Five Things I Learned Co-Writing Prequels to Ender’s Game

Earth Awakens, book three of The First Formic War series by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston - a prequel series to Ender's Game

If you were to ask me to list my five favorite novels of all time, I’d probably give a slightly different answer every year. I’m always discovering something new and glorious that blows my mind and leaves me in a giddy state of wonder. But one book that will never leave that list is Ender’s Game. In fact, it’s currently perched there at the number one spot, and I doubt anything will ever unseat it.

I’m not alone in this. For millions of readers, reading Ender’s Game was a transformative experience. It taught us that characters in a book don’t have to feel like characters in a book. They can feel like real, genuine friends.

That was my experience, anyway. Ender and Valentine and Bean and Dink. It’s like I knew these kids and felt a connection to them. Our hearts were knit together, as the saying goes.

So when Orson Scott Card invited me to join him in writing prequel novels to Ender’s Game, I was a little gun shy. I worried that fans would be expecting another Ender’s Game and that if our novels didn’t transform them and wow them as much as the original, they’d crinkle their noses and hate me for life.

Remember when George Lucas announced that he was going to make The Phantom Menace? I went fanboy bonkers. Another Star Wars movie? Glory hallelujah! I couldn’t believe it. I’m going to sit in a theater again and have an experience just like I had watching the originals.

And then the movie came out and it was, um, less than what I had hoped.

Is this the curse of all prequels, I wondered.

Scott Card put my mind at ease reminding me that we weren’t writing Ender’s Game. That isn’t the goal. This is something different.

So I dived in, and learned quite a bit along the way . . .

1. Fans of Ender’s Game are the greatest fans in the world.

Readers of Ender’s Game are a lot like Ender Wiggin. Which is to say they’re compassionate and loyal and intelligent and exactly the kind of people you want as friends. And maybe that’s what drew them to Ender in the first place. They see in him a kindred spirit, someone who thought and loved and analyzed like they did.

So they don’t get angry. They don’t cry foul. They don’t burn coauthors in effigy. They don’t rant online and use uncouth language and spit bile and hate like so many trolls on the Interwebs. That’s not their style. No, fans of Ender’s Game are a civilized bunch. They read and enjoy and say thank you. Bless them.

2. Characters that appear in the original story can’t die in the prequels. But they sure can suffer.

You would think that the downside of a prequel is that you can’t kill off certain characters. Mazer Rackham, for example, is a pivotal character in Ender’s Game, and thus from page one of the prequels readers know that he isn’t going to die. That takes away a lot of the suspense, right? That spoils some of the adventure. The hero can’t die. He’s invincible.

Well, he isn’t invincible. He can’t die, true, but he can go through hell and back. And that’s far more interesting then giving him a death anyway.

In one of the first story meetings Scott and I had, Scott said that he wanted to show how Mazer Rackham became Mazer Rackham. Who influenced him? Who schooled him? Who trained how to command? Much of the grit and brilliance that defines Mazer is innate, yes, but much of it isn’t. It’s born from the life experiences that mold, shape, and define him. What were those experiences? What were those moments?

But other than Mazer, the characters of the prequels are all new ones. The events in this trilogy take place almost one hundred years before Ender’s Game, after all. By the time Ender rolls around, these folks will all be long dead anyway. The only reason Mazer appears in Ender’s Game is because of relativistic flight and the fact that he cheated aging.

So no, Mazer doesn’t die. But he comes as close as one man can get. Again and again and again.

3. In a prequel, everyone already knows the ending, right? Well, no.

Another perceived downside of a prequel is that readers know precisely how the story will end. We know that Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader, for example, so when it finally happens, we really don’t care.

In our case, the original novel didn’t reveal much. We know from Ender’s Game that when the Formics attacked us the first time, humans won. But thankfully the original novel doesn’t explain HOW this happens. We only know that it did.

So yes, the human race wins in the end. But isn’t this to be expected anyway? Don’t we always know that good will win in the end?

Sure, there are SF stories in which the human race loses, but to do so in a trilogy, after 1200 pages of story, would probably only anger readers. We crave a resolution. We demand justice. We hunger for the scales of good and evil to tip toward the good once the dust finally settles. Our minds are programmed for this. Even if Ender’s Game didn’t exist, I suspect readers would have gone into the series knowing that humans will win in the end.

And really, the fact that the human race wins isn’t the ending anyway. It’s how we do it and what we sacrifice to make it happen. That’s the story. That’s what keeps readers turning pages. It’s not a race to reach the known, it’s a gradual reveal of the unknown. What is the scouring of China that was mentioned in Ender’s Game? How is the International Fleet formed? What do the Formics want? What is their technology, biology? How is the Hegemony formed? Who inspired Battle School? And on and on.

4. Children are survivors.

When you pick up a novel by Orson Scott Card, chances are you’re going to find fascinating child characters. Scrappy, resilient, intelligent survivors who accomplish great things because the situation demands it. I don’t think this is because Scott Card has a warped sense of what children can accomplish. I think it’s because he, more than most, truly understands children. They are smarter and more resourceful than we sometimes give them credit for. Especially the exceptionally brilliant ones.

There are several child characters in the series, but one in particular rises above the rest and befriends Mazer Rackham. Through his actions, Bingwen demonstrates to Mazer that children have to plenty to offer, both strategically and militarily.

At the start of Ender’s Game, the world is a very different place from what it is now. Children are actively recruited into an international military force. It was thrilling to explore the genesis of that.

5. The series is called The First Formic War, but it’s not about the Formics.

The trilogy is full of destructive aliens, of course, but they’re merely the backdrop for the human story. As I wrote in the acknowledgements to Earth Afire—the second book in the series—the trilogy is really about families, the ones we’re born into, the ones circumstance throws upon us, and the ones born in battle in blood. That’s what the Formics cannot understand. The micro community. The strength of the few.

And that’s what readers expect from a novel by Orson Scott Card. A story about families. Even Ender’s Game—a novel about a boy detached from his family—is really about family. What is Ender’s jeesh if not a family? What is a platoon in Battle School if not a family? What is Dragon Army if not a family? What are Peter and Valentine? A family. What motivates Ender to go through with it all? Love of family.

That’s where life happens. In our families. Whatever that family may be. That’s where we learn and grieve and suffer and find joy. In a family. And when that family is torn asunder or obliterated, we do not suddenly become free agents. We are not lonely wanderers. Ingrained within us is the desire to belong, to be a part of something, to contribute. And so we attach ourselves to a new family, wherein loyalty and selflessness are once again manifest.

This happens again and again in the First Formic War. Families are formed and shattered and wounded and rebuilt. That is the human experience. And a story about the human experience should be no different.