Let's skip the conspiracy theories (e.g. Orson Scott Card didn't write the Ender stories) and more questionable accusations (e.g. Card intended Ender's Game as an explicit apology for Hitler). Here's a reading of Ender's Game that explains its popularity with Extropian and Objectivist types, and cuts to the heart of something I'd long felt about the book but was never able to articulate. It's not a very good essay overall but this is a sensible and compelling insight:
The abused child, when grown and given the power to act out his own suppressed rage, is unable to identify with the objects of his rage. In extreme cases, as Miller says about convicted child abusers, "Compulsively and without qualms, they inflicted the same suffering on [others] as they had been subjected to themselves." Yet to the abuser it still feels as if he is being abused, as if the sacrifice is his, and the effects of his actions on others take a secondary place to the emotions he feels himself.
This, I fear, is the appeal of Ender's Game: it models this scenario precisely and absolves the child of any doubt that his actions in response to such treatment are questionable. It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender's story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else. Your mistreatment is the evidence of your gifts. You are morally superior. Your turn will come, and then you may severely punish others, yet remain blameless. You are the hero.
I've felt for a long time now that Ender's Game is an overrated piece of hack fiction, appealing to a kind of pathetic egotism blended with a persecution complex. But the notion of Card's story as nothing more than a kind of cosmic revenge fantasy - in which the genocide of the Buggers is a kind of acting-out against Ender's litany of tormentors - is a strong one, and (I'm mildly embarrassed to say) new to me. I've tended to read the finale as Ender doing what he had to in order to get out of the Battle School; as little as I like the character, as laughably unbelievable as I find the language and 'psychology' of the story, I have been willing to credit Ender with the final motive of weariness. I almost love the Battle School simulated-combat scenes because of their abstractness and boys-at-play roughness - like summer camp with working guns. But this essay advances the claim that the weak psychology of Ender's Game is compelling to readers because all of Ender's actions are couched as guilt-free revenge.
Which makes the book more repellent, in my mind, and even sinister. The essay's author quotes Elaine Radford:
We would all like to believe that our suffering has made us special — especially if it gives us a righteous reason to destroy our enemies.
Take a beat to consider Card's religious beliefs and the Ender story makes a great deal of sense.
Personally I find the idea of Ender sailing the galaxy apologising for wiping out the Buggers to be kind of appealing. Certainly it's a lovely, evocative frame for metaphysical adventure stories. But the essay's implication is that Ender has nothing to feel bad about. His violent encounters with the sadistic swine at the Battle School all end in accidental death, just like his combat against the Buggers. The person most like him is Graff (to me, the only convincing character in the novel, largely because every character in the story speaks like a single grownup, and Graff happens to be him) - which, the author claims, is why Graff is exonerated at story's end.
In the Introduction to my edition of Ender's Game, Card quotes a handful of military men who've written to him to praise the book - and crows that it's taught at military school as a kind of military management textbook. That's always struck me as weird, but this essay has suggested an explanation for that feeling: these army guys like the book, sure, but not because it offers insight into military training, or tells a particularly good or realistic story about soldiers. Rather, it offers a moral justification for the abuse/reconciliation cycle of military psychology: a fantasy vision of bastard superiors who end up blameless (the abusive father with epaulettes), violent acts whitewashed of moral ambiguity, genocide shrugged off with a 'They told me to' shrug. It reads as the self-righteous defense of a soldier in God's army, and it's by no means wrong to be put off by such a thing.
Needless to say most of the people I know who Really Love the book aren't soldiers, they're socially-malformed geeks who're attracted to the 'meritocratic' vision of the genius freak, 'precociously' outwitting everyone around him, morally pure though his thoughts are bloody and selfish, who wins battles with his brain but secretly is almost superhumanly effective at physical tasks - which you'd never guess to look at him. Card's writing comes, I think, from a more plainly geeky wish-fulfillment urge, and is a way of placing the misunderstood genius/asshole at the center of the moral universe. It's no wonder that Ender spends most of his time lecturing his peers (moral/intellectual inferiors) and playing video games, and it's no wonder so many people at (e.g.) MIT, where Ender's Game is a kind of shared keystone text, live identical or very similarly narcissistic lives. The dominant social pathologies at MIT line up neatly with Ender's own. For such people, I think, the military side of the story functions on several levels: at once you (as Ender) can outwit the System, freak out the guys in uniform, and yet vicariously live through the quasi-military exploits of Battle School. The appeal of the book is then partly the faux-countercultural appeal of sticking it to the Man by listening to loud rock music while you work 60-hour weeks at the office, being cool rather than doing anything cool, or anything at all. Ender's moral purity has nothing to do with his actions; it's adversity that has blessed him. But he's an angry little cunt and always has been. The appeal of such a character is found in readerly anger, I think - the persecution complex by which (real or imagined) shunning or abuse or just plain conflict come to be understood as justifications for antisocial behaviour.
It's only a short step from there to 'Look at all these cool antidepressants I'm on': conflict with brain chemistry as proxy battle against social injustice, a moral-narrative setup by which self-pity is a totally reasonable reaction to the (dis)order of things. (Not coincidentally: you're the only person who can narrate your depression. The mechanism is self-supporting until you break with the cycle of indulgence-through-recapitulation. Trust me.) Ender's Game isn't narrated by Ender himself, but tellingly (or at least I think it's telling), I always forget that. It's so one-sided and singleminded a story that there's no place to invest sympathy but in Ender himself.
One suspects that, to a degree, the phrase we're looking for here is 'Mary Sue.'
For reasons of pettiness and poetry in hopefully equal measure, let's leave those two to be our last words on the subject of Orson Scott Card for the moment.