Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapter two, in which Bean is a singing muppet

These posts are actually proving a little trickier than I thought, if only because there are fewer things that agonise me in this book.  So this feels a little heavy on the recapping, relatively speaking.  We'll see if that improves in future.

(Content: violence against children, starvation. Fun content: Bean Bunny, I kid you not.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 25--39
Chapter Two: Kitchen

The featureless plane of dialogue this week is Carlotta speaking with Helga, manager of the local shelter kitchen, whom we also haven't met yet.  Helga bemoans the way the bullies prevent the smaller children from ever getting into the kitchen, or brutalising them later if they do manage to sneak in, but reports that this has suddenly changed.  It's a glimpse forward into the middle of the chapter:
"I mean, can civilisation suddenly evolve all over again, in the middle of a jungle of children?" 
"That's the only place it ever evolves."
That's deep, dude.

Bean spends the next few weeks being unobtrusive in the crew, because he has no more brilliant ideas despite being an ultra-genius and the only child capable of grasping how much better life could be in the slums.  He knows Achilles is still watching him, and suspects he plans some revenge for the way Bean originally told Poke to kill him, but he also figures he's powerless enough that there's nothing he can do about that if Achilles does decide to get his murder on.  Bean can even be pragmatically dismissive of his own life, which is something I haven't seen often in a protagonist.

Achilles keeps them up until last light practicing their bully-swarming tactics, advising them on how bullies are likely to fight back and react.  Poke continues to act as crew boss, which Bean thinks is a further indication of her stupidity, because she fails to recognise how powerless she is, unlike Bean does.  No consideration given to whether, maybe, Poke is also acting in the way she thinks will best protect her by keeping the matriarch position that she's held.  (Spoilers: when Poke dies, the kids do in fact grieve for her, indicating that she did still have their support and they may have been one of the factors keeping her alive until then, since no one wanted to risk provoking her crew and their bricks.)

The next morning, they deploy in soldierly fashion, with Poke's 2IC Sergeant taking the most dangerous role as bait.  They head to the kitchen lineup and Sarge slips into line just in front of a bully that Achilles points out, and Bean reverse-engineers the decision to determine that Achilles picked the strongest bully without any friends around, so they won't get into a brawl when they take him down.

The bully is shocked that Sarge would provoke him, gives him a shove (to the side), and Sarge intentionally sprawls into the next bully in line, then pulls the cunning "He pushed me into you" maneuver.  He bluffs well enough that the two bullies snap at each other ("Watch yourself, skinny boy"), and Achilles chooses that moment to leap in and start berating their target for pushing "my boy" into "my friend", and before the second bully can say he's not Achilles' friend, the crew hits their target's legs and pass loose cobblestones to Achilles, who bricks the downed bully.
The others in line backed away from the fight. This was a violation of protocol. When bullies fought each other, they took it into the alleys, and they didn't try for serious injury, they fought until supremacy was clear and it was over. This was a new thing, using cobblestones, breaking bones. It scared them, not because Achilles was so fearsome to look at, but because he had done the forbidden thing, and he had done it right out in the open.
Once again, we've got a character astonishing their enemies so badly that they're incapable of even speaking a word of protest against his magnificence, but this still bothers me less than Ender wowing Battle School, again because Achilles is supposed to be scary to us.  Evil wizard; yes good.

Achilles signals Poke to bring the crew into the line (but she's still totally not important or a leader, y'all) while he rants at the other bullies about how they can disrespect him all they want but if they harm his family "some truck's going to come down this street and known you down and break your bones", a"s he has declared just happened to the downed bully, "right here in front of my soup kitchen!"  The "my" is a challenge, Bean tells us, and as he continues to rant, the other bullies say nothing, keeping their eyes too much on the little kids who tripped the first kid.  We don't really get a sense of numbers here, although there are apparently bullies enough that they can eat all the food the kitchen offers.  And no one homeless over age 13 comes here either, because this must be as close a parallel to Battle School as possible.  I'm not sure how I feel about that; maybe if they specified that there were other shelters around but this one was just for children it'd fly smoother for me.

They at least don't win with a single ambush and rant; Achilles gets right up in the face of the most-belligerent-looking bully and then they floor the next-ranked-down bully.  Achilles doesn't brick this one, just threatens to and then sends him to the back of the line as a show of dominance.  Before anything else can happen, Helga opens the door and Achilles is there to thank her for feeding "my family".  They get in, they eat their soup as fast as possible, stash their bread, and prepare to book it before any of the bullies start thinking about retribution, but not before Achilles can talk about how terrible the 'truck accident' was, and the need for a guard and a light at the door to keep the kids safe.  Bean can see that Helga is waffling, so he turns on maximum Adorable Street Urchin to thank her for feeding them and keeping them safe.

Then they book it to avoid the bullies, and while Helga puts in new precautions (lights, a guard cop), the bullies do not in fact embrace Achilles' new world order, that day or in the weeks that follow.  Although Achilles can still bluster his way into the kitchen every day with the crew, they still have to hide afterwards.  Something else that the first Ender books could have done with more of: the brilliant character makes a prediction about things, pulls off an audacious feat, and doesn't actually get the result they claimed.

So Bean pulls another Adorable Street Urchin move in line one morning: he asks another bully, in front of Helga, why he doesn't bring his family to the shelter.  Helga is delighted by the idea that other bullies keep 'families', and agrees it's a new rule that 'families' eat first.  Achilles is displeased with Bean for taking this initiative, but buys the argument that they'll be safer if the other bullies are busy trying to win over their own kids, and Bean thinks the probability he'll get murdered some day drops a little.

Bean subtly persuades Helga.

So now we properly meet Carlotta the nun, who's come to find the great civiliser.  She's a Nun On The Edge; her order doesn't like that she works for the I.F., but she's threatened to try to revoke their tax/draft-exempt status if they stop her, and she fully expects to get kicked out when the war ends.  Carlotta gives Card the desperately-needed opportunity to gets lots of theological references in the books, opening with stuff about God putting strength in humble places, Jesus the son of a carpenter, et cetera.  She's never yet sent anyone to Battle School, but she's got some kids into school and her early successes are graduating from college, so that ain't bad for a vocation.

Without getting into Shadow of the Hegemon too much, the things about Carlotta are thusly: I actually really like her character.  She's a good person, she's got a sharp mind, and she is never, ever awed by Bean or anyone else.  She's a woman whose attractiveness will never be discussed at all, unlike the gratuitous hot nun of Speaker's first chapter.  But she is also Bean's 'mother' (not literally) and she will never in these books be important for any reason except as a satellite to Bean's story: she nurtures him, sends him off, investigates him, rescues him, guides him, and eventually (ongoing spoiler warning okay y'all) dies in the next book literally because the villain wants to hurt Bean.  She gets some great dialogue, but her treatment is 100% devaluation and marginalisation of women as accessories for men.

And because two (counting Petra) Strong Female Characters is the extent of the weight Card can bear, she is introduced in contrast to Helga, who runs the soup kitchen and is a babbler.  Helga talks like a one-scene witness in a police procedural who needs to establish the 'realism' of her character immediately with run-on sentences and bad diction and then get out of the way to make room for the protagonists.  She recaps events from her own perspective, how Achilles has brought order and compassion to the streets right in response to seeing bullies fight in the kitchen line, since she doesn't think he could possibly have been involved in Ulysses' savage bricking.

We also get this self-righteous gem, the first of the Shadow retcons:
"...little Bean, it was true, I didn't know how he had muscles enough to walk, to stand, his arms and legs were as thin as an ant--oh, isn't that awful? To compare him to the Buggers? Or I should say, the Formics, since they're saying now that Buggers is a bad word in English, even though I.F. Common is not English, even though it began that way, don't you think?"
Shazam, the aliens are henceforth evermore referred to as formics.  I wonder if Card would tell us that this, too, was not about 'bowing to the prudes' who noted that he named his evil alien horde with a homophobic slur, but to improve the clarity of the intent of his artwork by preventing misunderstandings among new readers who wouldn't grasp the subtlety of whoops I've stopped caring.

Carlotta comes to see the children line up, sees Achilles' injury, and knows Battle School won't take him unless it can be repaired.
Few adult men were good fathers. This boy of--what, eleven? twelve?--had already learned to be an extraordinarily good father. Protector, provider, king, god to his little ones.
Carlotta's standards could use some improvement.  I mean, 1) Achilles hasn't protected them from anyone for weeks, if ever; 2) we've heard about no shows of affection towards the kids, only worshipful rituals where they offer him shares of their bread each morning; 3) the kids are used to getting beaten and otherwise abused by adults, so their own standards for 'good fatherhood' are pretty fricking low.

 Achilles refuses to leave his family, ever, so Carlotta agrees to meet them in the alleys to teach them a bit.  Achilles agrees, noting that none of the kids can read, and she reflects that he probably can't either.
But, for some reason, [...] the smallest of them all, the one called Bean, caught her eye. She looked at him, into eyes with sparks in them like distant campfires in the darkest night, and she knew that he knew how to read. She knew, without knowing how, that it was not Achilles at all, that it was this little one that God had brought her here to find.
She shakes this notion off immediately, and I continue (as I have from the beginning) to find it all needlessly twee.  Nice phrasing, no idea how to picture that imagery, nothing added to the story from this incident.

Bean stays quiet during 'school', hiding his multilingualism and math skills, luxuriating in just listening to her, "in the sound of high language well spoken", because Bean is a street kid and therefore still absolutely buys into the hierarchy of appropriate grammar and punctuation that sets the academically-educated apart from slum dialects.

After a week, he screws up; she passes out a multiple choice 'Pre-Test' and he starts circling answers before she's begun guiding them through, thus giving away his reading and other skills.  Carlotta catches him, looks it over, and demands that he finish, though he tries to backpedal.
"You did the first fifteen in about a minute and a half," said Sister Carlotta. "Please don't expect me to believe that you're suddenly having a hard time with the next question."
Carlotta is my favourite.  (Though, really, she might consider why Bean is hiding his brilliance and not call him out where everyone can here him

After the lesson, Sarge confronts Bean about knowing how to read, about not teaching the rest of them, and rather than explain that he didn't want to get murdered for being a danger to Achilles, Bean takes off for a day.  He's vulnerable, as a known 'son' of Achilles, since most bullies are having a hard time keeping children loyal to them and so are still resentful of the new hierarchy.

Bean nevertheless sneaks around to watch other families and realises that Achilles doesn't make the common mistakes, ruling through fear and punishment instead of being their smiling god.  (Not an intentional WTNV reference.)
Poke had chosen right, after all. By dumb luck, or maybe she wasn't all that stupid.
DO YOU THINK, BEAN?  This is the only time he considers this; forevermore he will think of poor sweet stupid Poke who was kind instead of smart.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Because she had picked, not just the weakest bully, the easiest to beat, but also the smartest, the one who understood how to win and hold the loyalty of others. All Achilles had ever needed was the chance.
Poke has realised that Achilles still bears a grudge against her, and she loves him the way all the kids do, so Bean hopes that maybe the emotional rejection Achilles shows will be 'revenge enough'.  (Nope.)  But while he mulls this, Bean overhears some bullies talking about how Ulysses is out of the hospital and looking for revenge, and how they hope he kills Achilles outright and they can leave his kids to starve, so he heads back homeward to report on the danger and we out.

Next week: Poke gets fridged and everyone is still smarter than Bean thinks they are.


  1. Recap looks right to me.

    FWIW, the other way in which I think Card was modeling this off Brazil is that *all* of his homeless people are children. But the reason there are so many homeless street children in Brazilian cities is because of the extreme income inequalities in Brazil - a tiny proportion living in huge wealth, middle classes struggling desperately to stay out of the slums, and huge numbers living in extreme poverty and deprivation. It's as if Card wanted to have Bean experience the worst situation for a child that Card himself had ever perceived, without having to deal with any of the social issues that come with poverty and wealth.

    Poke gets killed in part because Card wanted to be clear that Achilles is *evil*. After all, for Achilles to kill another bully in the queue outside the soup kitchen in order to accomplish a desired goal, is pretty much like Ender's killing Stilson. But Ender isn't Evil, he is Good, right?

    Another thing which I hadn't noticed til this recap: Poke "just happens" to pick Bean for her crew because she's impressed by his idea of getting a bully protector. Poke "just happens" to pick Achilles as their bully-protector.. Both her picks end up in Battle School (spoiler!) giving her a track record proportionally better than Sister Carlota's. What if Poke had survived and Sister Carlota had been interested in *her*?

  2. "She knew, without knowing how, that it was not Achilles at all, that
    it was this little one that God had brought her here to find."
    Guess Card thought the "chosen one" shit with Ender was too subtle.

  3. I feel that an important goal for you, as a blogger, is to increase the number of posts in the muppets tag.

    I hated this book so much. It was partly because I was stupid and still liked Ender's Game. Smart kid revenge fantasies full of problems that didn't effect me/were the unnoticed background radiation of my life, were right up my alley.

    I still think it seems like gross cashing in to publish a retelling of a book you already wrote and make that book look significantly less awesome, by making an even more ridiculously genius pov character who makes your original ridiculously genius pov character look like a potato. Maybe more so if they are both clearly potatoes for any reader critical enough to not take the narration at its word (not me).

    Card only ever had one good idea. But laser tag in space is pretty awesome, you can coast on that for quite a long time I guess.

  4. Card certainly seems to have a thing for creating competent female characters and then promptly putting them in the fridge or otherwise keeping them out of the narrative. It seems worse than leaving then off entirely, because we now know he can, but chooses not to, rather than just being unable to do it at all.

  5. I wish I knew more about charitable organizations in 3rd world countries because they might be radically different from what I've experienced working in shelters in Chicago (they don't regularly serve very young, unaccompanied minor children off the street, they call DCFS).

    Plus, aren't they in Belgium? Last I checked, Belgium is a 1st world country bearing fairly little resemblance to the slums of Brasil. Why didn't Card set this in a 3rd world nation? This doesn't make any sense set in western Europe. Are you telling me that in a world where people are only allowed to one child per adult, there isn't a thriving foster care and adoption system so people who want one can have a bigger family?

  6. They're in the International Territory (formerly The Netherlands), which we don't hear much about except that it's the world's refugee haven--they're literally not allowed to turn you away. But yeah, the idea of child-only kitchens confuses me as well. (Helga's kitchen is explicitly run off local donations, not government funding, which raises further questions.)

  7. Really good point about the one child thing. It's as if Card conveniently forgot all about the "world building" in his other books because he wanted to set Bean up properly in this book.

  8. Not sure if this is spelled out anywhere in the books or if it's my fix canon but I had always thought the reason there were specifically so many orphan children on the streets of Rotterdam had to do with the population control rules. Families are punished for having more than two children and I have trouble believing that any government written by Card could be all that good at providing comprehensive reproductive healthcare to its less wealthy citizens. Ergo, the one place that can't turn them away fills up with homeless children.

    "Are you telling me that in a world where people are only allowed to one child per adult, there isn't a thriving foster care and adoption system so people who want one can have a bigger family?"
    This only works if you assume that every unwanted child corresponds to a childless adult. That's unlikely to be the case and is probably often unverifiable anyway. If population control is the goal, allowing people to adopt over the limit seems like a bad idea.

  9. "This is the only time he considers this; forevermore he will think of poor sweet stupid Poke who was kind instead of smart."

    My sense reading this book was that it was written because OSC decided that it was a mistake for Ender to not be smart enough to see that the Third fleet was en route already. OSC couldn't change that, so he made a new protagonist who would be that ominscent. But he couldn't allow Bean to be better than Ender, and Ender's genius was always tied to his supposed empathy, so voila: make Bean super-strategic, but emotionally stunted and blind.

    So it seems to me that you are writing as if it is the author's mistake to have Bean not understand what Poke is doing and why, but I think that might be deliberate.

  10. To be sure, Bean is meant to be even more strategic than Ender but lack empathy, thus helping to show how important empathy is for the perfect general. But Bean's character growth is also supposed to directly address that, as he slowly learns how to people and understands that he does in fact have feelings, despite his reluctance. He keeps thinking about Poke over the course of the next decade and a half, even once he's married and he's grappling with a level of empathy and emotionally-driven responses that he could never have imagined before, and Poke never gets any deeper consideration. If this were setting Bean up as foolish now in order to make for a better payoff later, I would agree with you, but I don't think that Poke gets to be part of that growth.

  11. I have a vague memory of Card explaining, somewhat apologetically, that his future Rotterdam bears no resemblance to real present-day Rotterdam.

  12. Uh, this is Card. Poke is definitely "too compassionate" for Battle School, in that she is literally just a Valentine analog who serves to contrast the "Ender" of Bean and the "Peter" of Achilles. OSC has about three characters in his head.

  13. Of course, if I recall correctly (it's been a while since I read Shadow), there's literally nothing Ender actually does in the actual war that Bean could not also have done. His vaunted empathy leads him to sacrifice all of his men in order to blow up a planet, because he loves buggers. (Phrasing!)