[This post contains spoilers for Ender’s Game.]
Technically, the climax of Ender’s Game takes place when Ender uses the Little Doctor on the bugger home world, destroying it and, in the process, ending the Third Invasion. The story’s stakes are highest here—worn past the limits of his endurance, Ender makes a final push of what he thinks is rebellion but proves to be the opposite; the game he thought he was playing is revealed to be not a simulation but rather an armed conflict; the war he thought he was being trained for has, in fact, been playing out through all his weary days; he has saved the world that he knew he must one day save. He has also, seemingly, eradicated an entire sentient race—later installments of the series refer to Ender as the Xenocide. Things get dark.
It’s my least favorite part of the entire book and, despite being the climax, one of the least satisfying.
All of Ender’s Game is dark—this is a book about elementary school aged children attending a violent military academy so that they can grow up to eradicate extraterrestrial murder-ants, after all. The darkness of the book’s finale is not why I always get a little sad when Ender leaves Battle School and heads to the space station on Eros. I prefer the book’s first two acts to its final third because the joy of any good bildungsroman is in the character’s growth, and when Ender leaves Battle School he stops growing, at least until the final four or five pages of the book when he becomes the Speaker for the Dead. The time spent on Eros is necessary from a narrative standpoint because it brings closure to the greater arc of Ender’s story, but it does so by rehashing earlier plot beats, putting Ender through the same challenges he’s already seen before, but with a fresh coat of (black) paint.
Academically, that narrative rationale is why the book loses a few MPH off its fastball once it leaves the Battle School, but it’s not the only reason I prefer the book’s first segments. Ender’s Game is one of a few books that I read nearly every year, including The Lord of the Rings and The Farthest Shore. I love those adventure stories, those coming of age tales, because they use an entirely natural framework to show how hard it is to grow into a better person but how valuable that growth is. Stories that are set after that adolescent window still feature character growth, as any good story must, but often in the context of confronting mortality, even if only subtextually. The hero of a bildungsroman imagines that they’ll live forever; the hero of an “adult” novel knows that they will die. It’s a meaningful difference.
I find that I often prefer the bildungsroman to the adult novel because, simply, I still fear my own mortality. Because the words Bilbo sings by a fire or that Ged speaks on the shores of Selidor illuminate the truth of entropy, of an end that must come, and it terrifies me. So I want to escape from that reality into stories where there are only beginnings, where there is courage and bravery and growth and also an endless number of tomorrows. And the end of Ender’s Game strips away that illusion and presents a messy, complicated, untrustworthy world. A world that, for each of us, must end. In a way, it’s the most truthful part of the entire story. And, with no uncertain amount of shame, I prefer the illusion. Because I know that, out here, in the real world, it’s only a matter of time until the truth catches me.