The trailers for Ender’s Game, a new movie hitting theaters Friday, make it seem like standard Hollywood fare—another big-budget epic featuring spaceships, evil aliens, Harrison Ford’s drowsy monotone, and planets exploding. But alongside the sci-fi fans and action-movie buffs that turn out for this sort of film, don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable contingent from the military in the ticket line.

The book Ender’s Game, on which the movie is based, is smarter and more interesting than the film’s promos suggest and has developed a large military following over the years. Copies of the paperback have been passed among troops eager for a good adventure read and who admire the fearlessness and ingenuity of the story’s child hero. The brass has also picked it up and formally assigned the book for educational purposes.

Written by Orson Scott Card and published in 1985, the book foreshadowed the way that virtual interfaces and interactive simulations would become fundamental parts of social life, politics, and war. It’s this last point, the book’s prescient glimpse into the future of warfare, that has led the Marines to adopt it as a teaching manual. 

The Marine Corps’ official reading list, as you might expect, contains a lot of books with tiles like American Spartans: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq, andManeuver Warfare Handbook. But next to the primers on combat leadership and tactics is Ender’s Game.

From the Marine Corps’ blurb describing the book: “In this science-fiction novel, child genius Ender Wiggin is chosen by international military forces to save the world from destruction by a deadly alien race.” Not the most obvious choice for a military professional reading list.

The alien race in the book is the Buggers, insectlike creatures who appear to operate as a hive following the directives of their queen. Threatened with extinction by the Buggers’ attacks, Earthlings band together to fight back by selecting the most brilliant children from around the globe to train in an elite military academy on a distant asteroid. And that’s just the setup; it’s at the military academy where the story really gets good. The training that the children undergo in Battle School consists of a series of computer games and a zero-gravity variation on capture the flag, played using laser stun-guns that immobilize their targets on impact.

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