Twenty-three years have passed since Orson Scott Card first dazzled readers with "Ender's Game," a seminal work that blurred the lines between young adult and adult fiction. Now he's back with "Ender in Exile," which picks up where the 1985 winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction's highest honors, left off.
The revival of Ender, the boy hero who saves Earth from bug-like aliens, goes beyond the novel's pages with a new comic-book adaptation of the original saga and spurring interest in Hollywood as a potential film franchise.
All of this quite surprises the 57-year-old North Carolina resident, although he suspects the story still resonates partly because of its sad martial tale: Card introduces the protagonist as a 6-year-old prodigy who is bred to be Earth's future hero, but to achieve this, Ender must train to become the perfect soldier -- cunning, strong, ruthless. He is symptomatic of a war-obsessed society, a reclusive character grappling with the very grown-up issues of isolation and loneliness.
With such powerful themes, Card is at times amused by Ender's popularity among young readers. He never intended to be a "young adult" author. He is proud, however, that the books speak to adolescents who are reading them and engaging in serious philosophical conversations during their most malleable years.
"In our society, children are kept from adulthood until they graduate college," he said. "A lot of kids find in Ender an imaginary outlet for an impulse to do something real. It's like they're sneaking into an adult conversation."
When we revisit Ender in "Exile," he is 17 and exalted as a hero for fending off the third wave of alien marauders that threatened to obliterate Earth. But his brutal military techniques render him a monster to the very people who trained him to be a killer. He is mercilessly exiled from his home planet and forced into a colony that is light years away.
"Exile" is not the first time Card has dipped back into Ender's universe -- there were three sequels and a spinoff novel. But "Exile" fills in "the lost years." That's because in the original follow-up, "Speaker for the Dead," published in 1986, the protagonist is 35 and healed from the trauma of being Earth's savior.
It took getting married, raising a family and the death of two children to put life into perspective and give Card the necessary material to imagine Ender during his transition to adulthood.
"Most adolescents are trying to disconnect, but Ender wants to root in society, and he really can't," he said. "I see someone who is ready for adulthood but declines when he finds it."
Ender's biggest challenge is not those threatening to destroy Earth but rather himself. He is ready for adulthood and could find happiness with an intended mate, yet he rejects living a conventional life and instead opts for the role of solitary leader, a protector who reaches into man's most basic fighting instinct.
"Ender hates what he has to become," he said. "He is born to be a protector . . . but he also happens to have the natural talent for war."
Card insists that war is part of a universal human history and that Ender is merely a product of that legacy. But with combat raging in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it's hard not to compare Ender with modern soldiers, and Card does not shy away from this point. A student of all things military, Card is a proud conservative who writes a regular column for the Ornery American, a right-leaning online magazine.
But Card's beliefs do not fit neatly inside a box, and this annoys some of his followers. He is a registered Democrat but also an avid supporter of George W. Bush's war on terrorism and a bitter public foe of same-sex marriage. He is a leading figure not only in science fiction but also in Mormon literature -- he is a descendant of Brigham Young and has written theological plays, short stories and novels.
His fans and critics disagree on where the author's sympathies lie. Some say the stories are pro-military because they glamorize the duty-at-all-costs mind-set. Others say the books are decidedly anti-military because of the deception and cruelty used to train the boy soldier.
Card says this is the wrong debate; he maintains that his books are simply pro-soldier, an attempt to sympathize with them and understand the importance of what they do.
"The real question," he said, "is how do you make good people into killing machines and bring them back into full citizenship?"
Card draws a parallel between his character and the soldiers of today, who volunteer for the military despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war. Their commitment to defend does not come without consequence, he said. Card, whose brother served in Korea in the 1960s, has spent a lot of time speaking with soldiers who loved his book. Like Ender, many of these men and women struggle with the dichotomy of being protectors and aggressors, he said.
"Soldiers, in a sense, never come home," he said. "[Those] who have seen radical violence are never able to share that. We regard it as pathology if they do."
This complex weave of emotions has made Ender especially difficult to film and has resulted in two decades of fizzled studio meetings, dead-end scripts and a marathon director search. The author said he was not interested in a "tough-hero action film" and refuses to condescend to green-screen Hollywood. Card imagines a "film where the human relationships are absolutely essential -- an honest presentation of the story."
"Ender's Game" was recently in development with director Wolfgang Petersen ("In the Line of Fire," "The Perfect Storm," "Troy") on board, but Card did not feel comfortable with the movie's direction. That project was scrapped early in November.
The novels did step into the visual medium in October with the first issue of "Ender's Game: Battle School," a Marvel Comics five-issue adaptation of "Ender's Game."
The third issue of the series by writer Chris Yost and artist Pasqual Ferry hits stores Jan. 28.
A second Marvel miniseries starring Card's boy soldiers -- "Ender's Shadow: Battle School" by the team of Mike Carey and Sebastian Fiumara -- debuted in early December. This is an adaptation of Card's 1999 novel "Ender's Shadow," which retells the original story from the perspective of Bean, a young orphan who becomes Ender's ally during training.
Considering the Hollywood attitude that comic books are now the trendy storyboards for pitch meetings, perhaps the well-received Marvel series will actually give the saga of Ender Wiggin some traction in Hollywood. If so, Card will be pleased to see his space opera reach a whole new audience of young people.
"People sneer at escapism; I see it as training for life," he said. "Training people as heroes is extremely important."