I am looking for the title and the author of (I think) a short novel. I read it as a teenager 30 years ago and I think it is much older. Here is a very approximate summary.

Teams of children are put though a series of increasingly difficult tests. They have to obey the rules, but the team we follow sometimes circumvents these rules.

In the final test, one can see on a screen (?) numerous enemy ships, their home planet and a few allied ships. It is a schematic representation. The only rule is: do not use nuclear weapons. But the team does not see any other solution and use nuclear weapons. This destroys the enemies and their planet.

One then understands (or actually one understands gradually through the text) that these tests are real. Adults just refuse to be held responsible for a genocide.


2 Answers 2


Could this be Ender's Game (or more specifically, the short novelette on which it was based, from 1977 edition of Analog Magazine)?

Ender is explicitly told that he can't use his weapon on the planet.

but does, because he's a cheeky little scamp.

Whereas in the full novel he's just told that he needs to make that decision himself.

Ender shrugged. Maezr began his explanation. “Today’s game, boy, has a new element. We’re staging this battle around a planet. This will complicate things in two ways. The planet isn’t large, on the scale we’re using, but the ansible can’t detect anything on the other side of it—so there’s a blind spot. Also, it’s against the rules to use weapons against the planet itself. All right?”

“Why, don’t the weapons work against planets?” Maezr answered coldly. “There are rules of war, Ender, that apply even in training games.”

Ender shook his head slowly. “Can the planet attack?”

Maezr looked nonplussed for a moment, then smiled. “I guess you’ll have to find that one out, boy. And one more thing. Today, Ender, your opponent isn’t the computer. I am your enemy today, and today I won’t be letting you off so easily. Today is a battle to the end. And I’ll use any means I can to defeat you.”

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    Ender doesn't use the weapon on the planet "because he's a cheeky little scamp;" he does it because he's utterly exhausted by the intense "training" and figures if he does something sooooo far beyond the pale that it makes him seem entirely unsuitable as a commander, they'll finally let him stop. Apr 11, 2022 at 16:59
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    @Valorum It's not even that. He's been pushed to his breaking point and is trying to manipulate them into throwing him out of the program, not realizing that they've been manipulating him into doing exactly this. Apr 11, 2022 at 17:01
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    @MasonWheeler That's certainly true, but IMO Valorum's "cheeky little scamp" is an acceptably cheeky little bit of whimsy for this site.
    – Spencer
    Apr 11, 2022 at 18:03
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    I post the question as an unregistered user. I think I can't comment or confirm any answer. However I wanted to thank the contributors for their answer. This is really amazing! Thanks! Apr 12, 2022 at 5:23
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    @bob1 Not if it was 30 years ago. That was published in 1999, only 23 years ago. (OP could be misremembering the timeframe, admittedly.) Apr 12, 2022 at 14:02

As has already been pointed out in the comments, this is likely Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, but the issue is that this story comes in two versions:

  • A novelette that first appeared in Analog in 1977, and has later appeared in many anthologies
  • A 1985 novel-length work where Card added a bunch of framing for another novel he was working on, Speaker for the Dead

In the novelette, Ender Wiggins [sic] is the youngest commander at the Battle School, where children are trained to fight mock battles against a nameless alien species at war with humanity. At first there are zero-g laser-tag like games but then it changes to VR ship-based space battles (commanded by Ender). After the climactic battle in which life on the enemy's home planet is wiped out, it is revealed that at some point the space battles became real. Ender actually wiped out a whole species.

The novel-length work contains extra stuff:

  • Ender's last name is "Wiggin", not "Wiggins"
  • There is a lot of material about Ender's early life, especially his siblings
  • Ender's childhood bullies are quite harshly dealt with
  • The novelette's nameless, faceless enemy is described in the novel as an insectoid hivemind species called the "Buggers"

Since you mentioned a short novel, my guess is it's the original 1977 novelette, rather than the novel. But if you remember any of the later elements, it was the novel you read.

  • I'm not familiar with the work but I did a Google and the edit seemed to be correct, just wondering why did you reverse it?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Apr 11, 2022 at 13:30
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    @TheLethalCarrot It may pertain to later books in the series (I stopped reading them after Xenocide), but not to the first one, and OP did not indicate they had read a series.
    – Spencer
    Apr 11, 2022 at 13:32
  • Ah gotcha, so we don't find out the true name of the species until a later book. I don't think it's necessarily a problem having that information in there but I see why you rejected the edit now.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Apr 11, 2022 at 13:34
  • I thought for sure they were called Formics in the novel. (but maybe in one of the many revised versions he's done over the years)
    – NKCampbell
    Apr 11, 2022 at 14:39
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    @NKCampbell They were called "Formics" in later sequel works, such as the "Shadow" series, but not in the original book. Apr 11, 2022 at 16:56

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