Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter eight, part two, in which things are very briefly not awful

(Content: bullying, violence. Fun content: Canadian linguistic metanyms, Dink Meeker.)

Forging ahead from where we left off last time, when we and Ender and Card were just hangin' out after practice, watching Dink Meeker float naked for like ten minutes.

Ender's Game: p. 107--119

Once Dink gets dressed again, he explains to Ender what the deal is, because Ender is a nosy twit with no respect for his friend/commander/rescuer's* privacy.  Dink breaks the awkward by joking that Ender now knows why Dink's not a commander, despite being promoted twice:
"The second time they took away my old locker and bunk and desk, assigned me to a commander's cabin, and gave me an army.  But I just stayed in the cabin until they gave in and put me back into somebody else's army. [....] These other armies, they aren't the enemy.  It's the teachers, they're the enemy.  They get us to fight each other, to hate each other.  The game is everything.  Win win win.  It amounts to nothing.  We kill ourselves, go crazy trying to beat each other, and all the time the old bastards are watching us, studying us, discovering our weak points, deciding whether we're good enough or not.  Well, good enough for what?  I was six years old when they brought me here.  What the hell did I know?" [....] 
"So why don't you go home?" 
Dink smiled crookedly.  "Because I can't give up the game."
I always liked Dink, but it wasn't until this read-through that I realised he's probably the most comprehensively believable character in the story.   He's legitimately smart--enough so to be the first person to explicitly notice that the teachers are supervillains and the entire Battle School is founded on hideous unproven principles that abuse creates strength--and so his being taken to the school makes sense, but he hates it there, except for the game.  Given how harsh they are about Ender's chances, you'd think Dink would be washed out by now, except that he's still talented and so teaches others--ironically, he is kind of 'a teacher' now if that's the case.

He goes on about how command just breaks people, noting that Rose sleeps in the dorm with the rest of them because he's still afraid of the dark, and "isn't some magic Israeli general who can win no matter what.  He doesn't know why anybody wins or loses.  Nobody does." Dink argues that the children aren't so much trying to be commanders as they are playacting at what they think commanders should look like--which sort of makes sense except that you'd think after a few decades the teachers might have noticed this and realised they're failing tremendously.  Battle School sounds less like a prestigious military academy and more like a trillion-dollar playground.

Once again I feel like Card has forgotten all these kids had normal childhoods until 6ish, because Dink goes on about how by reading old books he has figured out "what children are", and it doesn't involve commanding forty other kids and having adults screaming at you that you must win at any cost.  (Dink comes from a country that doesn't have high school sports, apparently.)

Dink goes on about what it's like back on Earth, their families, his Illustratively Normal Hetero Jock older brother, which causes Ender distress when he thinks first about Peter and then Valentine (in case we have forgotten they exist, since they'll be back next chapter).
"That's right, we never really cry.  I never thought of that. [....] But look at Bonzo, your old commander. He's got an advanced case of Spanish honor.  He can't allow himself to have weaknesses.  To be better than him, that's an insult.  To be stronger, that's like cutting off his balls.  That's why he hates you, because you didn't suffer when he tried to punish you.  He hates you for that, he honestly wants to kill you.  He's crazy.  They're all crazy."
Perhaps the most telling thing about the evil Bonzo, in this straightforward we-don't-need-your-fancy-lit-profs just-folks story, is that people keep on having to tell us what's wrong with him.  I read one of Card's essays recently that explained that Bonzo hated Ender because he was afraid of Ender's obvious leadership ability (which is obviously not true, since he starts with the abuse right out of the gate), and now we've got Dink explaining that Bonzo hates Ender for being better than him (which was not true and Ender had not demonstrated when the abuse started).  It's probably time to accept that Bonzo hates Ender because he was told to by narrative fiat and we needed an author-disapproved antagonist to be unfair to Ender.

Also, to the surprise of basically no one, Card/Dink sees no reason to distinguish 'mental illness' from 'jackasses tormenting people to cope with their personal fears'.  I hate this.  But I do like and occasionally reflect on what Dink says next, which is a better statement about rejecting stigmatisation and accepting that you need to care for yourself and accepting that there are still going to be hard times and relapses ahead:
"And you aren't?" 
"I be crazy too, little buddy, but at least when I be craziest, I be floating all alone in space and the crazy, she float out of me, she soak into the walls, and she don't come out till there be battles and little boys bump into the walls and squish out de crazy."
The last thing Dink has to say is simultaneously wrong and true, as well as being another reminder (BY THE WAY ENDER HAS SIBLINGS) that there is a whole huge situation back on Earth while they're up at school (BY THE WAY POLITICS ARE A THING).
"Listen, Ender, if the buggers were coming back to get us, they'd be here.  They aren't invading again. [....] It's all a fake.  There is no war, and they're just screwing around with us [...] because as long as the I.F. is in power, certain countries can keep their hegemony.  But keep watching the vids, Ender.  People will catch onto this game pretty soon, and there'll be a civil war to end all wars.  That's the menace, Ender, not the buggers.  And in that war, when it comes, you and I won't be on friends.  Because you're American, just like our dear teachers.  And I am not."
(Ender's Classmates Are Like A Million Times Smarter Than Him tally: 1.)  Dink is right about every single part of this save one, which is his theory that the Battle School kids are meant to be hostages/champions in that war.  Every other bit is right.  Dink Meeker: Too Smart To Be The Chosen One.  I love this guy.

Also, since when are all the Battle School teachers American?  Later in the Shadow series, Card will retcon all of this and indicate that the USA isn't actually that important anymore, due to the reunification of Russia and the democratic ascension of China.  But I guess for now the Americans still rule the world?

Ender muses on all that Dink has said, and decides he's wrong, that the aliens are still the invading horde at the gates and must be stopped.  (He also believes that the American media wouldn't lie to him the way the Dutch media might lie to Dink.  Cutting edge commentary on the modern world.)  But the 'seed of doubt' has been planted:
It changed everything, to have that seed growing.  It made Ender listen more carefully to what people meant, instead of what they said.  It made him wise.
SHOW DON'T TELL, CARD.  God.  This book won a Hugo and a Nebula.  Apparently the mark of great writing is just saying "So now character development happens, trust me."

Ender finds that hardly anyone shows up to his free practice that night, because commanders have started declaring that they won't take launchies who have been 'damaged' by Ender's training.  Can you imagine how incredibly effective Battle School might be if the teachers didn't work so hard at trying to make the students hate and mistrust each other?  Worst administration ever.
"But the way I brain it," said the Launchy, "I be the best soldier I can, and any commander worth a damn, he take me.  Neh?" 
"Eh," said Ender, with finality.
This just makes me giggle is all.  As a Canadian.  EH.

Commanders show up during practice to write down names menacingly, and Alai taunts them about misspelling his.  The next day, Ender starts hearing about kids in his practice getting bullied, physically abused or having their computer files hacked, and so tells the last few who show up to put it off, but Alai won't let him:
"If you stop, even one night, they'll figure it works to do this kind of thing.  Just like if you'd ever backed down to Bernard when he was being a swine."
I would go off on a rant here about Alai (Bernard's best friend) not stepping up and now distancing himself from the bully in retrospect, but I have to cut him a little slack since he only sprang into existence a chapter later because Ender needed a Black Best Friend since the most plausible explanation for Alai's behaviour is that he was a victim of bullying and so was trying to protect himself by avoiding confrontations.  Anyway, I kind of agree with Alai but this whole 'Lord of the Flies' deal where the teachers don't intervene ever for any reason really sucks.  "Should we protect these fresh six-year-olds from the torments of the older jackwagons?"  "No, then Ender might feel like he's protected from the consequences of his actions."

But forgetting for a moment that we're supposed to be saving the world IN SPACE, this sequence of scenes is about being bullied and finding ways to endure it, especially if you're the kind of person who copes by reminding yourself that you're better than the people who hate you (which I was and still am, if hopefully to a lesser degree).  First is not backing down and letting bullies tell you what you can and can't do.  Second, after the bullies show up again and start shouting insults and ridicule:
"Listen to them," Ender said to the other boys.  "Remember the words.  If you ever want to make your enemy crazy, shout that kind of stuff at them.  It makes them do dumb things, to be mad.  But we don't get mad." 
Second is: if you can ignore verbal abuse (if if IF, and it's up to each individual to determine whether they can or can't, incident by incident) then it's not the worst move.  If you can tell yourself that the people harassing you have neither the right nor the standing to judge you, that their hatred is invalid and irrelevant, that can help.  It's not the way things should be and it doesn't mean that bullies and harassers shouldn't be confronted and shut down, but--it's first aid for mental wellbeing, if it works.  It helped me.
Shen [he exists again!] took the idea to heart, and after each jibe from the older boys, he had a group of four Launchies recite the words, loudly, five or six times.  When they started singing the taunts like nursery rhymes, some of the older boys launched themselves from the wall and came out for a fight.
Dammit, Shen, I meant confronted by someone who has the authority and power to actually shut them down, not by kindergartners.  Half the kids are currently frozen, which makes them helpless, but Ender has no problem instead treating them as blunt instruments.  (Remember, the helmet clamps down on your jaw to prevent talking, so if any of the kids aren't okay with being used as a weapon to severely injure another kid, they can't prevent it or even protest!)  Ender and Alai nail one of the bullies in the chest with a frozen kid, causing him to howl in pain, and the whole gang charges out to attack.

Ender shouts for them to 'go nova', meaning the kids cluster together and then push off each other to fly in all directions and ricochet around the incoming bullies (who can't change direction mid-flight).  When attacked, run: this is always the best self-defence advice.  It's like dodging, but way bigger!  I trained in five or six kinds of martial arts (some combined, some specific) for over a decade, and the first rule whenever we discussed self-defence was: freaking book it.

Again not being terrible for the moment, Ender makes sure to end up near the kid he and Alai used as a missile so he can toss the kid to safety, but this sends him flying back towards the bullies, alone.  Usually heroic sacrifices of the form "I'll take care of myself; y'all get out of here" work for me, but in this case it's not about the suffering Ender is willing to endure, because, lest we forget, Ender is Dangerously Hardcore.  His suffering takes the form of "Why am I constantly forced to totally kick people's asses when I don't want to?"  After escaping one bully by mangling the kid's ear with his boot:
I'm doing it again, thought Ender.  I'm hurting people again, just to save myself.  Why don't they leave me alone, so I don't have to hurt them?

How fucked is this?  In theory, this is Ender's empathy showing--his wish to be kind and peaceful even to the people he is actively destroying--and people do have the right to defend themselves.  All of that is okay.  What's unsettling to me is that people identify with Ender after seeing him do things like this, because "Why are you making me hurt you" is also, y'know, the rallying cry of the abuser.  And particularly in the broader context of Ender's Game, in which it will ultimately turn out that all of the suffering and violence was a meaningless misunderstanding, the lines between self-defence and unprovoked abuse get blurred to all hell.

More fighting; it is violent and not particularly interesting.  Ender escapes, gets cheered by his friends and insulted by his enemies (we find out Bonzo was among the bullies), and makes it back to his dorm.  That night, he's able to look up medical reports (hacking, I guess) and see that all of the injuries are cited as "accidental collision in null G", to remind us that the teachers are not going to help.

Back to the mind game.  He passes all of the Fairyland obstacles, passes the now-abandoned playground of the wolf-children, returns to the castle tower where the snake waits for him, and crushes it underfoot.  It takes some grinding until it stops moving, but it's dead.  No escape presents itself, so Ender goes searching:
Instead, he found a mirror.  And in the mirror he saw a face that he easily recognized.  It was Peter, with blood dripping down his chin and a snake's tail protruding from a corner of his mouth. 
Ender shouted and thrust his desk from him. [....] Ender threw the snake at it.  The mirror shattered, leaving a hole in the wall behind it.  Out of the hole came dozens of tiny snakes, which quickly bit Ender's figure again and again.
Ender shuts the game off.  The next day, other commanders show up to tell Ender not to stop his practices, and start sending some of their own soldiers to get extra practice as well as acting as bodyguards.  (We have no idea who these people are or who might have organised them.  I would have liked to have found that out, since it seems like they should be a kind of community Ender would join, but Ender must be lonely so these guys are again faceless NPCs.)

As the chapter closes, Ender can't shake the game from his dreams, and he fears that it is telling him the truth: that on the inside, he is the same as Peter and that he was born to kill.  Repeating myself: Peter: not actually a killer--in fact, he is possibly the only person who makes it to the end of his story without killing a person.  He might be a sadist, but as Ender continues to remind us, Ender is not a sadist, and instead brims with self-loathing for hurting people.

I don't understand what all of this is for, to be honest.  I get the symbolism and the schism as Ender sees it, the dissonance between wanting not to hurt anyone and yet devoting yourself to protecting humanity no matter who you have to hurt to do it.  But none of this will matter in the final arc of the story, or really at any time except the interlude when he considers dropping out.  Ender's final campaign won't be affected in any way by his desire not to cause harm.  When his great revelation in the mind game occurs, it won't apparently change anything other than breaking his depression, and we won't get an explanation of that or any meaningful changes in his behaviour to follow-up.  It's all just a bunch of tormenting him so that later the story can tell him that he's wrong, that he's the good guy, not like his brother.  It's a fractionally more literary take on a hurt/comfort fanfic.

The whole purpose of this subplot appears to be to take the guy who tightropes the line between defender and bully and assure him that he hasn't done anything wrong and he's a good person.  Who then goes on to commit genocide but it's not his fault.  I'm creeped out by the thought of people identifying with this and finding comfort in it.

Next week: the long-awaited return of Valentine and Peter!

*'Rescuer' of course refers to Dink having requested Ender be transferred in from Salamander.  Given that apparently no one else was going to help him, and Ender was taking no actions to get himself transferred, we have no idea how long Ender could have been stuck with Bonzo abusing him if not for Dink's intervention.  In a rare bit of what I think is quite clever storytelling, it might seem at first that this makes Dink a sort of 'parent' figure to Ender, except that what we see Dink doing here is isolating the hell out of Ender by solidifying his distrust of the teachers and making him feel that he can't really trust any of the other (oblivious, NPCish) students.


  1. Boy, this military's going to work wonderfully well with a bunch of generals who hate, sabotage, and bully each other at every opportunity.

  2. It's not like unit cohesion is a big thing, right? If you're that smart you don't have to worry about teamwork.

    Honestly if I were in this universe and in this military I would be more afraid of getting fragged by my own unit while on the toilet than by anything the aliens could conceivably do in actual combat.

  3. Seems to me that the idea is to make a school that is so fucked up that only a genius could make it work, then waiting for that genius to come along, then grab him and to hell with everyone else.

  4. That is *disturbingly* plausible.
    "How will we tell when we've found the child who can succeed against all odds?"
    "Well, we'll take the smartest 0.5% of the population, be as randomly, pointlessly cruel and unhelpful as possible, and eventually one of them will actually thrive. Hopefully this will be within the tiny window where our ships are arriving at the Buggerworlds, since we need a child who totally trusts us. Maybe there's a genetic component to Stockholm Syndrome and we can find mostly children predisposed to it?"
    "Brilliant! Let's pour trillions of dollars into the project!"

  5. The closest this could come to working is if the academy is designed for 90-95% of the students to wash out at each level, so they'd have the cream of the cream of the cream of etc. (Of course, this requires the prize at the end to be, or at least thought to be, worth it.) That way the competition is there naturally, and would be there whether the teachers wanted it or not and the people you hate will be on a losing team and wash out. It would also be yet another way of of emphasizing just how special and superior special snowflake Chosen One Ender Wiggin is.

    Two problems:
    1. It's very obviously not the case here. No one's worried they will wash out (in my scenario everyone would be, constantly), and I'm not even sure they can.
    2. For the 1001st time, they're starting at age six

  6. If you look at the logistics, though, it really does look like a lot of kids have to wash out (or at least go to another school without getting command first) before getting command of their own armies. If you show up at six and leave at twelve, and launch normally lasts two years, that's four years out of launch. If you get command at eleven, that means command normally lasts about a year.

    So, okay, twenty kids to a launch, bring up one launch a year... but then there'd only be eighty kids not in launch total, not 820 (41 * 20). *Everyone* should be worried they're not going to get command; Ender getting it at 9 instead of 11 should infuriate the 11-year-olds who know that one of the incredibly precious command slots has just been taken away from them.

    Commanders should be terrified that if they do too poorly, they'll lose their position early, so that someone more deserving can have the rest of it. (We don't see that either; Rat Army's commander is pleased he does well and not terrified that his good luck is going to run out.)

  7. Something that bothers me here is that the named antagonist kids, for as competitive as they see supposed to be, are remarkably inept at taking notes and learning from Super-genius. If I'm supposed to be cutthroat-competitive, I'm expending resources spying on my opponents, scouting their tactics and personnel, and basically trying to understand them well enough to have a tactical advantage in deployment and combat. Ender keeps demonstrating that he apparently has a better grasp of the whole thing than others. While the other named allied kids have their own reasons for not appearing to be The One, the enemies have no such apparent motivation, and neither do the NPC children. Why aren't they sending in spies and watching him?

  8. "Honestly if I were in this universe and in this military I would be more afraid of getting fragged by my own unit while on the toilet than by anything the aliens could conceivably do in actual combat."

    If there's any attrition happening in-school which isn't admitted to by either the narrative or by the school proprietors, that could explain it. Are there any clues in the text that such might be the case? We hear that only one of the battle-school cadets has ever committed suicide. ('Cuz Mind Game.) Do we ever get to learn whether any of them have ever been killed by other students? If command slots for 11-year-olds are inestimably precious it seems to me that one way to acquire one might be to stage a Klingon promotion.

    It would also explain why all the kids are naked whenever they're not wearing flash suits (interesting term) — no place to hide weapons.*

    About Ender, Peter, and projection: Ender Wiggin, besides being a pathological teacher-pleaser, is a world-class projector. He knows he's dangerous and he knows his brother's scary. (He also knows he's doing something wrong but can't figure out what it is, because everybody in his world says, in such a way as never to be called on it, that violence is the only safety and that limits are for wimps.) Peter, who knows when to turn down the gain, is another world-class projector, one who's learned to project in such a way as to give other people the idea that the best idea on their part would be to leave him alone. That's the reason behind his villain act.** Ender's inverse version of the same thing is to latch onto Peter's schtick and turn the gain all the way back up to the point where he can characterize his brother as a killer, even though his brother's not a killer, and even though he is. Of course Ender never sees his brother's face in the mirror — he sees his own face, which he then interprets as his brother's face. Thematically this works because it hints at the reasons why Ender is so willing to accept the Buggers Formics as The Threat. After all, he, Ender, cannot be the threat. Ender, in Ender's world, is always the one who's being threatened by others. And Ender's preceptors can't be the threat either, because they got him away from his brother and out of the house. Therefore somebody else must be the threat, and the Buggers Formics can do that job as well as Peter can. Ender's behavior is depressingly consistent, and as a matter of fact I'd say that his depression is the result of it, and "breaks" only when Ender gives in and decides that he's been pushed to far in the "killer" direction to turn back.

    What you get is a variation on the Cain and Abel parable in which the story is told from Cain's viewpoint and in which a substitute killing is accepted in lieu of the murder of a relative, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Formics perform the function of the ram caught in the thicket.

  9. We're told (admin-to-admin, so reliably) that Bonzo's death will be only the second one in Battle School history, with Pinual's suicide being the first. So Klingon promotion is apparently not a thing.

    I'm trying to figure out the timeline myself, now that it comes up--students apparently graduate to armies around age 8, and usually start becoming commanders at 10, I think (unless I'm making things up, the 'unusually young' commander mentioned earlier is nine or ten). If Ender is at Battle School for three years, that approximately works out, implying that Bonzo is a brand new commander when we first meet him (age 10) and is on the verge of graduation at the end (13). What surprises me about this is the implication that Ender will leave Battle School in two years or less and everything else will fit into that frame. There's a bit coming up that's basically the 'Battle School Golden Age' which I would have thought lasted over a year on its own, rather than a few months. Worth keeping an eye on that.

  10. SHOW DON'T TELL, CARD. God. This book won a Hugo and a Nebula.
    Apparently the mark of great writing is just saying "So now character
    development happens, trust me."

    Ha. Will, I love you. XD

    It's funny to me, to view in retrospect what wins awards and what doesn't. And it's especially interesting to note the demographics of the authors and protagonists. (As I know you know. :))