I've been looking forward to this one for months. Required reading: Randall Munroe on Locke & Demosthenes. After that, how much is there left to say? I don't know! Let's find out.
Ender's Game: p. 120--138
Chapter 9: Locke and Demosthenes
In today's 15 minutes of Ender Time, Graff is demanding that Major Imbu find out which sothothic horror programmed the video game that keeps psychoanalysing Ender better than anyone else does. (Although given the apparent level of inductive reasoning among the I.F. brass--hmm, this six-year-old murderer might have violent tendencies--that is not hard.) Last week, of course, it showed Ender his brother's face in a mirror instead of his own, because symbolism.
"I don't like having the computer screw around with Ender's mind that way."I'll wait for everyone to stop laughing before we continue. The zone name 'The End of the World' is distressing Graff. Imbu hypothesises:
"You've been isolating the boy. Maybe he's wishing for the end of this world, the Battle School. Or maybe it's about the end of the world he grew up with as a little boy, his home, coming here. Or maybe it's his way of coping with having broken up so many other kids here. Ender's a sensitive kid, you know, and he's done some pretty bad things to people's bodies, he might be wishing for the end of that world."Major Imbu is way better at this than Graff. Maybe he should start a blog.
Graff is especially confounded by the photo of Peter because it's so new, more recent than anything in Battle School or any other I.F. computer. The game AI apparently had to go and actually steal a picture from the Guilford County school computers. As this chapter illustrates maybe more clearly than any other, Card successfully predicted a whole lot of technological advances of the modern day, tablets and blogging and internet communities, but he did not see facebook coming.
"His brother is dangerous, his brother was rejected for this program because he's one of the most ruthless and unreliable human beings we've laid hands on. Why is he so important to Ender?""One of" isn't good enough; Battle School only takes the most ruthless and unreliable human beings. (I'm repeating myself, but I'm still struggling to grasp how Ender murdering a schoolyard bully for pushing him around can make him appear more reliable and... ruthful.)
"Honestly, sir, I don't know. And the mind game program is designed so that it can't tell us. It may not know itself, actually."Who the hell thought it was a good idea to program a video game to think for itself, intentionally place kids in psychologically destabilising scenarios, freely requisition whatever information it decides it wants from any computer system on Earth, and be completely unaccountable to everyone? They might as well just let the Joker be the guidance counselor and have HAL run the battleroom. The fact that Earth isn't a smouldering clod of ash is obviously proof that the aliens aren't actually trying to invade, because it's sure as hell not the brilliant military scaring them off.
Back to Earth! It's Ender's eighth birthday and Valentine is commemorating it with a small fire in their backyard at the new house in North Carolina. (This chapter is a huge timeskip. You may recall that Ender's seventh birthday was during his few weeks in Salamander Army, and we'll get to his ninth before the chapter ends.*) She thinks about how often they used to write him letters, but they slowed and stopped when he didn't respond, and finally moved to a new city. She is sure their parents did it for Peter:
...so that living among trees and small animals, so that nature, in as raw a form as Mother and Father could conceive of it, might have a softening influence on their strange and frightening son. and, in a way, it had. Peter took to it right away.I'll spare us all the details of what Valentine has found in the woods, but suffice to say that she knows Peter has been going off on cheerful nature hikes with his desk and a sandwich, and then catching, torturing, and killing squirrels.
At first she was horrified, and nearly threw up at dinner, watching how Peter ate so vigorously, talked so cheerfully. But later she thought about it and realized that perhaps, for Peter, it was a kind of magic, like her little fires; a sacrifice that somehow stilled the dark gods that hunted for his soul. Better to torture squirrels than other children.Valentine might be a genius but she is apparently not familiar with the link between animal cruelty and serial killers. People occasionally bring this idea up, that if you 'vent' your dangerous/harmful impulses by giving into them in some lesser way, you will somehow make yourself healthier than if you held them in. As if the whole of the planet isn't proof that emotions can be practiced, that we teach ourselves how to react and how to feel. Stereotypes. Bigotry. Abuse, whether mental or physical. There's a pretty solid link between animal abuse and a history of being abused. Everything gets easier after the first time. I really hope we're supposed to think this is the stupidest thing Valentine has ever thought.
I don't know whether to detail the rest of Valentine's terrible psychological assessment or not--it manages to be ablist while trying not to be, as she muses on how Peter "was not insane" because he has impulse control. That's not a good definition of insanity. (Strictly and literally speaking, nothing is a good definition of insanity other than 'mental unhealthiness', and I think it's pretty clear Peter does have that. But sure, let's just tell the twelve-year-old with a militarily-screwed-up home life and a completely inadequate school system that his problems are all his own fault because he's just a bad person.)
She doesn't fear Peter's idle death threats anymore, either:
He would only do it if the advantages outweighed the risks. And they did not. In a way, she actually preferred Peter to other people because of this. He always, always acted out of intelligent self-interest.Really? What advantage does he get from torturing animals in a way that can clearly be linked back to him if anyone went looking (say, if Valentine decided to show their parents, which she does not because she thinks they're too stupid to see through Peter's 'whole new boy' façade**)?
Peter moves on from death threats to world politics, and Russian troop movements:
"You know Russia? Big Empire? The Second Warsaw Pact? Rulers of Eurasia from the Netherlands to Pakistan?"
"They don't publish their troop movements, Peter."
"Of course not. But they do publish their passenger and freight train schedules. I've had my desk analyzing those schedules and figuring out when the secret troop trains are moving over the same tracks. Done it backward over the past three years. In the last six months, they've stepped up, they're getting ready for war. Land war."Card wrote this during the early 1980s, when the Cold War was still a thing. Given how many writers back then now look silly for assuming the USSR would hold together indefinitely, I have to give Card some credit for writing world politics such that he could make the USSR the bad guys of the future even if the current situation changed. (If nothing else, he could say the place fell apart during the first alien invasion.)
Peter and Valentine apparently talk about world politics regularly, and are such geniuses that they see the truth that everyone else misses:
They had become quite deft at sifting accurate information out of the stories of the hopelessly ignorant, gullible new writers. The news herd, as Peter called them.Card's predictions about the type of people who would become avid bloggers are scarily accurate. I bet in the Enderverse Peter Wiggin invented the term 'sheeple'. Anyway, Peter and Valentine, super-geniuses with apparent access to incredibly comprehensive information on international rail transit, have managed to come to the same conclusion that Dink Meeker did
We are reminded again about how empathetic Valentine is as she thinks about how good she is at manipulating people by seeing what they like about themselves and flattering them. (Peter is said to see what they hate about themselves, for use in bullying, but apparently that doesn't count as empathy because Card doesn't know what a sociopath is.) She can manipulate people at school, and her parents, and even Peter which scares her, because apparently even Valentine is distressed by the idea that people who do terrible things aren't indecipherably inhuman. First mental illness is scary because it doesn't make sense, and then because it does. You can't win.
Peter goes on about how he and Valentine may be children but they don't act like them or write like them, and how in times of crisis the right words can change everything. He cites many people, including Demosthenes, and flatters Valentine by asking:
"Haven't you ever thought of a phrase, Val, a clever thing to say, and said it, and then two weeks or a month later you hear some adult saying it to another adult, both of them strangers? Or you see it on a video or pick it up on a net?"
"I always figured I heard it before and only thought I was making it up."
"You were wrong. There are maybe two or three thousand people in the world as smart as us, little sister. Most of them are making a living somewhere. Teaching, the poor bastards, or doing research. Precious few of them are actually in positions of power."I read these things and try to remember if I ever identified with them; if I thought of myself in my teens as one of the few smart people with the potential to think freely and speak meaningfully. I honestly don't remember. It sounds like me, and yet on my first read-through I was still totally on Ender's side regarding Peter Wiggin, The Adversary Who Is Called The Devil, so maybe I was too busy being disgusted by his evil. (This chapter, with the animal torture, is the height of Peter's evil and hereafter will largely be ignored and, I would argue, retconned out of existence by the time of Shadow of the Hegemon, four-ish years later.)
Peter's plan to blog his way to power depends first on getting an adult's internet access--apparently they can use whatever fake names they want on the web but they can't avoid being designated as children on their own accounts. He wants Valentine to make they case to their father, by telling him how worried she is that Peter is getting unstable and backsliding to his sadistic ways because he can't talk to his real intellectual peers and get the respect he deserves. If this is supposed to parallel kids who act out in school because the lessons are too easy for them, it's a really creepy parallel.
Valentine brushes Peter off, reminding him that he was making death threats a few minutes ago, and he starts a spiel about how he's wanted to ask her to do this for a long time but he's been afraid--afraid that she wouldn't believe in him, or that she would stop him because she saw him as a nascent evil overlord.
"I was a vicious, nasty brother. I was cruel to you and crueler to Ender before they took him. But I didn't hate you. I loved you both, I just had to be--had to have control, do you understand that? It's the most important thing to me, it's my greatest gift, I can see where the weak points are, I can see how to get in and use them, I just see those things without even trying. [....] I'm going to rule, Val, I'm going to have control of something. But I want it to be something worth ruling."Is this 'I have a gift for seeing the weak points and where to strike' common in other people's experience? Because I have seen a remarkable number of people describe themselves like that (including myself) and I'm not sure whether it's a thing smart people do or a thing that everyone does but only 'smart' people think it makes them special.
Peter's entitlement here is perfect: the conviction that he will change everything if only he doesn't miss opportunities because he's too young and people don't appreciate that if he is the only one who understands how the world needs to be run. He is every teenager, especially the (legitimately) intelligent ones who feel that they are staggering geniuses tragically unappreciated by those around them. There is a foreword to this book, which I have been struggling since the beginning not to quote, because I want to save it for the end, but--this is one of the parts to remember, when we get there.
Also, both siblings Godwin Peter, independently (Valentine in her thoughts, Peter out loud). Peter goes on, and Valentine believes he is both sincere and manipulative (manipulating her by being sincere for once when he normally lies) by saying that he is also afraid that he's going to become a tyrant, but he believes that with Valentine's constant presence and partnership he can be good. Valentine thinks that she wants to believe this too, because it means that she can be good while still satisfying the power-hunger that she tries to pretend she doesn't have too.
I do not believe for one instant that Peter or Valentine couldn't do Ender's job. They are the same person thrice over: 'I'm so smart that I am compelled to dominate no matter what, so I had better angst about whether I am morally pure'. God, that was like crack and Fruitopia to teenage me. Not because I believed it was true, but because I loved the fantasy that it could be.
So they get online and basically start trolling:
They needed respect, and that they could earn. With false names, on the right nets, they could be anybody. Old men, middle-aged women, anybody, as long as they were careful about the way they wrote. [....] Of course they were not invited to take part in the great national and international political forums [....] in the lesser conferences, where common people commented about the great debates, they began to insert their comments. At first Peter insisted that they be deliberately inflammatory. "We can't learn how our style of writing is working unless we get responses--and if we're bland, no one will answer."Based on my web experience, if they want people to react, their best bets are to be funny or to promote one side of the status quo that a large part of the population already agrees with. Still, they get responses, and hate mail. The weird thing is that the hate mail is apparently constructive criticism? I mean, sure, you can see what people take easy shots at, but I'm less clear on how hate mail is a good way of figuring out what parts of your writing are seen as "childish and immature".
Then they get serious, with Peter taking the west coast and the screenname Locke, and Valentine taking the south under the name Demosthenes. They go everywhere together, plotting and writing and using sockpuppets to throw in further ideas to the conversation. Peter is super-intense about keeping their writing styles dissimilar so that (when people start trying to figure out who they are, because of course they will) they won't think there's any chance the two are collaborating.
They began composing debates for their characters. Valentine would prepare and opening statement, and Peter would invent a throwaway name to answer her. His answer would be intelligent, and the debate would be lively, lots of clever invective and good political rhetoric. Valentine had a knack for alliteration that made her phrases memorable.Alliteration always aggregates into an avalanche of actual attention. Or maybe it sounds stupidly twee and childish. But sure. This is, of course, the GIRAT Conundrum, that when a character is the Best Writer Ever in a written story we eventually need some evidence and it's hard to fake The Best Writing Ever. (The solution, of course, is the Tenacious D Stratagem: write essays that other people are writing about Locke and Demosthenes and their ideas. Card will do this later; he does make some good decisions.)
Then they would enter the debate into the network, separated by a reasonable amount of time, as if they were actually making them up on the spot. Sometimes a few other netters would interpose comments, but Peter and Val would usually ignore them [....] Peter took careful note of all their most memorable phrases and then did searches from time to time to find those phrases cropping up in other places.Card accurately predicted people googling themselves. This is pretty comprehensive.
After seven months, Demonsthenes gets an offer for a weekly column in a major California newsnet. She takes it, of course, and gloats a bit about being more popular than Locke, but a large part of the reason seems to be that Demonsthenes is a paranoid xenophobe who rants about how the Russian Empire needs to be dissolved, and (as throughout time immemorial) bigotry has a huge automatic audience. Peter's plan is for his own persona, Locke, to be the one who is ultimately given actual power once he's seen as the voice of reason, the Martin Luther King to Demosthenes' Malcolm X.
Their father starts reading from Demosthenes at the dinner table, talking about how once the Formic War is over they can't leave half the world as serfs to 'hegemonist Russians', which I hope is supposed to be hilarious, when we've been told that the literal global Hegemony is run out of North America. Valentine is sad, because she thought "only fools" would listen to Demosthenes. Valentine is only now catching on to what we realised back in chapter two, which is that her parents are twits. (Or faking it, according to the later books. But I'm pretty sure that's not what Card had in mind at this moment.)
Locke gets picked up by a New England newsnet specifically to counterpoint their super-popular Demosthenes column.
"Not bad for two kids who've only got about eight pubic hairs between them," Peter said. [Excuse me, I have to go throw up forever.]
"It's a long way between writing a newsnet column and ruling the world," Valentine reminded him. "It's such a long way that no one has ever done it."
"They have, though. Or the moral equivalent."Not that Peter explains who he thinks is a good example of this. We'll cut off there for this week, but first a tally: Card successfully predicted big-name bloggers, sockpuppets, the end of the USSR, and the continued popularity of vitriolic jingoism. He completed failed to predict facebook, lolcats, upvotes, or blog deconstructions. I think we all know which have had a bigger impact on the social role of the internet in the world.
Come back next week to see Ender develop and be cured of depression because clearly Card is a master of how psychology works.
*On the one hand, I understand the relevance of timeskips in fiction, but on the other, they almost always frustrate the hell out of me because they are so badly conveyed. For an example of the worst: The Walking Dead TV series did an eight-month timeskip between seasons two and three, during which no one died, no one new joined the group, no interpersonal relationships changed, and everyone travelled in circles. It was just an excuse to skip over a pregnancy. The one good example I can think of is Battlestar Galactica, where the one-year timeskip covered multiple marriages and births, new friendships forming and dissolving, political shifts, personality changes, and it took half a season before we fully understood everything that had happened. My point is this: if you're telling a story where huge changes occur every few hours, and you skip ahead two years and tell the audience "Uh, yeah, coincidentally everything slowed way down while you weren't looking", I am unimpressed.
**Blogger and/or Chrome wants me to spell 'façade' as 'facade', because apparently fuck French. Sigh.