Ender's Game Analysis

  • Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game has become a science fiction classic since its publication in 1985. Its premise—that a child prodigy could be trained to become Earth's greatest military leader—transcends its genre, raising questions about the ethics of war, its psychological effects on soldiers, and the danger the military poses to democratic government.
  • Ender was born Andrew Wiggin. His nickname stems from a mispronunciation of Andrew, but the word "Ender" has many fraught connotations. It could be taken to mean, for instance, that he's the final or "end" child in the family. It could also reflect one of Ender's fundamental character traits: that he ends or win conflicts by using strategic and brutal means to neutralize his enemies. In this way, "Ender" becomes an adjective describing someone who finishes what others can't.
  • The names Locke and Demosthenes are allusions to John Locke, an Enlightenment thinker, and Demosthenes, a Greek statesman and orator. In Ender's Game, Locke and Demosthenes are assumed personas, political thinkers who represent two very different approaches. Locke is more of a pacifist and rationalist, whereas Demosthenes tends to support war efforts. This is generally true of the historical figures as well.


Most of Ender's Game is told by a third person narrator with the exception of the discussions between the military men. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader is allowed to eavesdrop on these conversations as though listening to a wiretap. Only the dialogue is provided, set off from the rest of the text in boldface type. The speakers are nameless at first, but later identify themselves. These conversations serve almost as a Greek chorus, letting the reader know what is coming. After the first chapter when Ender is separated from his family, the action in the chapters alternates between Ender and Valentine/Peter. The reader is made a participant in the military secret-keeping because the reader has information denied to the children. Because the reader has access to Ender's thoughts, which the military does not, the reader understands Ender's decisions made with only the input allowed by his military keepers. Ultimately, this arouses the reader's compassion for the child groping to do the right thing without moral guidance or practical knowledge.

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Historical Context

The Cold War in the 1980s
Ender's Game takes place in Earth's future, one in which all countries are cooperating together to save the planet from alien invasion. Nevertheless, the novel does suggest that the international conflicts of the twentieth century will not be forgotten, as an American hegemony (a group of nations dominated by one) will be pitted against a Second Warsaw Pact, led by the Russians. In this world, Russia rules Eurasia from the Netherlands to Pakistan. Peter believes that Russia is preparing for a "fundamental shift in world order." Once the bugger wars are over, the North American alliances will dissolve, and Russia will take over. This conflict may have seemed inevitable in the early and mid-1980s, when the novel was written. Since the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union had engaged in a "cold war" which involved military buildups but no direct military confrontations. Almost forty years later, this conflict showed few signs of being resolved peacefully.

The two sides of the Cold War were led by the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact, signed in 1955, established an alliance among the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. It served to defend the group against any potential military or economic threats from the West. It also strengthened the Soviet Union's hold over its Eastern European satellites and prevented them from making close ties with the West. On the other side was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which bound Western Europe and the United States together in defense against the communists. From the end of World War II, both the Americans and the Soviets increased their nuclear arsenals, each trying to prevent the other from gaining a military advantage.

The tenseness of the 1950s and 1960s had given way in the 1970s to a limited "detente," or lessening of friction between the two sides. By the 1980s, however, the Cold War began heating up once again. The Soviet Union had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in 1979, leading to increased U.S. fears of spreading communism. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 on a platform that included promises of a tougher stance against the Soviets. Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and his administration planned for 1.2 trillion dollars in new military spending. The government also proposed a "Strategic Defense Initiative," commonly called "Star Wars," a space-based defensive system that would intercept incoming nuclear missiles. These actions were in contrast to public reassurances from the Americans that they wanted to proceed with arms reduction treaties, so the Soviets remained nervous of American intentions. It was not until after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 that tensions eased between the two nations. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved, along with the Soviet Union itself, in 1991.

Science and Technology in the 1980s
One of the most startling technological revolutions of...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

Ender's Game reflects many fears and concerns prominent in today's society: the effects of forced birth control, unbridled military power, governmental secret-keeping in the name of national security, lack of moral standards, and the abuse of innocent children.

1. Ender is brought up in a nonreligious household, and his ethical training is left to educators. Do you think that this was a mistake on his parents' part? How do you think Ender's character would have been changed if his parents had chosen to give their children private moral instruction?

2. Ender's parents are easily manipulated because of their guilt at leaving their religions and their families to gain the benefits of a two-child society. What result do you think that forced birth control would produce in society? What type of pressure do you think a two-child society would put on non-conforming couples?

3. Clearly, the military men are convinced that their end justifies the means, even though they are aware that the Battle School engages in mental and physical abuse of children aged 6 to 16. How do you think that their outlook would change if they were forced to disclose this abuse instead of cloaking it in terms of "national security"?

4. The military men in Ender's Game are clearly keeping secrets, sometimes simply because they are conditioned not to tell. When, if ever, is a government justified in keeping secrets from its people? What...

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Social Concerns

The major social concern in Ender's Game is the danger of reliance on a military force, even if it is made up of allied troops from every country, because winning at all costs is not moral. One sub theme of the novel is the danger of state-enforced population control which undermines religion as a social force. Another is (in 1985!) the danger of the "information highway" being used by computer-literate demagogues as a means of shaping and controlling public opinion.

Andrew ("Ender") Wiggin is a "third," a child conceived by parents in defiance of strict population control ordinances that limit couples to two children and deny civil rights to any further offspring. Ender's parents are allowed an exception to the rule because top officials in the International Fleet (I.F.) that protects Earth from an alien species known as the "buggers" are convinced that they have the genetic capacity to produce a military genius to fight these aliens. Ender's older brother and sister had almost measured up to the standards set for the military genius desired by the Fleet, the one deemed a shade too cruel, the other a bit too passive. Officials figured the third child might just have the right mix — hence permission for Ender's conception. There is, however, a price. Ender is monitored and tested by the Fleet almost from birth. When he is found acceptable, his parents must fulfill their agreement and send Ender off to the Fleet's military school at age six. At the school, Ender and his classmates are treated sadistically to prevent them from relying on an outside force for help. Ender in particular is repeatedly isolated from his mates and often forced into very real kill-or-be-killed situations. By the time he "graduates" at age 10, he has, unbeknownst to him, killed several classmates. He is then sent to Command School where he undergoes training which includes what Ender thinks are video strategy games. Upon being told that he has in fact wiped out the "buggers," Ender is devastated by the deception, especially when the commander admits that the buggers were almost certainly innocent of any intent to harm Earth. The commander of an earlier successful mission against the buggers tells Ender why he was the perfect candidate: "Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn't know....

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Orson Scott Card, Introduction to Ender's Game, Tor Books, 1991.

Michael Collmgs, review of Speaker for the Dead, Fantasy Review, April, 1986, p. 20.

Tom Easton, review of Ender's Game, in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. CV, No. 7, July, 1985, pp. 180-181.

Review of Ender's Game, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LII, No. 21, November 1, 1984, p. 1021.

Roland Green, review of Ender's Game, in Booklist, Vol. 81, No. 7, December 1, 1984, p. 458.

Gerald Jonas, review of Ender's Game, in New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1985, p 18.

Dan K. Moran, review of...

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Topics for Further Study

In her review of Ender's Game in Fantasy Review, Elaine Radford criticizes Card, claiming that he fashioned Ender's character after Adolf Hitler's persona. Card refutes Radford's analysis in a response published in the same issue of the magazine. Read both articles. Then write an essay agreeing with either Radford or Card. Your defense should provide solid evidence from the reviews and from the novel itself.

Research project: Read the book The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler by Robert G. L. Waite, to which Elaine Radford refers in her review of Ender's Game in Fantasy Review. Locate information related to the psychology of mass murderers. How does Ender Wiggin compare to Hitler and...

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Literary Precedents

When reading the chapters about the Battle School, the reader cannot help but think of the boys in Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954). Like Golding's boys, the trainees at the Battle School are not demon-children, but human children acting in accordance with their instincts rather than an externally imposed code of ethics. On a lighter note, the video war games recall the motion picture The Last Starfighter (1984), based on a science fiction book by Alan Dean Foster, where an Earth boy is recruited by aliens to be a starfighter based on his winning an arcade video game placed by the aliens.

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Related Titles

Ender's Game is the first in a series of books about the wandering of Ender Wiggin and his sister Valentine. In accordance with the faster-than-light-travel convention adopted by Card, Ender and Valentine's space travels slow down their aging process. For example the two-year trip to the first colony takes two years by their biological time, but fifty earth years pass. This allows Ender and Valentine incredibly long lives relative to the passage of time on Earth. Their further wanderings are chronicled in Speaker for the Dead (1986) and Xenocide (1991).

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Media Adaptations

Mark Rolston narrates Ender's Game in an abridged three-hour audiotaped version adapted by Audio Renaissance Tapes, Inc., in 1991.

Card has authored a screenplay based on Ender's Game; as of 1998 he was working with Chartoff Productions and Fresco Pictures to produce the film.

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What Do I Read Next?

Card's Speaker for the Dead, published by Tor Books in 1986, follows Ender's Game as its sequel. Ender, still dealing with evil and empathy, tries to find a suitable home for the surviving eggs from the queen of the species he destroyed while trying to prevent the extermination of another intelligent race. This novel also won the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Tor Books published Xenocide, the third novel in Card's Ender series, in 1991. Ender works to save his adopted world from a deadly virus. The final novel in Card's Ender series, Children of the Mind, finds Ender taking a minor role. Published by Tor Books in 1996, the story revolves around a mission to stop a deadly virus from destroying Earth. Two beings...

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