77 pages 2 hours read

Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


The classic science fiction novel Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card follows a precocious boy’s fight against space aliens and his own government. The essence of the story first appeared in a small sci-fi journal in 1977 as a short story of the same name. Card expanded the premise into a series that includes 15 novels and 13 related short stories. Along with becoming a best-seller and winning the top award for science fiction (the Nebula Award, in 1985), the book was adapted into a blockbuster film in 2013. Its themes include self-sacrifice, understanding the enemy, and the danger of games. This guide refers to the 1991 Tom Doherty Associates e-book edition.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with six-year-old Andrew (Ender) Wiggin having a monitor removed from his neck. All his life, Ender Wiggin has been told by his family, school, and government that a hostile alien force threatens to return to destroy planet Earth. Humans around the planet have dubbed these aliens the “buggers.”

Colonel Hyrum Graff of the International Fleet (I.F.) recruits Ender to Battle School, an operation that attracts the most promising children from around the world and trains them in the battle tactics that will defend Earth from the upcoming alien invasion. The oldest child in the family, Peter, is intensely jealous that Ender is chosen while he and their middle sister Valentine were not. Jealous peers also bully Ender at school. Valentine intervenes to protect him from the bullies as well as from Peter. This life ends when Graff escorts Ender away from his home and into Battle School.

Ender, with several other intellectually gifted students, travels to Battle School, which is on a ship in outer space. In Battle School, Ender excels in several activities, including maneuvering through zero gravity and defeating complicated computer games. He lives with “Launchies,” the new recruits, though he has some difficulty making friends. Graff frequently isolates him from others, knowing that Ender must learn to not rely on anyone else to accomplish his goals. Ender’s skill also intimidates some of his peers, who become jealous and eager to see him fail.

Ender befriends Alai, a similarly gifted student. None of the students know the teachers are watching their private moments; Graff, seeing Ender grow comfortable in his Launchy group, promotes Ender to Salamander Army—a level students cannot reach until at least age eight.

Petra Arkanian, the only girl Ender meets at Battle School, becomes his friend. She offers to train him when their army commander, Bonzo Madrid—who resents Ender’s intelligence and early promotion—refuses to let him practice with the army. Bonzo’s hatred only increases after he issues a misguided command that Ender ignores; the insubordination infuriates Bonzo, but Ender’s decision ultimately allows his training unit to win the battle.

Ender transfers to Rat Army and works closely with his new toon leader, Dink Meeker. Ender learns much from both Dink’s stratagems and his understanding of how Battle School actually works. During Ender’s free time, he hosts informal practices with his Launchy friends, which a group of older boys notices and disapproves. One day, the older boys attack, but Ender leads the Launchies through a coordinated defense, leaving a powerful impression on witnesses and all who hear about it.

While Ender attends Battle School, his brother Peter convinces Valentine to help him pursue political ambitions with the hope of becoming the world’s most powerful leader. They adopt the online aliases Locke and Demosthenes, slowly acquiring more authority and followers as they polish their personas. When Ender later visits Valentine, he can’t help but feel that something critical has changed between them.

Ender becomes commander of Dragon Army. The military leadership purposefully gives him a young, inexperienced group of boys. One of Ender’s most trusted soldiers is nicknamed Bean: a small, bright kid who reminds Ender of himself. The school leadership arranges for Ender and his army to face several battles where the odds are always in the opponent’s favor. To their satisfaction, Ender wins each one. His leadership style and tactics are unlike anything anyone has seen.

After Ender defeats Bonzo’s army and neglects to pay him proper respects—Ender storms off early in protest of the game’s unfairness—Bonzo takes revenge on Ender. Bonzo attacks Ender while he is defenseless in the shower; Ender defeats Bonzo despite being outnumbered and unprepared. Soon after, the military promotes Ender to Command School. Much later, Ender learns that Bonzo died from his injuries in the fight.

After a landside leave, Graff and Ender travel to Eros, home of the I.F. Command headquarters. Ender meets his new teacher, Mazer Rackham, who is credited with stopping the Second Bugger Invasion of Earth. Mazer fills him in on how the buggers work: they’re highly sophisticated, insect-like beings, who can communicate with their queen instantly. This makes all their attacks highly coordinated. Mazer also has Ender run small simulated battles against the buggers. He wins each one, though at times they suffer great losses. Ender begins having terrible dreams about the buggers, and his physical health declines.

One day, military officers crowd the command station to watch Ender practice. The day’s battle is larger and more complex than usual. Ender fights with the help of his peers, including Alai, Bean, Petra, and Dink. Against all odds, Ender defeats the buggers. Once the commanders start cheering, Ender senses that something is wrong. Soon enough, Mazer tells him the truth: all the simulated battles were actually real. Without knowing it, Ender has helped eliminate the bugger race. The military commanders say that Ender had to believe it was a game or else the loss of life would have interfered with his decisions.

Meanwhile, Ender’s sociopathic brother has taken over Earth, and Ender decides not to return there. Instead, he joins his sister Valentine on a mission to populate planets once ruled by the buggers. On the first planet, Ender encounters a bugger hive queen—wrapped in a pupa—and discovers he can communicate with her telepathically. He learns that buggers never wanted to fight humans; they simply didn’t understand that humanity is an intelligent species. Ender agrees to help her find a new planet where the buggers can restart their race.