Beyond the Dune novels and Snow Crash, it had been quite some time since I had read a science fiction novel. With the exception of a few authors (Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein. Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and so on), it has long seemed to me that many sci-fi books place too much emphasis on the science and not enough on the character. I have to admit that for a long time I resisted reading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card for that reason, especially when one of my friends who favours the "science over people" type of hard science fiction recommended it to me. Fortunately, reading an anthology of Card's short stories and a recommendation for the novel from a very pretty lady friend whose tastes are close to mine changed my mind. I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised. Ender's Game is not, in my humble opinion, the typical science fiction novel.
The concept behind Ender's Game is deceptively simple. Twice before an alien species simply referred to as "the buggers (we have no idea what they call themselves)" have attacked Earth and nearly wiped mankind out. To insure human survival, the government then started breeding strategic and tatical geniuses. The most promising of these geniuses is young Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a prodigy on whom the government has pinned all its hopes for saving us from the next "bugger" invasion. Like many of these young geniuses, Ender is sent to the Battle School, a space station in the asteroid belt where they are trained for battle. There much of the training takes the form of games, whether video games as we know them or mock battles between the cadets (for lack of a better term). As the most promising of the world's prodigies, Ender is expected to save the world from the next bugger invasion.
Ender's Game follows Ender through his training and the changes it brings to his life. Indeed, much of the novel is told through Ender's eyes. It is perhaps the most character driven science fiction novel I have read in a long, long time. The character of Ender is wonderfully realised, as we see him grow from a somewhat pathetic little boy, pushed around by his older brother and even other classmates, to a somewhat stronger, if not yet confident, young cadet. In fact, Orson Scott Card seems to have a gift for creating realistic characters, as there is no character in the book who is not three dimensional. Every one of the characters has his or her own motivations, his or her own agenda, his or her own unique personality. The plot is almost entirely propelled by the demands of the characters and not the other way around.
Orson Scott Card has also created a world that could conceivably exist if aliens did attempt to invade the earth twice over. Through snatches of dialogue here and there, we learn the current political state of the world and what shape the world is in now. He outlines the training that prospective military commanders receive very well and that training is realistically conceived given the circumstances of the world. The technology is very realistic as well and some of it will seem downright familiar. There are games remniscent of our own video role playing games we have today, not to mention the "nets," which would seem to correspond to the World Wide Web. First printed in 1985, Card seems to have taken the existing technology at the time and followed it to its logical conclusion.
If Orson Scott Card has one weakness, at least in Ender's Game, it is that it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is saying what. Often in the novel there will be long sequences of dialogue in which the reader is only given a few indicators as to who is speaking at any given time. This can be annoying at times, although it is a minor quibble on my part. The book's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
Ender's Game is definitely not your father's sci-fi novel. Through the tale of a young boy being trained to be the saviour of the world, Card makes some very acute observations about the nature of military thinking, the necessity of hardships in learning, and various other aspects of the human condition. Although its basic premise is simple (young boy training to be military commnder), Ender's Game is a novel with a fully realised and realistic world where characters have their own agendas and where they are the focus, not the science or technology. Anyone who enjoys sci-fi where characters are the primary concern should enjoy Ender's Game.