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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Orson Scott Card's Ender Wiggin saga began more than 20 years ago with the publication of "Ender's Game," a novella that formed the basis for the enormously popular novel of the same name, which was followed, in turn, by three increasingly ambitious sequels: Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. Now Card returns to the source material of the series with Ender's Shadow, a "parallel novel" that recapitulates the central events of Ender's Game from a new, and very different, perspective.
Ender's Game, first published in novel form in 1985, describes the relentlessly brutal education of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a preadolescent military genius believed to be humankind's last, best hope against the anticipated invasion of an insectile race of aliens called the Formics. As the novel opens, the Formics — popularly known as "the Buggers" — have already made two unsuccessful attempts to conquer and colonize Earth, and xenophobia now runs rampant, temporarily uniting a wide range of political and ideological factions. Ender, together with a handpicked group of gifted, if slightly less brilliant children, is conscripted and sent to a remote space station called the Battle School, where he participates in a series of war games that prepare him, by the age of 9, for the responsibilities of military command. Eventually, the games turn real, and Ender leads his youthful forces to a bitter and ironic "victory" over the Buggers. His chief lieutenant in the final series of battles — his shadow — is a brilliant,abrasive,undersize child known, simply, as Bean. Bean is both the hero and the focal point of Card's latest novel. Through him, we reexperience — and sometimes reinterpret — a familiar series of events.
Obviously, large areas of Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow — the military training sequences, the climactic battles with the Buggers — overlap, and the overlapping scenes reflect and illuminate each other in unexpected ways.
In the end, though, Ender's Shadow is a good deal more than a revisionist rendering of the earlier book. By focusing so intensely on Bean — on his history; his personality; his bizarre, unprecedented origins — Card moves his story into fresh fictional territory. As a result, Ender's Shadow steps outside the frame of its predecessor's concerns to become a meditation on survival, on alienation, on the nature of genius, on what it really means to be "human."
By the age of 4, Bean — who has no known surname — is a battle-scarred survivor whose character has been formed on the streets of Rotterdam. Homeless and alone, he makes a place for himself in a street gang/family that is run by a homicidal opportunist named Achilles. Eventually, Bean comes to the attention of Sister Carlotta, a Roman Catholic nun who is also a talent spotter for a military coalition called the International Federation. Sister Carlotta immediately recognizes Bean's immense, virtually unmeasurable intellect and recommends him to the leaders of the Battle School. At the same time, she begins to investigate Bean's shadowy background and discovers that her protégé is the sole survivor of an illegal experiment in genetic engineering and that his intellect has been purchased at an enormous, ultimately tragic, price.
As Bean progresses, with astonishing speed, through the various stages of Battle School, a single question begins to dominate the text: Is Bean, by commonly accepted standards, human? Or is he something different, something genuinely — and frighteningly — new? As the narrative proceeds, and the larger events of the novel move inexorably toward their xenocidal conclusion, Card's own position on the question becomes clear. With great skill and compassion, he shows us the process by which Bean develops his dormant capacity for empathy, slowly evolving from an autonomous, prodigiously analytical creature governed by Darwinian survival instincts into a child capable of connecting with the larger human community.
Bean's gradual discovery of his own humanity stands very much at the center of this moving, unsentimental examination of children robbed of their childhoods in the name of a greater good. It should be considered required reading for anyone familiar with the previous volumes of the Ender saga, but it can — and no doubt will — be read by people utterly unfamiliar with Card's earlier work. Ender's Shadow is a humane, involving narrative that asks hard questions and successfully revisits old, familiar settings but finds, against all odds, something new to say. It deserves the popularity it is almost certain to achieve.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub.