Ender’s Game is widely regarded as a classic in the genre of science fiction, perhaps even the classic. But the full story does not end with Ender on the colony ship to former formic lands. Since the original publication, Orson Scott Card has expanded the universe of Ender’s Game in multiple directions: exploring the rise and regime of the Hegemon, the political and military movements on Earth by former members of Ender’s jeesh (Card’s term for ‘squad' or ‘cadre’) and the voyages of Ender himself far into the future. I’d read a few of the Earth-based sequel novels, and lost interest after that, but I was curious to read about Ender’s travails after the book. So, mostly on a whim, I picked up Ender in Exile.
The book takes place almost entirely between chapters 15 and 16 of the original Ender’s Game. It serves as an expansion of the original, a sequel to the Earth-based novels, and a prequel to the Ender-based sequels, which puts it in a somewhat awkward spot from the beginning. Furthermore, this is one of the later novels he wrote for the Ender’s Game universe, which meant that a good deal of effort was spent reconciling the various accounts from all of the books, especially the sometimes “careless and cavalier” inconsistencies (his words) from the earlier novels . Yet despite the difficulties, the book succeeds in its own right.
The book itself is a compilation and extension of a number of short stories Card has written over the years, which lends a certain episodic nature to the narrative. The main storyline concerns Ender’s recovery from the trauma depicted in Ender’s Game, and thus doesn’t really determine external events. The book opens in the immediate aftermath of Ender’s victory over the formic, with his parents, his siblings, and various world powers trying to figure out how to respond, how to turn Ender’s victory to their own advantage, and how to deal with this military genius when or if he returned to Earth. Ultimately, Ender decides to take himself out of the global political power-struggle, by traveling with the first colony ship to a former formic world. This is the next episode in the plot: how Ender deals with a power-hungry admiral of the colony ship who commands the only military regiment and might be tempted to seize power on their arrival.
A bit of time is also spent focused on Ender’s friendship and quasi-romance with Alessandra Toscano, a young woman who is pressured by her mother (the admiral’s wife) into seducing Ender to hopefully remove him from the power dynamic. It’s your fairly typical “boy meets girl, boy wants girl, girl offers herself to boy, boy analyzes the situation, boy leads girl to self-actualization” story. Thinking about it now, it kind of reminds me of that delightful scene in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, where a sleazy creature approaches Obi-Wan at a bar and offers to sell him “death-sticks.” Obi-Wan responds with a mind trick: “You don’t want to sell me death-sticks.” The creature is suddenly struck by a thought: “I don’t want to sell you death-sticks.” “You want to go home and rethink your life.” Ditto. George Lucas’ dialogue is often excruciatingly bad, but that scene is truly wonderful.
The next episode in the plot is oriented around Ender’s time on the Shakespeare Colony, particularly his discovery of the Giant’s Head (from the original Ender’s Game) and of a larval formic queen, for whose preservation Ender dedicates his life. He goes on a voyage, relying on the relativistic nature of time to bypass several generations until humanity has forgotten its loathing for the formics and might be more welcoming to these creatures. Along the way, he stops at the Ganges colony, where he meets Randall Firth, the ostensible son of evil genius extraordinaire Achilles but in reality the youngest child of Bean and Petra, two of Ender’s closest friends from Battle School. The confrontation between Ender and Randall provides and emotional center-point for the novel, though I personally found it less compelling than other episodes depicted.
This novel is defined by a conceit, or rather a whole string of them. Each chapter begins with a letter written by one of the characters (that is, in first person). The chapters themselves are written from the perspectives of a character (in third person), though the person at the focal point differs from section to section. While we may relate to Ender, to an almost unique degree we are not bound by the main character’s perspective. The thought strikes me that perhaps Card set himself up for the fall. People don’t explain things to Ender: he’s often kept out of the loop, and is clever enough to find things out on his own besides. Without that easy narrative fallback, Card had to find a way to convey the relevant information to readers, preferably without relying on a third-person omniscient voice. If you don’t know what that means, watch the movie Stranger Than Fiction.
Furthermore, since we’re dealing in space travel at light-speed, time itself is relative, and Card must deal with multiple (and constantly shifting) timelines. Generations live and die in the few years spent on the colony ship; Ender is sent to Ganges to deal with the problem of Randall Firth when Randall was still barely an infant; Ender’s brother Peter, only a few years older than he, is dying when a still-adolescent Ender leaves Shakespeare. In sum, Card is dealing with four separate “worlds” – Earth, the colony-ship, Shakespeare, and Ganges – running on multiple timelines, and that’s not even to mention some of the lesser conceits invented to keep characters alive, such as Graff’s ingenious scheme to only “live” two months every year and spend the rest in space, resting in an ageless stasis.
In short, this is an exceptionally impressive effort, demonstrating invention of a less whimsical but more methodical mind. This is not Scott Pilgrim; this is the Lord of the Rings. A world is invented, populated, and developed along clear and logical lines. Characters are drawn and given voices, their own voices, not mimicries of character but personalities of their own. It is also an immensely rewarding effort, as we are given the chance to see the events of the novel through multiple perspectives. We are allowed to truly empathize with each person we come across. Like Ender himself writing as the Speaker for the Dead, we are given a uniquely penetrating glimpse into the inner-workings of almost everyone we meet. We get to see them as we presume Ender sees them: stripped of their duplicity, with all their secrets on parade.