Ender's Game

By Orson Scott Card


Reviewed by Ted Gioia

I still recall the intense culture shock I experienced when I
entered Stanford Business School at age 23.  I was an odd
outlier, admitted to the MBA program with no previous
business experience.  While my classmates showed up with
polished skills in accounting or finance, or with an internship
at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs under their belts, my
expertise was largely limited to music, literature, philosophy
and the arts.   

But I was a great believer, then as now, in the power of
storytelling to guide real world decisions—and this was
perhaps my strongest connection with my professors and
fellow students.   I looked at the case studies we used in the
classroom as quirky short stories, each filled to the brim
with characters, conflicts and an occasional cash flow
statement.  And, on rare instances, someone in class would
turn to a novel or movie to illuminate some precept in
leadership or teambuilding.  Films such as
Twelve Angry
Men
or Apollo 13 are full of lessons
for those willing to extrapolate
from the courtroom or spaceship
to the corporate boardroom.  I still
remember fondly the time I unin-
tentionally caused an uproar in a
first year business strategy class
by trying to solve the problem at
hand with my personal inter-
pretation of
War and Peace.  

I wish I had known about
Ender’s
Game
back then.  I would have
spared my classmates the lecture
on Tolstoy and gone straight for
Orson Scott Card.   Most readers
enjoy this book for its fast-paced plotting, and a storyline
that pings and zings like the action in a pinball game. Indeed,
the premise of the book is that saving the galaxy is not much
different than winning at
Grand Theft Auto or Super Mario
Brothers
.  But the real substance of the book is its detailed
exposition of the strategies and ploys relied on by its hero,
Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, as he rises to the top of his class at
Battle School, and later Command School, before moving on
to an actual combat against an alien force.  Give Ender some
credit: his case studies turn out to be a bit more dangerous
than any I chanced to encounter at B-school.

Other science fiction books have incorporated the concept
of games or competitive simulations into their plot lines, but
not with such careful attention to strategy and tactics.  As
far back as 1948, A. E.  van Vogt drew on the concept of a
human playing a computer game in a formal competition for
his novel
The World of Null-A.  But the rise of commercial
computer games in the 1980s and 1990s turned this into a
familiar plot line—both in movies (
Tron) and fiction (Snow
Crash
).  Invariably these books leave out the game theory
even as they draw on the game as a source of conflict and
drama.  A book such as Iain M. Banks'
The Player of Games
(1988) can build its entire story around a series of elaborate
games, yet only offer the vaguest generalities about the rules
and techniques at play.  
Ender’s Game, in contrast, presents
a series of detailed case studies in how competitions are won
and lost—drawing on both conceptual and psychological
insights in the process.

This sophistication in the details here stands in stark
contrast to the simplicity of the larger plot, which is as
hackneyed as it gets.  A young boy saves the universe from
ugly, ruthless insect-like monsters, known as "buggers"
(clearly Card hadn't spent much time in Britain before
writing this book).   Such an unpromising story line would
normally suffice only for escapist young adult fiction, but
Card dishes up something more here, setting up a series of
conflicts and obstacles for his protagonist that dispense with
dragons and swords and the other familiar paraphernalia of
the genre, and instead draw on Ender's skills in leadership
and organizational analysis.

In various simulated conflicts, Ender’s team defeats older
and stronger opponents through the application of a range
of insights—which might involve the decentralization of
teams or reorienting the perceptions of combatants.  A key
conflict is won by taking advantage of an opponent's
understandable tendency to apply concepts of up and down
to environments were such an orientation proves to be a
vulnerability.   Other conflicts turn on the value of decoys
and misdirection, or the benefits of holding key resources in
reserve until the crucial moment in an engagement, or the
impact of various motivational methods.  

One might justifiably carp that a novel is not a business
school case study, and that it may provide valuable insights
into team dynamics while failing as literature.  I can under-
stand this criticism, and will be the first to admit that
readers should not turn to Orson Scott Card for his prose
style or poetic sensibility.  A certain brutal pragmatism
permeates these pages—one that has enthralled some
readers, but turned off many others.  Yet I would counter
that stories are not diminished by imparting lessons, far
from it—many of the oldest tales, both from Western
cultures and elsewhere, clearly aim to embody the wisdom
of their society and pass it on to a new generation.  This
functionality does not diminish the value of a story, but
rather enriches it.  
Ender’s Game would be a far lesser book
if it lacked these "teachable moments."

That said, I am less impressed with the political theorizing
that Card incorporates into this novel.  A subplot about
Ender's siblings rewriting the rules of democratic engage-
ment is so preposterous, even by the loose standards of
science fiction, that I could hardly engage seriously with its
pretensions.  Yet even as I read these pages in befuddle-
ment, I admired Card for taking such a daring stance in an
action-oriented novel.   Readers may feel as if they had
stumbled out of
Starship Troopers only to find themselves
lost in a bizarre version of
The Federalist Papers from an
alternative universe.   Certainly no one could accuse this
author of playing it safe.  

Card revised the original text of his novel for later editions,
in an attempt to make the story less dependent on the
historical exigencies of its time of origin.  (The novel,
released in 1985, drew on an earlier short story by Card,
also called "Ender’s Game," published in 1977.)   I have
little concern, however, that this book will come across
dated 10, 20 or even 30 years from now.   True, the
technological trappings of Card’s story may eventually seem
quaint or peculiar, but the psychological and sociological
qualities at play here strike me as essentially timeless.  Like
those other crossover classics—
1984 or The Handmaid's
Tale or Slaughterhouse FiveEnder's Game will likely
hold on to its place in the canon because it puts its faith
ultimately in the power of storytelling, and not just the
pageant and gadgetry of conventional sci-fi.   Certainly
others have emulated its focus on game-playing as a plot
device, but none have yet matched the realism of its
exquisite gamesmanship.
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian
Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading
List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.