On Ender’s Game

I have loved Ender’s Game and its sequels since childhood. When I first read them, I experienced them as captivating sci-fi stories that I couldn’t put down. In my adult life, the Ender’s Game series has taken on a new life and significance.

I’ve looked to the Ender’s Game series for clarity about difficult topics, like character, psychology, ethics, leadership, and strategy. I’ve brought my life and training in monasteries to the series and found I’ve been refreshed and reinvigorated for it. Oddly enough, monastic training is not so different from the Battle School Ender finds himself in—certainly more similar than any conventional school in which I’ve formally studied.

In this post I’ll tease out certain lessons I’ve found in Ender’s Game about the issues closest to my heart. Some are familiar and well-trodden territory, like leadership and strategy. Others are less well-paved roads, like connections to monastic training. I hope that by making these lessons explicit I and others can more readily live them out.

Warning: this post is largely written for people who have already read Ender’s Game and perhaps its sequels. It contains spoilers of Ender’s Game as well as discussions of major plot points in the sequels. If you haven’t yet read Ender’s Game, I recommend you read it first and then come back.

Urgency

“Time’s getting short?”

“I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I can’t tell you secured information.”

“I know.”

“Let’s leave it at this: they didn’t get him to Command School a day too soon. And maybe a couple of years too late.”

What I resonate with most with Ender’s Game right now is the urgency – the desperate urgency.

For much of the novel, Ender, the boy genius protagonist, is in space, training in a futuristic military academy called Battle School. Part of his time is dedicated to his studies: mathematics, sciences, military history and strategy. But most of his time is spent on the central affair – the Battle Room. The Battle Room is a zero gravity laser tag like environment for honing battle and command skills.

Why? Why have elaborate, extravagantly expensive space stations training soldiers? And why recruit children as those soldiers?

Because aliens are coming. Because humanity is at risk. Because our planet is at risk.

As the plot progresses, Ender faces increasingly difficult challenges – some seemingly impossible. He is put in an army with a commander who despises him and refuses to train him. Later, he is made a commander himself, years before any previous child. His final challenge in Battle School involves facing two armies at once, and a stacked deck. Somehow he pulls through.

After this miraculous performance, he is given new orders:

Anderson handed Ender a sheet of paper. A full-sized sheet. Not one of the little slips of paper that served for internal orders within the Battle School; it was a full-fledged set of orders. Bean knew what it meant. Ender was being transferred out of the school.

“Graduated?” asked Bean. Ender nodded. “What took them so long? You’re only two or three years early. You’ve already learned how to walk and talk and dress yourself. What will they have left to teach you?”

Ender shook his head. “All I know is, the game’s over.” He folded up the paper. “None too soon. Can I tell my army?”

“There isn’t time,” said Graff. “Your shuttle leaves in twenty minutes. Besides, it’s better not to talk to them after you get your orders. It makes it easier.”

“For them or for you?” Ender asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. He turned quickly to Bean, took his hand for a moment, and then headed for the door.

Then Bean, Ender’s friend and the protagonist of Card’s Shadow series, asks where Ender is going:

“Wait,” said Bean. “Where are you going? Tactical? Navigational? Support?”

“Command School,” Ender answered.

“Pre-command?”

“Command,” said Ender, and then he was out the door. Anderson followed him closely. Bean grabbed Colonel Graff by the sleeve. “Nobody goes to Command School until they’re sixteen!”

Bean is left grappling with what this means, why Ender is being advanced so quickly. Through Bean’s eyes we can see how unprecedented, confusing, and terrifying this advancement is:

Graff shook off Bean’s hand and left, closing the door behind him. Bean stood alone in the room, trying to grasp what this might mean. Nobody went to Command School without three years of Pre-command in either Tactical or Support. But then, nobody left Battle School without at least six years, and Ender had had only four.

The system is breaking up. No doubt about it. Either somebody at the top is going crazy, or something’s gone wrong with the war, the real war, the bugger war. Why else would they break down the training system like this, wreck the game the way they did? Why else would they put a little kid like me in command of an army?

It’s like that for us at the Monastic Academy. We’re all adults, and yet we all feel like scared little kids. No one feels prepared for what’s in front of them. We rotate roles every few months, trying to train everyone in as many aspects of monastic training, non-profit work, and leadership as possible. As soon as you start to get comfortable at something, that’s our cue – we need to switch your role, give you something harder.

Why? Because there’s not much time. Not much time at all. There are enormous problems, and we need trustworthy leaders at the helm. We need teachers, executive directors, non-profit founders and entrepreneurs with the skills of Wisdom, Love, and Power. And we need them yesterday.

Leadership

Throughout Ender’s Game, Ender encounters a series of leaders and mentors who present him with progressively more difficult challenges. They each have different strengths and weaknesses, but he generally starts with worse leaders and moves in the direction of more skilled and competent leaders:

  • Peter, Ender’s sociopathic older brother
  • Stilson, a bully at Ender’s school in North Carolina who picks on Ender when his monitor is removed
  • Bernard, a bully in Ender’s group of launchies or Battle School new recruits
  • Bonzo, the commander of Salamander Army; he resents Ender for being assigned to Salamander Army at such a young age and tells him not to participate in battles
  • Petra, a soldier in Salamander Army and one of the few girls at Battle School; she mentors Ender in basic Battle School weapons use like aiming and firing
  • Dink Meeker, a toon leader in Rose the Nose’s Rat Army who asks Rose the Nose to recruit Ender for his team
  • Colonel Graff, the principal of Battle School, responsible for training the commander who will lead the invasion army against the Bugger
  • Mazer Rackham, the war hero who saved humanity from the Buggers in the Second Formic War, who mentors Ender in command skills

Each of these leaders and mentors—even the poor ones—help Ender to learn lessons about how to be a leader himself.

Peter (in childhood), Stilson, Bernard, and Bonzo are all poor commanders, because they are bullies who lead through fear and intimidation.

From Stilson, he learns that those who lead are not always intelligent—because Stilson didn’t expect the desperate blow that Ender takes against him, which seemed obvious to Ender.

From Bernard, he learns how flattery and even contempt can be used to establish a hierarchy—but that some, like he and Shen, will rebel against that kind of rule.

Bonzo is a bully, like Peter, Stilson, and Bernard, but he commands an army, Salamander Army. Again, Ender learns that fear can be a command method, but is not sustainable or effective. More importantly, Bonzo’s poor command of strategy shows Ender what not to do as a commander in the Battle Room. And being exposed to battle in the Battle Room teaches Ender a few things, even against Bonzo’s intentions:

What have I learned so far? Ender listed things in his mind as he undressed by his bunk. The enemy’s gate is down. Use my legs as a shield in battle. A small reserve, held back until the end of the game, can be decisive. And soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they’ve been given.

Petra is the first commander or mentor Ender works with that is admirable. She is kind and generous, and Ender is able to learn a tremendous amount from her. Petra leads Ender to the realization that the “the adults are the enemy, not the other armies. They do not tell us the truth.”

Although they are both in Salamander Army, Petra offers to teach Ender. Mentoring Ender in basic Battle Room weapons use, tactics, and maneuvers gives her a chance to practice leadership or command, which she isn’t receiving in Bonzo’s army. Ender learns the power of mentorship and kindness from Petra, which he puts to quick use in recruiting launchies (young children not yet formally assigned to an army) for daily war games during their free time.

From Dink Meeker, he sees the possibilities of having a sub-group that trains independently from a larger group, “a much smaller one that happened to practice in the battleroom at the same time.” He also is alerted to the possibility that there is a war that is more important than the war in Battle School (even though Ender decides, unlike Dink, that the Bugger War is real)—something that makes “Ender listen more carefully to what people meant, instead of what they said.”

Major Anderson, Colonel Graff, and finally Mazer Rackham all serve as teachers and mentors to Ender. Their teaching style is best described by Mazer Rackham’s aphorism “There is no teacher but the enemy”:

I am your enemy, the first one you’ve ever had who was smarter than you. There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. Only the enemy shows you where you are weak. Only the enemy tells you where he is strong. And the rules of the game are what you can do to him and what you can stop him from doing to you. I am your enemy from now on. From now on I am your teacher.

Major Anderson, Colonel Graff, and Mazer Rackham all work together to push Ender, to ensure that he reaches “the peak of his abilities”—so that he has a chance at successfully commanding the invasion fleet approaching the Buggers’ homeworld, at leading humanity to victory and safety from the threat of destruction at the hands of aliens.

In his 1991 introduction to Ender’s Game, Card argues that leadership is an extremely important variable for determining the outcome of military combat, because historically speaking, different leaders leading the same or similar troops have had dramatically different outcomes: “It wasn’t the soldiers who changed. It was the leader….I understood…how a great military leader imposes his will on his enemy, and makes his own army a willing extension of himself.”

Card represents this claim in the Ender’s Series multiple times. In Ender’s Game, Bonzo, Petra, and Ender command their troops differently, with different results. Later, in the wars on Earth, different nations and alliances are led by different Battle School graduates, with different results. In particular, Virlomi (leading India), Han Tzu (leading China), and Alai (leading the fictional Muslim Caliphate) arguably have comparable albeit distinct resources.

Each of the leaders that Ender observes, trains under, or is mentored by gives Ender a distinct insight into how to be a leader himself. This prepares him to assume command of the fleet en route to the Buggers’ homeworld, while Ender operates under the assumption that he is merely training in a simulator.

Strategy

When the USMC’s Commandant’s Professional Reading List was created in 1988, Ender’s Game was made required reading for all Marines. It is currently required reading for all Primary Level Enlisted Marines (Private, Private First Class, and Lance Corporals. Ender’s Game helps Marines reflect on and internalize the principles of leadership and strategy it contains. Even if we’re not Marines, Ender’s Game serves as an excellent narrative-based introduction to learning about leadership and strategy, especially Boydian maneuver warfare.

From the start, Ender shows an intuitive understanding of ch’eng and ch’i, the expected and the unexpected, the orthodox and the unorthodox. For example, when he takes command of Dragon Army, he arranges bunking in the reverse of the usual order:

Ender took charge at once. “Bunking will be arranged by seniority. Veterans to the back of the room, newest soldiers to the front.”

It was the reverse of the usual pattern, and Ender knew it. He also knew that he didn’t intend to be like many commanders, who never even saw the younger boys because they were always in the back.

This is the first and smallest of changes that Ender makes. One of the larger changes he makes is the way he organizes his army. Typically, Battle School armies—with forty people—were divided into four platoons or “toons” of ten. But Ender does something different:

instead of the usual four toons, he had created five, each with a toon leader and a second; every veteran had a position. He had the army drill in eight-man toon maneuvers and four-man half-toons, so that at a single command, his army could be assigned as many as ten separate maneuvers and carry them out at once. No army had ever fragmented itself like that before, but Ender was not planning to do anything that had been done before, either. Most armies practiced mass maneuvers, preformed strategies. Ender had none. Instead he trained his toon leaders to use their small units effectively in achieving limited goals. Unsupported, alone, on their own initiative. He staged mock wars after the first week, savage affairs in the practice room that left everybody exhausted. But he knew, with less than a month of training, that his army had the potential of being the best fighting group ever to play the game.”

Ender’s organization system for his troops allows his individual toon leaders to improvise and innovate, to accomplish limited goals in service of the larger mission. This novel arrangement implements the lesson he learned earlier in Salamander Army, that “soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they’ve been given.” Ender demonstrates an intuitive understanding of Mission Command, with each of its elements: einheit (trust), auftragstaktik (mission), schwerpunkt (intent), nebenpunkt (secondary points), and fingerspitzengefühl (finger-tip-feeling or intuition).

Ender also implements the lesson he learned from Dink Meeker, by creating an independent toon that trains separately from the rest of the army. Ender asks Bean to create a special toon, to “think of solutions to problems we haven’t seen yet”:

Ender showed him his desk. On it were twelve names. Two or three from each toon. “Choose five of these,” said Ender. “One from each toon. They’re a special squad, and you’ll train them. Only during the extra practice sessions. Talk to me about what you’re training them to do. Don’t spend too long on any one thing. Most of the time you and your squad will be part of the whole army, part of your regular toons. But when I need you. When there’s something to be done that only you can do.

Bean and his squad makes several innovations, but most notably he pioneers the use of “a deadline, one of the thin, almost invisible twines used during construction in space to hold two objects together.” Bean realizes the deadlines can be used “to change…direction of movement in midair,” something that would otherwise not be possible in the Zero-G Battle Room.

Using the deadline to change direction also allows Bean and his squad to move at unprecedented speeds. Ender’s enemies immediately lose morale on seeing Bean move, as they have no idea what to make of it:

“Eat it, Momoe,” whispered Bee. “You saw the way that little kid flew. He went all the way around the star and back behind without ever touching a wall. Maybe they’ve all got hooks, did you think of that? They’ve got something new there.”

As a result of Ender’s leadership and implicit use of Mission Command, Ender’s army trusts each other and their commanders to a degree that is unprecedented in Battle School:

they were proud, happy, close—they had never lost, and they had learned to trust each other. They trusted their fellow soldiers to fight hard and well; trusted their leaders to use them rather than waste their efforts; above all trusted Ender to prepare them for anything and everything that might happen.

This trust and cohesion leads Dragon Army to win battle after battle, even as the challenge levels posed by Major Anderson (with his use of the Battle School’s computer to structure Ender’s education through the mock battles) increase.

Importantly, other armies aren’t able to mimic Ender’s success completely. While they can imitate some of Ender’s innovations, like wall-sliding, attacking with their knees tucked under them, they don’t understand the reasoning behind these changes (e.g. reorienting one’s perspective on gravity to see the enemy’s gate as down). And “none had caught on yet to Ender’s five-toon organization—it gave him the slight advantage that when they had accounted for the movements of four units, they wouldn’t be looking for a fifth.”

Later, when Ender graduates to Command School, Mazer gives him a new challenge:

You’ve reached the next phase of your training. You have experience in every level of strategy, but now it’s time for you to concentrate on commanding an entire fleet. As you worked with toon leaders in Battle School, so now you will work with squadron leaders. You have been assigned three dozen such leaders to train. You must teach them intelligent tactics; you must learn their strengths and limitations; you must make them into a whole.

Ender’s squadron leaders are Alai, Bean, “Petra, and Dink; Crazy Tom, Shen, Hot Soup, Fly Molo, Cam Carby, all the best students Ender had fought with or fought against, everyone that Ender had trusted in Battle School.” Their previous training and shared experiences give Ender a head start on learning how they think, their strengths and weaknesses.

As they train together, Ender comes “to know them very well”:

Dink, who deftly carried out instructions but was slow to improvise; Bean, who couldn’t control large groups of ships effectively but could use a few like a scalpel, reacting beautifully to anything the computer threw at him; Alai, who was almost as good a strategist as Ender and could be entrusted to do well with half a fleet and only vague instructions. The better Ender knew them, the faster he could deploy them, the better he could use them.”

As they work together, Ender further refines his leadership skills, and the team gains their sense of shared trust and cohesion:

It took him only a few minutes now to call the squadron leaders that he needed, assign them to certain ships or groups of ships, and give them their assignments. Then, as the battle progressed, he would skip from one leader’s point of view to another’s, making suggestions and, occasionally, giving orders as the need arose. Since the others could see only their own battle perspective, he would sometimes give them orders that made no sense to them; but they, too, learned to trust Ender. If he told them to withdraw, they withdrew, knowing that either they were in an exposed position, or their withdrawal might entice the enemy into a weakened posture. They also knew that Ender trusted them to do as they judged best when he gave them no orders. If their style of fighting were not right for the situation they were placed in, Ender would not have chosen them for that assignment.

The trust was complete, the working of the fleet quick and responsive.

A large part of Ender’s success in Battle School and later, against the Buggers, is Ender’s ability to collaborate. He shows an intuitive understanding of Mission Command. He sees the strengths and weaknesses of his leaders, enemies, peers, and subordinates and the dynamics between them, and he can improvise with those raw materials of capacity and circumstances.

Ethics

The plot of Ender’s Game and its sequels brings up a number of ethical issues. The two ethical issues that interest me the most from these books are the ethics of using children as soldiers, and the ethics of communicating with or fighting against aliens.

Child Soldiers

One of the central questions of Ender’s Game is, why does the International Fleet recruit children as soldiers? After Ender defeats the Buggers, Mazer Rackham explains the IF’s reasoning:

“And it had to be a child, Ender,” said Mazer. “You were faster than me. Better than me. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know. You were reckless and brilliant and young. It’s what you were born for.”

In the dialogues between Graff and others that begin each chapter, the interlocutors frequently refer to their central motivation: “We’re saving the world, after all.” For Graff and the International Fleet, the ends justify the means. The risks and the costs are simply the price of saving humanity from the Buggers.

And what are the costs? Graff and the others at the IF regularly lie to and manipulate the children. They push Ender and the other children to their limits and beyond: “as soon as he can cope with a situation, you move him to one he can’t cope with.”

While the children play war games together, the stakes are high. We learn in one of the dialogues that one boy at Battle School, Pinual, killed himself as a result of Battle School’s rigor. In that dialogue, the interlocutors worry that Ender is going to kill himself, too, since he is repeating the same behavior Pinual showed just before his suicide (repeatedly revisiting the Giant’s Drink in the mind game, a game that seemingly has no solution or win condition). Ender doesn’t kill himself then, but he does manifest signs of intense psychological duress at multiple points in the plot.

With Ender, we get to see how Graff intentionally pushes him to his limits. In particular, he uses isolation to force Ender to learn, to be creative, to solve the challenges that his military education at Battle School puts in front of him:

“With Ender, we have to strike a delicate balance. Isolate him enough that he remains creative—otherwise he’ll adopt the system here and we’ll lose him. At the same time, we need to make sure he keeps a strong ability to lead.”

Later, Graff explains that Ender “must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way. He must believe, to the core of his soul, that he can only do what he and the other children work out for themselves. If he does not believe that, then he will never reach the peak of his abilities.”

Graff and the International Fleet’s treatment of children could validly be seen as unethical, and as Major Anderson fears, monstrous. Their actions are predicated on the premise of protecting humanity from the Buggers, but it turns out that the Formics no longer wish to fight humanity. The IF’s invasion fleet attacking their homeworld is not needed- which makes their manipulation of the children unnecessary and arguably tragic.

This is certainly a valid interpretation, and one that the book gives plenty of evidence for, I’m not ultimately persuaded by it.

While the children are psychologically and in some cases physically hurt by the Battle School training, training to be soldiers gives them an avenue to explore excellence that would not otherwise be open to them. The children are pushed to their absolute limits physically and mentally—something a more normal childhood life on Earth would not do. Ender, Bean, Petra, and the other children become really beautiful, capable people and heroes through their education and the challenges it brings them.

As I’ve written this section, I have been reflecting on why I tend to interpret the plot this way, rather than in a way that sees the International Fleet leaders as villainous. I believe my experience with monastic training is the basis of why I see the plot this way. Monastic training is extremely challenging and rigorous, contrary to some people’s expectations. But over the years, I’ve seen how each challenge I’ve faced in monastic training has helped me to grow as a person, so that I am an increasingly capable and trustworthy person.

The Hierarchy of Foreignness, Xenocide, and Existential Risk

The sequels to Ender’s Game present something called the Hierarchy of Foreignness, a classification system for life created by Valentine, writing as Demosthenes:

  • Utlannings / otherworlders: “strangers from our own world”
  • Framlings: “strangers of our own species, but from another world”
  • Ramen: “strangers of another species, but capable of communication with us, capable of co-existence with humanity.”
  • Varelse: strangers of another species, but incapable of communication with us, therefore we cannot live with them

This hierarchy is introduced in the series’ sequels, but the wars between the humans and the Buggers from the first novel are re-interpreted through this lens. Initially, the Buggers were considered by the humans to be varelse, and vice versa. This was because the Formics and the humans were unable to communicate at first, because the Formics’ consciousness is based on the hive mind of the queen, whereas individual humans are conscious.

Humanity believes that murdering the Buggers is justified as self-defense against varelse:

As a character Miro says in Xenocide about the descolada, another varelse species (a murderous virus):

Varelse [is] an alien life form that’s capable of destroying all of humanity, yet which we cannot possibly communicate with, an alien species that we cannot live with…. in that case war is unavoidable. If an alien species seems bent on destroying us and we can’t communicate with them, can’t understand them, if there’s no possibility of turning them away from their course peacefully, then we are justified in any action necessary to save ourselves, including the complete destruction of the other species.

However, the Formics realized that the humans were sentient and decided to stop attacking the humans. Humans did not know about this shift, though, and sent a fleet to attack the Buggers’ homeworld. Ender then destroyed their homeworld, and, if not for the Buggers’ careful attempts to preserve a queen, they would have died as a species entirely—not just genocide, but Xenocide.

At first, Ender is celebrated as a hero, the killer of the Buggers and the savior of humanity.

Ender has the opportunity to tell the Formics’ side of the story under the pseudonym Speaker for the Dead. With the publication of his text The Hive Queen, humanity gradually comes to understand the Formics as ramen, and Ender is seen as an evil murderer, “the Xenocide.”

Currently, we have no knowledge of sentient alien life in this universe. However, Demosthenes’ Hierarchy of Foreignness is an interesting way to explore the ethics of interspecies, intergalactic communication and war. More pressingly, I believe the ethical dimensions presented by this fictional conceit illuminate our own ethical challenges and failures. In Xenocide, Miro wonders to himself whether humanity itself is the Varelse:

“Maybe we’re the varelse. Maybe xenocide is built into the human psyche as into no other species. Maybe the best thing that could happen for the moral good of the universe is for the descolada to get loose, to spread throughout the human universe and break us down to nothing. Maybe the descolada is God’s answer to our unworthiness.”

And in Children of the Mind, Peter passionately argues a similar perspective:

Don’t you understand, any of you? There’s only one species that we know of that has deliberately, consciously, knowingly tried to destroy another sentient species without any serious attempt at communication or warning. We’re the ones. The first xenocide failed because the victims of the attack managed to conceal exactly one pregnant female. The second time it failed for a better reason — because some members of the human species determined to stop it. Not just some, many. Congress. A big corporation. A philosopher on Divine Wind. A Samoan divine and his fellow believers on Pacifica. Wang-mu and I. Jane. And Admiral Lands’s own officers and men, when they finally understood the situation. We’re getting better, don’t you see? But the fact remains—we humans are the sentient species that has shown the most tendency to deliberately refuse to communicate with other species and instead destroy them utterly. Maybe the descoladores are varelse and maybe they’re not. But I’m a lot more frightened at the thought that we are varelse. That’s the cost of using the Little Doctor when it isn’t needed and never will be, given the other tools in our kit. If we choose to use the M. D. Device, then we are not ramen. We can never be trusted. We are the species that would deserve to die for the safety of all other sentient life.

Humanity has created technologies like nuclear weapons that threaten life on Earth. We have demonstrated a willingness to go to great lengths to preserve ourselves, at the cost to other species. Perhaps we are the varelse.

Psychology

Some people see the characters in Ender’s Game as not very believable. To me, the simple prose hides the depths of their psychology.

Card writes in his introduction that he aimed to make Ender’s Game “as clear and accessible” as possible, so that “the reader wouldn’t have to be trained in literature or even in science fiction to receive the tale in its simplest, purest form.” But he hints that “all the layers of meaning are there to be decoded, if you like to play the game of literary criticism.”

The characters in Ender’s Game are ways for us to explore human psychology, with all its violence and compassion, with all its amazing, awful genius and terror.

The novel uses dialogues between unnamed characters at the beginning of each chapter, and sometimes at the ends of chapters. From the beginning, we can detect different personalities and goals in the unnamed characters. As the novel goes on, we can infer that the dialogues are between specific figures in the International Fleet: Colonel Graff, Major Anderson, Major Imbu, General Levy, and Admiral Chamrajnagar.

In the first such conversation, Graff and Anderson or Chamrajnagar discuss Ender in relation to his siblings, Peter and Valentine:

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

When we meet Peter, he is presented as a bully to Ender and Valentine, and a cruel sociopath. Valentine, on the other hand, is deeply compassionate, trying and failing to protect Ender from Peter. These are the doubts Graff and Anderson raise about Peter and Valentine. They need Peter’s violence, without the cruelty, and Valentine’s empathy, without her weakness.

As it turns out, the weakness that they are concerned about Ender – that he is too “malleable… too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will” – is what makes him the perfect tool for the International Fleet against the Buggers:

“Of course we tricked you into it. That’s the whole point,” said Graff. “It had to be a trick or you couldn’t have done it. It’s the bind we were in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew, you couldn’t do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood the buggers well enough.”

But even Peter is not solely a sociopath, and Valentine is not solely a saint.

Peter has a compassionate side to him. At the end of the second chapter, when Peter thinks Ender is sleeping, he stands over him. Ender isn’t asleep, and thinks Peter is going to kill him. Instead, Peter whispers to Ender, “Ender, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know how it feels, I’m sorry, I’m your brother, I love you.”

Meanwhile, as the novel progresses, Valentine learns through penning the words of the demagogue Demosthenes that she has violent tendencies within her, and so does Ender. This realization lets her see the compassionate side of Peter:

“You’ve been discovering some of the destroyer in yourself, Ender. Well, so have I. Peter didn’t have a monopoly on that, whatever the testers thought. And Peter has some of the builder in him. He isn’t kind, but he doesn’t break every good thing he sees anymore. Once you realize that power will always end up with the sort of people who crave it, I think that there are worse people who could have it than Peter.”

Valentine says “Peter has some of the builder in him,” some of the compassion and desire to serve that she and Ender both have. This compassionate side of Peter grows throughout the novel, and through the rest of the series. It leads him to create the pseudonyms of Locke and Demosthenes with Valentine, so as to persuade humanity not to destroy itself after the Bugger War. His growing power allows him to set in motion a plan that will lead to a unified world government and thus peace on Earth.

In Graff and Anderson’s eyes, Ender succeeds against the Buggers because he balances Peter’s violent tendencies with Valentine’s empathy and compassion. But I would argue that even they misunderstand Ender. Graff tells Ender that “If you knew, you couldn’t do it”— if he knew he was murdering the Buggers, he couldn’t do it.

I believe that Ender knew on a subconscious level that he was killing the Buggers, and even that they were sentient. At several critical junctures, I believe the prose indicates that Ender’s subconscious mind knows what his conscious mind won’t let him.

In the first chapter, he fights a bully, Stilson. Ender takes Stilson by surprise with a kick to the breastbone. From his perspective, he sees that the others are surprised, too: “For a moment, the others backed away and Stilson lay motionless. They were all wondering if he was dead.” Ender continues to attack Stilson, so as to dissuade the bullies from attacking him again. When he leaves, he doesn’t consciously consider that Stilson might be dead, but his subconscious mind considers it.

A similar dynamic repeats itself in Battle School, when he fights another bully, Bonzo, in hand to hand combat. Bonzo and a number of his friends gang up on Ender in a bathroom. Ender taunts Bonzo into fighting alone. He turns the water on to make his skin slippery. He uses the conditions to take Bonzo by surprise. He hits Bonzo in the face with his head, causing his nose to bleed. Then he kicks Bonzo in the groin:

Bonzo did not cry out in pain. He did not react at all, except that his body rose a little in the air. It was as if Ender had kicked a piece of furniture. Bonzo collapsed, fell to the side, and sprawled directly under the spray of steaming water from a shower. He made no movement whatever to escape the murderous heat.

Even after the fight ends, Ender is haunted by it: “All Ender could see, though, was the way Bonzo looked as Ender kicked upward into his groin. The empty, dead look in his eyes. He was already finished then. Already unconscious. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t thinking or moving anymore, just that dead, stupid look on his face, that terrible look, the way Stilson looked when I finished with him.”

Ender tells Bean: “I knocked him out standing up. It was like he was dead, standing there. And I kept hurting him.” Again, Ender doesn’t consciously consider that Bonzo might actually be dead, but he uses the word “dead” multiple times (emphasis mine) when thinking and speaking about Bonzo, in the same way that he did about Stilson before. This word choice implies to me that his subconscious is aware that he may have killed Bonzo.

At the end of this chapter, we learn through a conversation between Anderson, now a Colonel, and Major Imbu, that Bonzo did indeed die. We also learn that Stilson died after being hospitalized. In both cases, no one tells Ender.

Finally, towards the end of the novel, Ender is conversing with Graff about the Buggers. Graff tells him that Buggers “talk to each other directly…mind to mind.” The Buggers don’t have a language, so while humanity “used every means we could think of to communicate with them…they don’t have the machinery to know we’re signaling.”

Ender sees the implications immediately: “the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.” Graff defends humanity, saying that they are merely acting in self-defense: “If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you…. we didn’t go to them first, they came to us. If they were going to leave us alone, they could have done it a hundred years ago, before the First Invasion.”

But Ender objects that “maybe they didn’t know we were intelligent life.” Graff convinces Ender to keep fighting, to protect humanity. But part of his mind is aware that the Buggers are sentient, and that the war between the Buggers and humanity is predicated on misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Unified World Government

A major plotline in the Shadow series involves the creation of a unified world government. Card’s novels serve as a kind of scenario planning exercise for envisioning how a unified world government might come about – what levers of power would be needed to execute that, and what obstacles the relevant actors might face. While certain dimensions of the plot are implausible, being based in the constraints and narrative of the story’s universe, others are very realistic.

During the Bugger Wars, the nations of Earth formed a provisional alliance against a common enemy. But when Ender destroys the Buggers, they no longer have a common enemy. Predictably, war breaks out, dividing along old lines: the Americans, the Russians, and everyone else. Due to the development of shields from Bugger technology, nuclear warfare is out of the question. Each nation fights a land-based battle for control of territory as well as a precious new resource: Battle school graduates, especially those who were in Ender’s “jeesh” or army.

Peter, Ender’s older brother, plots to restore peace, by way of bringing about a unified world government. He uses the power he accrued as Locke, a political commentator known for his reasonable and cosmopolitan perspectives as well as for bringing about the Locke Treaty, to start his government, the Free People of Earth (FPE).

At his side is Bean, once small but now increasingly gigantic due to a genetic mutation that causes him to grow physically and mentally without limit. Doctors expect him to die early, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, but in the meantime he is the most brilliant commander alive on Earth and serves as Peter’s military arm. Bean trains a small but loyal army of Thai and Rwandan soldiers to become a formidable military force: small, but precise and deadly.

Central to the FPE’s constitution is the recognition of ethnic minorities as independent states. It represents existing nations, as well as ethnic minorities desiring self-government. This position puts the FPE against Peru and Sudan, a member of the burgeoning Muslim Caliphate. The Rwandan forces win the battle against Peru, who elect to hold a plebiscite and eventually enter the FPE. Meanwhile, combined Rwandan and Thai forces defeat the Sudanese, but Peter does not try to conquer the remaining Muslims; he protects the right of Muslims to not enter the FPE.

When a new swath of nations petition to join the FPE, the FPE requires them to conduct internal reform first, specifically initiating a basic standard of human rights. Once they meet the requirements, they can hold a plebiscite and choose to enter the FPE.

With the help of Bean, Peter grows the FPE from an implausible idea into an actual unified world government. By the end of Peter’s lifetime, only the United States of America had refused to join the FPE.

While this plotline is fictional, and depends on multiple implausible assumptions (e.g. the creation of shields that render nuclear weapons useless), we can see it as a kind of scenario planning exercise that generates interesting possibilities, like the recognition of ethnic minorities as self-governing states, or the ability to use the implementation of human rights as a requirement for entering a world government.

More importantly, the series makes a compelling case that interstellar war and exploration would necessarily result in the re-configuration of government, with the possibility of an establishment of a unified world government and even intergalactic government.

And even before then, it demonstrates an understanding that the problems we face are essentially planet-wide. I believe facing them will require a coordinated global effort, along the lines of a unified world government.

Meditation

I have found myself obsessively watching this clip from the Ender’s Game movie over and over. I am amazed by the way the movie managed to represent the Battle Room in a high-fidelity and satisfying way—and the music in this scene is haunting, inspiring, and captivating.

Having watched this clip an unreasonable number of times, I’ve been curious why it fascinates me so much. Ender defying Bonzo is the main plot point of this scene, but that part isn’t particularly interesting to me as such.

What I love is the action sequence starting at 1:51. Petra launches Ender towards the enemy, who does not suspect an attack from a single enemy. He grabs a floating gun in the battle room, holding two guns at once. He deftly dodges a physical obstacle (a “star”) and begins shooting. His body begins to rotate in a circle, where he shoots all of the enemies around him. Ender gets frozen, taken out of the game, but has helped his team win the battle. Graff looks on with a surprised and proud look.

I love interpreting action sequences in action films as inspiration for one’s meditation practice. In particular, the violence action heroes wreak on their enemies is exactly how one should treat the Five Hindrances (Sensual Desire, Ill Will, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Anxiety, and Skeptical Doubt). You have to relentlessly but playfully notice and cut off every single hindrance that arises, using every tool and skill that you have, until your mind is totally unhindered, clear, and bright. In the words of Ajahn Chah, “Punch it before it gets a chance to punch you.”

Conclusion

Ender’s Game and its sequels are fictions. They are universes created by their author. Ender succeeds because Orson Scott Card wrote it that way. And yet, if we listen closely, and engage honestly with our questions, we can tease out lessons about our individual and collective lives—lessons about leadership, strategy, ethics, psychology and more. For me, Ender’s Game has offered me a lens on my own life that has allowed me to see it more clearly and to live more fully.

Pay close attention to the stories that you return to again and again. The best stories are laboratories for experiments, epic playgrounds for growth. Inside lies guidance, inspiration, questioning and clarification.

The price of admission is an open ear, sincere enjoyment, and your own earnest efforts to digest what the story has to offer you. Its lessons are not merely trite, neat and tidy, cut and dried conclusions about predetermined events and characters. They are new ways of perceiving and acting within the one precious saga of your own true life.

Notes

Further Reading

Thank you to James Baker, Jay Dugger, and Chris Markham for reviewing this post.

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