Orson Scott Card calls Ender’s Shadow a “parallel novel” to Ender’s Game (1985). The earlier novel deals with the training of Ender Wiggin, a six- year-old genius, to command Earth’s starships against the Formics, popularly known as “the Buggers,” intelligent alien creatures with the hivelike and colonizing behavior of ants. Ender’s Shadow tells the story of another child genius chosen to be Ender’s second-in-command and to replace him if he breaks down under the strain of receiving information and issuing orders across trillions of miles at the speed of light. Readers will find the Buggers a credible menace because, if humans were to lose their precarious hold on planet Earth, it would be insects that would replace them.
Ender’s Shadow opens on the cold, windy streets of Rotterdam, where unwanted boys and girls scavenge for scraps of food and organize into gangs for self-defense. By implication, Earth is so overpopulated that the struggle for survival has become intense everywhere. Social agencies cannot cope with the sheer numbers of the needy, although science and technology continue their relentless and largely misguided advance.
Bean is only four years old when he attaches himself to a gang led by a ten-year-old girl called Poke, who takes pity on the starving boy. Poke is eventually murdered by a psychopathic bully called Achilles, who would have murdered Bean too if the little boy had not been rescued by kindly Sister Carlotta. (Achilles, like a Charles Dickens villain such as Old Orlick in the 1860-1861 novel Great Expectations, will show up later to threaten Bean again.) The nun discovers that Bean has an IQ way off the charts—which explains why he has survived since the age of one, living like an alley cat. Although Sister Carlotta loves the waif, she recommends him for assignment to a military school in space, where boys and girls are trained for leadership in the centuries-old war with the Buggers. Afterward she tries to find out where Bean came from and why he possesses such genius.
Sister Carlotta’s detective work continues throughout the novel. Bean was one of twenty-three babies bred in a laboratory to serve as organ donors. The other twenty-two were cremated because the law was closing in on the illicit organ farmer, but tiny Bean managed to survive by hiding inside a toilet tank. Even when barely old enough to walk, he had a genius intelligence resulting from illegal experimental alteration of genes controlling brain development. Scenes depicting Bean’s early life are especially moving because they mirror lives actually being led by millions of contemporary children in South America, Asia, and other parts of this overpopulated, resource-depleted, and polluted planet.
The bulk of the novel describes Bean’s rigorous training as a future warrior. All his classmates are children. The importance of recruiting children, tearing most away from homes and parents, is explained by the great distances between opposing forces. It takes almost a hundred years for an enemy armada to reach Earth’s network of space colonies and an equal length of time for humans to send a retaliatory or preemptive strike force. Since the spaceships travel at close to the speed of light, the cadets will age slowly and will be of proper military age by the time the next enemy wave strikes or they themselves attack the Bugger worlds. It is a war that simultaneously moves slowly and at the speed of light across a battlefield with a hundred billion suns.
Another reason for recruiting such young space cadets is that bright children are capable of coming up with totally original ideas because they have not yet become inhibited by procrustean teachers or a cyclopean society. New ideas are desperately needed to cope with the Buggers, who have a hundred years to analyze previous battles, revise strategies, and improve their weaponry. Even the adult reader finds himself accepting schools for child geniuses as credible....
(The entire section is 1,971 words.)