Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter four, in which Ender Wiggin becomes the blatant reader-fantasy-insert

Before we get down to this week's unrelenting horrors in Smarterthanyouville (Population: Ender Wiggin, Not You, Neener) I want to make sure everyone's seen last week's Sunday post, the very first Book Club post on Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle.  The whole point of the Book Club is to get more interactive discussion going (as opposed to these Ender's Game posts where it's more like I've done some kind of hideous dissection experiment for science and now I'm delivering my findings to my learned peers for their review), so if you have ever had thoughts about Cat's Cradle or Vonnegut or the fundamental purpose of religion, get over there and share them.  SHARE MORE THAN YOU ARE COMFORTABLE WITH SHARING.  That is how we do, 'round these parts.

(Content: bullying, physical violence, reference to suicide.  Fun content: Manly Rules of Warfare, a consideration of how Card is to Ender as Meyer is to Edward.)

Ender's Game, p. 27--36
Chapter Four: Launch

We begin with the Faceless Powers That Be discussing how important it is for Ender to be simultaneously isolated so that he doesn't just adopt the same kind of system everyone else lives by and lose his creativity, but also to keep him integrated with the other students (so he learns how to be A Leader).
"I'll have him completely separated from the rest of the boys by the time we get to the School." 
"I have no doubt of it.  I'll be waiting for you to get here.  I watched the vids of what he did to the Stilson boy.  This is not a sweet little kid you're bringing up here." 
"That's where you're mistaken.  He's even sweeter than he looks.  But don't worry. We'll purge that in a hurry."
Just in case we forgot that Ender is not merely a murderer, but also the pinnacle of benevolence and virtue.  Since Graff already knows Ender is perfectly willing to use lethal force (at least when he doesn't know it's lethal, which is all part of their plan), I'm not sure what sweetness they intend to break him of.  I suspect, based on various things, that they mean he's too nice to his friends, and he will need to be more of a stoic hardass in order to be a good commander.  Possibly true, commanders do need to make painful decisions with conviction, but it feels surreal to be discussing that in regards to someone proven willing to kill.

I'm also kind of vexed by the implication that the normal training system is broken (or at least not good enough) and so it's vitally important to make sure Ender gets special treatment.  Partly this bugs me because it's more all about how special and important Ender is, and how even when he goes to a school for impossible geniuses he has to go in Abusive For The Greater Good Advanced Placement.  The other reason it bugs me is that it means the administrators like Graff already believe that the current 'system' is not as good as it could be, but they're not apparently trying to make it any better.  They're not trying to improve the training of any of their other students because it's all about Ender.  And it's not like these are footsoldiers--Battle School kids, as we were told last time, are the best and brightest of everything, and we've just been reminded that Ender will rely on them as subordinates in the coming war, so why does Graff not care if the current Battle School culture is giving them inferior training?

Anyway.  The chapter opens with some competent sci-fi of the twenty boys (including Ender) getting into the shuttle to go to Battle School.  There are video crews filming them leaving, which seems kind of weird--Battle School has hundreds of students and has been operating for decades, so shouldn't this type of thing be incredibly routine?  We will still have slow news days in the future, I guess.  Ender doesn't talk to the other boys, who are joking with each other--he doesn't think less of them, but he can't think of how to join in, so he stays apart.  He does talk amiably with Graff, who reveals himself to be the Administrator (principal) of Battle School, and Ender thinks about how glad he is that he will have a friend there.  Ender is six and doesn't know what foreshadowing is because he was too busy learning the rules of manly warfare (Rule #5: If this is your first night at Xenocide Club, you have to xenocide).

There's a fairly involved physical description that I always find confusing, so I will summarise rather than quoting directly.  The shuttle stands upright on its launch pad, so the kids walk inside and then climb a ladder up the aisle to their seats, which are facing upward toward space.  Ender notices that the walls tend to be carpeted as well so they're easy to walk on regardless of which way the shuttle orients itself in a gravitational field.  He starts playing gravity games in his head, imagining that he has to keep a strong grip on his seat to avoid falling upward and out into the sky, or picturing the shuttle clinging to the bottom of the world and preparing not to launch but to plummet.  Inertial reference frames are fun!  On this, Ender and I do not disagree.

The shuttle launches, they rapidly escape Earth's gravitational field and become weightless, and Graff appears again, climbing 'upside-down' along the ladder and then flipping himself around because it's zero-G and you can do that.  Some kids start retching from the nausea of reorientation.  Ender just thinks it's funny, and giggles when he imagines opposite gravity so that Graff is standing on his head, so to speak.

"What do you think is so funny, Wiggin? [....]  I asked you a question, soldier!" 
Oh, yes.  This is the beginning of the training routine.  Ender had seen some military shows on TV, and they always shouted a lot at the beginning of training before the soldiers and the officer became good friends.
Ender explains how he amused himself by mentally rotating gravity as a god would do, and Graff seems like he's going to rip into Ender for not being serious, but this book is too smart for anything that obvious.

"Scumbrains, that's what we've got in this launch.  Pinheaded little morons.  Only one of you had the brains to realize that in null gravity directions are whatever you conceive them to be.  Do you understand that, Shafts?" 
The boy nodded. 
"No you didn't.  Of course you didn't.  Not only stupid, but a liar too.  There's only one boy on this launch with any brains at all, and that's Ender Wiggin.  Take a good look at him, little boys.  He's going to be a commander when you're still in diapers up there.  Because he knows how to think in null gravity, and you just want to throw up." 
This wasn't the way the show was supposed to go.  Graff was supposed to pick on him, not set him up as the best.  They were supposed to be against each other at first, so they could become friends later.
This part is an interesting parallel to the real world, and for a fair number of readers, probably familiar.  If you're the smart kid in class, or the good kid, someone who behaves, and your classmates are not, any teacher who tries to set you up as the example to follow is often just painting a target on your back.  Role models we don't choose for ourselves are an imposition, not a support.  If this is a book for people who think they're smarter than everyone else, a book for gifted kids who resent the unwashed masses, then this moment barely feels exaggerated: the teacher just told everyone that you're awesome and they suck, which is obviously objectively true, but now you're going to suffer for their shortcomings.  Card knows his audience.

Graff leaves, some other kids snark at Ender, who is flummoxed but tries to distance himself from it, and then the kid in the seat behind him starts smacking him on the head.  Ender tries to suffer in silence, Graff does nothing, and Ender realises that this hostility is exactly what Graff wanted to create, because Ender is a super-genius, but all of the other super-geniuses sitting around haven't given that any thought at all because they aren't viewpoint characters.  Ender decides that, since Graff wanted this, he is once again On His Own, and so he waits, figures out the timing of the kid smacking him in the head from behind, and the next time a blow is incoming, Ender grabs the arm and yanks.  Ender has forgotten about the null-gravity thing and so his assailant hurtles through the air and slams into a distant wall, badly.   (Manly Rule of Warfare #37: If someone taps out or demonstrates that the author's military philosophy is the absolute truth, the fight is over.)  Graff arrives instantly and a medic starts first-aiding the kid's busted arm.
Ender felt sick.  He had only meant to catch the boy's arm.  No.  No, he had meant to hurt him, and had pulled with all his strength.  He hadn't meant it to be so public, but the boy was feeling exactly the pain Ender had meant him to feel.  Null gravity had betrayed him, that was all.  I am Peter.  I'm just like him.  And Ender hated himself.
'Peter' continues for some reason to be shorthand for 'incredibly violent outbursts', despite all on-page evidence suggesting that Peter's violence is premeditated, easy to predict, and seemingly has never left a lasting injury.  (Again, I'm not saying Peter is a stand-up guy, but these aren't minor distinctions.)  Maybe Peter has done this type of thing, but if so, we've never seen it.  And if 'Peter' here actually just means means 'sadist', then Ender's recriminations are weird, because he seems to think that 'hitting someone harder than you meant to' is the same as 'cackling hell demon'.  Violence is bad, discipline is good, but context matters.  Does Ender hate himself for occasionally having a fleeting desire to cause pain?  Because I have a lot of those too, but I have not murdered anybody, so I think he's focusing on the wrong facet of his morality, y'know?  Worry about causing harm, not about wanting to cause harm.  Inner purity won't actually get you very far in practical situations.

Graff tells the other kids, again, that they suck.
"You were brought here to be soldiers.  [....]  And when I tell you Ender Wiggin is the best in this launch, take the hint, my little dorklings.  Don't mess with him.  Little boys have died in Battle School before.  Do I make myself clear?" 
There was silence the rest of the launch.  The boy sitting next to Ender was scrupulously careful not to touch him. 
I am not a killer, Ender said to himself over and over again.  I am not Peter.  No matter what Graff says, I'm not.  I was defending myself.  I bore it a long time.  I was patient.  I am not what he said.
Not Peter: confirmed.  Not a killer: *bzzt*.  We will eventually find out that the one previous death in Battle School was a suicide, which is not remotely surprising given that this is apparently how they treat six-year-old children.

This last bit really highlights the false dilemma that keeps ruining everything around Ender: the only responses he seems to be able to imagine are 'take all the suffering right in the face', or 'destroy them and burn their crops and hear the lamentations of their goats'.  Bear it and be patient, or default to murder.  I get that he's supposed to be malleable, but he instantly and completely assumes that there is never any help from anywhere and his enemies are completely implacable, on the basis that someone told him so.*

They arrive at Battle School; Ender is the last one to leave the shuttle and confronts Graff, who explains that Ender should not count on him to be a friend because his job is to make the perfect general and subordinates.  (There's a bit about 'Napoleon lost and Alexander died young and Caesar made himself dictator', which I can't read without hearing Meyer talking about how much better Edward is than Romeo and Tristan and Rhett.  This might be a comparison we come back to in future.)  Graff tells him outright: "There's only one thing that will make them stop hating you, and that's being so good at what you do that they can't ignore you."

And... well, no.  Anyone who's ever had any luck with that strategy is welcome to speak up, but that is not how things work in my experience: being awesome at what you do hopefully gives you the freedom to get the hell away from the jackwagons and only hang out with decent people, but I am skeptical that any bully has ever thought "Wow, that kid I torment regularly is way smarter than I thought; clearly we should be friends". Part of the problem here is that Graff's advice doesn't even logically flow--he's telling Ender that being awesome will make him impossible to ignore, but Ender's problem isn't being ignored, it's being hated.  These are not synonyms!  Maybe they are in whatever futurespeak language Graff uses.  They should fix that.  Invent more words.

Graff speechifies SFFily more about how the aliens are an unknowably huge threat and the rest of Earth's biosphere doesn't care whether humanity survives so their only hope is to produce the kind of genius that completely transforms the direction of human history, like the inventors of wheels and airplanes and empires. It's well-written but mostly just about telling us how important Ender is.  Et cetera.

Ender moves on, and Anderson, another teacher, stops to talk to Graff, asking if 'that's the one'.  Graff basically says that if it's not Ender, then the chosen one had better show up soon or they're all boned.
"The kid's wrong.  I am his friend." 
"I know." 
"He's clean.  Right to the heart, he's good." 
"I've read the reports."
I like to think that when Anderson says "I've read the reports", he's actually thinking
But probably not.  I don't know, maybe Meta-Anderson will turn out to be a good and reasonable person.
"For his sake, I hope it isn't him.  I do." 
"Cheer up.  The buggers may kill us all before he graduates." 
Graff smiled.  "You're right, I feel better already." 
Spoilers: they won't.  DOUBLE spoilers: if the aliens just killed off a handful of the top military leaders, somewhere between thousands and billions of lives would be saved.

I no longer know what this book is about.

Leave your own Manly Rules of Warfare in the comments!


*If I keep referencing Ender's Shadow there won't be any point in analysing it directly after Game, but this is another reason that Bean is a vastly more likeable protagonist: for all that he's supposedly aloof and smug and isolated, he believes other people can help and he forms teams, he goes for backup, he works collectively.  His biggest victories aren't about being twice as awesome as everyone else, but about bringing people together to find a third option that isn't self-destruction or outright murder.  (And once again, this is something that Card himself notices, and has Bean ponder as well.)  And yet we're told Ender is the great leader whose esteem everyone hungers for and who wields deadly empathy.  Does not compute.


  1. Here's something that Ender's Game and Fifty Shades have in common, besides both being deconstructed on this blog: in both cases, the author has characters telling you how wonderful (brilliant, good, sexy, etc.) the character is, without giving us any basis to believe those comments. Here, for instance, Graff is always talking about how good and sweet Ender is, but honestly, throughout the book, when we see what Ender thinks and says and does, he never strikes me as either good or sweet. He's self-absorbed and doesn't give a shit about anyone else. This is not my definition of good nor is there anything sweet in it.

    Sorry, Card (and James): if you want a reader to believe that someone has certain characteristics, you have to do the hard work of showing those characteristics in action. Having other characters gush about how wonderful this one person is just won't do it.

    Robert Parker used to do that in the later Spencer books, too; after a while Susan (the girlfriend) seemed to have no other purpose than to praise Spencer's manliness and code of honor, which got pretty nauseating.

  2. And yet we're told Ender is the great leader whose esteem everyone hungers for and who wields deadly empathy.

    The problem with empathy as Ender's weapon, I think, is that empathy has several different aspects, and Ender only displays the one that's least like what's normally thought of as empathy.

    His special power, as demonstrated, is the ability to get into someone's mind and figure out their vulnerabilities by understanding who they are and how they're likely to behave -- it's empathetic in that he has an internal view of others, but it's lacking in emotion. I'll call this "analytical empathy" -- it's purely intellectual and doesn't do much to temper any existing desire to see its target neutralized.

    This is, as one can imagine, a very useful thing to have -- it's the sort of thing that helps a police profiler track down a serial killer. But, if it's not tempered with either the other two forms or a personal moral code, it can lead as easily to cruelty as to a positive outcome.

    Ender, unfortunately, lacks the other two forms of empathy. He doesn't show much in the way of emotional responses to the pain of others (which I'll call "reactive empathy") and he doesn't really think about how others will feel when deciding whether to do something or not (which I'll call "empathetic consideration"), except insofar as it's important to his goal of undoing them.

    ...I suspect that this lack of reactive empathy and empathetic consideration is supposed to be the difference between Ender and Valentine. >_>; Being open to the emotions of others is a vulnerability (if an entirely necessary one for human society to function), and it wouldn't be hard to imagine Card seeing it as "weakness" that can't exist in his manly hero. =/

  3. These are not synonyms! Maybe they are in whatever futurespeak language Graff uses. They should fix that. Invent more words.

    This is bieberbillion awesome. Just so you know. :D

    The thing I hated about this scene, well, stop. Let me try again. ONE of the things I hated about this scene was the fact that Ender will go on to deliberately use this same strategy to take Bean down a notch. Which really bothered me because it presents this cycle of marginalization as natural, appropriate, and even The One True Way to train little geniuslings.

    As someone who exhibited unfortunately geniusling traits myself as a child (mainly being socially withdrawn, good with reading and vocabulary, enthusiastic about schoolwork, and wearing Geek Glasses) and was mercilessly bullied for it, I'm always irked when I see bullying held up as a constructing schooling tactic. Bullying didn't make me smarter or better at school, nor did it teach me how to survive. I just suffered until I was able to leave. No value added. Lots of harm caused. And yet not only do you see this bullshit in military novels, you see it in shit like L'Engle's work where Charles Wallace (sp?) is supposedly Made Stronger by weathering bullying. No. Just no. That is, pardon me, a fantasy* of the oppressed joining the ranks of the oppressors. And that is PRECISELY what Ender does.

    Another thing I hate about this scene is that there's a strong undercurrent that teacher-student relationships WEAKEN students, and that is also very bullshit. I had a strong friendship with a college teacher, whose office I would visit regularly for long chats about history and sociology, and everything about that relationship made me a better person AND a better student. If she had believed that a friendship between us would weaken or coddle me, I would have learned vastly less and my world would have been poorer for it. So fuck you, Card. *eyeroll*

    * A fantasy I do not condemn for indulging in mentally Because Safety. But I do condemn for indulging in in actuality Because Marginalization.

  4. Ender will go on to deliberately use this same strategy to take Bean down a notch. Which really bothered me because it presents this cycle of marginalization as natural, appropriate, and even The One True Way to train little geniuslings.

    Of course, Ender will then hate himself more for being cruel to Bean and will have these same thoughts, wondering if he is inevitably going to transform into an exact copy of Graff. Which helps nothing, because as far as we can tell in Ender's Game, this is still best for Bean, and shows us once again that Ender keeps doing the thing which is Right but also Painful and so suffers for the greater good.

    Yetafreakinggain, Ender's Shadow is the vastly superior story, because in Shadow we find out that everyone already knew who Bean was and respected and resented him, and Ender's use of Graff's technique mostly just made Ender look silly (with a possible side 'benefit' of helping to create camaraderie among the other 39 students, at the cost of picking on Bean).

  5. Yeah, Ender does declare that when he achieves that total understanding of his enemy, he 'loves them in that way that you must love yourself', but I really don't think we get evidence of that at all. Not for anyone he destroys or even for anyone he claims any victory over. His form of 'love' largely seems restricted to 'I'm sad that you are ruined now', rather than even 'I understand you and that means you are no threat to me and I can control you however I need, ART OF WAR, PUNKS', which would strike me as an adequately Manly Victorious style of winning.

  6. Of course, Ender will then hate himself more for being cruel to Bean and
    will have these same thoughts, wondering if he is inevitably going to
    transform into an exact copy of Graff.

    Just like Ender worries that he'll become a copy of Peter? And then does Graff-like/Peter-like things but it's OKAY because Ender Has Feelings about that stuff?

    Ender Wiggins: Magical Intent Poster Boy!

  7. You know, this is the first point where Ender has read anything remotely like a kid to me. His whole "Wait, but- this isn't how it's supposed to go. You're supposed to pick on ME and then we all struggle and then everyone is friends and we struggle heroically together! What- why- no..." because that? A little kid going to a new place when he had few friends at the old one and just wants friends so badly? That felt real to me. The rest... ugh. Well, save the phrase "my little dorklings." I think I may incorporate that into my day-to-day vernacular.

    As for Manly Rules of Warfare... I just keep coming back to bare-knuckle boxing a bear. Make of that what you will.

  8. I never thought about this before, but you're right: all the kids in the Battle School are supposed to be super geniuses, chosen from all the millions (billions?) of children in the world because of their special gifts and skills. And yet, almost all of them (except for Ender's special friends) acts about as dopey as the kids Ender knew in his school at home. Consider the kid whose arm Ender broke. He's pissed off at Ender, and his idea of how to deal with that is to hit him repeatedly (in the same rhythm) in the head from behind. This is not the action of some extraordinary genius kid. This is the action of the kid sitting behind you in the airplane who's bored and can't think of anything to do other than kick the back of your seat.

    I suppose Card couldn't show how utterly brilliant and super perfect Ender was if Ender was really dealing with other geniuses, so everybody else had to act stupid to make Ender look better.

  9. Card might have a little wiggle room in that kids who are super-smart aren't necessarily super-mature, and have presumably, as often as, not grown up surrounded only by 'normal' people, so their socialisation may be that this is what normal people do and behaviour they can get away with. But at the same time, there are very obviously lots of characters whose thought processes more closely align with Ender (Petra, Alai, Bean, Dink, even characters we're not supposed to think much of like Rose), so Bernard (the kid who just ran afoul of Ender's zero-G ninjutsu) really does stand out as a bizarrely 'normal' child. (Hell, in Ender's Shadow, even relatively normal utterly-non-genius kids like Sergeant will show vastly more forethought than Bernard.)

  10. One of the Manly Rules that I can see is: Everyone who is not you is an enemy waiting to attack you.

    Everyone that attacks you is your enemy and deserves full retaliation, regardless of whether they attacked you with full force.

    What Graf does to Ender, though, is to ensure that Ender will be seen as a pet and bullied. And his advice amounts to "ignore them and they'll go away". A curious thing to say to someone entering a school designed to teach children extreme violence as a way of life.

  11. Let's not distort a book that we can easily criticize on valid grounds. Ender broke the Manly Rules of Warfare by killing Stilson. That is to say, he learned a code of masculine behavior that told him not to attack another boy who had fallen (perhaps he read Prince Caspian), but somehow the military also taught him to ignore that rule. I assume Card means this to illustrate another difference between what they teach ordinary boys (non-geniuses, this time) and what they teach Ender. Although it suggests the military got Peter to pull double teaching duty ('do as I say, not as I do'?) without even paying him.

    Wait, no, this makes sense. Peter didn't teach anyone any code. He ignores the rules entirely - except for the rule against getting caught. That explains why his brother thinks "I am just like Peter." Stilson and other bullies at school have followed the rules, and Ender learned the code by observing them with other victims. So he knows that nobody at school will deliberately kill him, but he still doesn't feel safe anywhere. And he flatly refuses to get beat up the next day, even if it won't do any permanent damage. Maybe he fears what Peter might do (to him?) because of it, or maybe he just hates pain.

    As for Graff, he doesn't tell Ender to ignore the bullies but to convince the more rational kids to follow him out of self-interest. I don't remember if Graff predicted that this would fail to prevent more violence, but I think the teacher (read: Abuser-in-Chief) liked the outcome well enough.

    Looking at the book, which I haven't read for years, Graff later says pretty explicitly that he wants Ender to kill again.

  12. Forgot to add that while 'sick of pain' seems like sufficient explanation, Ender may not trust the judgment of bullies who he considers stupid.

  13. Since Graff already knows Ender is perfectly willing to use lethal force (at least when he doesn't know it's lethal, which is all part of their plan), I'm not sure what sweetness they intend to break him of.

    More evidence for my 'Ender's Game is secretly 40k' theory, since they *would* consider that evidence of weakness and 'too nice' - he only killed *one* of them, after all, and relatively quickly. In all seriousness, though, that's likely the case - the culture is so violent and militaristic, that accidentally beating one boy to death does not preclude 'sweetness' of which a soldier must be 'broken'.

    There are video crews filming them leaving, which seems kind of weird--Battle School has hundreds of students and has been operating for decades, so shouldn't this type of thing be incredibly routine?

    Perhaps the recording isn't for the news, but for the students/family? Like, the college here always records and broadcasts its graduation ceremonies, even though they've happened every year for the past century.

    "Scumbrains, that's what we've got in this launch. Pinheaded little morons. Only one of you had the brains to realize that in null gravity directions are whatever you conceive them to be. Do you understand that, Shafts?"

    The boy nodded.

    "No you didn't. Of course you didn't. Not only stupid, but a liar too. There's only one boy on this launch with any brains at all, and that's Ender Wiggin. Take a good look at him, little boys. He's going to be a commander when you're still in diapers up there. Because he knows how to think in null gravity, and you just want to throw up."

    I thought they removed the telepathic chips? How the hell does Graff *know* that Ender was the only one to realize that? Perhaps he was the only one to laugh about it? Perhaps the others considered it so obvious it wasn't worth noting?

    I'd contribute to the Manly Rules of Warfare, but it'd end up being a recitation of Thoughts of the Day, because, wow.