I GREW UP READING science fiction. My dad had a large collection of books written by authors from the Golden Age, so I read short stories and novels by Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and more. Stories about space flight and interstellar wars held a particular fascination for me — a fascination that continues to this day, as I love reading the Honor Harrington series by David Weber and the adventures of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, among others.
One of the authors I enjoyed the most when I was young was Eric Frank Russell: the first science fiction novel I read was The Space Willies, and Wasp has remained one of my favorites to this day. Both those novels (and many other stories I read) involved clever humans outwitting aliens. The aliens might be more technologically advanced, they might have special powers, they might be more numerous, but in the end, we humans always figured out a way to defeat them. John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” — the basis of the movie The Thing — is a perfect example of that sort of story.
And that was the sort of story I thought I was getting when I started reading Ender’s Game.
Actually, what I started reading was Il gioco di Ender. I first spotted the book in a train station bookstore in Naples, and I picked it up to practice my Italian. Later, on reading the novel in English, I found that minor details came across differently in translation. For example, the formics were referred to as i Scorpioni, so I imagined them more like giant scorpions than giant ants. And because the word porta means both gate and door, my mind translated the key phrase “La porta nemica è giù” as “The enemy door is down.” The correct English phrase still feels slightly wrong to me.
But the essentials of the story are the same in any language, and I loved Ender’s Game from the first page. Here was not just a human but a child, who would ultimately need to outwit a technologically superior, telepathic race with an empire spanning dozens of worlds. Before he could get to that point, however, he had to win victory after victory, first in the Battle Room, and then in the simulator. I thrilled to read how he executed each of his cunning strategies. Seeing how he could adjust to whatever was thrown at him was a delight, and I loved the book all the way to Ender’s victory at the formics’ home world and the dramatic revelation that what had seemed to be simulations were actual battles.
If Ender’s Game had ended there, it would have been one of my favorite books of all time, but something strange happened: the book didn’t end. It kept going.
First, there is a war on Earth (and on Eros) that Ender essentially sleeps through because he is so depressed about winning the most important war in the history of the world. Then he does not even get to go home to Earth with all his friends from Battle School. Instead, he goes off to a colony world, where he finds the message the formics left for him, plus the pupal hive queen capable of reestablishing the species that had almost wiped out humanity. And not only does Ender not immediately smash the pupa to end the threat once and for all, he looks for a good place to let it give birth.
I finished the book in complete puzzlement. Why did Orson Scott Card ruin a perfectly good humans versus aliens book with all that weird stuff at the end?
A website called HowItShouldHaveEnded.com (HISHE for short) features animated short films that give alternate (and generally very funny) endings for movies. Of course, HISHE did not exist back when I first read Ender’s Game — websites did not even exist yet. But if the equivalent of HISHE had existed for books, I would have been ready to explain how Ender’s Game should have ended: with Ender’s victory over the formics and the big reveal that he had actually been fighting the war. Sure, there could be a little denouement, maybe a triumphant medal ceremony like the one at the end of the original Star Wars, but I felt the story was essentially over with Ender’s victory.
In fact, the original “Ender’s Game” short story only had a couple of brief scenes after that victory when it was published in Analog magazine. When Card expanded the story into a novel to serve as the background story for Speaker for the Dead, he added a lot of material to the beginning of the story: the original began when Ender was already the leader of Dragon Army, so all the scenes involving Peter and Valentine, plus his first years at Battle School, were new for the novel. But Card also added several scenes at the end, including the war on Earth and Eros, and everything involving the colony world. The excuse that Card was using those final scenes to set things up for a sequel was not good enough. Did there need to be a bunch of extra scenes after blowing up the Death Star to set up The Empire Strikes Back? I felt what was in the novel should be able to stand on its own terms, even if Speaker for the Dead had never been written.
There may not have been HISHE to do a spoof ending for Ender’s Game, but there was someone who expressed my thoughts perfectly: “Take it up to the day [Ender] won the final battle. Stop it there. Nothing that [Ender did] since then is worth writing down.” That brilliant bit of analysis came from none other than Ender Wiggin himself, as he is talking to Valentine about her plan to write the story of his life.
So, case closed? The novel should have ended after Ender won?
In the words of Valentine, responding to Ender when he says nothing after winning the battle was worth writing down: “Maybe ... And maybe not.”
The second time I read Ender’s Game, I had a plan: I would only read the book up to where I thought it should have ended. That way, I would still get all the thrills of Ender’s victories in the Battle Room and the war against the formics but would not have to bother with all that unnecessary stuff at the end. Call it Ender’s Game: The Good Parts Version.
But when I reached that point in the novel, something strange happened: I wanted to keep reading.
The first time I read the novel, I focused on the high-level story arc about the war between humans and formics. That was the story that fit my preconceptions of what the novel was about because it was the kind of story I had read before and loved: clever humans versus dangerous aliens. During that first read, I did not build up any sympathy for the formics; they were merely a threat that had to be eliminated. And, although I loved Ender as a character, the aspect of his personality that seemed most important was his tremendous competence at outwitting his opponents. That high-level story arc came to its conclusion with the end of the Formic wars.
However, when I was reading the novel for the second time, my preconceptions about the novel had already been broken. Knowing that the formics had realized their mistake and were not planning to attack humanity again allowed me to develop some sympathy for them during the course of the novel. I also began to see the importance of things that had merely been part of the background before, and I realized that there was a much more personal story arc involving Ender’s character. That arc did not end with the climactic destruction of the fFormic home world. In fact, the high point of the war story arc coincides with the low point of the personal story arc, which is why Ender reacts to ultimate victory with deep depression.
The key to Ender’s personal story arc can be found in the first chapter. He has just beaten Stilson — and Stilson’s gang — by breaking the unwritten rules of fighting and savagely kicking the bully while he was down. His rationale for doing so is perfectly understandable, so we as readers do not see Ender himself as a bully. But the chapter ends with the following lines: “Ender leaned his head against the wall of the corridor and cried until the bus came. I am just like Peter. Take my monitor away, and I am just like Peter.”
This introduces the central conflict of Ender’s character: the fear that he is like Peter, his tormenter. The sentiment is repeated several times throughout the novel:
This game knows too much about me. This game tells filthy lies. I am not Peter. I don’t have murder in my heart. And then a worse fear, that he was a killer, only better at it than Peter ever was; that it was this very trait that pleased the teachers. It’s killers they need for the bugger wars. It’s people who can grind the enemy’s face into the dust and spatter their blood all over space.
[...] only then did he realize what he hated most about Val’s letter. All that it said was about Peter. About how he was not at all like Peter. The words she had said so often as she held him, comforted him as he trembled in fear and rage and loathing after Peter had tortured him, that was all that the letter had said.
That final one marks the emotional low point for Ender in the novel. Yes, he has won the greatest victory in the history of humanity, but he sees himself as having become what he feared the most: a cruel killer like Peter. Never mind that his mental view of Peter is an exaggerated version of the actual Peter; what matters is that he believes he has become like Peter, and that was the worst thing he could imagine becoming.
One of the best pieces of advice I have received about writing characters is that you should figure out what a character desires most — and what the character fears most. With that knowledge, you can craft a climax to the story that puts the desire and the fear into conflict. By making the stakes as high as possible on a personal level, the climax of the story is more powerful.
In Ender’s case, the thing he desires most is to keep Valentine (and, by extension, the rest of humanity) safe by defeating the formics. It is that desire that motivates him to go to Battle School in the first place. Later, when he wanted just to quit and stay on Earth at the house by the lake, Graff brought in Valentine to remind Ender of what he was fighting for:
So that’s why you brought me here, thought Ender. With all your hurry, that’s why you took three months, to make me love Earth. Well, it worked. All your tricks worked. Valentine, too; she was another one of your tricks, to make me remember that I’m not going to school for myself. Well, I remember.
And of course, Ender's greatest fear is that he will become like Peter.
The climax of the novel juxtaposes that desire and that fear — even though, in a fascinating departure from the formula, Ender himself does not know that this is what is happening. He has no idea that his final battle is not a simulation, so it is not until after it is over that, for him, the desire and fear are both realized: he has saved Valentine from the formics but at the cost of (from his point of view) becoming a killer like Peter.
The climax of Ender’s Game is so powerful not just because of the large-scale stakes of the war arc — the survival of humanity itself and the extinction of an alien race. It is powerful because at the same moment, there is a crucial turning point for Ender’s personal stakes — the desire to save Valentine and the fear of becoming like Peter. What could have been simply another military triumph by the forces of humanity over the aliens, a story told many times before and since, becomes much more complex when juxtaposed with Ender’s internal conflict.
So it is no wonder that Ender finds himself overwhelmed when he finds out the truth.
Fortunately, after his initial horror at what he has done wears off, Ender begins to pull out of his depression. After Alai surprises him in his quarters and he gets up ready to fight, he realizes he’s probably going to be okay because “[...] I thought you were about to kill me, and I decided to kill you first. I guess I’m just a killer to the core. But I’d rather be alive than dead.”
The last sentence is actually about more than simply his own personal reaction to what he thought might be someone coming to attack him in his room. It’s a declaration of his sanity regarding what he was tricked into doing: when it comes right down to it, Ender (and humans in general) would rather be alive than dead, and he understands that the survival of the human species is more important than his qualms about being a killer like Peter.
But Ender merely accepting the necessity of what he did is not a satisfactory conclusion to his personal character arc. He may have been tricked into killing all the formics, but he bears guilt for the results of his actions, and he needs a way to redeem himself: to atone for what he did and prove to himself that he is not Peter.
When Valentine invites him to go with her to help colonize a former Formic world, Ender thinks he has found some small way to atone: “I’m going because I know the buggers better than any other living soul, and maybe if I go there I can understand them better. I stole their future from them; I can only begin to repay by seeing what I can learn from their past.”
Of course, he then gets the opportunity to do far more than that to redeem himself. By telling the formics’ story through his Speaker for the Dead persona, Ender has the chance to redeem the entire Formic race in the eyes of humans. (In the sequels, we find out that has the effect of changing the public perception of Ender from savior to monster, but it is irrelevant to his arc in this novel.)
But it is finding the pupa of the hive queen that gives Ender the greatest opportunity to achieve redemption. Not only does that discovery prove that he did not kill off the entire race of the formics, but it also gives him the chance to be the one who restores the race. In fact, that mission to provide a new home for the formics is hinted at before he ever finds the pupa — even before he destroys their home world. While conducting the battles he thinks are simulations, at one point he pushes himself so hard that he makes himself sick. During that intense period, he has a dream that he dies and is buried: “Oonly a hill grew up where they laid his body down, and he dried out and became a home for buggers, like the Giant was.”
That dream, it later turns out, was due to the formics’ attempts to communicate with him telepathically through the ansible. Even as they realized that he would probably annihilate their world, the hive queens forgave Ender. And they built the fake body of the Giant on their colony world in order to lead Ender to the pupa. But the symbolism of Ender’s body providing a home for formics clearly foreshadows the role the aliens hoped he would take on of finding the new hive queen a place to live and rebuild her race.
In Ender’s mind, killing off an entire species is what Peter would do. Therefore, the chance to restore an extinct species to life is the final signifier that Ender is not like Peter. (The Speaker for the Dead persona gives Ender the opportunity to reconcile with Peter, and Ender realizes that his brother was not the monster he believed. But it is the childhood mental image of his brother, not his actual brother, that forms the standard against which he measures himself.) And although the actual restoration of the formics does not happen until later in the series, it is certainly implied by the final lines of this novel. Ender has found peace in his new purpose, and thus his emotional arc is complete.
Which brings us back to the question of how the novel should have ended. Ender’s Game is not simply a story of an exceptional child who must outwit aliens in order to save the human race — it is the story of an exceptional child who fears he is a monster and is tricked into doing something monstrous.
By providing Ender with a way to redeem himself, Ender’s Game ends exactly the way it should have ended.