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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1971

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.

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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. Such prodigies are not uncommon, and many more could be found if needed, identified, and actively recruited instead of being treated as nerds, weirdos, freaks, geeks, and psychopaths. The October 18, 1999, issue of The New Yorker contained an article about eight-year-old David Howell, who defeated Dr. John Nunn, former British chess champion and author ofTactical Chess Endings (reprint, 1998) and Solving in Style (1985). David was the youngest player ever to beat a grand master in official play.

Since Bean grew up on the streets, he has learned not to love or trust anybody. His teachers put up with this problem child because they can see that his unconventional brilliance gives him the potential to be a savior of the human race. Like the other children in Battle School, he is under constant electronic surveillance, being evaluated for strengths and weaknesses—but Bean is the only one cunning enough to keep the teachers under countersurveillance. Although barely seven years old at the climax, he has an adult vocabulary. Here is a sample of his dialogue and insubordinate attitude:

To me that sounds like a tree falling in the forest where no one can hear. If I do know something, because I figured it out, but I’m not telling anybody else, and it’s not affecting my work, then why would you waste time finding out whether I know it? Because after this conversation, you may be sure that I’ll be looking very hard for any secret that might be lying around where a seven-year-old might find it.

Bean is a natural leader because his early life conditioned him to think for himself and take nothing on trust. He is offered as a role model for underprivileged young readers because none could have had more obstacles to overcome and few have appreciated the strength they have acquired from coping with hardship and danger. Besides his disadvantaged early childhood, Bean has the further handicap of being exceptionally small. He compensates by improving his mind. He devours difficult reading (like Carl von Clausewitz’s 1833 treatise, On War) so quickly that he has time to eavesdrop on instructors, hack into computer files, and use superhuman intuition to learn what Battle School is really all about. The future of the human race will depend upon the creative minds of children who would normally be in elementary school back on Earth. What they think are advanced computer games are real star wars involving a preemptive strike launched against the Buggers decades ago. The maneuvers are represented on computer screens at faster than the speed of light, and the orders the children are transmitting at the same speed are destroying planets and sending real humans to their deaths.

The life-or-death war with extraterrestrials is only half the problem. The threat of annihilation has created temporary unity among competing power blocs on Earth, including a Russian-led coalition and an Asian coalition dominated by China. The time of the novel is not specified; it appears to be around the twenty- second century. The senior officers of the International Fleet realize that defeating the Buggers would mean world war down below because of competition for living space and the natural warlike tendencies of man. The same children who are being trained to cope with extraterrestrials will be needed on Earth to build a balance of terror that will forestall a nuclear-biological Armageddon.

Petra Arkanian, Bean’s friend and confidante, is one of the few female space cadets (although she says, “I got over the fact that I’m a girl a long time ago”). She tells him: “Just remember this. No matter what you do, the teachers know about it and they already have some stupid theory about what this means about your personality or whatever. They alwaysfind a way to use it against you, if they want to . . .” Petra, however, exists as a character largely because she is a “token female.” Card evidently felt obliged to suggest that women would continue to make progress in all fields of human endeavor, but it is still a man’s universe out there. Many readers will find this regrettable because males seem genetically predisposed to keep finding reasons for fighting.

Ender’s Shadow is mostly about war games conducted in vast, futuristic gymnasiums aboard an orbiting space station. They are like the arcade games boys find so fascinating, but on a much larger scale. Trainees propel themselves through zero gravity while firing weapons that freeze their opponents in their protective “flash suits,” until the battle ends and the casualties are allowed to thaw out. It is “virtual reality” carried to the ultimate.

Orson Scott Card has received a long list of awards and nominations for awards coveted by science fiction and fantasy writers, including the Nebula and the Hugo. He made his literary debut with “Ender’s Game,” published in Analog magazine in 1977 and reprinted in Card’sUnaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories (1981). He developed that story into a novel of the same title in 1985. Since then, Ender Wiggin, the boy hero featured in many sequels, has become Card’s most successful literary creation. The character of Bean appears in the original Analogstory, and in fact Ender’s Shadow has the same basic plot as the short story, with the focus on Bean instead of Wiggin. Card displays his versatile imagination by being able to expand a single short story into two unique but “parallel” full-length novels.

Ender’s Shadow is an important book because it will be read at different levels. For young people it will seem like a super arcade game in which they can imagine themselves active contestants—something to dream about the way children used to dream about men landing on the moon. For adults it suggests themes of vital contemporary importance, including overpopulation, genetic experimentation, social justice, mankind’s future in space, questions related to the possibility of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the cosmos, and most especially the changing psychology of modern children and the challenge these changes present to parents, teachers, and society as a whole.

Today’s children face a future containing ominous and unforeseeable challenges that might be symbolized by extraterrestrial invaders approaching at the speed of light but still requiring decades to get here. Like Bean, future generations will need to be more adaptable than their forebears because no one really knows how to prepare them for a future no one can currently imagine. For better or for worse, these children will be running this troubled world so soon that their ascendancy will seem to have occurred at almost the speed of light. It is significant that whenEnder’s Shadow was published, the three top books on The New York Times best-seller list for adult fiction were about Harry Potter, the young orphan who attends a school for wizards.

Science fiction, though it has never been strong on characterization, has come a long way since the days of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. It is popular all over the world. It generates ideas often realized decades later by scientists and technicians. What was once only fiction has become reality. Man has landed on the moon and walked on the bottom of the sea. Man will undoubtedly soon colonize space and very likely contact intelligent life, with unforeseeable consequences. Man may someday travel backward and forward in time. Science fiction offers social criticism that can change popular thinking and lead to enlightened legislation. By projecting present trends into the distant future, it can warn against imperiling generations yet unborn. Card’s novels have been described as “allegorical disquisitions on humanity, morality, salvation, and redemption.” His social concerns, his visionary mind, and his conscientious craftsmanship have earned him a reputation as a leader in his field. Ender’s Shadow shows Card in peak form.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (July, 1999): 1892.

Kirkus Reviews 67 (July 1, 1999): 1004.

Library Journal 124 (September 15, 1999): 115.

Publishers Weekly 246 (July 5, 1999): 63.

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