Content note: Sexism, descriptions of physical and emotional abuse, some brief strong language towards the end, and descriptions of interpersonal conflict within a family.
There's a good story somewhere in Ender's Game. A child gets taken away to a magical school In Space, and is forced to survive when both teachers and students are literally trying to kill him. In the end, he faces a moral dilemma, and how he responds after everything that he's been through defines who he is as a character.
It resonates with me, because it basically describes a Mormon upbringing.
On the one hand, you're mass produced and depersonalized, especially if you come from one of those Utah families with nine kids. On the other hand, you're told repeatedly that you are a Chosen One, part of a chosen generation of Mormon kids, and your actions and faithfulness will help bring about the second coming of Christ. (Mormons are averse to calling him "Jesus" for some reason.)
Ender spends his whole childhood training to be a soldier. Mormon kids spend their whole childhoods training to be either a mom or a missionary. I can't overstate how much these two roles are glorified, or how much the bike-riding, nametag-wearing missionaries are held up as role models to Mormon kids who are assigned the male gender. And all the while, your belief that you're one of the few people that God approves of -- and that everyone else needs to be like you -- is creating this wedge between you and the people around you, which you are encouraged to see as "they hate me because of my righteousness."
Seriously, this is the major theme in the first couple parts of the Book of Mormon. The POV character is a Mary Sue, whose brothers hate him and repeatedly try to kill him because he's so awesome and always does what God wants him to.
The problem with Ender's Game is not that Ender goes through all this. It's that Orson Scott Card did, and is apparently blind to it.
Growing up as a child soldier
That was the major theme of the Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction I wrote under a different name, about fifteen years ago. Sonic was ostensibly the protagonist, but as the story went on I spent more and more time developing Tachyon, a peregrine falcon who was an evil overlord's personal grown-up child soldier. Like me, he was brought up completely separate from the rest of the world, taught that he was important because of his role and who he served. And, like me, he was an arrogant prick, who covered up his feelings of inadequacy by being a jerk to others.
I'd like to take a moment to point out how much of an influence the early-1990's "SatAM" Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon was, on my writing. It was extremely dark for a kids' show, and dealt with some mature themes.
Like Ender, Tachyon hurt and killed innocent people, and it hurt him because he empathized with his victims. But Ender's empathy, which was supposed to be his defining feature (besides being totally awesome at everything), is more of an informed ability. Card tells us over and over again that he has it, but we never see him using it. He puts himself in danger because he doesn't predict being ambushed, and the closest he comes to actually empathizing with his enemies -- putting himself in the Formics' shoes while RPing with other kids -- is one of the most basic things a healthy person learns how to do. But Card treats it like it's this magical ability that only Ender has.
Every time he is given a choice, Ender makes the decision to destroy his enemies utterly. He tells himself that he has no choice, that the alternative is to continue being harassed forever (and not, say, to deter or escape). And then he has these mental breakdowns where he's just terrified that he is a bad person, and basically tells himself that "they made me do it," and his sister reassures him that deep down he's good because he means well.
This is the theme of the sequel to Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, where Ender FOUNDS A NEW RELIGION the sole doctrine of which is that Intent is Magic and is all that matters when determining the morality of an action. Unsurprisingly, he goes on to make excuses for a wife-beating alcoholic.
Ender does some truly horrific things over the course of the novel. But Card treats them as though they are, first and foremost, character-defining moments for him. They become sources of narcissistic supply, where he can angst and get attention and pity for it, from the reader and from other people around him. How his actions affect others does not matter; what matters is how they affected him, and whether or not they have changed him from a "good" person into a "bad" one.
This mirrors my experiences in Mormonism, where the worst crimes are the ones with no victims at all but that make you ritualistically "unworthy."
Meanwhile, in an alternate universe
In contrast, Tachyon, the character I wrote, realizes that he's hurting people, and hates it. He rationalizes at first that it's necessary for the greater good, but he becomes unable to ignore the hurt he's inflicting on others, and begins to risk punishment and disobey orders.
He doesn't even try to grapple with the question of whether or not he is "good." He thinks that he's terrible by any standard, because he's too "weak" to do what he's told and because he hurts people whenever he does. He keeps going because he genuinely loves the person who gives him the orders, and who was his adult caretaker.
His nervous breakdown happens after he commits his worst atrocity, an act which had unforeseen, world-changing consequences, and which caught him and his owner at ground zero. Right before they are affected by it, his owner lashes out and tells him how much of a failure and disappointment he's always been, and how little his life means to him. He then spends the next few years in an And I Must Scream situation, knowing on the one hand that it's his fault that thousands of others are stuck like this, and on the other that he failed his owner and is worthless to him. So it was all for nothing anyway.
The first thing he does, once he's freed from his situation, is tell off his owner for being a terrible person. This lands him in the hospital, and later in the care of the people he originally fought against.
Ender would use this situation as a source of narcissistic supply. We know he would, because that's what he does every time he gets the chance. Even when talking to one of his victims, in Speaker for the Dead, he is the one who receives her pity, over and over again. And while he has the ability to help make things right, he takes his sweet time about doing so, even though this involves a prolonged And I Must Scream for his victim. He seems proud of his actions, and acts like they give him the moral authority to blame other people's victims for not seeing the good in their abusers. Which is basically what he does, as a Speaker.
In contrast, Tachyon wanted to kill himself, and was only prevented from doing so by a former rival and victim. She ended up taking care of him not because his guilt was more important than her pain, but because she was personally in a place where she could take care of him and he was in a place where he needed it (and was no longer a threat). She helped him learn to see himself as a person instead of a thing, and to know that even though he could never undo what he did it wasn't completely his fault to begin with. That a lot of his choices were made for him, because of his brainwashing, and that it was admirable that he acted on his conscience the few times he was actually able to.
Later on, he becomes someone else's caretaker, and resolves to not be like his own.
Story-telling the future
When I wrote Tachyon's story, I didn't realize why it resonated with me so strongly. It wasn't until I lived it in person, roughly 10 years later, that I saw the parallels with my own experience. How brainwashed and isolated we both were, how much we hated ourselves for our "failures," how dependent we were on the approval of people who did terrible things to us. And, at the same time, how conflicted we were about feeling like we had to do things that we knew, deep down, were wrong.
When I confronted my father of origin about his abuse, of me and my siblings, I wasn't trying to get narcissistic supply from him. I didn't want to have something I could hold over his head forever, and use to make him do what I wanted. I didn't do that to Tachyon; why would I do it to anyone else?
What I wanted was healing and closure. I wanted him to acknowledge how much I'd been hurt, and try to help make things better so I could move on. But he responded like Ender, making things all about him and his "mistakes" and hurt feelings and how terrible I was for holding things that he did against him. He was a good person, not like
Peter abusers on TV. He didn't mean to hurt anyone. Why couldn't I just accept that!?
I was trying to hold a conversation about what he did, and how it affected me. He seemed to see it as an accusation that he was, fundamentally, a bad person ... and he seemed to think that defending himself from that accusation was more important than addressing the consequences, of the physical and emotional abuse he had inflicted on his own children.
I eventually decided that he was a bad person. But it was only after I saw what a cowardly bully he was at heart. And realized how well my story paralleled the one that I'd written.
This is why the Enderverse novels are so dangerous. They say, in literally so many words, that intent matters and actions don't. That you can kill billions and billions of people and still be a good person, in some fundamental, immutable way that matters more than how your actions affect others. That all conversations about actions should instead be about intent, and that good intent absolves people from having to face consequences.
Well. For the right kinds of people, anyway.
If you're a woman who has sex and gets pregnant, you deserve to suffer for it, because you know that actions have consequences. If you're a child who upsets your parents, you deserve to get held upside-down and beaten for it, because actions have fucking consequences. But if you're a man who ruins his children's lives -- or at least makes some parts of them Hell -- they have to forgive you, and pretend that those things never happened. Because you have all the power, just like Ender did, and your life is more important than theirs.