(Content: depression, coercion. Fun content: Ghostbusters, Slownx.)
Ender's Game: p. 138--153
Remember what I said about timeskips last week?
Nothing was different, nothing had changed in a year.Doin' it wrong.
Well, it's not quite true; some things have changed:
At the age of nine he was a toon leader in Phoenix Army, with Petra Arkanian as his commander. [....] Alai was also a toon leader, in another army, and they were still good friends; Shen was not a leader, but that was no barrier. Dink Meeker had finally accepted command and succeeded Rose the Nose in Rat Army's command.I'm not sure I can express my disdain for that last line. First, really, can no one drop 'the Nose' from Rosen Spaceberg's name? What happened to Ender's dislike of racial slurs? But secondly, what happened to Dink's entire characterisation as someone who rejects the philosophy that's pushed on them that they must seek to dominate and take command for the approval of the teachers? What happened to his refusal to give up the game he loved and his refusal to play the game they wanted him to? All of that reasoned morality is thrown aside for 'Dink's a commander now, yay!' Why? The most plausible theory to me is that it won't be long before Ender gets command, and if Ender became a commander while Dink still maintained that command is a morally dubious position, Ender would look like he might have made the wrong (that is to say, less-than-perfectly-pure) choice. How do we keep Ender unquestionably untainted? Total protonic reversal of Dink's worldview. Whatever, it's not like it made him interesting or provided a desperately-needed dissenting opinion to the story.
Ender is deeply depressed and can't figure out why, given that it seems everything is going so well. (He just hasn't gotten over Dink's replacement with the Dinktron 4X Victory And Friendship Unit.) He comes to the conclusion that he receives too much respect. No one goofs around with him, no one jokes or reminisces, there's just excitement about the games and tactics. Shen and Alai joked with each other in that night's practice, calling back to the 'go nova' incident from the zero-G fight, and then remembered Ender was standing right there:
And they apologized again. Back to business. Back to respect. And Ender realized that in their laughter, in their friendship, it had not occurred to them that he could have been included.
How could they think I was part of it? Did I laugh? Did I join in? Just stood there, watching, like a teacher.Here's an idea, Ender: maybe the problem isn't that it didn't occur to them, but that it didn't occur to you. And your best friends noticed that you weren't laughing along with their joke, and they remembered that while they escaped that day unscathed, you dove protectively into a brawl and hurt a lot of other kids defending yourself, and they remember how that bothered you too, and that no one ever talked about it afterwards, and you still weren't talking about it as they laughed. Maybe it occurred to them that you might hate thinking about that day and they were being insensitive. Maybe, in short, they apologised because they actually give a damn about your feelings.
Nah, it's probably because he's so intimidatingly brilliant. I'm trying not to judge Ender too harshly here, because he's suffering from some kind of depression and so he's naturally not going to come to conclusions like 'people care about me'. However, I really don't think Card intended us to read anything into this other than what he tells us:
That's how they think of me, too. Teacher. Legendary soldier. Not one of them. Not someone that you embrace and whisper Salaam in his ear. That only lasted while Ender still seemed a victim. Still seemed vulnerable. Now he was the master soldier, and he was completely, utterly alone.From what I've read, Card believes that the essential core of this story that makes it resonate with so many people is exactly this: the lonely child--a figure that anyone empathetic both identifies with and wants to help. He kind of meta-comments on this in the Shadow series, making the case that an elemental story will resonate with people even if they realise how contrived and simplistic it is. Personal mileage may vary on how true that is, but what really leaps out at me about this point is that it comes at a moment that could be easily explained (as above) by people actually trying their hardest to be Ender's friends. The loneliness might not be Ender's fault (depression is a jackwagon) but it still might just as easily be all in his head as a reflection of his actual circumstances.
He keeps playing the mind game, and apparently it's been the same all year--the rest of the game world doesn't acknowledge him now, no one has puzzles for him to solve, no one fights him, everything is quietly and peacefully simulating life around him, except in the tower at the End of the World, where he always kills the snake and sees Peter's face in the mirror and something kills him. He does this yet again, and finally comes to the realisation that his place stuck in the game mirrors the way he feels about his life, and he calls it 'despair'.
Aside for a moment: this looks a lot like what we might call depression, as I will tend to do, and generally despair is not recognised as a clinical illness, although it might be a symptom of a broader problem. I don't think Card refers to it as depression, which is just as well given how rapidly and unrealistically he's going to purge it, but I'm not sure that's a mercy so much as part of the broader problem that our depression narratives in our society are completely useless to actual depressed people. Depression exists for lots of reasons, and while it can have instigating events, it is not as simple as 'this aspect of my life makes me sad' and it cannot be cured by a hug. Fortunately for Ender, he doesn't live in the real world. (Sucks to be us.)
Valentine comes to school to find I.F. guards at the doors, and a message at her desk calling her to the principal's office. Demosthenes is getting to be a bigger name--discussed extensively on the international nets for having "outraged too many wise men and pleased too many fools", so Valentine is feeling the heat and is sure they have finally tracked her down. Inside the principal's office, she finds Graff, who has been upgraded to "soft-bellied", and she continues to panic as he explains that he's there to talk about her brother, until she realises that they don't mean Peter.
...it was little Ender, who had disappeared so long ago, who was no part of Peter's plots now. You were the lucky one, Ender. You got away before Peter could trap you into his conspiracy.They just brim with scorn for Peter, eh? Valentine apparently considers begging equivalent to blackmail, and partnership equivalent to conspiracy. Without her, the entire plan would utterly fall apart, and she admits that she joined partly because she too hungers to have great influence on the world, but... sure, it's all Evil Peter's diabolical scheme.
There's a brief and amazingly gratuitous bit where Graff says that they should take a walk, away from the listening devices that the assistant principal has bugged Dr Lineberry's office with, and produces one from behind a picture frame with an "I thought you knew" before walking out. Just in case we forgot how much normal people suck compared to Our Heroes. (Given that Graff is a supervillain, I half-suspect him of planting it there just for misdirection and discord. He is a principal himself; he doesn't need others bucking for his position. It's the Battle School way!)
Graff continues to be terrible at his job:
"Valentine, we need your help for Ender."
"What kind of help?"
"We aren't even sure of that. We need you to help us figure out how you can help us."
"Well, what's wrong?"
"That's part of the problem. We don't know."I'm sure the point here is to impress upon us how incredibly complicated child psychology is when combined with the process of hammering a person into the perfect murder coordinator, but: seriously. They can tell Ender is unhappy in spite of how wonderful his life is, they can see that he's been stuck at the tower room for over a year, but they can't guess why at all? This is exactly what I'm talking about: Ender looks very much like a clinically depressed person, and the conviction that depression has a simple cause that needs to be fixed and then he'll be cured is flatly wrong and counterproductive. Where the hell are the competent analysts? Someone get Major Imbu in here. He's probably busy programming a computer to find Jesus.
Graff fills Valentine in on the nature of the game, and she dismissively says that if Ender solved the unsolvable problem once before (the Giant's Drink) he'll solve this one in time as well, but Graff presses on to ask why Ender would see Peter in the mirror, and Valentine insists that they are complete opposites and it makes no sense, and once again I am disoriented by the vast gulf between the case that the book makes and the one that Card seems to believe it makes. Graff starts getting pushier, explaining that Ender needs to be made okay and therefore he will get as invasive with the Wiggin family as he must, but he hopes Valentine can help him solve it neatly.
So she told him about the children in every school that Peter attended. He never hit them, but he tortured them just the same. Found what they were most ashamed of and told it to the person whose respect they most wanted. Found what they most feared and made sure they faced it often.But, Valentine tells us, he never did this to Ender, because "Ender never did anything to be ashamed of". (I am suddenly very curious what life would have been like if Ender hadn't been taken away the day after he killed Stilson.) Valentine insists that Ender "never gave in [....] to being like Peter", whereas she did because she wanted to kill Peter to protect Ender. (See previous parenthetical, redoubled.) She thinks Graff doesn't understand and believes that Peter and Ender are the same, and quite freaks out on him:
"Well maybe I'm like Peter, but Ender isn't he isn't at all, I used to tell him that when he cried, I told him that lots of times, you're not like Peter, you never like to hurt people, you're kind and good and not like Peter at all!"Well, I'm convinced. (It's moments like this that make me wonder if I'm being pranked and Card doesn't honestly believe Ender and Peter are opposites at all.)
Graff wants her to do exactly that again, in a letter rather than in person, admitting that they never let any of her previous letters through. When Valentine tries to bargain to see Ender (whose first leave will now be at 18 rather than 12 because "we changed the rules"), Graff says they can just fake her letter using the ones she already sent before. She demands to know why she should help at all, what kinds of terrible things they are doing to him, and I assume thunder rolls and Graff steeples his fingers as he chuckles and says "the terrible things are only about to begin". Who says that? WHY WOULD ANYONE SAY THAT AT THIS MOMENT?! The scene ends right there, but can we just take a second to imagine how it goes as Graff realises that he used his outside voice and Valentine just stares at him and slowly plots how Demosthenes will harness 'his' vast mob to tear the International Fleet apart brick and beam?
Ender gets a letter, and it takes him a moment to realise it's from Valentine. It's a short thing, only eleven sentences and weirdly badly punctuated considering that Val is such a genius writer--I suppose she's trying to play down her intelligence still, except that Graff already told her he knows she's smarter than most university professors now (because that is clearly a standardised unit). It is the platonic ideal of awkward, basically leaping segue-free into 'so I bet some people think you're a cruel person now but I know you aren't'. She of course takes some time to insult Peter before the end, because after being separated from her beloved baby brother for three years, that is her priority.
Ender notes all of Valentine's quirks that make it plausible that she wrote the letter, things like calling Peter "a slumbitch" and spelling psychoanalyse as "sikowanalize", which we are told are old in-jokes between the two of them because Card wants us to know that showing-not-telling is for losers who probably don't even have one Nebula Award. He's not certain that she sent it, but he's smart enough to realise that even if she did, the only reason this letter got through when all the others didn't is that the teachers want to manipulate him with this one. The theme of this chapter seems to be 'knowing people are manipulating you and letting them do it because you want to be changed', first with Peter and Valentine, and then with Valentine and Ender. Interesting, given that Valentine is apparently convinced that helping Peter represents her fall to the Dark Side of the Smart, but she was easily won over to helping manipulate Ender. Right after Graff did his supervillain act, too? Questionable.
As ambivalent as I am about the characters' choices here, the writing is once again pretty good:
And the despair filled him again. Now he knew why. Now he knew what he hated so much. He had no control over his own life. [....] Only the game was left to him, that was all, everything else was them and their rules and plans and lessons and programs, and all he could do was go this way or that way in battle. The one real thing, the one precious real thing was his memory of Valentine [...] and they had taken her and put her on their side. She was one of them now. [....] They knew about Peter in the mirror in the castle room, they knew about everything and to them Val was just one more tool to use to control him, just one more trick to play. Dink was right, they were the enemy, they loved nothing and cared for nothing and he was not going to do what they wanted, he was damn well not going to do anything for them.(Of course Dink was right, Ender. His name is Dink Meeker. Being right about everything is a survival mechanism at that point.) He goes back to the tower in the game, confronts the serpent in the carpet, catches it, and kisses it (accidentally, because apparently the controls in this game are as graceful as a 6-year-old N64 C-stick) and it transforms into Valentine, who embraces him. The mirror shows a dragon and a unicorn, and the wall opens onto a hall lined with cheering crowds and Valentine goes with him out into the world. And every face in the crowd is Peter.
I confess this baffles me deeply. The serpent who declared that Ender's only escape was death is revealed to actually be Valentine, who will now just follow him around everywhere he goes in the games? (You know, they added this feature in the latest Pokémon editions. I choose you, Female Passive Motivational Object!) The most plausible interpretation I can see here is that Ender has been 'killing' his empathetic side for the last year because he is stuck thinking only in terms of 'how do I fight' instead of 'should I fight'. So, by making the breakthrough that not all problems are best solved with murder, he is rewarded with a companion to help explore the universe.
It's been building for some time, but this is the point at which I have to conclude--despite having never yet read Speaker For The Dead--that this book is not meant to make sense on its own. The last revelation and tragedy of this novel is that all of these lessons that Ender learns about empathy and the advantages of not murdering everyone you meet get thrown out the window and the remorseful aliens are obliterated. It's a vast exercise in futility and rejected character development. I could maybe be sold on that, the final sudden reversal that is about trying to understand the people you've been thinking aren't people, but more galling, the primary activity of these characters is to tell each other how virtuous and pure they are while they grievously fail all over the place. If that message of desperate radical empathy were the core of the book, I might look on it much more kindly, but ultimately it is not about that: it's about a troubled child and his torments. It's about identifying with a wearily-perfect character and feeling sorry for him at the same time. It is, in point, a narcissistic story masquerading as a lesson in empathy. I begin to suspect that I will have to read Speaker eventually, just to see if that book has the payoff that this one throws away.
Valentine is secretly awarded the "Star of the Order of the League of Humanity, First Class, which is the highest military award that can be given to a civilian", and judges herself harshly for having helped them, spurring her to write a Demosthenes article denouncing population laws and calling for humanity to spread across the universe, naming 'Third' "the most noble title any child can have". Peter thinks she's trolling. At this point, all I can wonder is how 'Third' even became a stigmatised title in broader society if they're often government-requisitioned geniuses. It's one thing for children to mock the kid who is in any way different and another for society at large to be all "Ugh, I hate those really competent people".
And that's it for chapter nine and now things get cereal, because next week Ender takes command of his own army. And I fly to Hawaii! I'll try to make sure that doesn't throw off the schedule, because that is the infinite love that I have for my readers.