(Content: violence. Fun content: a familiar fruity friend.)
Ender's Game: p. 2--8
Welcome back, friends new and old, to the first proper Ender's Game post, in which we are introduced to our hero and immediately question his heroism! And by 'question', I mean 'leaping panda of upper Uganda, what the fuck are we reading'. I'll be coming back again and again throughout the book of whether and when Ender is supposed to be considered a hero and when he's not. It's super flipfloppy, which is both interesting and terrifying for a whole parade of reasons yet to come. Anyway! Time for the first flip.
With the ground rules of the universe set, we meet Ender Wiggin, six years old and hauled out of class one afternoon to have his military-issued spinal chip removed. The chips aren't discussed again in the books (that I've read) and never really explained here, but the implication is basically that Battle School candidates get wifi'd into a neural network where someone else can monitor them for screening purposes. The monitor gets to see/hear/feel everything the kid does. This quickly introduces us to the idea that the government/military gets to do pretty much whatever it wants for the sake of saving humanity and possibly the rest of Earth.
As noted before, this is a core bit of the story: the idea that anything can be justified in order to save the world. The first themes, as mentioned last time, are already basically about how special Ender is: he is a Bespoke General made of prototypical Masculinity and Femininity for a single purpose (save the world) and everything that he does or that is done to him to facilitate that goal is justified. The next theme is this: Ender Wiggin is smarter than them. Them in this case is basically everyone. He knows how adults lie and uses that so effectively that you might as well never lie at all.
"Andrew, I suppose by now you're just absolutely sick of having that horrid monitor. Well, I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We're going to take it right out, and it won't hurt a bit." Ender nodded. It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn't hurt a it. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future. Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth.(Spoiler: it hurts like wonderfuck and they have to give him muscle relaxant drugs that nearly kill him, which is a reminder that these people are doing terrible things to kids, but is not otherwise relevant to the plot.)
Ender gets picked on in class because he's so special, but he's also so smart and helpful that his enemies accidentally compliment him when they text him dancing insults on his tablet at school.
He was the one who had figured out how to send messages and make them march--even as his secret enemy called him names, the method of delivery praised him.This will continue forever. Ender will always be the smartest person in the room. And that means that a most common burden he will sag under will be the knowledge that he knows the best way to do things but must keep quiet to avoid embarrassing or enraging the senior people who are in command. (Honestly, Ender's Shadow is a relief just because Bean sometimes points out Ender not being perfect.) People hate Ender for being so awesome, on a regular basis. The remainder of chapter 1 will be about what happens to folk like that, because we meet a boy named Stilson, who taunts Ender for being a Third (a government-requisitioned third child, in a society where population controls normally limit families to two kids). Ender doesn't know yet that the military wants him; he thinks his monitor was pulled because he has flunked their psychological testing.
I said this chapter was actually pretty well-written, and I'll take a moment now to explain that. Card uses a style of writing that I try to mimic in my fiction as well, in which the narrative treats the reader like everything is normal. When it talks about Ender picking up his desk and walking away, it doesn't stop to explain that a 'desk' is basically a tablet computer that the school has issued to all the students, despite Ender's Game having been written decades ago when the tablet computer was thoroughly the stuff of speculative fiction. The story doesn't stop to explain that the monitor chip in the back of Ender's neck was put there when he was three (or any age; it's not specified) so that the military could screen him for training potential for the Battle School; it just tells us that his monitor has been removed and everyone knows (the other kids gossip a bit) and this must mean he's 'washed out'. We're not told these things, but we're given enough implied hints from the narrative and the other characters' remarks that we can piece it together. This isn't easy to pull off--plenty of authors in both science fiction and fantasy try and just end up with an incomprehensible mess that loses any normal reader. When it works (and here I think it does) it's deeply immersive (and in keeping with last week's theme, it's a great way of making the reader feel smart). My point in this analysis isn't to deny that Card knows how to write. Just that sometimes people use their powers for evil.
So, school lets out, Ender dawdles a bit because he doesn't want to go home (this is fair, as we'll see in chapter two) and when he's finally prodded out of the room by his teacher he finds bullies waiting.
His monitor wasn't perched on his neck, hearing what he heard and seeing what he saw. They could say what they liked. They might even hit him now--no one could see them anymore, and so no one would come to Ender's rescue.Ender's never faced actual violence before this moment, and isn't sure if he might now. The leader of the bullies is just called Stilson, and he taunts Ender with stuff that's realistic playground fare, including of course "bugger-lover" (THE SUBTEXT, IT BURNSSS USSSS), and then he gets surrounded and they start pushing him back and forth. I'm sure a few of us have been in that position--I was, at that age, and as I recall, my brilliant escape plan involved ninja kicks, for which I later (I am not making this up) attempted to plead temporary insanity. A six-year-old gets surrounded, there's a good chance they'll lash out. I get that, and I don't think there's anything wrong with self-defence. So: Ender tries to even the numbers by taunting Stilson into facing him alone, and they let him go:
And as soon as they did, Ender kicked out high and hard, catching Stilson square in the breastbone. He dropped. It took Ender by surprise--he hadn't thought to put Stilson on the ground with one kick. It didn't occur to him that Stilson didn't take a fight like this seriously, that he wasn't prepared for a truly desperate blow.
For a moment, the others backed away and Stilson lay motionless. They were all wondering if he was dead. Ender, however, was trying to figure out a way to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I'll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse.
Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six.The rules have to do with whether it's okay to hit a person when they're down (the rules say no) but first I am left struggling to know what to make of the above. The bullies are just there to pump their egos up by literally pushing a little kid around. Ender, for some reason, is instead fighting for his life right from the start, and I cannot fathom why. He's been wearing a monitor for at least a couple of years. No one would dare attack him lest they face a military-spurred response. He's been bullied, definitely, but in a verbal and social way. He's been certain of food and shelter to a comfortable American middle-class degree. And yet somehow he has this animalistic defensive instinct. This is, presumably, one of the inborn traits that makes him the Greatest General Of All Time, but it's terrifying and I don't know what should happen to our sympathy for him.
So Ender lays into Stilson, systematically kicking him in the ribs, crotch, and face, finally spattering blood from his nose. He tells the other bullies that if they try to come after him again, he'll do worse to them, and then walks away.
What in all of the fuck.
No, wait, let me try that again.
Ender's response to being threatened with schoolyard violence is to destroy a 7-year-old child and walk away. This is our hero. I can still be compassionate for him, but in the sense of 'he needs help'. He needs professionals with a non-patronising manner and soothing background music. Spoilers: that is not what he's going to get. Mother Wiggin will have a similar reaction in a couple of chapters, but Ender is going away to learn how to be an even better destroyer. In space.
But part of what scares me here is that I don't remember being horrified the first time I read this, and that makes me think that I didn't see anything grossly unreasonable about Ender's response, and that makes me think that this might be more realistic than I'd like to believe. I don't think I could have really devoted myself to this degree of violence at age six, but I might have been philosophically on side. What about y'all, readers? Were you peaceable kids, or one rough day away from Lord of the Flies? Later in the book, the military folks will explain that they need to train young commanders because only kids have the rapid learning and creativity that they need, but I think there's a solid alternative interpretation here that they want to capture that youthful spirit of cheerfully mangling a helpless opponent.
Well, not that cheerfully--as he waits for the bus, Ender tearfully recriminates himself by saying that, with his monitor gone from his neck and thus no one watching, he is "just like Peter", his brother. I am not sure that's a legitimate comparison, Ender! To the best of my knowledge, your brother has not ruined a life yet! But this is all very tight third-person, with us seeing the world the way Ender does it, and we'll see how Ender sees Peter next time, as we get into chapter 2.
Also, quick poll: do y'all care about spoilers? There's a point or two in this chapter where we don't get the whole story until much later in the book, and I wasn't sure if I should make reference to those, or if we should save the surprise for later. I'm sort of keeping the spoilers out for now, but if you don't care, let me know for future reference.