Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter five, in which Ender SHOWS THEM ALL and Will says 'whatever' a lot

(Content: emotional abuse, cyber-bullying, homophobia.  Fun content: non-Euclidean architecture, one of limyaael's rants, and an important Spaceballs lesson.)

Ender's Game: p. 37--53
Chapter Five: Games

There are a lot of people on the web doing this analytical thing like we do here, and there is one thing that basically all of them eventually run into, which is that when books are bad, they eventually cease to be entertainingly bad and instead become gruelling.  Those of y'all who read Erika's Fifty Shades posts have long been familiar with these times (I once joked that people looked forward to the sex scenes because it meant the characters would stop talking--I no longer view this as a joke).

I do actually believe Ender's Game is mostly well-written.  I think the ideologies it promotes are abhorrent and it has a tendency to tell us things about the characters that are contradicted or not backed up, but if you ignore the authorial fiats, characters are actually painted well and in interesting ways.  I know, for example, that Card's whole thesis is that Ender and Peter are exact opposites, but I'm finding them much more interesting when I read them as presented, nearly identical (and Ender being the vastly more dangerous one).  Ender's Game is a novel of ideas, and when it focuses on those, if nothing else, it can be fascinating.

This chapter is not fascinating.

This chapter is basically Ender As Chosen One/Outcast Nerd Revenge Fantasy, the most boring and uncomfortable side of his character.  We open with a dose of Graff's characterisation being contradicted, which maybe is supposed to make him look less perfect, because obviously that is a thing we would be in danger of thinking.  It turns out Graff didn't mean for Ender to get into a physical fight on the shuttle last chapter, but to call for help.  I have no idea why Graff thought this would happen, or why he wanted it to happen, since he and the "mastermind" (Graff's own sarcasm) he's talking to agree that Ender must never believe he can count on anyone else to bail him out.
"His isolation can't be broken.  He can never come to believe that anybody will ever help him out, ever.  If he once thinks there's an easy way out, he's wrecked." 
"You're right.  That would be terrible, if he believed he had a friend." 
"He can have friends.  It's parents he can't have."
 So, Ender can't be allowed to escape any situation by asking for help, but Graff was expecting/hoping that the fight on the shuttle would be resolved by Ender asking for help.  What.

Whatever.  Ender arrives at his Space Dorm at Space School.  The room is child-scale; six-year-old Ender can reach up and touch the ceiling.  That would seem dangerous--adults will have trouble getting into the room if they need to intervene in something--but a couple of pages later we'll be told about adults hanging out in there like it's whatever, so... I don't know.  Non-Euclidean architecture.  Careful use of baked goods from Wonderland.  Battle School was built by Time Lords and the rooms are taller from the top down than from the bottom up.  Take your pick.

Ender is the last one to arrive, and the only bunk left is the one at floor level by the door, which he immediately determines is the Worst Bunk (I guess you get the most traffic?), but he plays it up like this is exactly what he had been hoping for, because, as previously noted, everyone except Ender is incredibly stupid and of course they will assume his "Gollygosh thanks guys!" is sincere.  (Or maybe it's just supposed to Ender telling them he refuses to suffer?)  Their supervisor shows up, a young man named Dap who tells them that he is their 'mom', because apparently that's the only possible name for a nurturing parental figure.  Whatever.  Battle School has now canonically endorsed genderqueer expressions in their supervising authorities!  Well done, Battle School.  Maybe there's hope for you yet.

Dap informs them that the bunk Ender is now in is usually reserved for their elected Group Leader, which seems like a weirdly unnecessary detail unless it's a metaphor.  Ender has, as a result of bullying, been forced to take the position of power and authority without even knowing that was what he was doing.  ...Huh, yeah, that's this entire story in one sentence.  Pointlessly twee, but I guess points to Card for condensing it so neatly.

Ender checks out the equipment in his palmprint-encoded locker: jumpsuits, a school desk, and a practice laser, which Dap tells him is for "one of the games".  Credit where due, Card has been doing a good job of building up to the introduction of the Battle Room (which we still won't see this chapter).  We've been told that it's a big deal, the core of the school, we're seeing some equipment, and when the kids go to dinner, they see the team standings on the leaderboards and all the older boys are wearing flashier team uniforms, Scorpion and Manticore.  It's a solid example of sprinkling information to entice our interest.

Ender of course has to sit by himself in the lunchroom, until a 12-year-old named Mick shows up to tell Ender that if he's the 'bugger' in his class, he needs to start sucking up to people if he wants to get anywhere.    (I thought Card was opposed to buggers making friends by sucking.)  Mick apparently puts the lie to Graff's claim that anyone who sticks with it ultimately gets a great job, as he is certain he won't be going on to Tactical School when he's finally forced out sometime soon.

Mick is also the only goddamn person in the entire series who observes that 'Ender' is an absurdly badass name for a soldier.  At least someone said it, but seriously, how does everyone not just laugh in his face when he tries to introduce himself?  Nicknames are normal at Battle School, but no one calls themselves Commander Manlybeard or McBearchest or Shark Week.

Mick leaves (taking Ender's dessert, because losers fucking love junk food, I hate Card so much sometimes) and Ender decides that no, he will succeed through awesomeness, although he then gets struck with debilitating homesickness for the rest of the day.  At night, Dap patrols the room, trying to offer a comforting hand here and there, but it backfires:
The touch of kindness in this frightening place was enough to push some over the edge into tears.  Not Ender, though.  When Dap came, his crying was over, and his face was dry.  It was the lying face he presented to Mother and Father, when Peter had been cruel to him and he dared not let it show.  Thank you for this, Peter.  For dry eyes and silent weeping.  You taught me how to hide anything I felt.  More than ever, I need that now.
So, the old cruelty was beneficial because now it helps him pretend that the new cruelty doesn't bother him, which is important because if he showed that cruelty bothered him, it would cause people to be more cruel to him.


They start classes the next day, interspersed with weirdly propagandic videos of marines getting torn up fighting aliens aboard ships, and ships in space firing on each other.
Ender worked as hard as anyone; all of them struggled for the first time in their lives, as for the first time in their lives they competed with classmates who were at least as bright as they.
Except when they are not, which is all of the time, because Ender is so, so much smarter than them.  As he proves on his second day, when Dap takes them to the arcade, a vast shining vault of lights on the upper levels of the school, where gravity is weaker: when Ender gets pushed around, he literally gets knocked off his feet and drifts across the room.  This happens a lot, because he immediately heads into the 3D game tables, where older boys are playing commanders of holographic fleets.  He watches them play against the computer for an hour, at which point he is certain that he could easily beat the computer on any humanly-feasible difficulty setting, because that is not at all hilarious.  "Eh, I don't think I need to play this game, I'd pretty obviously be able to beat it already if it was a fair match."

Ender wants to play against another boy instead, and asks for a turn.  The older students mock him in some realistically vapid dialogue that only partially feels like a forty-year-old trying to use teenager slang.  It helps that they don't really use slang much, but a kind of cadence.  It does not help that this cadence sounds vaguely like a stereotypical urban hoodlum (and by 'urban' I mean 'black', and by 'hoodlum' I mean 'one-scene TV knockoff').
"I'm Ender Wiggin." 
"Listen up, scrunchface.  You nobody.  Got that.  You nobody, got that?  You not anybody till you gots you first kill.  Got that?" 
The slang of the older boys had its own rhythm.  Ender picked it up quick enough.  "If I'm nobody, how come you cared to play me two out of three?"
Ender loses the first match, then:
They played again, and this time Ender was deft enough to pull off a few maneuvers that the boy had obviously never seen before.  His patterns couldn't cope with them.  Ender didn't win easily, but he won. 
The bigger boys stopped laughing and joking then.  The third game went in total silence.  Ender won it quickly and efficiently.
 There is a woman who went by the name limyaael, and she wrote this extremely valuable essay on "Moments when the protagonist awes other characters, curing the addiction to".  This scene gives us a little characterisation of the social order at Battle School, and a little sense of how Ender thinks, but more than either of those things it shows us the quiet smart kid who just sits back and watches and then when he gets his turn he is totally awesome and all the bigger boys have to shut up because they can't handle the truth.  Harmless 'nerd revenge' fantasy on its own, but this is only the first instance thereof, and it's only going to get worse, and for anyone who doesn't harbour their own nerd revenge fantasies, kind of incredibly boring.

So the boy whose arm Ender broke last chapter is Bernard, who is French and therefore an arrogant Separatist--no idea what this means, since he's probably not talking about Québec separatism.  (To my knowledge, Canada is never mentioned in these books.)  Maybe they want to separate from the EU, which apparently still exists in the same format centuries from now and which was largely born out of French diplomacy with Germany?  Whatever.  Bernard is King Bully of the class, and Ender watches and figures out who's who in his hierarchy, the lieutenants and the hangers-on and the people who actively resent him.

Ender's first potential ally is Shen, whom Bernard calls 'Worm' because he supposedly wriggles his butt when he walks.  (I'm going to do my best to ignore the homoerotic/homophobic subtext throughout this section.  I'm just going to note that 'he shakes his ass and it offends me' is a very specific thing to single someone out for.)  Ender plays with the student instant messaging system and cracks enough of the code to invent a new student identity, named God, for anonymity.  With this, he sends everyone the same message every 30 seconds: "Cover your butt.  Bernard is watching. --God".  Bernard freaks, sends a message to Ender accusing him, Ender plays it cool, Shen is just delighted.  Bernard's bullies torment Ender more over the following days; Ender ups the ante by figuring out a way of faking another's ID and sending a new message, this time when Dap is around:
I love your butt.  Let me kiss it. --Bernard
Bernard freaks harder; Dap is slightly amused and just says he knows who did it; Ender concludes that the teachers mean for the students to break into the system a little bit, which is why their security is literally weak enough for a six-year-old to crack.  His first clue was the root directory password.

Dap shuts Bernard down mid-rage, everyone laughs at him, and the next day Shen gleefully informs Ender that Bernard has been nicknamed 'Buttwatcher' and his power is broken and I guess the Rohirrim have driven the orcs out of the Pelennor Fields or something.  Only the most vicious kids are staying loyal to him.

(We can take this moment to note that Alai will pop into existence next chapter as one of Bernard's close friends who is also intelligent and highly compassionate.  Where is he in this chapter?  Where did he fit in Ender's observations of Bernard's hierarchy?  Was he built by monks to hold a cosmic key?  Whatever.)

The novel of Ender's Game is as old as I am, so I can understand Card not predicting the advent of cyber-bullying or that it would be a meaningful contributor to teenage suicide.  What I am less kindly disposed towards is the idea that bullying + MORE bullying = justice.

There are (at least) two ways to read this part of the chapter.  One version is that Ender was targeted for vicious treatment by a sadist who tried to turn everyone against him, but through the clever use of his brain instead of physical violence, Ender disassembled the sadist's social power and helped his victims.

The other version is that Ender broke another kid's arm for attacking him, FOR SOME REASON got ostracised by the rest of the class, and so retaliated with the help of computerised anonymity to make accusations of homosexuality (ha ha I lied) and promiscuity against that same kid to humiliate him and ostracise him instead.

Neither one of those stories is complete, but I think they're about equally true.  Ender and Shen become friends, and a couple of other kids join their table at lunch, all brought together by how much they hate Bernard and how much he totally deserved to get bullied.  This apparently comes as a shock to Card, but it turns out that you can't actually fight fire with fire without getting fire on your hands.  Ender is no less a bully than Bernard; he just picked a victim people resented even more than they resented Ender.

On the plus side, maybe now that Bernard has been dethroned, we can be done with the nerd revenge fantasies for a while and move on to--
Ender's isolation was over.  The war was just beginning.


  1. Ender has, as a result of bullying, been forced to take the position of
    power and authority without even knowing that was what he was doing.
    ...Huh, yeah, that's this entire story in one sentence. Pointlessly
    twee, but I guess points to Card for condensing it so neatly.

    No points. It's twenty-six words. the snowflake method of novel writing requires starting with, and later revising if necessary (and it's probably necessary), a single story-summarizing sentence of no more than fifteen words. :-D

  2. I'm not sure to what extent Graff is lying when he says he thought Ender might call for help. But it can't be completely honest. The other guy (I think a man, anyway) immediately calls him on it. Graff then gives the new excuse that he didn't know it would be a broken arm, implying that he expected less damage. (Could he still fear the authorities at this point? Did he arrange this to test how far Battle School would let him go?)

    I do know why Graff wasn't satisfied with one death. When Ender killed Stilson, they had just recently ripped a "monitor" out of his nervous system, in a painful shock that almost killed him. When he gets back to class, he can't recall Stilson's name and thinks: "Peter. No, that was someone else." After somewhat more than fifteen minutes additional recovery time, he kills Stilson in an attempt to spare himself more pain tomorrow.

    This does not prove he will kill while in his (relatively) right mind. So whatever Graff says in this chapter, he will later make Ender kill again.

  3. I somehow missed reading this as an adolescent, so my first read-through has been full of "oh, puh-LEEZE". And I find myself wondering why Card chose his protagonist to be SO young. There was no way I could adequately suspend my disbelief to accept a six year old genius like this. Six year olds are only just beginning to understand that other people have thoughts different from theirs; they are surely not reasoning and scheming the way Ender does. Does Card think that HE was that precocious at six? Puh-LEEZE.

  4. I didn't catch the homophobia when I read this as a teenager, so good for you in highlighting it.

    I'm wondering: in a school like this, wouldn't there be at least some students who are gay? I daresay a six year old might not know this about himself yet, but not everybody in Battle School is six years old. Some of them are presented as adolescents, if I recall correctly, but I don't remember any mention that anyone there might be gay or bisexual. In fact (again, it's been a while since I read this, so take it with a grain of salt), I don't remember any mention of anyone's having any sexual or romantic feelings towards anyone else there at all, which struck me, even when I read it, as bizarre.

  5. I'm not sure your explanation is canonical. I'm not sure Ender really thought he was being attacked by Peter (and in fact, if he had thought that, the evidence in the book is that he wouldn't have fought back, certainly not physically) when he was bullied by Stilson and the others. But even if that were the case, how negligent is Graff sending someone in the physical and mental shape you describe back to school without so much as a moment's hesitation?

  6. In the real world, yes, some of the students would be queer, and certainly some of them would develop at least crushes by age 13 (the oldest students at this school). I'm fine with Ender not being one of them; not everyone goes that way. But since Card is apparently on the side of 'homosexuality is just a vice that some people have to overcome', I'm not surprised he would dismiss the idea of any students having meaningful crushes on others.

    A big deal is made about Petra--Bonzo forbids his soldiers from being naked around her, but she 'still looks like a boy' and so Ender thinks it's stupid to act like she could be sparking anyone's lust. So I guess no one feels nonsexual attraction either.

  7. I TOTALLY call dibs on "Shark Week" as a nickname, lol. (Will, your brain is AWESOME.)

    there is one thing that basically all of them eventually run into, which is that when books are bad, they eventually cease to be entertainingly bad and instead become gruelling.

    This. *sigh* This is so true sometimes. *eyes Twilight meaningfully*

    More thoughts. I hadn't noticed the "silence" thing and I loved the linked rant (I still love her Rant on Whores best of all things). LOVED your lol over Ender thinking he can beat a computer game just by watching. Hilarious. Continue to agree with astonishment at the extremely low age (and weird geometry). REALLY REALLY REALLY appreciate your point about the two ways to read the scene.

    Seriously, this whole post is awesome.

  8. Eh? He definitely didn't still think Stilson was Peter during the attack. My point is that about fifteen minutes earlier, he didn't remember who Peter was.

    And Graff isn't negligent. He's guilty of murder or conspiracy to commit murder.

  9. Maybe the idea is that Ender was supposed to call for help in the shuttle, but not receive it? Thereby introducing the idea, at the very earliest opportunity, that there will be no "parents" at Battle School, I guess. By this logic, Graff's most egregious mistake here would be that he underestimated just how platinum cool Ender already is, and that the six-year-old child has already internalised the complete absence of any meaningful support structure. Which sounds appropriately abusive and self-congratulatory for this book. Though that doesn't explain why Graff thought Ender wouldn't fight back at all, given the child's documented propensity for lethal retaliation.

  10. If that is what Graff meant, it's weird that he brings it up in regards to Ender breaking Bernard's arm--if Ender wasn't going to get any help from Graff, then it's hardly a shock if he would then 'resolve' the situation with violence, same as last time.

    I can't figure out how Graff wanted the situation to go in a way that didn't involve someone getting badly hurt.

  11. It lacks in the Nerd Revenge fantasy department - Bernard is still at the Battle School, despite the likelihood that Ender could have easily arranged his dismissal, and the Nerd Revenge is unlikely to go for playing to internalized homophobia - there are plenty of other, much worse things to do that are easier when you're the genius hacker.

    Proper Nerd Revenge takes down the entire system.

  12. Eh, in addition to Ender only having hacked the part of the system that students are supposed to hack, I don't think there is any compelling argument to be made that nerds are less homophobic than anyone else.

  13. You're right, but my suspension of disbelief is severely strained (more) when I'm supposed to believe that Ender can understand the social structures and attitudes that create institutional homophobia within a short time after arrival, and successfully manipulate them to this result. Genius or no, he's still six. Most six year-olds, even geniuses, wouldn't be able to figure it out. Are we supposed to take our cue from Ender observing and then winning the game while mirroring the can't of the older boys as the sign of his supernatural powers of observation?

  14. We already know that Ender has absorbed the Rules of Manly Warfare and that Boys Do Not Cry; it seems to me equally reasonable for him to have picked up on Boys Don't Lust For Boys (even at six when people don't normally spend much time thinking lustful stuff). True, he has no way of knowing that the very multinational Battle School population has the same latent homophobia as back home, but this is Card writing after all.

  15. Fair point. Since we're already well past the point of Mary Sue, I suppose it is not too much more to add on the ability to discern such things and act upon them.

    I think we're not supposed to question the latent homophobia because it's such an ingrained part of our conception of machismo that we think it's right and proper for future people to have the same predilections.

  16. The only way that this ever makes sense is to just assume Ender is 12 or 13 and ignore all the references to being younger.