The first time that I stayed up all night was when I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. My 7th grade English teacher assigned the book to our class, and I started reading it on the bus ride home. And then it stayed in my hands until I finished it around dawn the next morning. Published in 1985, Ender’s Game won the 1985 Nebula Award for best novel and the 1986 Hugo Award for best novel. Like me, it seems, there were many people who were unable to put this book down. Before there was The Hunger Games, before Divergent, there was Ender’s Game, a piece of genre fiction that showed just how good and powerful science fiction can be. Ender’s Game is important to the development of young adult literature because it shows how deep themes and complex characters can be conveyed through a genre that is often overlooked.
The story takes place in the future, after alien invaders known as “Buggers” have attacked earth twice. The people of earth have fought them off, but suffered devastating losses in the process. In order to ensure that they will be ready when the Buggers attack again, the governments of earth formed an International Fleet and a Battle School in space in order to train children to be the military leaders who will one day lead the battles against the Buggers. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one of the children at the Battle School. Ender is a genius and already showed a flare for battle tactics before he joined the Battle School. Ender and the other children learn and master many games that will help prepare them for their imminent battle against the Buggers. But Ender also learns that he needs tactics and strategy to survive the fiercely competitive atmosphere and to navigate through a competitive world of kids who all want to be number one.
The summary above merely scratches the surface of story and sub-plots in Ender’s Game, but I will leave it at that because spoiling the end of the book would be criminal. Ender’s Game is a somewhat controversial read because of the violence in the text. In the incredibly competitive nature of the Battle School, brutal fights break out between the young children and there are serious injuries. The violence may trouble some and make others squirm, but it reveals the darkness inherent even in characters who are good.
Ender’s Game has stood the test of time, as it is still popular today and was recently adapted into a movie. It is still a compelling story decades after it was published because the book connects with many young adult readers. Ender’s Game has enduring popularity for a few reasons:
- The setting. Ender’s Game is a science fiction novel that takes itself seriously—the plot is tight and the prose is both deft and lyrical. The book also brings up questions of morality through the context of a world under imminent threat. The novel explores whether or not the end truly justifies the means, and whether or not a person can be good even after doing bad things. It is also a vividly imagined and described look at a futuristic earth and society that parallels the paranoia that surrounded the Cold War era in which the book was written. The Battle School has rules and regulations, and Card’s world building immerses the reader in the story and in Ender’s world.
- The games. Ender and his fellow recruits play many different simulations that help prepare them for battle using strategy and tactics. The way that these games are described will blow your mind. The United States Marine Corps actually reads the book in order to think about battle tactics in out of the box ways. The Hunger Games and Divergent also deal with competitions and games that pit young adults and children against each other. Ender’s Game, as a good and popular science fiction novel, helped pave the way for the science fiction and dystopian books that are popular today.
- The characters. Young adult readers have connected with the book since its publication for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is the book’s characters. Ender and his friends are intelligent beyond their years, and they face many of the frustrations that intelligent teens face as well. Adults talk down to them and hide information from them. But the characters are in fact very young, and are thrust into a cold world and some adult situations, which brings into conflict their actions and their chronological age, bringing up moral questions. There is also tension between intelligence and maturity is something that many young adults struggle with, especially early in their teens, as all of these children are incredibly intelligent but are not always wise. And it is why teens will keep reading Ender’s Game—it doesn’t talk down to them, it meets them where they are.
- Ender is also a character with whom readers can easily relate. He is a genius, but he is also very young and suffers from homesickness, struggles with his self-identity, and how to navigate social situations. Ender struggles with these things a lot in the novel, but learns how these struggles can make him a stronger person. Ender’s moral struggle—between the violent and peaceful sides of his personality—is also the moral epicenter of the novel, as he embodies what his society is struggling with as well.
Ender’s Game is a seminal work of young adult literature, as it shows that genre fiction can also be serious and meaningful, that a story can be both entertaining and make readers think through serious moral issues. And I’m sure that it will keep many readers up all night in the future.