There are few stories out there that launch and define an author's entire career, but that's exactly what Ender's Game did for Orson Scott Card when the story was first published by Analog magazine. Since its publication, Ender's Game and its author have found fame even as they’ve experienced contention within the science fiction community.
Orson Scott Card was born on August 24th, 1951, in Richland, Washington, where he grew up in a large family in the American Southwest. As a child, he read often, and picked up science-fiction and military history stories at an early age. In his teens, he read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, and was immediately struck with an idea, inspired somewhat from his own brother's experiences in the military: how would one train soldiers in microgravity? The idea stuck with him for several years and he wrote it as a short story.
He conceived of a character named Ender, a child, because he realized that "adults would already have so many gravity-centered habits that it would be very hard for them to train them to completely rethink their way of relating to space," Card said in a recent interview. At the center of “Ender’s Game” was the Battle Room, in which the children trained in space for war. He sent the story off to Ben Bova at Analog Science Fiction and Fact, who rejected the story. He tried the story in a couple of other markets before making some changes and returning it to Bova, who then accepted it in June 1976. It released in the August 1977 issue of the magazine. The story made an impression, earning a Hugo nomination in the following year, and placed 9th on that year's Locus list. Card himself won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1985.
In the coming months and years, Card began to place dozens of stories in magazines such as Analog, Omni, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as a number of anthologies. In 1979, he published his first novel, Hot Sleep, and followed up with two more, A Planet Called Treason and Songmaster in 1979 and 1980, respectively. Along the way, he earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, and spent two years in Brazil as a missionary for the Church of Latter Day Saints.
By the 1980s, Card returned to the U.S. and began studying for his Ph.D. in Literature at Notre Dame, but then dropped out "because of the sudden drying up of advances on novels in 1982-1983." He took up a job at Compute! Magazine, where he worked as an editor. Around this time, his agent, Barbara Bova, recommended that he contact Tom Doherty, who had just recently founded a new publisher, Tor Books, to pitch a book idea. He pitched a new novel called Speaker for the Dead, which featured Ender, his protagonist from his first short story sale, and which drew loosely on his experiences in Brazil. Doherty accepted the book based on the outline, and Card began to put it to paper, only to stall several chapters in. He had a problem: he kept revisiting Ender, and found that he had to expand upon that story a bit more.
Meeting Doherty for the first time at the American Book Association convention in Dallas, he outlined his problem, and offered to write another novel, one that followed Ender and his own story, which would ultimately lead to Speaker for the Dead. "He understood my point, and agreed with it, and said, 'same terms as the Speaker contract?'" Card agreed and sold another novel. He quit his job at Compute! Magazine and set about writing Ender's Game.
The story follows Ender Wiggin, a young boy who is selected to join the Battle School, an orbital facility designed to train military leaders. Ender tests highly, and his instructors train him in a grueling course of academic and practical studies that mold him into a leader who will protect Earth from a distant alien species known as the Formics, who have invaded Earth before. Little does he know that a counterattack has already been launched, and that he's going to be leading the battles as ships plunge deeper into Formic space.
This novel came together quickly—Card finished the first couple of chapters in a week, took a break to tour for another book, A Woman of Destiny (published in 1984), returned home and finished the rest of the novel in three weeks. "One accidental influence on [Ender's Game] was the presence in my home of my then-nearly-6-year-old son; so it amused me when critics claimed that 'kids don't talk like' the kids in Battle School." With the novel completed, Card sent it off to his editor, and was pleased when they were thrilled with the result. Later in the year, a new editor took up the book, Beth Meacham, and let him know that Tor was launching a hardcover book line in December 1984 and that they wanted to launch it with Ender's Game. Card wavered: "December hardcover publication was death to any chance of [Ender's Game] winning a Hugo or Nebula...However, if [Ender's Game] came out in hardcover in January, and then the paperback came out eleven months later, the paperback publication would exactly coincide with the period when nominations for awards were being made." His editors and Tor agreed, and they released Ender's Game in January, 1985.
Along with the publication, Tor mailed copies of the book to members of the Science Fiction Writers of America for award consideration: "it made something of a splash, and in SFWA's usual tempest-in-a-teapot way, it was regarded as somehow 'cheating' by some SFWA members." That, along with the reaction to Ender's Game, made the novel a controversial one among science-fiction circles. Critics pointed to the book as a novel that promoted war or that the narrative let Ender off far too easily. Despite this, the book began to sell well, and in 1986 it earned the Nebula and Hugo awards for Best Novel.
The novel is notable for its examination of ethics and military strategy: Ender is essentially carrying out a massive genocide against an alien race, and has been manipulated into pulling the trigger. At the same time, Card clearly asks the question: what would you do when your back is up against a wall and the perceived extinction of your own species is at hand? The novel is a complicated one that doesn't yield any clear answers.
With the success of Ender's Game under his belt, Card finished Speaker for the Dead, which Tor released as a hardcover in March 1986. It too earned accolades, winning the 1987 SF Chronicle, Hugo and Nebula awards, placing first in that year's Locus Poll and third in the Campbell Memorial Award. This novel is a far cry from the style of its predecessor: Ender works to atone for his actions, and the story picks up 3,000 years after Ender's Game and deals intensely with the concept of first contact and what its ramifications are.
While Card was finishing Speaker for the Dead, his agent brought him news: "I've sold an Ender Trilogy in England!" Card hadn't planned on a trilogy: just Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, and the news prompted him to begin thinking about where to go next. "Immediately there flashed into my mind a project I called 'Philotes' which had been rejected a couple of years before by Jim Frenkel at Dell for the correct reason that it was too ambitious and I wasn't ready to write it yet." He returned to the project, which eventually became too long for a single volume, and was split into two novels: Xenocide and Children of the Mind, which were respectively released in 1991 and 1996. Later, Card wanted to invite other authors to play in the Enders universe by composing an anthology of other Ender stories, though the project never panned out. However, it got him thinking about one of the side characters from the first novel, Bean, and from there he wrote a new novel, Ender's Shadow, which told Bean's story in parallel with that of Ender's Game, sparking an entirely new series.
Since the novel's release, considerable interest brewed over a film adaptation, but work on an adaptation stalled for years. It wasn't until 2013 that a film, directed by Gavin Hood, was released. It followed the book fairly accurately and earned mixed reviews. The release of a high-profile film brought Card and his personal political and religious views into the spotlight, for which he was widely condemned, particularly with his opposition to marriage equality. Card noted that while his stories are linked to his own life through his own experiences and beliefs, he's made an effort to avoid preaching to his readers, because his own politics, he noted, won't really fit in any environment but the present. Some readers and authors have opted to boycott his works on principle because of his views, while others have found ways to navigate the boundaries between an author and his work, despite any personal complications.
Even as Ender's Game and its author have become complicated for some, there's little doubt that the book and its sequels are very influential within the science-fiction genre: the book is widely read, and remains an accessible and interesting read, even three decades after it was first published.