Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapter one, in which Bean is not as smart as he thinks he is

Welcome back, gentle reader, to the blog of presumptuous, holier-than-thou mudslinging against the bestselling and most critically acclaimed literature of our times.  My novel-writing month was excellent, thank you.  I'm 50K words into a new book about a girl who takes career advice from Satan and the formerly-indentured gay dragon pianist she recruits to help her burn down the capitalist oligarchy.  I'm pretty excited about it.  But the first draft of that probably won't be done until the end of the month, and it would be excessive to leave this blog bereft of content for so long, so, without further ado or due consideration of making good decisions, let's just leap into the Parallax Novel (read: author's own fanfiction) of the first book I leapt into more than a year ago: Ender's Shadow.

(Content: starvation, death, child abuse. Fun content: WHERE CAN SHADOWS HIDE?)

There is no terrifyingly oblivious introduction to this book, only a foreword that explains how it happened: Card remembered that linear time exists, that there are 3000 years of history to cash in on between Game and Speaker, and so we get Bean's story.  Okay, I lied about leaping directly in.  First, an anecdote.

I once met Orson Scott Card, when he came to a local bookstore on the launch tour for this book.  My copy of Ender's Shadow was signed by him, so I know the date: September 29, 1999.  (The inscription to my mother, who took me to the signing and thus introduced me to his books--for which I forgive her--reads "In the light, where can shadows hide?", which I don't hate as much as you might think.  Sure, it's pretentious nonsense, but it's a neatly generic phrase that he could scribble inside basically any fan's book to make it something more than his giant signature.  It's not, like, actively offensive.  That's pretty good for Card.)

Card was, in person, pretty normal.  He said he figured everyone there was going to read the book anyway (it wasn't a huge group), so rather than read aloud a passage, he just talked.  He told us about the many failed drafts of the Ender's Game movie script, which he had to veto because they insisted on giving Ender a love interest.  He talked about how Ender killing Stilson had been cut from the script, because it didn't work as well onscreen and it gave more weight to killing Bonzo later.  He also said that he expected to keep going with these: he would write a second book with Bean, and then go back and write another book from Petra's perspective.  That ended up not happening, of course; as of the next book, Shadow of the Hegemon, Petra is a main character in this series.  And, IRONIC SPOILERS, as of the third book, Shadow Puppets, she is relegated to being Bean's love interest.  Apparently no one vetoed that.

But I don't hate Bean and Petra as a couple, partly because Bean is a vastly better character and person than Ender.  Bean gets justifications: he's wicked smart because of MAD SCIENCE, but he's grievously lacking social skills and empathy, and those things hold him back.  Bean makes actual mistakes, which Ender could never be allowed.  Bean gets to be wrong, and grow, and in spite of his supposed coldness, Bean appreciates people in a way Ender never, ever approaches.  So, with the awareness that this is still a Card novel and reliably terrible, now let's get to it.

Ender's Shadow: p. 15--24
Chapter One: Poke

We're back once more to the realm of disembodied voices.  This time, it's Sister Carlotta talking to her liaison in the International Fleet.
"You think you've found somebody, so suddenly my program gets the ax?" 
"It's not about this kid that Graff found.  It' about the low quality of what you've been finding. [....] Your kids are so malnourished that they suffer serious mental degradation before you even begin testing them." [....] 
"They also represent possibility, as all children do." 
"That's the kind of sentimentality that discredits your whole project in the eyes of the I.F."
Carlotta is a nun of the Order of St Nicholas (Santa!), travelling the slums of Europe, supposedly searching for Battle School candidates, but more accurately trying to save street children, get them food and shelter and education, and using I.F. cash to do it.  I once again credit Card's craft if not any of his ideas; he quickly anchors us at the same time that Graff has started to focus on Ender, without making a big deal about it.  (Although I do wonder how it is that Carlotta heard about Ender.  Does Graff do a weekly email blast rating children he's seen lately from best to worst?)

But the rest of the chapter happens in the slums of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands (called the International Territory in the future, for reasons that are never fully explained).  We meet a girl named Poke, nine years old, leader of a crew of even younger children, watching out for dangers like cops with magnetic whips, who harass and abuse homeless kids in her city, and for the older children, eleven to thirteen.  The adults ignore children, but the older kids, "bullies", thieve from the younger ones all the time, because it's safer than stealing from stores and they get a power rush.

While on watch, Poke spots a tiny kid (she figures age two) who has climbed a garbage can to survey the street.  Poke immediately picks him out as smart, from the alertness in his eyes as he watches, but he's also obviously starving, days from death at best.  Poke thinks he's wasting his time, and we get the absolutely cartoonish level of deprivation in the slums:
If he wanted to survive, he should be following older scavengers and licking food wrappers behind them, getting the last sheen of sugar or dusting of flour clinging to the packaging, whatever the first comer hadn't licked off.
I'm in no position to talk--I'm writing this as I eat peppered broccoli from the farmers' market next to my building--but this has always struck me as taking the 'clinging to the edge of survival' imagery too far out from reality.  Like, you could try to get by on twice-licked pastry wrappers, but I'm pretty sure simple caloric math means you're going to last a day.  What was he eating a week ago that he's alive now?

Poke is briefly accosted by a pair of twelve-year-old prostitutes, whom she attempts to placate with half a stale pastry she's saved for exactly this kind of extortion.  They end up fighting over it, the fight ends when one flees, and they immediately cease to exist in the narrative, since their purpose is complete.  It's a step up from Card's past devotion to tell-not-show.  Poke turns around to see the tiny child, whom she pushes down, but he gets back up anyway.
"No, you little bastard, you're not getting nothing from me," said Poke. "I'm not taking one bean out of the mouths of my crew, you aren't worth a bean."
Guess who the kid is!  He asks why she submits to extortion, and suggests that they should instead hire a bully: get one big kid to agree to protect them in exchange for steady food.
"You think I never thought of that, stupid?" she said. "Only once he's bought, how I keep him?  He won't fight for us." 
"If he won't, then kill him," said the boy. [....] "You kill one bully, get another to fight for you, he want your food, he scared of you too."
He argues that a crew could easily take down a bully with coordination, if they tripped him up and had bricks ready to murder with.  Poke starts out hostile, thinking she'll have to kill him for being so defiant and uppity, but the plan entices her, especially the prospect of getting into the local kitchen.  Poke's self-appointed second-in-command, Sergeant, sarcastically says the kid is, after all, worth "one damn bean", and so he is named.  Poke reluctantly gives him a half-dozen peanuts she's been saving, which he eats one at a time, because he's too weak to make a fist himself.  Fed, Bean goes back to watch from his garbage can, telling Poke again to be ready to kill the first bully if he's too dangerous.

Bean is, predictably enough, a jerk inside his head, but at least this time it makes sense.  He's contemptuous of Poke on one level, thinking she's too compassionate and not ruthless enough to keep herself well-fed, but also acknowledges that he'll only survive because she's compassionate enough not to murder him now that she's taken his idea on.

He's also contemptuous of all the other children.  He came up with his carrot-and-stick hired-bully plan as soon as he understood the way of life in the slums, but couldn't figure out why no one else did it, so he focused on learning everything he could (including Dutch and IF Common) to figure out what he had failed to take into consideration.  He ultimately concluded that there was no other factor, and the other kids hadn't already implemented his plan because they were just too stupid.

Let the record show that Poke literally said she had already thought of Bean's plan but didn't trust that any bully would stay bought.  Bean isn't smarter; he's just too arrogant to believe his plan will fail to convert everyone.

Bean watches in anguish as Poke picks what he thinks is a terrible target: a bully with a damaged leg, called Achilles.  (I'll save you all a huge re-learning headache by saying now that it's pronounced in French style, 'ah-sheel', which the book fails to mention for several chapters, at which point it was too late for me to change the way I read it.)  Bean wanted a big burly guy who wouldn't think too much, but figures Poke has gone for the easy target, since he's disabled.  Poke overacts her subservience, alerting Achilles to the ambush, but with his limp, he can't get away in time.  (Pure coincidence: I'm also walking with a limp today, due to a bike crash.  Please do not ambush-murder me on the street.)  Bean climbs down and across the street again by the time they've bricked him onto his back.
"You get us into the food line at the shelter." 
"Sure, right, I will, I promise." 
Don't believe him. Look at his eyes, checking for weakness. 
"You get more food this way, too, Achilles. You get my crew. We get enough to eat, we have more strength, we bring more to you. You need a crew. The other bullies shove you out of the way--we've seen them!--but with us, you don't got to take no shit. See how we do it? An army, that's what we are."
Let the record further show that Poke specifically tailors her recruitment speech to Achilles in a way that Bean never addressed.  She picked a bully who survives by wits and sells him more with the logic than the threat of force.  She runs with Bean's ambush idea to the point of declaring her crew to be an army that can continue to pick off bullies at will.  Poke never gets credit for any of this, is my point.  Not even in Bean's later reflections on his childhood.  Card continues his theme of writing smart, capable women and failing to acknowledge their capabilities at all.

Achilles asks why they've never done this before, and catches her eyes flicking over to Bean.
"Kill him," said Bean. 
"Don't be stupid," said Poke. "He's in." 
"That's right," said Achilles. "I'm in. It's a good idea." 
"Kill him," said Bean. "If you don't kill him now, he's going to kill you." [....] 
"The next guy won't have my bad leg," said Achilles. "The next guy won't think he needs you. I know I do. [....] It's your crew, not mine [....] This is my family.  These are my kid brothers and sisters. I got to look after my family, don't I?"
Bean instantly determines that Achilles has instantly won the little kids over, by offering them the sense of love and belonging that they hunger for, and therefore it's too late to kill him, so he has to stop Poke as she prepares to brick him one last time.  To recap, these kids were totally on-board with bricking him savagely about five minutes ago, but the instant he says 'you're my siblings' he's untouchable.  This is Ender-level magical charisma we're dealing with, but with a vitally important twist: it's in the hands of the villain.  So, while I still think it's unearned in a narrative sense, it's never bothered me as part of the story.  Villains don't have to explain their magic; that's what makes them scary.  But, at least retroactively, he works for it with his actions for the rest of the chapter.

Poke tries to tell Bean to shove off (Bean's gamble on her compassion failed after all, weird, almost like he's not as smart as he thinks he is) but Achilles turns it into a test of authority by declaring that, crew or not, Bean is family now and therefore Poke can't exile him unless she's willing to kill Achilles as well.  Poke relents.

Achilles starts checking his injuries and laughingly praises the kids who just stoned him to the ground.  He starts learning all their names, apologising when he fails.
Fifteen minutes later, they loved him. 
If he could do this, thought Bean, if he's this good at making people love him, why didn't he do it before? 
Because these fools always look up for power. People above you, that never want to share power with you. Why you look to them? They give you nothing. People below you, you give them hope, you give them respect, they give you power, cause they don't think they have any, so they don't mind giving it up.
This is a pretty good passage, even if it's a little weird for Bean to draw this conclusion after a day in which he's forced his way from starvation into a place of honor in a new street militia/family by demanding respect from people stronger than him.
[Achilles] reached into his pocket, took out the most incredible thing. A bunch of raisins. A whole handful of them. They looked at his hand as if it bore the mark of a nail in the palm.
You're a four-year-old science experiment in the Dutch slums and you don't know what a grape is, Bean; why are you making references to stigmata?

Bean gets the first raisin, as "the one who brought us all together", and Achilles jokes about how holding it in your mouth never turns it back into a grape ("What's a grape?"), and Bean thinks about how this, too, will win them away from Poke.  Poke, he explains, never gave them so much food from her own stash at once, because she never had it, but Bean is sure that they will fail to understand this and will think only of how much more generous Achilles is, "because they were stupid".  Bean hasn't been right in his estimations of anyone this chapter, but he does seem like he'd get along well with Peter 'You're All Sheeple' Wiggin.
So, on the one hand, Bean is supposed to be really bad at people; on the other, he's our viewpoint character and he's making sweeping tell-don't-show proclamations about the nature of humanity.  It's a little hard to decide if we're supposed to think he's right, here, but I suspect we are.  Still, death of the author, and I'm quite happy to take this as evidence of Bean's various failings.  Let's see how long my optimism lasts.

Next week: the Card classics: savage child violence, easily-manipulated adults, and nuns.


  1. The thing that first struck me, when I first read Card's paraquel, was that Card had wanted to set up both of his viewpoint-heroes with Deprived and Persecuted Childhoods.

    In 1985, the very worst thing that Card could think of to happen to a boy was that he was bullied at home by an older brother and he was bullied at school because he was smarter than everyone. And I was bullied at school myself, so I'm not saying that being bullied is a good time... but it's kind of noticeable that 14 years later Card could think of a lot worse things to happen to children.

    (Card did his missionary years in Brazil, I would assume around 1969-71, and to me the street children of the Netherlands read like a translation of the street children of Brazil.)

  2. congrats on your 50k Nano win! I made my 50 also, but it was mostly disjointed vignettes and not a cohesive story. Still, a win is a win.

    And now you're starting in on another Card booklike thing. You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

  3. I guess Bean knows what stigmata are because it's a nun-led science experiment? *snort*

  4. This is not how four-year-olds think. I don't care how clever they are: starving four-year-olds do not settle down to language learning - by observation, no less - because it puzzles them why other people don't go about not starving in exactly the way their models predict. The first reason they do not do this is that they are humans and humans do not focus on sociological puzzles to the exclusion of finding food when they are presently starving to death. The second reason is that they are four, and humans who are four are biologically incapable of forward planning to that extent. This isn't a matter of smarts. Intelligence is not equivalent to detachment, foresight, or talking like a straight white middle-aged middle-class man who once read a book on philosophy. I was a precocious four-year-old once, and while I might have ended up better socialised if I'd been taught with the ten-year-olds, I had trouble conceiving of events six hours in the future. I didn't have the brain structures to prioritise the way I'm supposed to believe Bean does here.

  5. And for our protagonist, we unveil *drum roll* the Ender Wiggins Mk II.

  6. But this is a universe in which it is possible for a five-year-old girl to set out to acquire a college-level education in xenobiology and graduate before she's fourteen.

  7. "In the light, where can shadows hide?"

    Right out in the open, because it's the light which creates the shadows, ya doof.

  8. Spoilers ROT13ed: Orna'f abg uhzna, ur'f trargvpnyyl ratvarrerq jvgu, abg rknpgyl gur "fzneg trar" ohg engure gur "fperj gur uhzna qrirybczragny cebprff" trar. Guvf xvaq bs vzcbffvoyr frys njnerarff naq trareny "znghevgl" (va fbzr nfcrpgf naljnl) vf cerggl zhpu rknpgyl jung gur punatr vf fhccbfrq gb qb. LZZI jurgure guvf vf na npprcgnoyr cvrpr bs cuyrobgvahz bs pbhefr.

  9. Four-year-olds are also better scientists than that. If reality doesn't match their model of it, they adjust the model. Unless they're feeling cranky, in which case they bash their heads against reality until something changes.

  10. Yay! You're back!
    I really enjoyed Shadow much more than Game, but I'm not sure now if it's because Shadow is -good- or if it was just such a relief to have a perspective that was not Ender. Looking very much forward to your views!

  11. I do hope the nuns will be of a special order that has to sleep together but never have sex. Card, do your thing!

  12. Yay, welcome back! I missed your deconstructions.

    It'll be interesting to see whether you turn up fewer awful things I hadn't noticed this time around. I read the parallax series with a more critical eye than the Ender series, and from what I remember, the stuff I found objectionable didn't happen until later books.

    It does help that even though Bean is supposed to have even MOAR genius than Ender, Card allows us to see Bean make mistakes from time to time.

  13. I don't think children, especially not children on the edge of starvation, can construct complex theories and alliances. Even if Bean is special, the other kids would hI don't think children, especially not children on the edge of starvation, can construct complex theories and alliances. Even if Bean was special, the other kids would have to be, as well, just to follow along.

    Also, world with IF still has slums this bad? Seems unlikely, since existential threats tend to unite, not divide, and so people are often in a more sharing mood when facing doom together.

  14. The younger children just have to follow orders ("stand here, hit with bricks when told") and Poke is old enough to be able to execute a moderately complex plan (she doesn't instantly turn into a practiced con artist or anything.)

    Achilles, as Will mentioned, is pretty much magic for no discernible reason, much like Ender. It's worth noting, though, that he still needed Bean to come up with the initial model.

    Interestingly later (spoilered): Npuvyyrf vf nyybjrq gb or jebat gbb. Jura ur pbzrf gb onggyr fpubby ur gevrf gb cynl gur fghqragf yvxr ur cynlrq nqhygf ba Rnegu naq gurl ner abg gnxra va.