• Ender's Game, 1985: approx. 107,500 words, 307 pages @350 wds/pg
• Speaker for the Dead, 1986: approx. 156,000 words, 446 pages @350 wds/pg
"I've watched through his eyes. I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."
"Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart."
"We question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question."
Speaker for the Dead
He looked a long time.
"Some day, John! Some day!"
Speaker for the Dead
Rules change in mid-game
When I finished Ender's Game, before starting the second book in the series, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Oh, I enjoyed Ender's Game all right. It was a real scifi page-turner. But I did not feel good about my enjoyment.
Most of the novel concerns the training of a child, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, to become leader of an expedition against an alien species, called the "buggers", which had previously attacked Earth. Ender is chosen because he is a boy genius who will resort to vicious violence if necessary to win a battle. Watching him train and rise up through the ranks by defeating all challenges placed before him, I was reminded of Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers in which young soldiers train for a mission against extraterrestrial "bugs". In both novels you get caught up rooting for the rising protagonists. In Heinlein's novel you're expected to accept an extremely militaristic, even fascist, view of the world along the way. (This was well before Heinlein wrote his pacifist classic Stranger in a Strange Land.) Card's novel heads in a similar direction, though along the way a few doubts are hinted at.
Then in the last few chapters of Ender's Game, several surprises are sprung to change your perspective on all that has gone before.
Still I was uneasy about it. The story up to that point had been very exciting. I'd read eagerly, despite the two-dimensional characters and the incredible plot elements such as having Ender's equally intelligent brother and sister politically manipulate the world while they are only adolescents. Ender himself leads military teams when he is only eight.
In the 1991 introduction to the novel, Card responds to critics, who said gifted children do not act this way, by quoting gifted children who said he had indeed captured what it was like to be them. But, sorry, I'd be more impressed if he could quote brainy eleven-year olds who are actually running countries and conducting wars, not just dreaming about it.
As it is, most of Ender's Game takes place in what I think of as the "Revenge of the Nerds" vein of science fiction. This kind of plot lets geeky kids with science smarts fantasize about gaining superpowers or using their superior intellects to lord it over everyone else in the universe. My own inner-geek allows me to enjoy this kind of novel too, but my grownup brain says, wait a minute, it takes more than a child's technical smarts to make one a brilliant politician or a master of battlefield psychology. Like, maybe, an understanding of human minds. Experience of social interactions. Emotional maturity. These kids however bright they are, confronted by real political operators and hardened military giants, would be squashed like...well, like bugs.
And then there were the queasy moral issues that the excitement of reading had led me to ignore. The revelations near the end of Ender's Game were interesting but too little and too late to make up for all that had come before.
So, an interesting novel but not a great one, I thought.
Then I started the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.
The second novel picks up three thousand years later on a distant planet where humans have run into another potentially dangerous alien species with some mysterious consequences. Ender, who is only in his thirties due to his constant space travel at near-light speeds (don't try to figure it out), is brought in. With him come all the ideas introduced briefly at the end of Ender's Game.
This novel is nothing like the one before it. The plot is in the form of a mystery, or rather several mysteries, as Ender tries to uncover what has happened between the humans and the aliens, called "piggies". More importantly he works to understand the psychology of both species, to sort out the morality of humanity on other worlds—all the matters that were neglected in the first novel.
If the first novel reminded me of Heinlein, this one is closer to Ursula K. Le Guin in its sensitive probing of the link between people and environment and in the complexity of the characters' interrelations—all the while presenting an absorbing story. There are hints of this in Ender's Game but they really blossom in Speaker for the Dead. I'd bet money he was inspired by Le Guin when he wrote this—he even employs the ansible device, which she introduced in her novels to allow instantaneous communications (thus avoiding the usual light-speed restrictions) throughout the universe.
Speaker for the Dead is an intriguing and often moving piece of work. I'm impressed as much by its depth as by Card's craftsmanship in making all the levels of the story come together.
Apparently Speaker for the Dead was the first of the two novels he had envisioned. Card says he wrote Ender's Game only to give the character's back story. Personally I think the back story could have been much abbreviated to let us get to the heart of the Ender saga faster, but I realize that many young readers will be enticed by the action of the first novel into the more profound issues of the second. I just hope serious readers don't give up after the first.
It might be asked why only two books of the Ender series are listed here, since at least five more volumes—and counting—are available. Several reasons. The two make a natural pair. The first book alone is not enough, as it takes off in another direction near the end that makes sense only if you read the second, while the second book pretty well concludes the issues raised. The first two books were once issued together as Ender's War. Both novels won science fiction's biggest awards.
The remaining books in the series tend to fill in gaps in the first two. For example, Ender's Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, and Shadow Puppets are mainly from the perspective of Bean, Ender's ally during his training for the bugger war, taking place first simultaneously with the action of Ender's Game and then in the period after the war. First Meetings: In the Enderverse is mainly a collection of stories taking place after the bugger war and before the events of Speaker for the Dead, including one story showing Ender's decline from earth's hero to villain. Xenocide and Children of the Mind continue the Ender saga after Speaker for the Dead.
Many readers seem to love them all and you're welcome to take up permanent residence in the Enderverse if you wish. But for my money, the first two novels tell the whole story and the rest are unnecessary—and, frankly, just not as brilliantly written.