The Ender saga began actually in 1977 with the publication of one of the most startling and original novelettes to appear in Analog: "Ender's Game." "Ender's Game" was a marvel--one of those happy events that send seasoned critics and casual fans alike raving "You've got to read this!" Card, an ever-restless creator, expanded the short story "Ender's Game" into a novel with the same name, in order to properly set up a sequel novel. Both novels would win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. Since then, the epic expanded to a total of four novels, the last of which appeared on the bookshelves this summer. Do not be surprised if it steals the Hugo and Nebula again. This, in short, is a masterpiece.
The masterpiece comes to us in two discrete sections, Ender's Game, and the latter three books, which I call "the Lusitania trilogy" since they have no collective name. Ender's Game seems at first to be familiar territory. Earth is at war with aliens. A boy is being trained on a military school in space to fight them. But don't be deceived: This is the "space cadet" sub-genre raised to fine art.
Ender Wiggins, the protagonist, at age six unwittingly becomes a murderer, and at the same time just as unwittingly, a candidate-in-training for commanding the human fleet. He's the illegal third child of a family of child geniuses, his birth allowed by the authorities only because it was hoped that he might have the perfect balance of both his sister's gentleness and his brother's savageness. Indeed he does—as well as prodigious talents for strategy and leadership. He rises through the ranks of Battle School and Command School unbelievably fast, though with immense pain and suffering. At every turn he is manipulated by forces beyond his control, forced to fight enemies he'd rather not, and attain "successes" which are torture to his soul. The depth with which the emotional and spiritual side of this little boy is portrayed is a touch of genius. Every reader will find something of his pain in Ender's pain, and bittersweet hope in Ender's astonishing conclusion.
The Lusitania Trilogy
Card did not set out to write a sequel to Ender's Game, but in the course of writing another novel, realized that its protagonist was none other than Ender, now an adult. Since it was not deliberately conceived as a sequel, the Lusitania trilogy has a marvelous freshness, which I've seen in no other series. The trilogy is a truly massive (over 1300 pages) undertaking which is so keenly perceptive, compelling, and enriching that I can't imagine any sf writer not being envious. The books are entitled Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind, respectively.
The setting is 3000 years after the end of Ender's Game. (Ender spends centuries traveling at relativistic speeds.) On Lusitania, a new colony planet of the "Hundred Worlds," (man's territory in space), for the first time since the wars of Ender's Game, mankind has contacted a sentient alien race, the pequeninos, who are apparently still in a primitive stage of development.
Ender is now a minister of a secular religion, "Speaking for the Dead," the sole rite of which is presenting the essence of a person's life, good and bad, without apology or omission, at their death. When the xenologist studying Lusitania's aliens is killed by them, Ender is called to travel twenty-two light-years to investigate the mystery and "Speak" his death. By the time he arrives, an elaborate concealment of the evidence has been made, and he is asked to "Speak" two other deaths instead. His investigations will begin a chain of events which will transform the lives of a desperate family, begin both alliances and wars between and among humans and several alien species, and send shockwaves of rebellion throughout the Hundred Worlds itself, in a plot which is even more complex (and infinitely more satisfying) than that of Atlas Shrugged.
Like many science-fiction authors, OSC examines the influence of religion upon human societies in the future. The cultures of the Hundred Worlds were established to be as homogenous as possible regarding race, nationality, and religion, to deter war. Lusitania is a black Brazilian planet with a "Catholic license." All citizens of the Hundred Worlds technically have freedom of religion, but each world has a single licensed religion, and as in Ender's case, it may take decades for a minister of a minority religion to arrive if an individual on a remote planet calls for them.
When he does arrive, the xenophobic bishop of Lusitania tries to frustrate Ender's efforts to uncover the truths about the persons he must Speak. However, Card does not indulge in stereotyping; we see also that Lusitania also has a most creative monastery, "The Children of the Mind of Christ," and Card is brilliant in his treatment of the spiritual lives of all his characters, believers and skeptics alike. (On a personal note, several years ago, the Ender series helped me through a tremendous crisis of faith when nothing else I read could. Thank you, Mr. Card.)
I've tried to keep this synopsis as brief as possible to avoid giving anything away, and leave the surprises intact for you. What I haven't mentioned yet is that the alien species in Ender are probably the most convincing aliens created. The Hundred Worlds of mankind is the richest vision of settlement among the stars I have ever read. Ender, his brother and sister, his friends and enemies in Battle School, Novinha and her family, Jane, the pequeninos, and the thinkers on the worlds of Lusitania, Path, Reykjavik, Divine Wind and Pacifica are among the most real and unforgettable characters in modern English literature. This series has depth fully equal to its breadth. The moral and spiritual problems of Ender could be the focus of discussion groups for semesters, involving peace and war, skepticism and faith, love and hate, the nature of the universe and creativity, and above all, the joys and pains of life.
Enough talk! No review can give you the magic of encountering these people, aliens, worlds, problems and triumphs yourself. READ IT! (Note: OSC is currently writing a second series parallel to the first Ender series, consisting thus far of Ender's Shadow, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Hegemon which in my opinion is not nearly as good. Read the original Ender series first.)