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Sometime in the near future, humanity began to explore the solar system and master interplanetary spaceflight. In doing so, they encountered an alien race known as the Formics, derogatorily dubbed "buggers" due to their insect-like appearance, scouting the system and establishing a forward base in the asteroid Eros. The Formics attacked the humans and the two races entered into two drawn-out wars. Despite political conflict on Earth between three ruling parties, the Hegemon, Polemarch, and Strategos, a peace was established and an International Fleet (IF) formed to combat the Formics. In preparation for the buggers' inevitable return (dubbed the "third invasion") the IF created the Battle School, a program designed to find children of the best and brightest tactical minds and to subject them to rigorous training so as to defeat the Formic threat once and for all.
Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is the youngest child in the Wiggin family, and part of an Earth program to produce brilliant officers; despite this, Ender is teased as a "third" under Earth's two-child policy. He has a close bond with his sister Valentine, but fears his brother Peter, a highly intelligent sociopath who delights in manipulating and tormenting him.
After the IF removes Ender's monitoring device, presumably ending his chances of getting into Command School, he gets into a fight with a fellow student, Stilson. Though the smaller and weaker of the two, Ender manages to fatally wound Stilson (though Ender is unaware of this and believes he merely injured the other boy). When explaining his actions to IF Commander Hyrum Graff, Ender states his belief that, by showing superiority now, he will have prevented further fights in the future.
Graff, on hearing of this, promptly offers Ender a place in the Battle School, situated in Earth's orbit. Ender accepts and is taken away from his parents, who have no say in the matter. Initially, Ender believes Graff is a potential friend and ally, unaware of the fact Graff believes Ender is Earth's last great hope in defending it from a Formic attack. In order to ensure Ender develops as a strong leader uninfluenced by his peers, Graff isolates him from the rest of the new cadets by acknowledging his intelligence and ridiculing his peers. Between being ostracized by his fellow cadets and having troubling dreams about Formics, Ender is soon ready to quit the school, but Graff encourages him through communications sent from Valentine. Among other training methods, the cadets participate in a competitive squad-based war simulation in zero gravity. Ender is quick to acclimate to the new environment and demonstrates tactics not previously seen by the students and supervisors. He is able to lead his squad to victory and other squads are quick to add Ender's tactics to their own. Ender is soon promoted to be leader of his own squad, formed from the most recent and youngest cadets at the school. Despite their inexperience as well as an increasing difficulty of the games, Ender devises new tactics, most often involving sacrificing part of his squad to win the battle, and his squad soon excels and leads the competition. No longer an outsider, Ender becomes friends with several of his cadets, forming "Ender's jeesh." A fellow squad leader, Bonzo de Madrid, becomes furious at Ender's victories and attacks Ender with the intent to kill him. Ender manages to outmaneuver Bonzo in the fight, and fatally wounds him. The Battle School's adult supervisors were aware of the danger to Ender, but chose not to act so as to accelerate development of Ender's self-belief.
Back on Earth, Peter has used a global communication system to post political essays under the pseudonym "Locke", hoping to establish himself as a respected orator (which he believes will shortly lead him to political power despite his youth). Valentine, while not trusting Peter, believes that his methods are sound for affecting world politics in a positive manner. She becomes complicit in Peter's actions by posting works alongside his as "Demosthenes". Their essays are soon taken seriously by people at the highest positions of power in the government. Though Graff discovers the true identities, he keeps this a secret to himself believing the knowledge might one day prove useful.
Ender is soon promoted to Command School at a considerable distance from Earth but still within the solar system (on asteroid 433 Eros), skipping several years of schooling. There, he is put directly under watch of a former Formic war hero, Mazer Rackham. Alongside other rigorous training, Mazer tests Ender with a war simulator, pitting virtual IF fleets under Ender's control against Formic fleets controlled by Mazer. Ender adapts to the game and, as the simulations become harder, Ender is given sub-commanders, members of his jeesh, to work alongside him.
Ender is brought to the simulator, with several IF commanders watching, and told by Mazer this is his final test. As the simulation starts, Ender finds his human fleet far-outnumbered by the Formic forces above a planet. Despite being told that it was against the rules, Ender sacrifices most of his fighters fleet to launch a Molecular Disruption Device at the planet, destroying the planet and the entire Formic fleet. Though Ender had anticipated that breaking the rules would mean he would be expelled from school, he discovers the IF commanders celebrating. Mazer returns, and informs Ender that this was not a simulation, but the actual IF contingent and the Formic main fleet at the Formic homeworld: Ender has just destroyed the Formic homeworld and committed xenocide of the Formics, ending the war.
Ender enters into a deep depression on learning of this, as well as of the deaths of Stilson and Bonzo. When he recovers, he finds himself still in orbit with his closest friends from his jeesh and learns that, at the end of the Formic war, Earth went to war with itself. He stays on Eros as his friends return home and colonists, space now safe again, begin to venture out to other worlds, using Eros as a way station. Among the first colonists is his sister, Valentine, who apologizes that Ender can never return to Earth, as he would be too powerful a tool to be used by the various leaders, including Peter. Instead, Ender joins an Earth colony program to populate one of the former Formic colony worlds. There, as he scouts the planet, he finds an area shockingly similar to a simulated game from Battle School. Exploring the area leads him to discover the dormant egg of a Formic queen. The queen, through telepathy, explains that the Formics had initially assumed humans were a non-sentient race due to a lack of hive mind, but realized their mistake too late. They could not communicate with the humans as war broke out, but were able to touch Ender's mind, creating the dreams he felt and preparing this place for him. The queen requests that Ender take the egg to a new planet to allow the Formic race to grow again.
Ender takes the egg and, with information from the Queen, writes The Hive Queen under the alias "Speaker for the Dead". Peter, now the Hegemon of Earth, recognizes Ender's hand behind the work and requests Ender to write a book about Peter, which Ender entitles Hegemon. The combined works create a new religion that Earth and many of Earth's colonies start to adopt. In the end, Ender and Valentine board a starship and start visiting many worlds, looking for the right one for the unborn Queen.
- Creation and inspiration
- Critical response