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.


  1. Yeah, that was one of the things that bugged me the most reading this book the first time at about 16 (the other thing was someone who told me "Starship Troopers", the movie, was based on "Ender's Game" because the enemies were insect-based aliens. As a fan of Heinlein since the age of about 12, this irritated me to no end, and I told him Heinlein's book had been in print for decades before Card's. I also ended up reading the book to see whether or not it was true, so yet another thing to lay at the feet of Paul Verhoeven, I guess.)

    Aaaanyway, it bugged the crap out of me that the Government of Shadowy Figures, Space Navy, and Birth Control specially commissioned an Ender based on his siblings, while rejecting one of those siblings for being "another..." (ellipsis of evil Peter!), but once they had the Wiggin they wanted, they just let the other two Possible Chosen Ones continue on their unobserved suburban existence where they could casually influence world politics with blog posts. I mean, come the fuck on, this Government can commission children from citizens, embed digital trackers in the spines of said children, and take said children away at the age of six for rigorous military training, and yet... they can't keep tabs on a couple of genius-level pre-teens? Really? Really. Okay then.

  2. So Ender is suffering from burnout, and the realization that he is going to be used as an instrument of war, and he has quite sensibly decided the correct option here is "fuck this, go away." Then Graff sends in his sister to get him back on the plan. I want to know what he threatened her with to get her on board. Exposing her and Peter as Locke and Demothsenes? Or something else?

    And "The Wiggin" only helps everyone disassociate from the idea that this is a kid they are training to let loose and go to war.

  3. They debate various questions of duty to humanity and all that, but yeah, Valentine properly signs on only once Graff lets it drop that he knows who Demosthenes really is.

    Very good point that 'the Wiggin' sounds much more like an instrument than a person.

  4. I hate myself so badly

    love them the way they love themselves

    ...these both came from the same person, in the same conversation? (Does Ender believe he's the only person with self-loathing?)

  5. I'm sure we've all heard of the "show, don't tell" rule. This actually goes a step further. Basically everything in this chapter is "tell, after you've shown us something else." Basically everything here is a "when was THAT?" moment, from preemptive strategies to understanding enemies to (after talking about how he utterly destroys all his opponents, and endless chapters of "Peter is everything bad in the world") wanting Peter to love him.

  6. I don't really understand how the "exposure as Demosthenes and Locke" blackmail works. I mean, imagine that the government suddenly "outed", say, Rush Limbaugh as a twelve year old school girl. It would either be mistaken for a badly done Onion story, or the assumption would be that something else is really going on - and the backlash would be against the government, not the supposedly outed person. Even though, in this case, it would be true, I can't believe that the response would be any different. Almost no one would believe it and it would look like the most bizarre cover-up ever.

    Shouldn't Valentine realize that?

  7. I'm not even clear how it is that it's impossible for anyone but the highest-ranked I.F. officials to track IP addresses and linked accounts until they work out who owns a particular screenname. You'd think some basement hacker would have found them out long ago (there are other Battle School grads out there in the world; surely Peter and Val aren't also the Greatest Computer Security Designers too?)

    I suppose the threat is more long-term; while it might be relatively easy for Locke and Demosthenes to shake off the accusations in the short term, Peter's plan is to eventually go public so he can take actual control, and it will tarnish his ascension if people already know or have it retroactively confirmed that he really was influencing world politics at age 14. Because it is universal law that no one appreciates how smart children can be and will dismiss them on grounds of their age even if they were yesterday saying that he's the only reasonable person in the country.

    More gruesomely, perhaps Valentine just thinks that if their actual identities are revealed, one of the world leaders she's insulted will have her assassinated just in response to the slight, in which case Graff is not merely threatening to undermine their plan, but to knowingly put Val's life in danger. That does seem like his go-to.

  8. Hell, in the real world, basement hackers have hacked into varied and assorted government agencies. And by the time Ender's Game was written, not only had there been several major news articles on phreaking and hacking, but the movie War Games had come out. Card should've been well aware that hackers exist.

    Also, is there any indication in text that the audience is supposed to notice that Graff is a supervillain?

  9. I'm pretty sure Graff is supposed to be a 'heroic antagonist', doing bad things for the greater good, doing What Needs To Be Done, and he's Out Of Control but He Gets Results, that type of thing. Good but not nice. That's basically how he sells himself in the latter half of this chapter, and how Ender thinks of himself as Dragon commander when he starts acting Grafflike.

    It's basically up to the reader to determine whether they buy Graff's con or not.

  10. (The Wiggin: worst timelord ever?)

    My brain parsed that as "The Wiggum", and I spent the next minute imagining Ralph Wiggum with a tiny TARDIS...

  11. "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."

    There's some suggestion in this book that the Ordinary Joes of the future world don't have much going for them brains-wise because so much of human intelligence has been diverted toward the war effort. At the beginning of Ender's Game Ender and Stilson are going to the same school and (though it sounds as though Ender has been promoted ahead of his grade) Ender is a superbrain while Stilson is a troglodyte. Ender only gets born in the first place because the "government" (whatever it is) issues the waivers necessary waivers: his parents have already had the two children they're allowed. But the war effort needs more Wiggin genes and therefore, voilĂ , Ender — whereas Stilson would have been conceived in the ordinary non-eugenic way. Hence, Ender is Stilson's superior and easily gets the better of him.

    But that doesn't explain why the IF are so dumb — after all, they are the war effort. Unless, as I think probable, Earth's war effort in the Enderverse is a two-tiered affair intended to achieve more than one objective. There is evidence in the books to this effect: there's a "Stategos" and a "Polemarch" (one of whom displaces the other after the fat lady does her thing and the shouting dies down*) and there's a corps of adult fighters under the direction (though superficially the kids don't know it) of a bunch of kid commanders. The adults are expendable while the kids are not. Why is that? I think that possibly Card means for us to infer that the adults are "typical cannon fodder" (insert joke) and that they're genetically disposable. Whereas, as we all know and are reminded again and again, the kids are the cream of the eugenic crop. So that a bunch of second-raters is sacrificed to make the way plain for those who are fit to inherit the Earth, like Peter, to whose ultimate benefit the whole system seems destined to work. (BTW, this seems like a good time to confess that I've never read any of the "Shadow" books.)

    Anyway, one of the recurrent themes of Ender's Game is that your greatest enemies can be your greatest help-mates, if that's what you force them to be. Maybe there's a faction of people in Earth's "government" (again, whatever it is) who've decided to use the alien threat as a cover or prop for a genetic project of their own. We find out ultimately that the aliens aren't threatening and we also find out ultimately that Ender has been thoroughly used. There are parallels drawn between Ender and the Formics throughout this book, so maybe Ender isn't the only one who got used. JMO.

    *I understand there's a reference to Greek history here but I'm not that well acquainted with Greek history so I'm unsure of the details.

  12. Except that eugenics in the Enderverse, so far as I can tell, consists of "these people had two kids who were almost right, maybe if we let them have a third, he'll be right." It's not genetic engineering, it's Goldilocks.

    But I find nothing in the book holds up if you think about it for any time at all. Peter is wrong for battle school, but apparently Bonzo was fine. Ender's the empathic hero who destroys his enemies while loving them, except what he really seems to do is stomp the shit out of them with possibly superhuman fighting ability.

    There are a lot of interesting things that wander by, but the story is gobbledygook.

    (Your version would make a still horrible, but at least consistent and sensible book.)

  13. "Except that eugenics in the Enderverse, so far as I can tell, consists of 'these people had two kids who were almost right, maybe if we let them have a third, he'll be right.' It's not genetic engineering, it's Goldilocks."

    Sure. This books is a fairy tale about a Lost Boy with a military/sf setting. Ender is Peter Pan with no charm and not many followers — and the followers he has trail after him for the sake of expediency and nothing else, so far as I can tell. Not enough effort was made to get the fairy-tale aspect of the story to blend with the military/sf background, I agree.

    "But I find nothing in the book holds up if you think about it for any time at all."

    Because of the discrepancy between the content and the background?

    "Peter is wrong for battle school, but apparently Bonzo was fine."

    Peter was wrong for battle school because (IMO) he would have been too good at battle school, but not the way Graff & Co. would have wanted. Peter, in a year or two, would have taken the whole place over and transformed it into his private orbiting space yacht. Bombing the Formics would not have appealed to him — if he bothered with them at all he would have cut a deal with them on the side — but either way, in the end, he would have turned to his task of governing the Earth. (Peter is the prince of this world.) Peter, if he had gone up against Graff & Co. as a boy and not as a more tolerant young man, would have obliterated Graff & Co., not the Formics, and I imagine Graff & Co. know it. None of this applies to Bonzo, who is not of the same dreadful caliber.

    "Ender's the empathic hero who destroys his enemies while loving them, except what he really seems to do is stomp the shit out of them with possibly superhuman fighting ability."

    Well, yes, you're right, that part really doesn't make any sense.

    "(Your version would make a still horrible, but at least consistent and sensible book.)"

    Thank you. I try...

  14. Content/background discrepancy sounds about right.

    (And I should clarify that by "horrible" in the case of your version, I mean it would still be a book about horrible people doing horrible things. In Card's version, part of why it strikes me as horrible is that he wants to tell me its a book about wonderful people doing horrible things, which is a serious divide by cheese error to my brain. (Also, regardless of how many awards and how much praise its gathered, I find it poorly written - the utter lack of consistency and coherent world building sinks it for me.))

  15. I dunno, I think it could go either way in Peter's case. People do generally dismiss children, but there's also a strong appeal to stories where people do extraordinary things very young. I mean, think how much praise Christopher Paolini got because he wrote a whole novel at 17, and it's not even a very good novel. Or all the stories online of "15 year old invents X!" Or (one of my least favorite things), all the stories about "prodigy artists" with kids who are 8 or 10 and have even decent art skills, whose work is shilled in the modern art world for sometimes millions of dollars.

    I feel like a teenager whose writing and hacking skills are apparently so amazing would have more than enough opportunities waiting for him, even if he did face some backlash - including, probably, a lot of accusations of plagiarism. He would just need to find the right PR guy/marketing team.

  16. That does seem reasonable as well--ultimately, it's all down to this book assuring smart kids that part of the reason they're so downtrodden is that adults never value them as much as they ought to--in the next section, travelling through space, Graff notes that the things he's telling Ender are super-secret and he shouldn't be allowed to know them. Ender gets deeply offended and says if Graff knows anything about him, he should know Ender can keep a secret (which: what?), and Graff soothes Ender by telling him that adults are indeed stupid and unfair to trustworthy kids.

  17. If he's full of self loathing, then murdering people is loving them the way he loves himself. Maybe he actually thinks self-loathing is universal.

  18. I really don't get the setting's population laws, humanity was nearly stomped by an alien race, is still at war with said aliens and the military is scouring the world's children for military geniuses. They shouldn't be restricting reproduction, they should be expecting people to hump like bunnies! Or was population control just mandatory in 1970's sci fi?

    Also the more we talk about empathy here the more I'm reminded of John Rainbird from Firestarter. Rainbird is a profoundly amoral and twisted hitman who wishes to choke the life out of a little girl so that he may gain insight into death. He's a brilliant actor, an expert at emotional manipulation and with these skills makes young protagonist imprint on him as a father figure. He understands people's feelings, he's just a horrible person who has no regard for them other than tools.

    That seems to be what Graff's aiming for.