Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter thirteen, part one, in which Ender tells the truth

(Content: emotional abuse, violence. Fun content: I am tired this week so it is just a post, enjoy.)

This would be a really good scene if it were set in a different book.

Ender's Game: p. 227--242
Chapter Thirteen: Valentine

No clue who's handling the Faceless Featureless Plane of Dialogue duties this week, except that one of them's spoken with Graff.  The I.F. has apparently learned how to track IP addresses through more than one link and finally discovered that Valentine and Peter are Demosthenes and Locke.  They're freaking out because:
"The Wiggin is a third.  They are one and two." 
"Oh, excellent.  The Russians will never believe--" 
"That Demosthenes and Locke aren't as much under our control as the Wiggin."
They are for-reals referring to Ender as The Wiggin.  That's apparently how he's known in the highest ranks of the International Fleet.  Amazing.  Also, as much as the International Fleet is supposed to be International, I'm not really seeing how they aren't just Americans.  Apparently the Hegemon is American, all the Battle School teachers are American, and they refer to "the Russians" as a completely separate group.  I find all of these machinations a lot less interesting if this really is just a flat repetition of the Cold War, with the USSR reborn as the bad guys to the I.F.'s NATO.  The idea of the I.F. as the neutral global party trying to keep its constituent parts from fighting is much more fun.  There's a bit later that talks about how "the Second Warsaw Pact was not abiding by the terms of the League" but since the League is apparently as mighty as the U.N., it's still just regular nationalism.  (I'm not even sure what this is for, unless it becomes relevant in the later Ender books somehow?  It doesn't mirror the human/formic war in any illuminating way.)

More to the point, the I.F. folks are GOBSMACKED that Valentine could be writing Demosthenes and Peter writing Locke, given that Val is all that is good and light "and the boy has the soul of a jackal".  (About five pages ago we watched Ender fight Bonzo to the death, but as long as he was sad about it, apparently that's cool.)  The fact that they can work out that Locke and Demosthenes are siblings working together and yet still be baffled that they're writing against type is also some pretty convincing evidence further towards the conclusion that at this point in humanity's future, we're all goddamn stupid.  No wonder being pretty good at laser tag is enough to get military high command turning your name into a title with the definite article.  (The Wiggin: worst timelord ever?)

The I.F. are, for the moment, just going to confirm that Locke and Demosthenes don't have any secret connections or agendas, but they're aware that if they wait too many more years to expose them, there'll be no shock value left and they'll be taken seriously even if everyone knows who they are--which, they think, also might not be a bad thing if the Russians really are planning war.  Of course, if the Russians are 'planning war' then they've apparently been massing troops on the borders for two years and yet the I.F. hasn't been able to confirm it despite having satellites scattered across the entire planet.  (They also think that Demosthenes might be useful to have around if the Russians are planning war, because apparently xenophobia is awesome for making good decisions?)

Valentine is still having fun with it, though--her columns are read across the country, she nudges politics a little here and there with donations to candidates and causes, and she gets diplomatic/furious/interrogatory letters from heads of state to read with her brother.  Normal bonding stuff.  They still fight sometimes, because Demosthenes is more popular than Locke--'he' gets invited to serve on some useless blue ribbon panel, and Peter is jealous that dignified statesman Locke isn't getting the same attention.

Graff arrives to pick up Valentine from school and take her to see Ender--the dialogue isn't bad, particularly for Valentine, but it's patter.  The point is that Ender doesn't want to see anyone, doesn't want to do much of anything, but they've cajoled him into meeting with Valentine.  Val is skeptical about what he's asking her to do, but Graff lets drop that he is one of the six people in the world who know Demosthenes' real identity.  So: blackmail, cool.  Is there anything about Graff that isn't supervillainous?  I'm honestly trying.

Ender in this chapter is almost animalistic, like he's spent the last years on a deserted island punching leopards and never having any human contact, rather than playing laser tag in space.  It's an interesting characterisation, the idea that he's been boiled down to this utilitarian instrument and doesn't know how to navigate humanity anymore, but I really don't think it's justified by what we've seen over the last few chapters.  He's had friends and enemies and triumph and sorrow and pain, and I don't think any of it adds up to forgetting how to people.  So while I like bits like this, I wish they were justified:
Ender didn't wave when she walked down the hill toward him, didn't smile when she stepped onto the floating boat slip.  But she knew that he was glad to see her, knew it because of the way his eyes never left her face.
It's not that this is bad writing, but that it's unjustified writing.  Unearned things are hollow, which I might say is the four-word explanation of what's wrong with most stories that have super-perfect protagonists.

They talk awkwardly and finally manage to reconnect over how terrible Peter is--Ender has built a raft, which he connects to the wooden block buildings he and Valentine would build as infants, ones that would stand up even with their obvious supports removed, and Peter would in turn remove the important ones and leave the obvious ones to turn them fragile even though they looked fine.  I hope the metaphor is intentional, because it could be great--Ender and Valentine made things that stayed strong even when they looked broken, and Peter made things that looked good but fell apart at a touch.  One side substance, one side style.  The problem, of course, is that Ender and Peter are basically the same, both care very much about their appearance (Peter wants to be the respected leader, Ender wants to be the perfect commander and won't ever apologise or ignore a game for any reason) and both have plenty of substance (they both want to befriend or kill everyone).

They swim a bit, then sunbathe.  There's a wasp, which Valentine notices but decides to ignore: Let it walk on this raft, let it bake in the sun as I'm doing.  Ender crushes it instantly, saying that this breed attacks unprovoked and he's been studying pre-emptive strategies.

Which: again, no.  Ender does not do pre-emptive strategies.  He didn't try to find a way to stop Bonzo's plotting or resolve it before it became a deathmatch.  He didn't try to integrate with his fellow students in a way that might give him mutual friends or allies the way he already saw work with Alai and Bernard.  He didn't try to force Graff's hand by bringing the teachers into it in advance.  Ender doesn't do pre-emptive.  Ender waits to be provoked before he kills.  Ender does justification.  Pre-emptive strikes have to be justified, but justification does not make pre-emptive.

Valentine tells Ender about Peter's plan and how they might take over the world.  She says they can all be Alexander the Great, which possibly misses the central concept behind 'unilateral dictatorship'.

It's hard to do a meaningful recap/analysis of this chapter, because it is a recap/analysis of itself.  Ender talks about the games, the way they change the rules whenever they feel like it and he tries to escape but they drag him back.  Valentine acknowledges that she's there to do the dragging.  Ender says he honestly doesn't care about anything anymore, and mentions that they won't let him see the secrets of Mazer Rackham's victory, which matters to him because he needs to understand them.  EMPATHY EXPOSITION TIME.
"Being here alone with nothing to do, I've been thinking about myself, too.  Trying to understand why I hate myself so badly." 
"No, Ender."
"Don't tell me 'No, Ender.'  It took me a long time to realize that I did, but believe me, I did.  Do.  And it came down to this: In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him."
What was I saying about unearned characterisation earlier?  He murdered Stilson because he didn't understand the difference between bullying and gladiatorial arenas.  He made Bonzo's hatred of him worse and worse over the years because he didn't know or care to know what mattered to Bonzo.  And he was able to kill him in the end, not because he understood everything that mattered to Bonzo, but because he knew how to goad Bonzo into a disadvantage.  That took a bit of taunting about honor, nothing more.

Let's have at this a little deeper: if Ender truly understands someone, everything that matters to them, then why is he never able to offer them another way out?  If he really got what made Bonzo tick, why was there a deathmatch instead of a speech saying 'I know what you really need, and here's how we can do this with neither of us dead'.  The simple answer for the Bonzo case is that what Bonzo really and truly wanted was Ender's death, so there wasn't anything else that he could offer.  That is the only way to justify Ender's self-defence kill.  But that flows backwards as well, because it means that if Ender destroys someone and he really understands them, he had no choice except to destroy them.  That's the inescapable conclusion: Ender destroys people by understanding them, and he only destroys them because he has no other choice, otherwise he wouldn't have done it, obviously, because he loves them.

Ender's empathy assures us that everyone he kills must die.
"I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.  And then, in that very moment when I love them--" 
"You beat them." [....] 
"No, you don't understand.  I destroy them.  I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again.  I grind them and grind them until they don't exist."
After all this time, I can't but read this as a meta-admission that this whole book is a geek fantasy about revenge against bullies.

It occurs to Valentine that, much as Peter has found a way to channel his energy 'constructively' and now plays politics instead of torturing bystanders, Ender has changed too, and really might be the more dangerous one now.  Well.  I say 'now', I mean 'hey remember when he murdered a kid at the start of this book?'  They acknowledge this, as Valentine semi-defends Peter and comes to the conclusion that the three kids aren't really as different from each other as the Battle School testers claimed.
"We aren't just ordinary children, are we.  None of us." 
"Don't you sometimes wish we were?" 
She tried to imagine herself being like the other girls at school.  Tried to imagine life if she didn't feel responsible for the future of the world.  "It would be so dull."
On the one hand, children are our future.  The ones who truly do their best to change things for the better deserve to be celebrated.   On the other, I'm willing to bet that there are a lot more who think of themselves as wearily bearing the fate of humanity on their shoulders because the idea that other people are also competent and important is weird and foreign to them.

Valentine decides that, no matter how unmotivated Ender thinks he is, he still has too much ambition to really have stopped--he wants her to get him moving.  Of course, when simple 'don't you want to be the famous hero' fails to work, she moves on to emotional blackmail:
"When you were little and Peter tortured you, it's a good thing I didn't lie back and wait for Mom and Dad to save you.  They never understood how dangerous Peter was.  I knew you had the monitor, but I didn't wait for them, either.  Do you know what Peter used to do to me because I stopped him from hurting you?"
I realise that there are many times when implying is more effective than detailing, but it's just really hard to be sold on how awful Peter is when we only see him do it once and have every reason to believe that incident was exceptional.  But that aside: this is brutal, and I wish we got more of Valentine's story, because her life is a parade of terrifying and courageous decisions made to try to save other people (Ender, then Peter, now the world) and I would like to know her better.  Yes, she fits the usual female stereotype of being the nurturer and passive/reactive and servant to men, and we need many more characters who aren't that because sweet jebus, but all the same: I wish I knew more about Valentine.

Valentine decides at last that what weighs on Ender is Peter, undefeated--no matter what enemies he faces, the memory of Peter having power over him is inescapable.  Ender corrects her:
"You don't understand. [....]  I don't want to beat Peter." 
"Then what do you want?" 
"I want him to love me." 
She had no answer.  As far as she knew, Peter didn't love anybody.
It does seem plausible.  Then again, all the way back in chapter two, we had Peter coming to Ender's bedside to weep and beg forgiveness and swear that he loved him, and I wonder what this story looks like from his perspective, too, and whether they aren't all rubbish at empathising.  The fact that everyone apparently knows Peter was monstrously broken as a kid but no one has tried to help him kind of contributes further to the idea that all of these monsters we supposedly meet (Peter, Bonzo, and Ender whether they admit it or not) are the direct result of Graff's meddling and negligence.  By taking up his heroic blogging crusade, Peter has done more to heal himself than anyone else ever did.

They drift back to shore and Valentine swears to Ender that she loves him more than ever, no matter what he decides, and she leaves and doesn't expect to be forgiven again, because she knows she has convinced him to go back to his studies.  Being the motivational object is a terrible job.

Next week: more Graff than anyone should ever have to listen to.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter twelve, in which Our Hero gets his second kill

It's been a long time coming; here at last is Ender's completely unnecessary orchestrated deathmatch with Bonzo Madrid, Graff-designated archnemesis.  Ugh, this chapter.

(Content: adult negligence, violence, death, minor self-harm.  Fun content: the Patrons.)

Ender's Game: p. 200--227
Chapter Twelve: Bonzo

Dap, who still has a soul, has caught on to Graff's plans and filed a report, so today's Ender Time for Graff is about playing stupid.
"He feels--paternal toward the students here.  He feels your neglect of a potentially lethal situation is more than negligence--that it borders on conspiracy to cause the death of serious injury of one of the students here."
"Colonel Graff, the name of Ender Wiggin has percolated through the high command.  It has even reached my ears.  I have heard him described modestly as our only hope of victory in the upcoming invasion. [....] You have known for eight days that there is a conspiracy among some of the more vicious of these 'children' to cause the beating of Ender Wiggin, if they can. [....] And you, fully warned of this danger, propose to do exactly--" 
"Nothing. [....] Ender Wiggin has been in this situation before."
Graff and General Pace--just a second here.  This guy's name is General Pace.  PACE.  The person who is trying to stop Graff from getting Ender to kill Bonzo is named for an old word that means 'peace' and is used in the modern day to indicate 'person whom I acknowledge but disagree with'.  That is an impressive amount of meaning to fit into four letters, but seriously, Card, you named the guy who tries to prevent Bonzo's death COMMANDER WRONG?!  I am no longer sure I believe this book is real.  Am I being punk'd?

Apparently not.

So they both know that Ender has been harassed by bullies before, and Graff specifically cites Stilson as precedent that Ender can take care of himself, which is interesting to me because Stilson is also precedent that Ender absolutely will murder a kid to make himself feel safe, so I can't figure out what Graff thinks he's going to learn from this second kill.  Graff goes on about how Ender needs to know when he holds the future of the fleet in his hands that no one will come to save him, and that if he graduates Bonzo now Ender will know that he was rescued, because "heaven knows Bonzo isn't a good enough commander to be promoted on merit".  This at least collapses the waveform--we were introduced to Bonzo as hardass but reasonably effective, then told how stupid he was, and now we're told that he just sucks in general.  Yet somehow he's been able to hold command for over four years.  Graff, you know that demotions are a thing too, right?  Bonzo has been in command twice the normal length of time and we've already done the math that command positions should be rare and coveted; how has no one else taken command of Salamander?  How has Bonzo not gone wherever it is that non-commanders go when they graduate?  Where would Bonzo be if you had actually graduated him two years ago like you should have?  Is it possible he'd have found something else in life that he's actually good at, and his honor obsession might have been redirected?  What would have happened to Bonzo if he'd been given a fraction of the attention and special treatment you're giving Ender?

Graff snarks that, while he will deserve to get court-martialled and globally shamed if he is wrong, he deserves a few dozen medals if he's right, "for keeping you from meddling".  He is, without question or mitigation, a monster.

Ender is watching Bean's Ridiculous Ops toon practice weird techniques, like disarming an enemy with their feet in close combat.  Bean has somehow acquired a deadline, the near-invisible near-indestructible cord used to anchor objects in space during construction.  By tying himself to a wall, he can take a great arcing leap at ridiculous speed.  We don't find out until Ender's Shadow how he got this, but it's a bit bizarre--I can only think that Card either felt he had run out of ideas or he was just deadset on using particular scenes that he couldn't justify any other way.

As they leave practice, they start noticing the students in the halls are improbable--too many older students, too many Salamanders and others known to hate Ender, all just casually hanging around or pretending to very slowly leave the area.  The Dragons catch on, but fake relaxation.  Ender knows his army is young and worries what will happen if they're attacked now.

Petra shows up to look like a complete fool and this, again, will not be explained until Shadow.  She asks to talk to Ender, who refuses to break his stride, and when she finally jogs to catch up, she warns him that there are students planning to attack him--she admits that she hated him too after he beat Phoenix, and Ender says he doesn't blame her, which is still weird to me.  Why is the immediate reaction to losing a game in this school to hate the other commander with the fury of ten thousand suns?  Is this supposed to be part of them being realistic children?

Ender points out that they just passed a tons of kids waiting to ambush him, and asks if Petra really didn't notice them.  She angrily declares that she did not and that Ender should learn to recognise his friends.  Given that this message was useless and her attempt to deliver it was dangerous, the options are that 1) Petra is supposed to look totally incompetent here or 2) Card knew all along what she was really thinking (get in a fight, take a few punches, win, everyone will have vented their feelings and no one dies) and just waited a couple of decades to let everyone else know.  2 seems implausible but 1 seems excessive even for him.  I dunno.

His toon leaders honor-guard him to his private cabin, where he finds a text from Dink Meeker: Don't be alone.  Ever.  This is our first hint that the Dinktron 4X Victory And Friendship Unit has broken down and the real Dink Meeker is back to remind everyone that they're playing goddamn laser tag so chill out.  Ender dreams of Stilson, and sees him now as a posturing 6-year-old bully rather than a monster, but in his dreams they beat him anyway, and when Ender wakes up he reassures himself that he's too brilliant for the teachers not to protect him against real threats even if they skew the game against him.  It's a fairly neat bit of work--in a couple of paragraphs Card undercuts Ender's first kill to tell us that murdering Stilson isn't actually proof that he will still kill freely, and he assures us that Ender really is in fact counting on protection from the teachers just like Graff suspects.  Which will apparently hold him back from reaching his full potential, somehow?  That part still isn't clear, even if you buy this part.

The morning's battle is a long slugging match with Badger Army, in a thicket of stars and with Badgers recovering from partial damage over time--only complete freezes are permanent.  Dragon wins, obviously, but they've missed breakfast and Ender cancels practice, and instead naps all morning, which--upon waking--he considers "slacking off" and so forces himself to climb the rope in the gym three times before finally going to shower.  He's alone in there for some time before seven people arrive at once, led by Bonzo.  He reaches for his towel.
It wasn't there.  One of the boys was holding it.  It was Bernard.  All it would take for the picture to be complete was for Stilson and Peter to be there too.  They needed Peter's smile; they needed Stilson's obvious stupidity.
Taking a moment to note that Stilson's intelligence can apparently be judged by looking at him and that stupid people hate Ender.  Yes, folks, we're back into the Sullen Judgmental No-One-Understands-Me Smart Kid Fantasy mode.  Ender quickly decides that Bonzo is the only one he really needs to worry about--the others want to humiliate him; Bonzo wants him dead.
"You can go home and tell your father, Yes, I beat up Ender Wiggin, who was barely ten years old, and I was thirteen."

Not to interrupt the drama, but seriously.  Ender was "six years, nine months, and twelve days old" when he transferred to Salamander Army.  That was three years ago--almost exactly three years, based on the age estimates we've been given and the duration Dragon Army has been in operation (which is, near as I can tell, less than two months).  In order for Bonzo to be 13 now, he would have had to have been 10 then.  He wasn't a new commander, either--Ender told us earlier that armies normally have a game every two weeks, Bonzo declared in his first appearance that Salamander was rising out of obscurity by winning twelve of its last twenty games, and Ender also told us that commanders don't inherit the records of their predecessors, which means at minimum Bonzo had been commander for a full year at that time (40 weeks of games plus the two-month warm-up period after promotion).  In order for Bonzo to be 13 now, he would have had to have been promoted at age 9, the same as Ender, and Ender's promotion was unheard of, whereas Graff assures us that Bonzo is an incompetent fool.*

All of this can be avoided by two things: either make sure your timeline is vague, or don't seed incredibly specific information throughout the book that adds up to a blatant contradiction.  (Option three, of course, is that no one actually cares, which I imagine is what Card would say really matters--it's about the story, not about being fussy over details.  Except that this is the kind of story that falls apart because of details, and in point of fact that's perhaps the most important thing about this story: it only works if you want to believe it does.  Very meta.
"You shut up," said bonzo.  "Shut up and stand out of the way."  He began to take off his uniform.  "Naked [drink!] and wet and alone, Ender, so we're even.  I can't help that I'm bigger than you.  You're such a genius, you figure out how to handle me."
I'm going to skim the fight proper, because it is of itself just not that interesting.  There are plumbing fixtures everywhere which they realise are the key weapons.  Bonzo's stance shows that he's taken ground fighting classes more recently than Ender.  Ender starts turning on faucets for the steam, so that he'll be more slippery, with the soap and the sweat.  Bonzo declares that he's not afraid of hot water, and moves in.

If there isn't yet a pornographic parody based on this scene, there will be by the end of the year.

Dink Meeker bursts in and begs Bonzo to stop, which feeds Bonzo's need for power, but then screws up by declaring that the games don't matter, the point is the war with the aliens, and Ender might be the only one who can win it.  Dink has regained perspective, but the thought that Ender is important and Bonzo is not just locks Bonzo into murder mode and the brawl begins.
"If you touch him you're a buggerlover!" cried Dink.  "You're a traitor, if you touch him you deserve to die!"
Etc.  There is much talk of being "too slippery" and how "Bonzo's tight, hard ribs came against Ender's face" and Bonzo thrusting his hips away "to keep Ender from reaching his groin" and finally Ender smashes Bonzo's nose with his face.  Ender does his whole 'I must win extra-hard or I will have to fight this fight again' rationalisation and so sets in with further savage kicks (specifically including the groin), until Bonzo collapses under the hot spray and doesn't move.  At last the medics show up and Dink hauls Ender away to his room and tries to comfort him by telling him how awesome he is.
There was no doubt now in Ender's mind.  There was no help for him.  Whatever he faced, now and forever, no one would save him from it.  Peter might be scum, but Peter had been right, always right; the power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can't kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you.
Within the context of the school, sure, okay, but only to the extent that he is in an environment completely controlled by people who are actively trying to destroy him.  What isn't at all clear to me is how this is supposed to make Ender a better commander in an environment where he is supposed to lead and plan and be brilliant and, above all else, count on other people to back him up.  If I wanted to dwell on this longer, I would point to nonviolent resistance and to basically every part of human history that shows how the threat of destruction is useless against those who would rather be dead than surrender their ideals.  The power to destroy is the greatest power only as long as you assume destruction is the worst fate.  But addressing that would be another novel.  Ender bursts out again that "I didn't want to hurt him! [...] Why didn't he just leave me alone!" and eventually falls asleep.

Ender awakens again at 1820 that same day to find another battle notification--Dragon versus Griffin and Tiger at once.  The Dragons are excited; Ender goes to shower again and wash off Bonzo's blood.

In the dark battleroom, their view is immediately blocked by stars, so Ender sends Bean's Ridiculous Ops squad to scout by using the aforementioned high-speed deadline arc flight hurricane howling scorpion strike technique art move.  Bean reports that, after the first block that Dragon is assembling on, the battleroom is completely empty until they reach a fortification of stars on the far side where the enemy has gathered.
"In a real war, any commander with brains at all would retreat and save this army." 
"What the hell," said Bean.  "It's only a game." 
"It stopped being a game when they threw away the rules." 
"So you throw 'em away, too."
I can't believe they didn't use that dialogue in the film trailer.  It sounds exactly like every action movie with a maverick hero.  Anyway, Griffin and Tiger lie in wait and are eventually baffled to see a huge formation move out from Dragon's blockade--a literal wall of frozen soldiers, with a cylinder stretching back from it, tied together in a close formation with active Dragons shielded inside and firing.  Bean has used the deadline to make a giant (phallic, sorry to say it but it is) armored vehicle of boys to penetrate enemy lines.  The formation abruptly splits apart and most of it reverses direction, drawing enemy attention back towards the Dragon gate.  The Griffin leader realises something is weird, scans the room, spots a bunch of Dragons near his own gate, takes aim, and the lights come up because Dragon won.  They skipped the actual fighting portion of the battle and sent a little squad to dash through the gate.  (This is a very thematically-inspired battle, with the sacrificial shields and the complete disregard for normal safety in favour of laser focus on the goal.)

In several decades of Battle School operations, apparently no one has ever thought of just going straight for the goal.  Does Earth no longer have capture-the-flag games?  This is such a revolutionary tactic that Anderson declares they're going to change the rules so you can't go through the gate until the entire enemy army is out of commission.  Ender is first calm, then furious when Anderson walks away, but everyone (Tiger and Griffin included) just start cheering him and saying that as long as he's on one team, no match can ever be equal anyway, so forget the rules.

Ender cancels practice forever, declares he's finished with the game, and hides in his cabin until Bean arrives to tell him Dragon has been dissolved--all of the toon leaders have been promoted to command of their own armies, including Bean, the new Rabbit Leader.  Ender rants at Bean while Bean fumbles at being a comforting friend, and again I'm skimming this because it's more wallowing in Ender's angst at how he was 'forced' to beat Bonzo, and this is a much more interesting scene in Ender's Shadow.  Anderson arrives, rebukes Ender for his 'insubordination' in the game room, and then gives him a graduation slip--he's going to Command School, which Bean assures us never happens before age 16.

They leave, and Bean goes back to his bunk and tries to understand his own sorrow, until at last he realises that it's Ender, Ender is gone and Bean will never see him again.  "He bit down on his hand to stop the feeling, to replace it with pain.  It didn't help."  Wow, okay, so this version of Bean medicates with self-harm.  I had not caught that before.  That'll get retconned out.  He forces himself to calm down and fall asleep:
his breathing was quick and light.  He was a soldier, and if anyone had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wouldn't have known what they meant.
Bean is maybe age seven.  He's been at Battle School for a year.  We don't know it yet, but Battle School is a goddamn paradise compared to his early childhood as a starving scavenger in the Netherlands.  This school is absolutely unconscionable child abuse, but the idea that it's converted him into an adult in a matter of months still doesn't make sense to me.  It's possible to abuse people without magically causing them to mature as well.  That which does not kill you does not necessarily make you stronger.

Ender gets onto a shuttle to go home, and Graff is coming with him.  They have to return to Earth to get a long-range shuttle to fly to Command School,  and that means Ender gets to see family.  They land in Florida, and Ender finds it strange, and it's the best and truest bit of the chapter:
Everything was far away and flat; the ground, lacking the upward curve of Battle School floors, seemed instead to fall away, so that on level ground Ender felt as though he were on a pinnacle.  The pull of real gravity felt different and he scuffed his feet when he walked.  He hated it.  He wanted to go back home, back to the Battle School, the only place in the universe where he belonged.
We get a final scene with Imbu and Anderson, the new principal, discussing how Graff has been maybe-arrested by Pace and ordered to report to the Polemarch, and we get the Shocking Reveals that Bonzo is dead, not that they will tell him, and that this is the second time:
"They didn't tell him about Stilson, either." 
"The kid is scary." 
"Ender Wiggin isn't a killer.  He just wins--thoroughly."
If we're not defining 'killer' to mean 'person who kills' anymore, I am seriously not sure how to English.  Ender absolutely is a killer.  What they're saying is that Ender doesn't kill anyone they care about.  If Ender really wanted to win, if he wanted freedom, he would kill Graff, and that would scare the fuck out of them.  Then he would have taken out the greatest threat to his own safety and health.  Ender only kills the people they throw into the arena with him, and that is what makes him useful, but it does not make him innocent.

Next week: Ender breaks, Valentine fixes him, rinse, repeat.


*How much more sense would all of this make if Bonzo wasn't incompetent, but was in fact a potential Chosen One?  What if he was almost Ender, but not quite good enough, and his ego had only become his fatal flaw when Ender appeared and he realised that he wasn't Graff's favourite anymore?  What if he had gone through all of these same trials that Ender has gone through, but sometimes he slipped up, he never made it past The End of the World, he made it through two unfair fights but lost his third one, and Ender arrived and suddenly Bonzo was told that being the best student Battle School had ever seen up to now meant nothing, because they only needed one supreme commander?  What would Ender have become if, just now as he's become a commander and weathered all this abuse, some new kid showed up and was even more brilliant?

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Alright, a few housekeeping things. Something Short and Snappy is now also on tumblr as well as blogger! It will be run by Will. We will not be transferring the full archives, although moving forward everything will be cross-posted between here and there. This is Will's punishment for refusing to be on twitter thing because I'm bad at technology.

On a less fun note, I am going on hiatus until January 2nd. Will's Sunday Ender's Game posts will not be affected by this. There will still be occasional Thursday posts. Either from Will, a guest post, or myself. I will still post on occasion if there is something topical that I want to write about, but by and large I will step back for the time being. I will still be on twitter, and in the comments (probably a little more now than before) but between struggling with my health problems, work complications, and getting ready to get married in two months (and then the holidays right after) it's best if I take a step back for now. The plan in this time is that I will get back to writing features, edit the crap out of it, and come back with a buffer of high quality, ready to party posts. I'll come back with what I estimate to be a 4 part series on the 3rd 50 Shades book, and then I'll start running a deconstruction of Eat, Pray, Love.

I am sorry to have to prioritize like this, and I will miss you all, but my body is a traitorous asshole. I hope you will all have learned from my posts and now see how you too can add snark to your every day life. Until the January 2nd my dear readers!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter eleven, in which we get down to the WINNING

This chapter mostly consists of Ender winning at everything.  To my shock, the first half is probably my favourite part of the entire book.  Honestly didn't see that coming.

(Content: bullying, fat shame.  Fun content: this chapter is actually mostly not awful.)

Ender's Game: p. 173--199
Chapter Eleven: Veni Vidi Vici

Ender has had Dragon Army for three and a half weeks and Major Anderson has delivered the schedule of battles to Graff, to begin immediately--from Graff's reaction, we may conclude that it is rickdiculous.  Anderson and Graff discuss the reliability of the computer projections, with Graff protesting that the computer is famously merciless:
"I just have this picture of Ender a year from now.  Completely useless, worn out, because he was pushed farther than he or any living person could go." 
"We told the computer that our highest priority was having the subject remain useful after the training program." [....] 
"My eagerness to sacrifice little children in order to save mankind is wearing thin."
This shocking turn for the not-supervillain in Graff is inspired by the work of Peter and Valentine, more specifically Demosthenes, as the nets are now filled with people speculating on how the first post-alien job for the Fleet should be to dismantle the Russian empire.  Graff considers this to be a stupid nationalistic rivalry that brings into question whether humanity deserves preservation.  Huge irony, given that the human-Formic war is ultimately a nationalistic rivalry brought about by failure to communicate; I'm going to be nice and assume Card means for it to retroactively appear that way.

Ender lies in his bunk at night, mulling his army--apparently he never sleeps more than five hours a night now, and so has plenty of time to think.  His ten outcast veterans have, in three weeks, transformed into capable leaders, so he's broken his 40 soldiers into five toons of 8, which can then split into half-toons of 4 under the the leader and secondary, which does sound interesting, although the narrative must belabour for us how most armies only practice huge mass formations with "preformed strategies":
Ender had none.  Instead he trained his toon leaders to us their small units effectively in achieving limited goals.  Unsupported, alone, on their own initiative. [....] He knew, with less than a month of training, that his army had the potential of being to best fighting group ever to play the game.
 (Ender's Classmates Are Legitimately As Smart As Him tally: 3)

Ignoring the fact that three weeks with Ender apparently turns a green seven-year-old into a devastating war machine, this is actually one of the parts I rather like, and we have been setting up for it.  Most of Ender's genius through this section of the book applies outside the battleroom: instead of constantly directing soldiers to move as he wills, he focuses heavily on training subcommanders, figures out a general shape of approach on the enemy, and then unleashes them and trusts them to do well.  There still won't be much discussion of coordination and communication during battle, but it's at least hinted at.

Ender wonders whether his army was secretly stacked in his favour with hidden potential, "or was this what any similar group could become under a commander who knew what he wanted his army to do, and knew how to teach them to do it?"  Ender's Shadow spoiler: it's the first one.  I'm a bit curious now what would happen if Ender had to work with seriously unhelpful and unsuitable soldiers.

Anyway, in the middle of the night he gets the notification that he's fighting Rabbit Army in the morning, and at 0601 next morning he's at the Dragon barracks to tell them it's time to run through the halls naked.  [Drink!]  Anyone who doesn't already sleep naked strips down, tucks their flash suit under their arm, and they jog down to the gym to warm up, obstacle course and trampoline and such.  The excitement of the incoming battle gets so high that some of them start wrestling.  Still naked.  Just sayin'.

They dress and jog to the battleroom, and along the way Ender occasionally jumps to touch the ceiling and everyone in line behind him touches the same point, and I actually kind of love this bit.  Forgetting where I am for a moment, this whole sequence evokes the atmosphere for me well--it has the energy that I love about waking up early in the morning, well-rested with the day full of potential and something big to anticipate.  The camaraderie even comes through, now that Ender has stopped with the regulation shouting.  Even the battleroom is grey-lit like the midpart of dawn.  I dunno if this bit works as well if you're not a morning person.

Ender sizes up the grid of stars in the battleroom, gives some basic directions and contingencies, and they deploy, while Rabbit Army creates their formation at the far end.  Ender reflects on how in any previous army he'd be worrying about his own place in the formation at a time like this, and I wonder why three years of following the stolid old tactics haven't damaged his genius, if we're supposed to think that actually reading about existing military theory somehow would.

The battle lasts for about a page, three minutes, and mostly consists of Ender's forces feeling bad that Rabbit Army doesn't realise how completely out-of-date formation warfare is.  We briefly meet Crazy Tom, leader of C toon, and Han Tzu/"Hot Soup", D leader. They carve up flawlessly, losing only one Dragon, even better than Ender expected.  Obviously.

Carn Carby is mild about his defeat, having only been promoted at age 12 instead of them cocky 11-year-old whippersnappers.  Ender makes a mental note to have similar dignity when he is defeated someday, a remarkable flash of humility--I said this was a weirdly good chapter.  Ender skips breakfast because food is for losers (it's not all good) and showers twice while thinking about how awesome he is.  At practice, he's back to being a hardass, but still no shouting: he just observes that their aim is still wretched and sets them to groups, and the narrative points out that one-on-one Ender is infinitely patient and constructive, drifting around dispensing advice, presumably sitting on a lotus blossom and radiating sunlight.

At lunch, he arrives at the commanders' mess, and of course on the scoreboard Dragon is top in everything, since it ranks by unweighted percentages: zero defeats, few casualties, shortest victory.  Everyone forcibly ignores Ender until Dink Meeker arrives halfway through lunch.  Sadly, the Dinktron 4X Victory And Friendship Unit continues to be a pale shadow of the original.  Ender insists that his victory was not a fluke or easy:
"Carn Carby isn't exactly on the bottom of the rankings."  It was true.  Carby was just about in the middle. 
"He's okay," Dink said, "considering that he only just started.  Shows some promise.  You don't show promise.  You show threat." 
"Threat to what?  Do they feed you less if I win?  I thought you told me this was all a stupid game and none of it mattered." 
Dink didn't like having his words thrown back at him, not under these circumstances.  "You were the one who got me playing along with them.  But I'm not playing games with you, Ender.  You won't beat me."
So much for characterisation.  Dink moves on and Ender scans the other commanders, including Petra and Bonzo.  Math interlude: commanders normally get promoted at 11 or 12, and students normally graduate at 13.  Bonzo was a commander, and not brand-new, when Ender was less than 7.  Bonzo can't be younger than 14 now, plausibly 15.  Graff is keeping him in the school for years extra for the sole purpose of being Ender's nemesis, even though they haven't apparently interacted since Ender was 8.  Graff might have sympathy for Ender still, but he's quite literally plotting Bonzo's death.

Carn Carby, at least, is a cheerful guy:
"Right now I'm in disgrace," he said frankly.  "They won't believe me when I tell them you did things that nobody's ever seen before.  So I hope you beat the snot out of the next army you fight.  As a favour to me."
He goes on about how commanders normally get a cheer when they first arrive, because they only join the commanders' mess after their first win and have several losses, but Ender obviously deserves a cheer and instead he's getting frozen out.  Ender "mentally added him to his private list of people who also qualified as human beings", because apparently the only way Commander Empathy grants you personhood is if you're kind of obsequiously nice to him personally.  Idea, Ender: maybe Petra's just wondering why the hell you didn't share your god mode strategies with her at some point over the last two years when you were her second-in-command.

Next morning, they're immediately sent up against Petra and Phoenix Army, and the Dragons are upset about the late notice and getting battles two days in a row, not believing it until A toon leader Fly Molo reads the order himself.  There's more banter and Ender and Bean snark at each other a little, in case we thought they had become friends off-page.

Phoenix Army takes out 12 Dragons before they're down, and Petra is predictably furious, but Ender figures that once he steamrolls a few more armies she'll realise she hit Dragon harder than anyone will again.  A week later, he's right--they've fought a battle every day, won all, and none have done better than Phoenix.  Ender freely tells anyone who asks how he won his latest battle, because he's done with humility and he's "confident that few of them would know how to train their soldiers and their toon leaders to duplicate what his could do".  Ender, your secret shouty training methods are basically stolen directly from TVtropes.  Tone down the ego.
There were many, too, who hated him.  Hated him for being young, for being excellent, for having made their victories look paltry and weak.
Possibly also for being insufferably smug about it?  Despite Ender's conviction that people are only people if he says so, other meatbags do have feelings and brains, and Ender strikes me as the type who thinks he's far more poker-faced and enigmatic than he really is.  The sort to think that no one around him can tell how much contempt he feels for them.  He starts getting bullied again in traditional grade school manner, shunned in the lunchroom and shoved around in the halls and pelted with spitballs.
Ender despised them--but secretly, so secretly that he didn't even know it himself, he feared them.  It was just such little torments that Peter had always used, and Ender was beginning to feel far too much at home.
I'm not buying this.  Peter is a Machiavellian egotist, a manipulator and a psychological abuser.  When would he ever have thought spitballs weren't beneath him?  Jostling people in the hall?  This is just more of the Peter-is-bad-therefore-everything-bad-is-Peter illogic.  I notice that it consistently pops up in the times when Ender is most obviously supposed to be the reader-insert for Underappreciated Smart Children.  Need to think about whether there's a clearer link there beyond simple projection of all Ender's issues onto his Evil Brother.

Ender's techniques have begun to suffuse the school again, kneeling attacks (didn't that one already become standard years ago?) and sliding along the walls to prevent flanking.  Since Ender has nothing to learn from other people (Alai is still kept away by narrative fiat) he starts spending more time in the video room, watching films of Mazer Rackham and the battles of the previous two alien wars.  He has to skip a lot of propaganda:
But Ender began to see how well the buggers used seemingly random flight paths to create confusion, how they used decoys and false retreats to draw the I.F. ships into traps. [....] He began to see things that the official commentators never mentioned.  They were always trying to arouse pride in human accomplishments and loathing of the buggers, but Ender began to wonder how humanity had won at all.
You and me and all our readers, Ender.  He tries to learn strategy from watching the aliens instead, though their overall strategy is straightforward and he sees no sign of individual ingenuity, which he blames on strict discipline.  Mazer Rackham's actual victory is also blatantly censored, with videos that show the huge alien fleet victorious over the human defences, Mazer's tiny strike force darting in, firing the first shot, and then cutting away.  This is pretty good foreshadowing on Card's part, but given the tremendous secrets involved, I am baffled as to why they'd even show that much.  Alternatively, it's at least the 2100s by now if not 2200s; they can't CGI something together for a fake battle?  After all his forethought about the internet, Card seems to have missed the potential of Photoshop.  Narratively, instead of being a big question mark, it would be an opportunity for Ender to be deeply unimpressed by the apparent ultimate final battle, and become convinced that it was fake because it looked so amateur.

Graff calls Ender into his office, where there is some notice about how super-fat the Colonel has become because god only knows; evil makes you fat or vice-versa.  It's a rather boring conversation and Ender gives terse answers to everything: how is he, how are his soldiers, why is he watching invasion vids, why doesn't he play the mind game anymore.  Ender bitterly laughs off the idea that they want him to be happy and assures them that they are succeeding at turning him into the greatest soldier ever, and asks to be given a real challenge.  They hand him the order to fight Salamander Army in ten minutes.  Dragon is still in the showers from their morning battle and practice, and again unwilling to believe it:
"Same day nobody ever do two battles!" said Crazy Tom. 
Ender answered in the same tone.  "Nobody ever beat Dragon Army, either.  This be your big chance to lose?"
I feel we're missing some fingersnaps in here, maybe a 'gnarly'.

When they arrive, the gate has been open for at least five minutes and Salamander is nowhere to be seen.  The room is bright and cavernously empty, and Ender immediately figures out that Salamander has deployed around the Dragon gate, ready to open fire as soon as they come through.  He has Crazy Tom kneel and freezes him, then has Bean kneel on Tom's legs, stick his arms under Tom's, and the result is that Bean is dual-wielding lasers inside a human armorsuit.  They set up a bunch of these, have other soldiers toss them through (facing the gate) and immediately start firing.  It takes less than a minute for the Dragons to wipe Salamander out.

Ender is furious with Anderson and has Bean describe how he'd have fought Dragon (constantly shifting movement around the door), apparently not caring that adding "As long as you're cheating [...] why don't you train the other army to cheat intelligently" will enrage Bonzo even more.  Seriously: this battle, these circumstances, it could not be more obvious that Graff meant to re-ignite their rivalry.  He is trying to get Bonzo killed.

Ender texts Bean to see him that night, ten minutes before lights out.  Bean thinks like a normal soldier, exhausted, average, which will look very weird when this scene comes back in Shadow.  Ender queries him about his performance, whether he should have been made a toon leader after all, and Bean thinks he's being baited.  Ender presses Bean to remember what the school is actually for, and Bean bursts out that it's about the war, and Ender agrees that this is why they're trying to hard to see if the students can break.
"They can't break you." 
"You'd be surprised."  Ender breathed sharply, suddenly, [...] Bean looked at him and realized that the impossible was happening.  Far from baiting him, Ender Wiggin was actually confiding in him.
Ender explains: Bean is research and development, toon leader of a special squad that's not so much Special Ops as Ridiculous Ops, because Ender realises he can't be the only source of genius in the army.
"What's the worst that could happen?  You lose one game." 
"Yes.  That's the worst that could happen.  I can't lose any games.  Because if I lose any---"
He doesn't explain, and I really wish he did.  (Bean wonders in Shadow, of course, particularly if this is just about Ender the Legendary Soldier.)  Earlier in this chapter, Ender looked at Carn Carby and tried to remember how to be dignified in defeat.  Now he's convinced that defeat means the end of all hope.  What has changed?  It's got to have something to do with the incoming war, the vids, everything.  Bonzo and Dinktron 4X are upset because of the game, while Ender trusts Bean because he remembers the alien menace, but Ender still can't afford to lose at laser tag.  The best I can slap together is the idea that Ender knows he has the potential to win everything, so if he ever loses, that means he has stopped trying as hard as he could, and he can't stop doing that because there is a war that he has to win.  That makes a certain amount of motivational sense if we assume both that Ender is right that he has the potential to beat every other commander under every possible circumstances, and that the battleroom still should be his priority while he learns more about aliens and actual space combat.  If he's wrong about either of those things, then losing a single match either means that someone else has skill comparable to his, or that he has intelligently put his efforts into fighting what he believes to be a war of survival instead of varsity laser tag.  I think these assumptions could probably use some contestation.

The lights go out; Ender gets into bed and Bean climbs in with him and for a change it doesn't brim with queer romance.  See, I don't read everything as gay.

Next week: Graff successfully reinstates gladiatorial arenas IN SPACE.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Invisible Illness Awareness Week

I wanted to write a post about being sick for invisible illness awareness week (not to be confused with invisibility illness) but my body decided it hates me so, so much. I'm in too much pain to concentrate on actually writing anything at the moment, and there are no drugs I can take to help with that right now because it's a fun, NEW kind of pain! If it doesn't get better by tomorrow morning I'll be off to the doctor's bright and early, because despite being nearly nocturnal, I doubt I'll sleep in (or at all). Hopefully this time they'll be able to do something or figure it out, you know, unlike all the other pain I've been in. It seems to be a new beast, but given that I've yet to get a diagnosis (which is a whole other series of adventures in doctors' offices. Are you jealous of all the fun I get to have?) it's impossible to say. Yet to look at me right now, you'd assume I was fine, miserable, maybe, but fine.

I realized when I was trying to write that the above was probably the best way I could sum up everything. I have no brilliant insights or eloquent words on the topic, maybe I'll find some on a better day, but for today all I leave you with is this. Not all illnesses have obvious, visible signs, but that doesn't mean their effects aren't real, or major. The lack of visibility means that people dealing with them are dealing with extra shit from people making assumptions.

See also see my other post on illness: How not to be an asshole to someone who is sick.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter ten, in which Ender rejects redemption and loses his boyfriend

So this post is a week late because I thought I forgot my book at home while in Hawaii, and only discovered too late that I had actually packed it more securely and secretly than I remembered.  This will push our schedule back a bit; I've lost all hope of finishing before the movie comes out, but it'll still be in the ballpark.

On the plus side, we have reached the halfway point!  (Pagewise, specifically.  Chapterwise this is 10 of 15, but they're often twice the length they have been up to now.)  Are you as excited as I am?  Up until now, there have been limiting factors on Ender's awesomeness, because he is always under someone else's command.  Now he takes command and the indulgent "I am so awesome I broke the winometer" is going to rev up and roll for most of the rest of the book.  Except for this chapter, which introduces Bean, who is the protagonist of Ender's Shadow, and that means that this chapter is one in which Ender screws up (maybe) and everyone acknowledges it.  (They even acknowledge it in this book, although it gets compounded in Shadow.)  So, there is some hope of refreshing narrative-supported critique here.


(Content: bullying, bully apologism.  Fun content: blatant queer fanfic fodder.)

Ender's Game: p. 154--172
Chapter Ten: Dragon

Today's fifteen minutes of Ender Time contain the order to go ahead and promote Ender to command.  Graff is a little reluctant to give the order, because, as he explains:
"I'm not a commander.  I'm a teacher of little children."
Good lord'n'butter, Graff, you are a colonel and a godawful teacher; you'd better have some kind of command skill.  Anyway, having received Valentine's letter and conquered the End of the World a couple of months ago, Ender is apparently happy now, and so ready for command.  There's some of the typical supervillain banter between Graff and Anderson about how they're doing terrible things to him in order to save the world, but it just bores me now.

Ender has apparently been top of the standings for three years now, so no one is surprised that he's getting promoted at age 9.5 instead of 11 (apparently the normal age, except that makes Bonzo even more ridiculous).  Given that Ender's big thing is supposed to be tactics and strategy, it just seems completely gratuitous to me that he's also the best soldier of all time.  In three years no one has shown up with even the physical potential to surpass Ender?  No one's a better shot, or more coordinated and thus better at maneuvering in zero-G?  I'm all for emphasising the importance of hard work, but Ender being The Best At Everything is tiresome.  Anyway, while being fitted for his new suit, he checks the name on the form: Dragon.
"I've never heard of Dragon Army," Ender said. 
"That's because there hasn't been a Dragon Army in four years.  We discontinued the name because there was a superstition about it.  No Dragon Army in the history of the Battle School ever won even a third of its games.  It got to be a joke."
We've discussed this before: armies have names like Rat and Rabbit and Salamander and then Ender gets goddamned dragons.  It's such a blatant cool-factor thing.  How does Card justify giving the Ender the ridiculously cool name?  By making it the in-universe loser name.  I'm a bit torn on this, and I think it's the type of thing I'd probably let slide in a book that wasn't already causing me to primal-scream so often.  Occasionally, by being good, an author earns the right to indulge in simple cool factor.  Ender has more than tapped his supply and everyone else's.

Graff issues him his commander 'hook'; a gravity-warping hand gadget that will basically allow him to fly freely in the Battle Room during his regularly-scheduled practice sessions, and delivers the usual congratulatory speech, then adds that they've done something funky with Ender's new army by giving him a specially-selected roster mixing extremely fresh students with moderate veterans.  I'm not totally sure what the point was of this aside in this book; it'll be explained in much more detail in Shadow, possibly just to retcon more importance to Bean.  Right now it just looks like more emphasis on how special Ender is.  He's also forbidden to trade any of his soldiers, and told that if he has any problems with them, he'll just have to "get along with him" (foreshadow foreshadow).

Ender arrives at his new barracks and "took charge at once", telling his soldiers to arrange themselves so that the most senior are at the back and the newbies are at the front, the opposite of the usual.  He's so brilliant!  He has even revolutionised the dorms.  On his initial assessment, he guesses he has 30 straight out of their launch group and the remaining 10 are soldiers, but not standouts, not toon leaders, and not older than him.  As soon as they're bunked, Ender orders them into their flash suits for morning practice, and we get the hilarious introduction of Ender the Hardass Drill Sergeant:
"Officially you have a free hour between breakfast and practice.  We'll see what happens after I find out how good you are."  After three minutes, though many of them still weren't dressed, he ordered them out of the room. 
"But I'm naked!" said one boy. [Drink!] 
"Dress faster next time.  Three minutes from first call to running out the door--that's the rule this week.  Next week the rule is two minutes.  Move!" [....] 
Five of the boys were completely naked [drink!], carrying their flash suits as they ran through the corridors; few were fully dressed.  They attracted a lot of attention as they passed open classroom doors.  No one would be late again if he could help it.
 Just in case anyone was still holding out hope that when Card says 'naked' he actually means 'only wearing their longjohns' or something like that: NOPE.  I know that it's pretty normal in armies for soldiers to become completely inured to each others' nakedness, but that's, y'know, infantry who are expected to face a huge variety of dire circumstances where modesty can't be a priority.  Ender and his classmates are proto-generals who need to embrace their nakedness about as much as law students do.  This isn't about breaking down inconvenient cultural baggage, this is about shaming and bullying.

They get to the battleroom, the naked ones finish dressing, and Ender tells them to deploy into the room as if they were attacking the enemy gate.  They're expected to leap up to use the ceiling handholds for this, which makes no sense to me because they're leaping into zero-G and there's no obvious reason why the ceiling (in the gravity-bound hallway) would give them a better controlled launch than taking off from the floor, but apparently it does.  They're all bad at it, shockingly.  The last one to take off is the smallest boy, "obviously underage", whom we shall discover is Bean, and he immediately wins my heart:
"You can use a side handhold if you want," Ender said. 
"Go suck on it," said the boy.
This whole scene appears in Ender's Shadow as well, from Bean's perspective, where it is even better, but the important thing is that at last we have a character who is even more the underdog than Ender, is his intellectual peer, and has no awe whatsoever for the Legendary Soldier.  (Of course he'll be won over in time, but never to a worshipful degree.)

Bean is also bad at flying: he misses the handhold, twirls off like a gyroscope into the room, and Ender muses on whether he likes the kid's determination or disapproves of his insubordinate frownyface.  All of the soldiers eventually form up at the far end and it's time again for Gravity Games With Ender Wiggin as he 'stands' upside-down in the battleroom and demands to know why everyone else is standing on their heads.  Someone eventually dares to say it's the hallway orientation, and Ender continues his loud rant about how directions work in zero-G: "Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember--the enemy's gate is down."  Then we get some typical drill sergeant shoutiness about how bad they are at flying, Ender tells them to form up again on the ceiling, and starts mentally grading them based on how quickly they realise that by 'ceiling' he means the wall their own gate is in, and not the wall that he now calls 'north'.  Bean gets it first, and Ender judges him to be smart, cocky, rebellious, and probably resentful because he had to run through the halls naked.  Uh, exactly as planned?  Or something?  I'm sure resentfulness is part of the plan.

Ender quizzes Bean, who responds quickly and correctly, and Ender finally asks:
"Name, kid?" ['Kid'.  Ender is nine, Bean is six or seven at this point.] 
"This soldier's name is Bean, sir." 
"Get that for size or for brains?"
Et cetera.  Ender immediately goes on to praise Bean, and starts explaining his maneuvering methods in zero-G.  At first I wondered why Ender would need to explain these things as if they're secret, given that he's been working with armies for two years and he explicitly notes that his 'sudden assault' methods have permeated the entire school, but then I remembered that this group is 75% newbies.  Maybe that is why Card decided to give Ender a weirdly fresh army; so that he could justify explaining techniques starting from first principles (his personal fetish).  In addition to making it clear that Ender has the deck stacked against him and all his victories are through personal awesomeness, obviously.

At last Ender realises that his simultaneous verbal abuse and pointed praise of Bean ("At least I have one soldier who can figure things out") is exactly what Graff did to him back in the day, making the rest of the army hate him for being the commander's favourite.  He suffers an attack of conscience, wishing he could somehow tell everyone to support the little kid and not hate him:
But of course Ender couldn't do that.  Not on the first day.  On the first day even his mistakes had to look like part of a brilliant plan.
People with training in real leadership positions are free to comment here, but is projecting an aura of infallibility (especially when your subordinates already think you're screwing up) really that vital to leadership?  Or is this just Ender buying into his own PR and worrying that he'll be considered inadequate if he admits mistakes?  (Everyone loves and trusts commanders who refuse to reverse and adjust when they realise they've made a mistake, right?  LEADERSHIP.)  But I suppose the real message here is that Ender's conscience is wrong, that picking on Bean really will make him stronger, and that he must learn to stamp down on softness in order to be a good leader.  Sigh.  At least there's some brief acknowledgement that Ender is being a total jackass here and might not always make the perfect decisions every time?  I'm not sure anymore.

There's more demonstrations and training, which will be way more interesting in Ender's Shadow because Ender is actually being deeply unreasonable and not thinking things through--he quizzes them and asks them to describe their attack position, because apparently he thinks forty boys will be able to improvise in unison a description of a stance with their legs folded up against their chest and their arms stuck between their knees with their gun pointed straight ahead as they descend face-first towards the far wall.  Bean just demonstrates and everyone else follows when Ender shouts at them more.  I'm not sure, reading this, whether Card actually had Bean's side going on in his head, or if he went back later, re-read, and constructed the parallax scene to match.  There are moments when Bean just stares at Ender for a moment before answering questions, which in Shadow will be filled with paragraphs of internal monologue that make much more sense.  If Card wasn't imagining a whole lot going on in Bean's head, I'm not sure what those silences are meant to indicate--yet, in the one scene in this book from Bean's perspective, he's very obviously not the same character.  Questions for the ages, but mostly of interest to me as a writer rather than a reader.

Training goes on, Ender muses that he has to work fast because the teachers will probably not give him the usual three months' prep before his first battle.  Bean sticks around after practice to continue mavericking:
"Ho, Bean." 
"Ho, Ender." 
"Sir," Ender said softly. [....] 
"I want a toon." 
Ender walked back to him and stood looking down into his eyes.  "Why should you get a toon?" 
"Because I'd know what to do with it." 
"Knowing what to do with a toon is easy," Ender said.  "It's getting them to do it that's hard."
Ender explains that his shoutiness and singling-out helped Bean because otherwise no one would have noticed him, but now he's going to be the centre of everyone's attention and just has to be perfect in order to win their respect.  After all, that has clearly worked so well for Ender.  It's not like Ender's life is (Stilson) riddled with strong and (Peter) aggressive people who saw his perfection and hated it and wanted nothing (Bonzo) more than to hurt or destroy him, cough.  (In Ender's Shadow, Bean of course gains an archnemesis, but shockingly it has nothing to do with this.  It's a completely different context in which Bean's genius earns him someone's malice.)

Now my unfavourite part, because verbal abuse just isn't the same without its complement--as he lectures Bean, Ender pushes him back into the wall to remind this tiny six-year-old which one of them is the Legendary Soldier, and when Bean is awesome and refuses to let Ender's loomingness intimidate him and just snarks back, Ender grabs him by the collar and shoves him into the wall.  (Bean continues to smirk.)
Ender let go of him and walked away.  When he got to his room he lay down on his bed and trembled.  What am I doing?  My first practice session, and I'm already bullying people the way Bonzo did.  And Peter.  Shoving people around.  Picking on some poor little kid so the others'll have somebody they all hate.  Sickening.  Everything I hated in a commander, and I'm doing it.
This is the kid whose superpower is his ability to get inside someone else's head so completely that he fully understands their worldview and can't help but love them.  This is him in a moment when he seems, for just a moment, to realise that maybe the world is more complicated than warrior-saints and reavers.  This should be the moment, in a less-monomaniacal book, in which it occurs to Ender that maybe his 'enemies' aren't that different from himself, that maybe people sometimes make bad decisions because they followed the wrong whim and they aren't strong enough to admit their fault now, that a bully might need to be healed instead of destroyed.

Picture my hand sweeping over my head with a great voom.
Why had he done to Bean what had been done to Ender by commanders that he despised? [....] It wasn't an accident.  Ender realized that now.  It was a strategy.  Graff had deliberately set him up to be separate from the other boys, made it impossible for him to be close to them. [....] Graff had isolated Ender to make him struggle.  To make him prove, not that he was competent, but that he was far better than everyone else.  That was the only way he could win respect and friendship.  It made him a better soldier than he would ever have been otherwise.  It also made him lonely, afraid, angry, untrusting.  And maybe those traits, too, made him a better soldier.
Ender, one chapter ago you were in the Pit of Despair because you realised that all of your respect and reputation had done jack-all to help you form or maintain legitimate friendships.  You hated the respect and you fell into an ineffectual funk until your favourite psychic video game gave you a virtual doll shaped like your sister to be your friend.  I don't know how to make that situation sadder.  Talk to any real and competent soldier, anywhere.  Ask them if directionless fear, mistrust, anger, and a disconnection from their comrades makes a soldier more effective.  Please upload their reaction to youtube.

Ender's elite practice sessions are brought to an end by teacher fiat, and anyway other commanders don't want their soldiers practicing with Ender now that he has his own army.  I'm not really sure why being commander is considered a much bigger conflict of interest than being Petra Arkanian's second-in-command, but whatever.  (At least the book acknowledges this too.)  Ender complains to Major Anderson, who dismisses Ender's concerns and tells him to grow up and take responsibility.  He holds another practice, then goes to the arcade to mess around a bit before bed, where he finds Alai.
"Don't you know?  We're enemies now.  Next time I meet you in battle, I'll whip your ass." 
It was banter, as always, but now there was too much truth behind it.  Now when Ender heard Alai talk as if it were all a joke, he felt the pain of losing his friend, and the worse pain of wondering if Alai really felt as little pain as he showed. [....] 
"Salaam, Alai."
"Alas, it is not to be." 
"What isn't?" 
"Peace.  It's what salaam means.  Peace be unto you." [....] 
Ender turned around.  Alai was already gone.  Ender felt as if a part of himself had been taken away, an inward prop that was holding up his courage and confidence.  With Alai, to a degree impossible even with Shen, Ender had come to feel a unity so strong that the word we came to his lips much more easily than I. 
But Alai had left something behind.  Ender lay in bed, dozing into the night, and felt Alai's lips on his cheek as he muttered the word peace.  The kiss, the word, the peace were with him still.
I complain on occasion that the lack of same-sex romance in media is one of the reasons it took me so long to realise I am bi, but reading something like this, I wonder just how gay a scene would have to get before my teenage self would have noticed.  The fanfiction writes itself so easily that I think my desktop is spontaneously generating textfiles of extended makeout scenes after Ender and Alai are teenagers at Command School within the dark tunnels of the asteroid base Eros.  (Note to those who haven't read the book before: except for the makeouts, all of that happens.  Yes, Eros.  No, I don't know what Card thought it symbolised.  We'll see when we get there.)
The most terrible thing, though, was the fear that the wall could never be breached, that in his heart Alai was glad of the separation, and was ready to be Ender's enemy.  For now that they could not be together, they must be infinitely apart, and what had been sure and unshakable was now fragile and insubstantial; from the moment we are not together, Alai is a stranger, for he has a life now that will be no part of mine, and that means that when I see him we will not know each other.
So awkward when you're just walking around space military school and you see your ex and they're with their new commander.  I legitimately can't see any other way to interpret this--the only times I can think of when I have felt I had to choose between the most intense closeness or staying as absolutely far away as I possibly could were romantic relationships (or failures thereof).  I wish this had been written by another author, so that I could just call it good.  Instead we've got this weird scenario where I have to take joy in the fact that plenty of queer readers picked up on this, simply read Ender as a gay hero, and Card has accidentally given support and succour to the people he so desperately wants to erase.
When they had turned Valentine into a stranger, when they had used her as a tool to work on Ender, from that day forward they could never hurt him deep enough to make him cry again.  Ender was certain of that. 
And with that anger, he decided he was strong enough to defeat them--the teachers, his enemies.
Yes, Ender.  Defeat your enemies, the teachers, by following all of their rules and doing everything they say, falling directly into the agony and mortal danger they intend you to face, and doing the shockingly immoral jobs they have planned for you.  That'll defeat 'em real good.  Mon Dieu, the pretension of badassery here is incalculable.  I can only guess that Ender's 'victory' consists of hanging onto his sanity and reputation through all of this, but if you want to be considered a defiant hero, you actually have to defy.  Otherwise you're just a Left Behind protagonist and people make fun of you on the internet.

Next week: Ender wins at everything because obviously.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sounds of Silence

You turn your collar up and head up the wide stone steps to the small red farmhouse. The air is thick and heavy with the late summer's humidity. Bloated clouds hang above waiting to open up and pour down on you. You'd rather be inside with a book on a day like today but a phone call had brought you out in this near storm. Your friend had called you, frantic, because they didn't know anyone else in the city. Their baby sister Molly had gotten real strange lately and now wasn't answering her phone, could you, maybe, swing by and check up on her? Your friend didn't want to call the police, she knew her sister lived out in the country and maybe her phone line just got knocked out or something? There had been a lot of storms lately... So now you stand in front of the modest old farm house, key that was express mailed to you in hand. You knock, hoping that this was all a mistake and your friends sister will answer the door and explain that her phone's been out and apologize for the trouble. There's no answer. You try the bell, if it makes a sound, you don't hear it. After a few minutes you give up and try the key. It clicks open and you knock as you enter, hoping to alert whoever lives there.

"Hello?" your voice echoes off of the walls which all seem dusty. At your feet is a pile of mail. Out of habit, you scoop it up and take it to the kitchen. The house seems to be well maintained, although it looks far over due for a good scrub. Once you reach the kitchen (to the left, they always seem to be to the left) you do a lap of the main floor. There's a thin layer of dust over everything, but if this place was abandoned, it wasn't done intentionally. There's still food in the fridge, a shopping list scribbled to the front, an empty tea mug with a moldy bag sitting at the table...

You give up on the main floor and go up the narrow staircase. The stairs creak loudly as you mount them, a sense of dread growing in your stomach as you do. The rain has started and you notice the hall window is open. Out of habit you close it before you begin to search the upstairs for signs of Molly. The bed was made, not an object out of place, but a thick layer of dust covered everything up here, too. The bathroom and second bedroom were in the same shape. Just the office left. Shelves lined the walls, heavy leather bound books that look older than you. This room is less dusty than the others, and you try the light switch by the door. It seems the power was cut some time ago. There isn't even the sound of the electrical discharge that you're used to from trying a dead light. You fumble to pull your phone out of your pocket and flip the flashlight on it on. The room isn't so dark you can't see, but you want to see if you can find some scraps of paper that point to where Molly went.

On the desk you find more clutter than you had in other parts of the house. Books scattered about, and a sturdy, plastic covered notebook. You can see through the clear cover some writing, and you idly flip it open, shining your light onto the page of cramped red inked hand writing. The page is filled top to bottom, corner to corner with text.

 If you find this book it is too late for me. I am gone from this world past the land of dreams and sleep. I am somewhere where there is no smell of life of flicker of light. All that remains is the deafening silence. Silence screaming as you frantically try to scream back to banish it but no sound comes out. Only silence. I am gone from this world and can not save it now. But you can. Heed what you find in these pages no matter how impossible or fantastical the words seem. Heed these words. I have left for you they are this worlds only hope. Oh brave and lonely soul! You must stop them! Let this book guide you where I failed. You must stop them. They are coming. They will come and they will consume all. They will consume the earth and the stars from the sky and the vast cold emptiness of space. They will consume all until not even nothingness remains. Only silence. Screaming, deafening silence. Time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming time is short they are coming they are coming they are coming they are coming they are coming for you next

You stare in horror as you drop the book down to the desk you found it on and without a second glance behind you leave the house into the downpour outside, barely remembering to lock the door behind you. You don't think about what you'll tell your friend about Molly, or where you're going. You're just filled with the overwhelming urge to get away from this place right now. Hoping that space will protect you from what you just read, but the sick twisting feeling in your gut tells you that doesn't matter. You know it with more certainty than you've ever known something before. It's too late. The sky is now a dull, empty grey, the rain gone, and everything is quiet. So quiet.