells him death is his only escape, but the game is interrupted when Ender is paged to report to his new army.
The first person Ender talks to in his new barracks is Petra, the only girl in Salamander Army. Ender meets his new commander, Bonzo Madrid, who is pissed they have sent an inexperienced six-year-old to his army. He tells Ender that during the battles he’s not to draw his gun. Petra, who says she’s the best sharpshooter in Salamander, offers to teach Ender some things since Bonzo won’t. She also tells him that the higher-ups “never tell you any more truth than they have to.” Ender’s not allowed to participate in Bonzo’s training exercises but closely observes his formations and weak points. When Petra can’t practice with him as much as he wants, he goes back to his launch group and gets some of them to practice with him. When Bonzo says he can’t practice with launchies, Ender challenges him and says he can get Bonzo iced (kicked out) if he tries to control his free play; Bonzo is furious that he has to back down. When Ender has his first battle with Salamander Army, he obeys Bonzo’s orders not to draw his gun even though he could have easily killed one of the five remaining enemy soldiers passing through the victory gate, which would have rendered the battle a draw instead of a loss, but Bonzo refuses to change his order. Ender is at the very top of the soldier standings by fluke because he hasn’t ever been hit and and he doesn’t have any missed shots because he hasn’t taken any.
During Ender’s fourth battle, nine soldiers are about to pass through the victory gate to defeat Salamander when Ender does draw his gun and freezes five of them, making it a draw. Bonzo later tells him he’s finally traded him and then slugs him in the face for disobeying orders. Ender signs up for a “earth-gravity personal combat course” so that “no one would be able to do that to him again.”
Graff orders Major Anderson to come up with “unfair star arrangement[s]” for the battles to make them more challenging; Anderson threatens to report Graff’s orders to a higher-up, but Graff insists he’s doing what’s necessary. Ender switches to Rat Army, led by a guy named “Rose the Nose” whose only qualification to lead is that he’s Jewish (there’s a superstition that Jews make good commanders, though this is refuted by the fact that Mazer Rackham, the commander who saved the world from the last bugger invasion, was from New Zealand). Ender is put in Dink Meeker’s toon; Dink wanted him after seeing his practice sessions with the launchies. Ender teaches the toon how to attack approaching feet-first in antigravity so it’s much harder for the enemy to hit you. When Ender disobeys Rose the Nose’s orders to not practice with the launchies and then not to use his desk, Rose the Nose orders Ender to go in first, straight to the enemy’s door. He thinks Ender will get shot right away but Ender attacks fast and is able to freeze several soldiers before he’s frozen himself, and maintains his rank as first in the standings. He drops in the standings after actually fighting in the next few battles, but then works his way back to the top legitimately. He talks to Dink about why Dink’s turned down promotions, and Dink explains:
These other armies, they aren’t the enemy. It’s the teachers, they’re the enemy. They get us to fight each other, to hate each other. The game is everything. Win win win. It amounts to nothing. We kill ourselves, go crazy trying to beat each other, and all the time the old bastards are watching us, studying us, discovering our weak points, deciding whether we’re good enough or not. Well, good enough for what?
Dink also talks about his family from home, which nobody ever does, and Ender opens up about Valentine. Dink also believes the prospect of the bugger war is entirely fake:
“…There is no war, and they’re just screwing around with us.”
“Because as long as people are afraid of the buggers, the I.F. can stay in power, and as long as the I.F. is in power, certain countries can keep their hegemony. But keep watching the vids, Ender. People will catch onto this game pretty soon, and there’ll be a civil war to end all wars. That’s the menace, Ender, not the buggers. And in that war, when it comes, you and I won’t be friends. Because you’re American, just like our dear teachers. And I am not.”
Ender believes the buggers are real and that their threat could not have been faked, since “lies could not last long in America,” but a seed of doubt is planted that helps make him wise. Other commanders start ordering their soldiers not to practice with Ender, but his core group of original launchies remains loyal, despite external pressures. A group of older boys attacks his group in a nasty unofficial battle, but Ender wins. When he sees that the boys who were hospitalized are officially reported to have been hurt accidentally, he realizes the teachers have no intention of intervening.
Ender goes back to his Free Play mind game and kills the snake that he met last time in the castle room. Then he looks in a mirror and sees Peter’s face with a bloody snake tail hanging from his mouth. Ender shatters the mirror with the dead snake and then thousands of tiny snakes start pouring from the hole and kill him.
The commanders sanction Ender’s practices officially and send older boys to participate, so no one bothers him. But Ender is bothered by the most recent development in the mind game:
This game knows too much about me. This game tells filthy lies. I am not Peter. I don’t have murder in my heart.
And then a worse fear, that he was a killer, only better at it than Peter ever was; that it was this very trait that pleased the teachers. It’s killers they need for the bugger wars. It’s people who can grind the enemy’s face into the dust and spatter their blood all over space.
Graff and Anderson debate how the game could have gotten Peter’s image.
We then switch to Valentine’s perspective back home, where she’s been observing Ender’s birthdays even though he never answers her letters. They have since moved from the city to the country in North Carolina, which Valentine thinks they’ve done for Peter so the influence of nature will soften him, but she knows he’s been skinning and torturing squirrels. He does well in school and doesn’t bully people anymore, but Valentine knows it’s a fraud. One day Peter tells her that he’s decided not to kill her, but that she’ll help him. He tells her he’s figured out how to track troop movements in Russia and can tell they’re getting ready for war—the war after the bugger war. She understands that he’s “detected  a fundamental shift in the world order.” He points out that they’re not like other children, but smarter than most adults, and that
“…there are times when the world is in flux and the right voice in the right place can move the world.”
He wants her to convince their father to sign them onto the nets on his account so they can start participating in certain forums and eventually make a name for themselves with their ideas. He makes himself vulnerable by saying all the things he did to her and Ender were out of his need for control:
“…It’s what I’m most afraid of. That I really am a monster. I don’t want to be a killer but I just can’t help it.”
Though she’s aware he’s manipulating her, he convinces her. She takes on the more incendiary war-mongering persona called Demosthenes, while he adopts the more rational persona known as Locke. Eventually they do get noticed and are picked up to write official columns.
A year in at Battle School, Ender is a toon leader in Phoenix Army under Petra’s command, and his evening practices are highly popular, but he finds that he’s extremely unhappy. He can’t find a way to get out of the room in the castle at the End of the World. Colonel Graff goes to Valentine at her school and asks her to help with Ender, though he can’t articulate clearly what the problem is. She explains that Ender was always worried he was like Peter, a killer, but that he’s really not. She agrees, with some resistance, to write him a letter, telling him he’s not like Peter. When Ender reads it he understands that Graff is responsible for manipulating her and hates that he has no control over his own life.
Ender then goes to the fantasy mind game and instead of killing the snake, kisses it. The snake turns into Valentine, and when he looks in the mirror he no longer sees Peter, but him and Valentine, and the mirror falls away to a staircase surrounded by cheering multitudes, and he cries from happiness to have escaped the room, not noticing that all the people have Peter’s face.
Ender is put in command of the new Dragon Army, which is filled with the weakest soldiers and untrained launchies. During his first training session, Ender singles out a small launchie named Bean whom he recognizes has potential; he soon realizes his attentions will isolate Bean in the same way he was and wonders why he feels the need to do that. He realizes that Graff isolated him from the very beginning to make him a better soldier.
The higher-ups say Ender is no longer allowed to have his practices, and he’s cut off from Alai. Graff comes up with a new intense battle schedule. Ender takes the nontraditional approach of training his toons to be able to do things on their own initiative. He’s excited when they’re sent into battle earlier than usual. They win easily, then are sent into battle every day, which is unheard of, and win all of them, earning Ender admiration and hatred. He starts watching videos of the bugger invasion battles to learn more, and makes an observation:
They never did anything surprising, anything that seemed to show either brilliance or stupidity in a subordinate officer. Discipline was apparently very tight.
He also notices that there’s little footage of the battle with Mazer Rackham, and thinks it’s censored. Graff summons him (Ender notices he’s markedly fatter than when he first met him four years ago) and asks if his soldiers have reached their limits and why he’s watching the bugger videos. Then Graff tells him he’s battling Bonzo’s Salamander Army in ten minutes; they gave Bonzo a head start. It’s the first time anyone is doing two battles in one day, but Ender anticipates their strategy and comes up with his own, freezing some of his own soldiers to use as shields. He is aware that this defeat will turn Bonzo’s hatred murderous. He hopes the teachers will keep him safe since he doesn’t have time for more defense classes.
Ender summons Bean (and we switch into Bean’s point of view at this point) to confide his frustration that the teachers have no apparent regard for the rules of the game, and reminds him that it’s not about the game, but about training for the bugger wars. He worries about losing and Bean is glad to see he’s human. He assigns Bean to lead a special task force to anticipate new problems.
We then see a General come to visit Colonel Graff; someone filed a report and they know some of the kids, led by Bonzo, are planning to beat Ender up. Command is worried about the potential threat to their potential savior, and angry that Graff doesn’t have anyone on hand to break up disturbances. Graff is insistent that Ender can’t believe that anyone is going to save him, ever:
“…Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way. He must believe, to the core of his soul, that he can only do what he and the other children work out for themselves. If he does not believe that, then he will never reach the peak of his abilities.”
Bean practices using a deadline to change positions in midair in antigravity. Petra warns Ender that some boys want to kill him, and Dink warns him to never be alone, but after the battle the next day Ender ends up napping during lunch and then showering when nobody’s there. Bonzo shows up with six other boys. Ender manages to talk Bonzo into fighting him alone, turns on the water to make himself slick so Bonzo can’t grab him, then hits him and keeps beating him after he’s down to send a message to everyone else (a la Stilson). That night, he cries about how badly he hurt Bonzo.
Next, Ender is given a battle against two armies at once. They use a formation for the first time to send their soldiers through the victory gate immediately instead of waiting until they’ve killed off all of the enemy first, as is usually standard. Ender is so angry at how the higher-ups keep changing the rules that he says there will be no more practice and for him no more games. Graff then comes in with papers transferring Ender to Command School, which he wasn’t supposed to have enough experience for for several more years. Graff is going with him. They have to stop on Earth first to switch to a ship that can land at the new school.
We get a discussion between two officials in which we learn that Bonzo died from his injuries—as did Stilson. Though they note:
“Ender Wiggin isn’t a killer. He just wins—thoroughly. If anybody’s going to be scared, let it be the buggers.”
They wonder if Graff might eventually be put in jail for Bonzo’s death. We then get a conversation between different officials about how the identities of Locke and Demosthenes are Ender’s siblings.
We switch to Valentine’s point of view; Peter gets mad at her for being invited to an important conference before he is, and their contacts have enabled them to piece together the preparations for an upcoming earthbound war. Then Graff picks Valentine up from school one day, mentions that he knows who Demosthenes is, and takes her to see Ender, who for the past two months has been saying he refuses to go on with his studies. She goes out on a lake with Ender on a raft he’s built and, after he expresses his concern that he won’t be able to beat the buggers because he doesn’t understand them the way he understands people, she talks him into saving humanity:
“…If you try and lose then it isn’t your fault. But if you don’t try and we lose, then it’s all your fault. You killed us all.”
“I’m a killer no matter what.”
He gets ready to leave with Graff, who it turns out had another reason for keeping him on Earth so long:
“We train our commanders the way we do because that’s what it takes—they have to think in certain ways, they can’t be distracted by a lot of things, so we isolate them. You. Keep you separate. And it works. But it’s so easy, when you never meet people, when you never know the Earth itself, when you live with metal walls keeping out the cold of space, it’s easy to forget why Earth is worth saving. Why the world of people might be worth the price you pay.”
He knows Ender might hate him for bringing Valentine to him to manipulate him, but he wanted to remind him of their connection and how there were billions of other human connections on Earth that needed saving.
During the three-month voyage to I.F. Command Headquarters on Eros, Ender gets Graff to tell him everything he knows about the buggers, which is more physical than psychological. Perhaps most importantly:
“Their communication, however they do it, is instantaneous.”
Then humans were able to build an Instantaneous Communicator of their own, called an ansible. It might be notable for world-building craft that you don’t have to explain how things actually work:
“once we knew what could be done, we did it. … I can’t explain philotic physics to you. Half of it nobody understands anyway. What matters is we built the ansible.”
Now ships can talk to each other even when they’re all the way on the other side of the galaxy. Graff tells him that the buggers aren’t attacking them, but the other way around—the humans are staging the Third Invasion. They sent some ships toward the bugger world seventy years ago, and they should be reaching the buggers in about five years. They need the battle commander who knows what to do with the ships when they get there. Ender doesn’t believe he’ll be ready in five years but Graff says he has to do his best. Ender is aware that even now Graff is manipulating him:
I’ll become exactly the tool you want me to be, said Ender silently, but at least I won’t be fooled into it. I’ll do it because I choose to, not because you tricked me, you sly bastard.
Graff tells him he believes the buggers must communicate directly mind-to-mind. When Ender asks why they have to kill the buggers, Graff reminds him that the buggers invaded first. Ender protests that maybe the buggers didn’t know they were intelligent life, but Graff says they can never be sure, so:
“If one of us has to be destroyed, let’s make damn sure we’re the ones alive at the end.”
On Eros, Graff talks to Admiral Chamrajnagar:
“…He’s such a very little boy.”
“There’s greatness in him. A magnitude of spirit.”
“A killer instinct, too, I hope.”
The Admiral says they’ve devoted one of their five starship simulators to Ender. Ender finds Eros’s general design uncomfortable. It’s a rock with tunnels in which over 10,000 people live. He’s isolated from other students, but he finds the simulator “the most perfect videogame he had ever played.” The games get increasingly complex. Over the course of a year he masters commanding a fleet. Battle School comes in handy:
He would routinely reorient the simulator every few minutes, rotating it so that he didn’t get trapped into an up-down orientation, constantly reviewing his position from the enemy point of view. It was exhilarating at last to have such control over the battle, to be able to see every point of it.
(One might note a metaphor for writing itself here, the importance of seeing from different perspectives, as well as the writer’s God-like authorial omniscience.) When Ender notes that the game has stopped getting harder, Graff disappears and an old man shows up locked in Ender’s room with him. After Ender lets down his guard and the old man attacks him, he reveals himself to be Mazer Rackham, the commander who succeeded in destroying the buggers last time. They sent him out in a starship at “relativistic speed” then had him come back, so that over 50 years only 18 years passed for him and he could survive to teach the next commander how to defeat the buggers. They finally watch the video of how he did defeat them—he dove his ship into the heart of their formation, there was a single explosion, and then he wound his way out among the other bugger ships without them firing on him because they were dead. Mazer explains his theory:
“The buggers are bugs. They’re like ants and bees. A queen, the workers. That was maybe a hundred million years ago, but that’s how they started, that kind of pattern. … So when they evolved this ability to think together, wouldn’t they still keep the queen? Wouldn’t the queen still be the center of the group? Why would that ever change?”
“So it’s the queen who controls the whole group.”
Mazer reveals Eros is a former bugger hive. The buggers don’t consider themselves sentient beings; when they die it’s like the destruction of inanimate objects:
“Murder’s no big deal to them. Only queen-killing, really, is murder, because only queen-killing closes off a genetic path.”
“So they didn’t know what they were doing.”
When they killed the humans, Ender means. The queen doesn’t even have to be present to control her buggers in battle. The only advantage the humans have is the “Dr. Device,” which is much more powerful than a nuclear weapon:
“The Little Doctor could never be used on a planet. ….”
“How does it work?”
“I don’t know, not well enough to build one. At the focal point of two beams, it sets up a field in which molecules can’t hold together anymore. Electrons can’t be shared. How much physics do you know, at that level?”
“Dr.” for M.D.: Molecular Detachment device. It’s Ender’s job to get in a position to choose a target for it. He gets a new simulator with a headset that connects him to squadron leaders—all the best students from Battle School that he trusted. As they use the simulator, he learns their particular strengths so he can deploy them more quickly; the intelligence of their individual groups gives them an advantage over the buggers’ hive-mind. Then Mazer starts to control the enemy’s movements in “a simulation of a real invasion.” They practice intense battles for ten hours a day. Ender has nightmares about buggers vivisecting him and his memories.
As the battles intensify, his team starts making more mistakes, including a disaster with Petra, whom he concludes he’s pushed too hard. Ender himself collapses and is put to bed for three days. When he returns he continues to fight well. Then one day a lot of people are in the room to watch his battle, and Graff says this is his final examination in Command School. Ender considers what will happen if he wins—years more of grueling training. He might prefer to fail and go home—but then that might mean no actual home to return to because the buggers will destroy everything. When the game starts, Ender discovers he is outnumbered a thousand to one. Bean says:
“Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.”
And Ender, remembering the day they fought two armies at once, thinks that if they’re going to cheat like this, he can cheat too. He gets his ships in formation and leads them through enemy ships until they drop their Dr. Devices on the enemy’s planet. The planet explodes and as it expands outward destroys all the bugger ships. Ender thinks the people in the room should be angry, but instead they’re crying and celebrating. Mazer finally enlightens him:
“Ender, you never played me. You never played a game since I became your enemy.”
Ender didn’t get the joke. He had played a great many games, at a terrible cost to himself. He began to get angry.
Mazer reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Mazer then grew serious and said, “Ender, for the past few months you have been the battle commander of our fleets. This was the Third Invasion. There were no games, the battles were real, and the only enemy you fought was the buggers. You won every battle, and today you finally fought them at their home world, where the queen was, all the queens from all their colonies, they all were there and you destroyed them completely. They’ll never attack us again. You did it. You.”
Ender struggles with the implications of what he’s done:
“I killed them all, didn’t I?” Ender asked.
“All who?” asked Graff. “The buggers? That was the idea.”
Mazer leaned in close. “That’s what the war was for.”
“All their queens. So I killed all their children, all of everything.”
“They decided that when they attacked us. It wasn’t your fault. It’s what had to happen.”
Ender grabbed Mazer’s uniform and hung onto it, pulling him down so they were face to face. “I didn’t want to kill them all. I didn’t want to kill anybody! I’m not a killer! You didn’t want me, you bastards, you wanted Peter, but you made me do it, you tricked me into it!” He was crying. He was out of control.
“Of course we tricked you into it. That’s the whole point,” said Graff. “It had to be a trick or you couldn’t have done it. It’s the bind we were in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew, you couldn’t do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood the buggers well enough.”
“And it had to be a child, Ender,” said Mazer. “You were faster than me. Better than me. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know. You were reckless and brilliant and young. It’s what you were born for.”
In the meantime, violence has erupted on Earth now that the bugger war is over:
“They’re going to start a war. Americans claiming the Warsaw Pact is about to attack, and the Russians are saying the same thing about the Hegemon. The bugger war isn’t twenty-four hours dead and the world down there is back to fighting again, as bad as ever. And all of them are worried about you. All of them want you. …”
Ender has nightmares and sleeps through “the five days of the League War.” His friends finally visit him and tell him there’s been a truce and that “[t]hey finally agreed to accept the Locke Proposal.”
In the last chapter we see Anderson and Graff at the Greensboro lake, discussing Graff’s acquittal. Locke has agitated for Ender to stay on Eros, but Graff hints this was at Demosthenes’ urging and that Locke really did want Ender to come to Earth so he could control and use him to gain power. Graff is the new Minister of Colonization for the bugger worlds.
Ender watches Graff’s trial and sees it as an indictment of himself (videos of Bonzo’s and Stilson’s deaths are part of the evidence). Valentine visits him on Eros and tells him she’s going to the first colony. He says he wants to go home and she says she’s ensured he’s never going back; if he did he would be under Peter’s control, since Peter’s now in a position of influence on the Hegemon’s Council. The Locke Proposal was the moment he consolidated Demosthenes’ and Locke’s different spheres of influence to forestall war, and he actually saved millions of lives (ironic, since he was supposed to be the killer, and that Ender, the non-killer, ended up killing all the buggers…). If Ender had come back, Peter would have been able to use Ender’s influence—he’s an extremely popular celebrity since they released videos of the bugger battles—to take over completely. Ender doesn’t want to live in the homes of what he killed, but Earth is Peter’s and this is Ender’s chance to get away. Valentine mentions he might think she’s trying to control him:
“Welcome to the human race. Nobody controls his own life, Ender. The best you can do is choose to fill the roles given you by good people, by people who love you. …”
She says the plan is he’ll be governor and that Graff and Mazer are going, too. He agrees, but not for her sake:
“I’m going because I know the buggers better than any other living soul, and maybe if I go there I can understand them better. I stole their future from them; I can only begin to repay by seeing what I can learn from their past.”
Years pass; Peter is Hegemon of Earth and more colonists come to Ender’s World. Valentine is writing history volumes documenting the bugger wars. Scouting for a new colony location with an eleven-year-old named Abra, Ender recognizes the land as that from the computer mind game at Battle School with the corpse of the giant he killed. He finds the tower and, unafraid of death, pulls the mirror from the wall that snakes would always come out from behind and kill him. What does he find there?
The pupa of a queen bugger, already fertilized by the larval males, ready, out of her own body, to hatch a hundred thousand buggers, including a few queens and males.
He’s able to access the hive-queen’s memories and see the final bugger battle from her perspective, how horrible it must have been. She wants him to take her somewhere she can hatch her offspring, but Ender thinks if he does that the humans will only kill them again. He has a suggestion:
“If you could make them feel as you can make me feel, then perhaps they could forgive you.”
Only me, he realized. They found me through the ansible, followed it and dwelt in my mind. In the agony of my tortured dreams they came to know me, even as I spent my days destroying them; they found my fear of them, and found also that I had no knowledge I was killing them. In the few weeks they had, they built this place for me, and the Giant’s corpse and the playground and the ledge at the End of the World, so I would find this place by the evidence of my eyes. I am the only one they know, and so they can only talk to me, and through me. We are like you; the thought pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again. We thought we were the only thinking beings in the universe, until we met you, but never did we dream that thought could arise from the lonely animals who cannot dream each other’s dreams. How were we to know? We could live with you in peace. Believe us, believe us, believe us.
“I’ll carry you,” said Ender, “I’ll go from world to world until I find a time and a place where you can come awake in safety. And I’ll tell your story to my people, so that perhaps in time they can forgive you, too. The way that you’ve forgiven me.”
He writes the bugger’s story from the hive-queen’s perspective that he titles “Speaker for the Dead.” All human cultures adopt a Speaker for the Dead figure. Humans on Earth read the book but don’t know Ender wrote it. Peter, 77 to Valentine’s and Ender’s 25 and 23, figures out it’s by Ender and wants Ender to speak for him, so tells him all his stories, and Ender adds his volume to the other he wrote, calling it “The Hive Queen and the Hegemon.” He and Valentine travel to different worlds, she recording history, he speaking for the dead—while also looking for a proper place for the hive-queen’s cocoon. The End.
Card is the only sci-fi writer to have won both the Nebula and the Hugo award two years in a row, which he did for Ender’s Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead (the latter of which was actually conceived first). Part of what makes the narrative in Ender’s Game more powerful than a standard pulpy sci-fi action-adventure tale is Ender’s character development. There’s not just the classic external conflict of a good party (humans) versus an evil party (the buggers). Ender has an internal conflict that transcends the one standard for protagonists in such situations, which would simply be: will he be capable of playing his part in resolving said external conflict? Ender’s conflict is not that he wants to resolve the external conflict and worries about his ability to do so; rather, Ender actually doesn’t want to resolve the external conflict, because he doesn’t want to be a killer like his brother Peter. This internal conflict brings him into direct conflict with the external conflict as he’s groomed to kill the buggers. These conflicts are a version of acute (external) and chronic (internal) tension. That Ender is actually conflicted about his absolute victory, that it is not his own end goal as the protagonist but one forced upon him, complicates the traditional imperial-dominance Manifest-Destiny American narrative of good v. evil. The book does not end when Ender defeats the buggers; this is the penultimate chapter, not the ultimate. The ultimate has to resolve his internal conflict, has to resolve that he’s been made into a killer when he did not want to be. Therefore, he has to atone for having killed. He does so by taking the bugger cocoon and attempting to plant it somewhere where the race that he killed off can regenerate itself. The buggers died because of him, and they come back to life (potentially) because of him.
Card is adept at using patterns that escalate the rising action: Ender being able to beat older boys at a game he’s never played before when he first gets to Battle School; Ender angry at the higher-ups for changing the rules and making him fight two armies leading him to change the rules and go for the victory gate first; Ender believing that his supposed final exam is yet another changing of the rules in having him absurdly outnumbered leading him to change the rules and use the Dr. Device on the home planet. There’s also the pattern of parties Ender kills without meaning to, or even initially realizing that he has killed them: Stilson, his ticket to Battle School; Bonzo, his ticket to Command School; and the buggers, his ticket to ultimate victory in the external conflict. In the first two instances with Stilson and Bonzo, Ender wants to send a message to make sure the boys and their potential accomplices don’t bother him again. That is, he wants to ensure that he’s not only winning this battle, but every battle afterward, by ensuring there are no more battles. When he kills them he ends up ensuring there are no battles in a more permanent way than he intended. This is the pattern that’s escalated and recapitulated in the climactic bugger battle—Ender doesn’t mean to kill them because he thinks it’s just a simulation, but he ensures a presumably permanent victory by killing off the entire species.
Ender’s training offers an inherently ideal pattern of rising action. Every time Ender masters a level, he’s advanced to a more difficult one. This pattern repeats in Ender’s battles at Battle School (he’s advanced to an army before he should be, then advanced to command an army before he should be, then he’s given a battle every day, then two in one day, then against two armies at once), and then again at Command School when he masters the advancing levels of leading a fleet. Things become increasingly intense for Ender in his training, just as things should become increasingly intense for any protagonist in a satisfying narrative.
The lie that Ender is fighting Mazer in the simulations where he’s really fighting the buggers further underscores the question: Who is really the enemy? This question becomes essential to Ender’s conflict early on when Dink tells him the teachers are really the enemy, not the buggers. As the teachers change the rules in order to challenge Ender so that he can defeat the real enemy, he starts to perceive them as the enemy instead, which threatens the progress of his training. That the teachers’ methods might seriously backfire is part of the narrative’s tension. (It also reflects their larger conundrum: that empathy makes you a more effective killer by being able to understand and therefore anticipate your enemies, but that such a level of empathy would also render you incapable of killing at all.) The question is raised whether the teachers are really preparing Ender to fight the buggers or if they have some sort of ulterior motive. When it turns out they are really training him to fight the buggers, tension then rises from a new question: Are the buggers really the enemy? The answer turns out to be no; they were not planning on attacking again and didn’t comprehend that they were destroying life when they killed humans. It turns out that humans are the more monstrous creatures here.
According to the late great David Foster Wallace, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” While science fiction as a genre may at first glance appear not as suited to this about-ness as literary fiction, it’s actually frequently in a better position to make such commentary, as Ender’s Game proves. Representations of aliens provide a lot of potential for commentary on humans via compare-and-contrast. Here, humans turn out to be more monstrous than the buggers. The buggers turn out to not be under their own individual autonomous control, but under the control of their queen. The book raises the question of how different that bugger configuration is from humans through Ender’s increasing desolation that his life in training is not under his own control. When Valentine is convincing Ender to become governor of the new colony she points out directly the lack of control humans have over their lives. Further likenesses between the humans and buggers are drawn when Ender accesses the buggers’ thoughts at the end, and they reveal that they came to understand that Ender didn’t know he was killing them in the battles, just like the buggers didn’t understand they were killing humans:
We are like you; the thought pressed into his mind. We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again.
It’s ironic that it’s humans’ need to control their own lives that drives the military to attack the buggers with Ender in the first place—they can’t control or determine whether the buggers will attack again, but they try to exert control over the situation by attacking the buggers first. This would seem to be apt commentary on foreign diplomacy—that we’re causing more harm than preventing when we attack other countries because we believe they have the potential to, at some point, attack us. This narrative might seem to argue that sending a preemptive message to an enemy to make sure they never attack again is misguided and presumptuous; Ender destroyed the buggers without even knowing he was doing it, and the higher-ups who knew that’s what he was doing didn’t know that the buggers had no intention of inflicting harm again. There seems to be a theme here that aggressors never know the full story of the situation their unleashing their aggressions in, therefore, such aggression should potentially be reigned in. As one commentator puts it, “both Speaker and Ender’s Game are allegories of peace, not war.” And yet, Card himself is actually a neoconservative who believes in interventionist foreign policy. In a 2014 essay, Card declares:
If a new Republican President starts throwing our weight around, trying to create the opposite of Obama’s insanely weak foreign policy, he will find that it doesn’t work. / Speaking loudly while armed with a noodle is the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s formula: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt’s was the policy of a great nation. Neither party today knows what “greatness” even means.
Perhaps this explains why a certain recent political slogan was so effective…
Aside from foreign policy lessons, the book also offers a study in how to adapt a longer work from a short one. Ender’s Game started as a story that first appeared in the August 1977 issue of Analog. The novella, or “novelette” to use Card’s term, came in around 15,000 words. In his commentary on the book’s 20th anniversary edition, Card avows that the way to adapt shorter material is not to just add more stuff on after the story ends. You also have to expand the material that happened before the beginning. The story version starts with Ender already three years into Battle School, about to enter a battle as commander for the first time. The novel goes back to how and why he was recruited in the first place. Card also discusses the film adaptation and problems with Hollywood–specifically that they need a romantic plot attached to their main storyline. They wanted Ender to be at least sixteen in the film version, but to Card it was critical that he be no older than twelve: Ender’s youth is an integral element of the plot.
On a separate problem, how to cinematically represent a book that takes place so much in a character’s head, Card says it was not until he incorporated material from his book Ender’s Shadow, which is told from Bean’s perspective, that he was able to put together a screenplay he thought worked. In the 20th anniversary recording of the audiobook, Card was excited that the film adaptation was finally moving forward. But he was still eight years from the film’s actual release, under a director different than the one named in ’05, so it seems fair to say that even more untold drama occurred between then and ’13. Non-adaptation-related-drama includes protestors boycotting the film due some of Card’s homophobic comments. If there’s another lesson we can learn from Ender’s Game, it’s that you don’t have to be a good person to write a good book. And so its commentary on human foibles attains yet another level…