Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters four, five, and six, in which Bean just barely doesn't sprint into the fourth wall

Y'know, this book really isn't as bad as Ender's Game for a very simple reason: Ender's Game is about what a burden it is to be an amazing person whom everyone else torments even though you're destined to save the entire world someday, and Ender's Shadow is about what it's like to be Bean.  Where Game couldn't go a chapter without telling us how wonderful Ender is or making proclamations on absolute human nature, Shadow is more of a straight underdog story interspliced with a bit of Science Mystery and Finding Your Family in both literal and figurative terms.  I'm finding, as I read ahead, that it's no worse than most books I intentionally keep on my shelves.  And I didn't make this blog to give maximum publicity to Orson Scott Card, so rather than detail every chapter of the book regardless of content, I'm going to start skimming to hit the interesting points.

(Content: starvation, child death, hostile teachers. Fun content: OSC writes his own fanfiction.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 54--101
Chapter Four: Memories

Graff and Carlotta, discussing Achilles and Bean, are basically a standup routine.
"He gives the right answers, but they aren't true." 
"And what test did you use to determine this?" 
"He committed murder." 
"Well, that is a drawback."
Is it, Graff?  Is it really?  But Graff tells her to forget Achilles, then, and focus on Bean.  Bean starts getting Battle School cram school, and when he's not studying, he gets to draw, or play games, or tell Carlotta about his past.  He remembers flawlessly, back to when he was only a few months old, learning to crawl, climbing out of his crib in "the clean place" (some kind of laboratory full of babies) because he had picked up from the adults that there was something bad coming.  So he hid, and a janitor found him but wasn't allowed to keep him (they're in the International Territory and he's not allowed to adopt, despite not having any kids of his own?), so Bean ran away and starved for three years until he found Poke.

Carlotta tells him that this is all impossible ("I guess that means I'm dead") unless God was watching over him, and Bean interrogates the idea that God kept Bean alive because he loved him but he let all those other kids starve   This is again a substantial improvement for Card, I think, as Bean takes a plausible atheistic stance when Carlotta says God kept him alive for a purpose:
It was like, she wanted to give God credit for every good thing, but when it was bad, then she either didn't mention God or had some reason why it was a good thing after all. As far as Bean could see, though, the dead kids would rather have been alive, just with more food. [....] Because if there was somebody in charge, then he ought to be fair, and if he wasn't fair, then why should Sister Carlotta be so happy that he was in charge?
Looking ahead to the later Shadow books, Bean never quite converts; I believe at one point after losing Carlotta he makes an off-hand reference to whatever God thinks and, when asked if he believes, responds 'More and more, and less and less', which I could take to mean that he sees more and more evidence that someone is scripting the universe, but less and less reason to believe that they're any kind of brilliant/benevolent God-figure like Carlotta believes in.  We never really get into the question of millions of starving children again either way.

The rest of the chapter is just investigation, as Bean realises that Carlotta is trying to figure out what kind of lab Bean came from, so he learns how maps work and runs away to track down the janitor with his perfect memory.  When he does, Carlotta arrives with the cops and reveals that she followed him:
"I didn't want to interfere until you found him. Just in case you think you were really smart, young man, we intercepted four street thugs and two known sex offenders who were after you." 
Bean rolled his eyes. "You think I've forgotten how to deal with them?" 
Sister Carlotta shrugged. "I didn't want this to be the first time you ever made a mistake in your life."
Sister Carlotta is probably my favourite of all Card's creations, but lest we forget she's one of Card's creations, we have the next scene.

They interrogate the janitor, Pablo de Noches, and work out that since the company who owned the space Bean came from has no existing records, it was obviously an organ farm, buying babies from poor immigrant families and harvesting them for parts to save rich peoples' babies with defects.  The inspector is the Designated Stupid Character for the scene, and so brushes all of this off as irrelevant even as he explains it to scornful Carlotta.  Carlotta insists that Bean's parents must be remarkably smart and thus prominent, and the Designated Stupid Character continues to be insightful:
"Maybe.  Maybe not," said the inspector. "I mean, some of these refugees, they might be brilliant, but they're caught up in desperate times. To save the other children, maybe they sell a baby. That's even a smart thing to do. It doesn't rule out refugees as the parents of this brilliant boy you have."
Carlotta agrees that this is possible (spoilers: no, Bean's parents aren't broke refugees) and leaves with the conclusion that Bean is a miracle, so it's time to ship him to space.

Chapter Five: Ready or Not

Graff is still snarky about Carlotta sending Bean to Battle School, despite telling her to do literally exactly what she's done, but here we get the reveal that Bean even beat Ender's test scores, to make sure that whomever Card is writing is still the smartest person in the room.

Bean explains away his initial crying in front of Carlotta as a mistake of openness that he learned not to repeat once he realised she kept secrets from him, too, and so he's distanced himself by the time she sends him to the shuttle.  He does methodically calculate that, when she hugs him, she wants to believe he will miss her, and therefore he hugs her back, playing along, in payment for the safety and food and opportunities she's given him.  He may or may not slip a 'beep boop' in there to reassure himself that he does not feel human emotions, but he also justifies it as "the kind of thing Poke would do", helping someone else when it costs him nothing.

We get the Shuttle Scene Redux, and it gives me a strange joy how thoroughly Card is writing fanfic of his own book.  He at first stares at all the other kids on the shuttle, so healthy and well-nourished, and thinks about how easily Sergeant could destroy any one of them, and he feels a brief stab of anger in his emotion chip as he wishes they knew what it was like to starve: "...the dizziness, the swelling of your joints, the distension of your barely, the thinning of your muscles until you barely have strength to stand. These children had never looked death in the face and then chosen to live anyway."  Of course, he then immediately fears that he can never catch up with anyone who's got such a head start on him, and he's torn between wanting to climb to the top of their social hierarchy or disdaining the whole thing as beneath him.

I am oddly charmed by Bean's insistence that he's a cold computer when he's actually this complete emotional mess of repressed fear and hunger and ambition and FEELS.  (He's going to fit in so well among Manly Men.)  If he stayed like this, of course, he'd be insufferable, but his whole arc is about grappling with the existence of emotions and learning to act out of compassion and reason instead of fear and mistrust.

But then we get into the actual replay of the original shuttle scene, where a teacher (Dimak) shows up and tells everyone to keep their egos in check because everyone here is at best on equal footing, if not outclassed, and some boy says that this is obviously not true because someone has to have the highest scores.  So Dimak shuts him down sarcastically:
"You, however, understand the profound truth that you must reveal your stupidity openly. To hold your stupidity inside you is to embrace it, to cling to it, to protect it. But when you expose your stupidity, you give yourself the chance to have it caught, corrected, and replaced with wisdom."
Not really a spoiler: Dimak is president of the Hyrum Graff fan club and intentionally trying to mimic his techniques with Ender.  So, while Bean's Spider-Sense warns him that he had the best scores and so he's going to end up the real target of this scene, the teacher goes on to tell the students how stupid they are, and that even if he had been wrong, it would be a waste of time to point it out.

I would like to believe that this is supposed to be commentary on the American school system, since Dimak also adds that 'teachers are powerful, students are not; don't provoke when you can't defend'.  Bean agrees with this, but silently adds that you have to notice when the teachers are wrong, you just shouldn't point it out because that gives everyone else your advantage.

I'm rarely on-board with stories where the protagonist is meant to be unlikable, but Bean is an exception and I have to conclude that it's because I do actually relate to him, once he's off the streets.  His deep social awkwardness and attempts to calculate appropriate social responses to stimuli, his 'excuse me, I didn't request to be supplied with feelings' ways.  A jackass, but one with the potential to do better, unlike Ender, who's already 'perfect' and just needs the plebes to stay out of his way.

Dimak says that this one loud student was less wrong than normal, because someone aced almost all of the tests, all of the psychology and command-relevant questions, but had terrible physical scores.  Card doubles-down for the paraquel: instead of Graff telling the group that Ender is the only one who matters, Dimak asks Bean to guess who this was, makes Bean say it, then congratulates him on his accurate self-assessment, concluding that the only thing that matters is winning the war, so worship the smart ones and hope they rain undeserved mercy on you.  Bean just thinks about how stupid his tactical advice is, recommending that no one commit to a fight unless they're sure of their advantage, and they blast off into space while Dimak replays Graff's zero-G headstand tricks.

Chapter Six: Ender's Shadow

Graff boggles to learn that Dimak apparently pulls these stunts with every launch group he brings up, because he likes the way it causes an immediate sorting-out of children into differing statuses, because Dimak is a goddamn awful teacher.  His flight summary apparently includes seven pages about how awesome Bean is ("He's cold, sir. And yet--" "And yet hot. yes, I read your report.") which I'm sure isn't meant to be a self-deprecating dig at how this series lavishes adoration on its heroes, but for one lone time I empathise deeply with Graff.

Bean concludes that, since obviously no one will help him, everyone in Battle School is either irrelevant, a rival, or an enemy, "so it was the street again".  That's an interesting frame of reference for schools--personally, all the schools I went to were either in nice enough neighbourhoods or I was out of the loop enough that I can't always relate to the things my friends remember about those days.  We get an SFFy reintroduction to Battle School life, nothing y'all don't remember, but this bit irks the fuck out of me, when older students walk past them in the halls and shout catcalls like 'fresh meat' and 'they even smell stupid':
Some of the launchies ahead of Bean in line were resentful and called back some vague, pathetic insults, which only caused more hooting and derision from the older kids. Bean had seen older, bigger kids who hated younger ones because they were competition for food, and drove them away, not caring if they caused the little ones to die. He had felt real blows, meant to hurt. He had seen cruelty, exploitation, molestation, murder. These other kids didn't know love when they saw it.
So here's a thing about humanity: we're extremely relative.  Happiness is a complicated thing, but it's getting studied, and the results are only shocking to people who think, like Bean, that feelings are calculated decisions. We compare our happiness to our environment and adjust accordingly, which is why billionaires aren't billions of times happier than people on welfare.  As someone currently dragging himself out of a kind of abrupt depressive episode like I haven't felt in years, I'm particularly aware that mental health isn't solely determined by your environment or what seems reasonable.

My point being that Bean is foolish to assume that passing insults are a sign of affection just because he's seen children kill each other, and to think that the other children are all wrong and just don't understand and appreciate the love being poured onto them.  And if those other launchies feel attacked because they are being catcalled, that's not invalid, because any hypothetical intentions don't just neutralise the distress they create.  The normalisation of 'I do this thing, even though you say you hate it, because I want to show affection' needs to be pulled out of our culture by the root.  Anything that resembles 'tough love' can fuck off.  Parents abusing children to 'toughen them up', men catcalling women on the street, children picking on other children on the playground because they don't know what to do with a crush: these things are not equivalent, but they come from a common poisoned well, and it's this nonsense.

Bean in particular gets catcalled for being so small, and thus compared to Ender.  He spends the chapter piecing together Battle School culture: older students form officially-recognised crews (armies), but while they have the potential to be bullies, they only matter because the teachers have turned them against him, so the teachers are the real enemy.  He realises Ender is some kind of celebrity, so being compared to him boosts his ego, but reduces his ability to blend.

There's more food-rejection nonsense; like Ender before him, Bean thinks they served him too much, so he shoves the excess onto other kids' plates.  On the one hand, "letting his hunger be his guide" is excellent advice; on the other, everyone we're supposed to like in this series only ever eats less than they're told.  Sigh.

The rest of his scene is wandering Battle School after lunch, figuring out how to get around, where things are, who the armies are.  He gets caught up in a class-change and catcalled more (two years later, Dink Meeker gets called out for using the exact same line about walking between his legs without touching his balls that he used on Ender, THIS IS FANFICTION) and then grabbed by Petra Arkanian, who solves problems.  She's rational enough that Bean is willing to talk to her, but he brushes her off as "a take-charge person and didn't have anybody to take charge of until he came along", so I guess we're not at the part where we're supposed to go back to liking Petra yet.  (She does, however, make the useful point that it's impossible to do anything without revealing your character to the teachers, such as how Bean's sneaking around will show his insistence on solitude and exploration.)

There's more repeating, this time without the charm, such as Bean showing up in the game room, reaching exactly the same conclusions as Ender about how badly the other kids play the game, asking for a turn, and getting laughed at (though this time they leave rather than actually following through on the offer).  There's an extended sequence about him fitting himself into an air duct just to see if he can, and figuring out that he's just fulfilling his need to always have an escape route, before he finds his barracks again (perfect memory) and settles in for naptime.

There's one more scene in this chapter, but since we've ramped up the pace, I'll leave it until next week.  What do y'all think of moving at this rate?  Anyone who's read Shadow yourselves, did I miss anything that you would have liked to see examined more?

Also, make sure to come back on Thursday for a new post from the blogqueen, especially if you know Judge Dredd.

20 comments:

  1. "whomever Card is writing is still the smartest person in the room."


    This right here pretty much validates the Gary Stu theory. Because the writer tends to look out the eyes of the character they're using to be the reader's eyes as well, OSC cannot stand not being that guy. He literally cannot write from the POV of a character who did not score highest on the IQ test.

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  2. This pace seems fine to me. If you don't have any criticism or praise to bestow upon a scene, there's not much point in recounting every detail. I read this book when it came out, and if you've missed anything significant, I've long since forgotten. There will be more whatnapples to partake of in later books.


    My only point of disagreement thus far is that I don't remember reading Bean as a jackass. He's wrong more often than he thinks he's wrong, and he doesn't deal with emotions well, but he doesn't go out of his way to hurt people.

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  3. Let me say that when you've not had enough to eat, and are presented with an all-you-can-eat experience, the normal reaction is _not_ to pass up on the food but instead to gorge yourself.

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  4. I just don't see a person who has starved most of their life passing up free food. In fact, they are more likely to HIDE such food around in case they don't have food ever again.

    And insults and bullying are not love. I'm tired of this notion that it is. I'm sick of abuse and hitting equaling love and people getting into bad relationships with jerks and teaching their children to do the same by being jerks to their children. OSC promotes so many asinine things.

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  5. It's irritating because his smart characters do so many stupid things and we're still supposed to consider them smart. He tells us they're intelligent, he doesn't SHOW them as intelligent.

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  6. Regarding Bean's eating habits, he does mention that he gorges himself at first with Carlotta, when he first meets an 'inexhaustible' food supply, but by the time he reaches Battle School he finds being full boring and lethargic. Of course, it's a bit weird that he's still obsessive about making sure he can find escape routes (the air ducts) but he's all rational about how much food he needs to have around. (Especially if he thinks he might need to hide in the air ducts, he might try making caches of non-perishables in there.)

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  7. I like this pace. It's been too long since I read it to remember the details (like Rotterdam being effectively turned into a refugee camp, which makes zero sense to me).


    One thing I do remember it Bean hiding in a toilet water tank. No one small enough to fit in there is strong enough to get in there. Those lids on top of the toilet are heavy porcelain. I'm an adult and I have to be careful lifting the thing. The only way I see even the most geniusest infant in the history of the universe getting up there and moving it is with a lot of equipment that would be left in the open, rather giving up the secret hiding place. I'm sorry Card, but basic physics trumps your bad writing.


    I'm thirding or fourthing the comments on food. Even if Bean wasn't gorging (because he's the most geniusest person in the world?) he'd be caching food. After all, one of the big points Card is making is how Bean doesn't trust people, so it would make sense for him to ensure that he has what he needs to survive.

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  8. He also addresses the toilet tank thing; they are able to find the office again and the equipment hasn't been changed in three years, so they can check the very same restroom and find that, as predicted, the top of the tank was cheap plastic, within the capabilities of an infant to lift.

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  9. The new place is great - since we're dealing with fanfic, finding the difference points makes sense as places to comment on. Here, at least, we have some characters of use, although it's not much fun to have Bean be an Ender Expy with a couple changes. This seems like a good path for a clean divergence from the previous plot.

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  10. Where I live in Europe, it is very common for the toilets to be cheap plastic.

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  11. it's like, "wow this is a stupid thing I'm doing but since I'm so smart it must BE smart and I'll be proved right anyway!"

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  12. isn't that kind of withholding food from oneself when you're hungry considered part of anal retentiveness behavior, only instead of the psychological gratification of keeping yourself from excreting, you're substituting the gratification of stopping it going in to begin with? Sorry if I'm being graphic or OT but it seems complementary if not the other side of the coin as it were... and would explain a few other things as well. What OSC sees as discipline, an outside observer would see as abnormal and injurious...

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  13. And yet TVTropes somehow counts Ender's intelligence as a subversion of the "Informed Ability" trope.

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  14. Well, that's better world building than we saw in Speaker. Did Card have a better editor for this book?


    Two questions because now I'm curious: are toilet tanks bigger in Europe and did Card mention Bean being particularly strong for his size? I know he's supposed to be tiny, so I'm still trying to figure out how he got up on the toilet to begin with, although now I'm just nit-picking.

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  15. Bean also climbed a house just to spy unnoticed on Poke for thirty seconds last chapter, so his physical prowess is pretty clearly 'low, but just as high as plot demands'.

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  16. What Ender has the Informed Ability to do is to do what he's told, better than the people who are Informing him to do it might have anticipated, though certainly no worse than they expect. The point is hammered home again and again that Ender had better succeed because if he doesn't everybody everywhere is dead. (This doesn't turn out to be strictly true but both Ender and his handlers seem to buy far enough into the proposition to act on it.) We constantly hear about Ender's creativity but what Ender really has the capacity to do is to carry out a task as instructed and then take the rap for it afterward. That may be why none of the battle tactics Ender "invents" are as spectacular as we're told they are, what Graff and the Battle School Dudes (including whatever teacherly fan base Graff may have accumulated during his tenure) are actually plugging for is a highly effectual variety of obedience, not creativity; and as a matter of fact if you think it over the last thing Graff Et Al. want is a Chosen One who might ruin their lives with surprises, such as not doing what they've Chosen him to do: namely, put a stop to the Formics. The necessity of putting a stop to the Formics (no matter whether it's really necessary or not) underwrites just about every word of Ender's Game, which in that sense is a highly economical book. Bean has more wiggle-room than Ender does; Bean isn't burdened with all these constraints, which may be one reason why he's nowhere near as hard to take.

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  17. It's a lot easier to write a super-smart character than a super-intuitive character. In the case of Bean it is enough to tell us that he was best in class at every lesson, that his capacity to learn is huge and his capacity to reason is likewise huge. I find I can suspend disbelief and accept a character who can learn languages at the drop of a hat and cut to the core of any set of facts instantly. The telling of Bean's powers is more or less the same as showing it, and it is fairly simple to write. Likewise you can show a super-strong/fast character simply by telling us of his physical exploits: that is more or less the same as showing it in the context of a written story..

    Whereas in the case of Ender, where his super-power is his ability to empath and intuit, and (loosely quoted) 'to understand an opponent so perfectly as to come to love him and in that moment to conceive how to defeat him', that's tougher to write. In the case of this particular super-power, simply telling us is not sufficient. I don't recall a scene where Ender comes close to demonstrating this ability. He wins his battles by tactical and strategic mastery. Sure, he exploits Bonzo's sense of honour to get him to fight one on one, but let's face it, even an Arnold Schwarzenegger character can do the 'come out and face me man to man' schtick.

    Partly because I think Bean is an easier character to write we get less surreal navel-gazing in this book than we did with EG. We get more plot per page in Ender's Shadow, less fluff, and consequently for me at least, a more enjoyable book. That's not to say I didn't love reading EG, several times, because I did. I'm going to re-read the whole Shadow series again now.

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  18. DON'T DO IT! The 3rd one is all marriage and babies and gay dude getting married to a woman because he's gay and can't be in the web of life without having a wife and kids. Urg. Hate that book.

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  19. The bit about the gay dude fulfilling his reproductive destiny only took up a few paragraphs. The brevity was good in that we didn't have to endure more, bad in that the passage felt even more gratuitous than if it had been necessary to the plot in any way. "Hi guys! Just wanted to pop in and remind all you gay people that you need to go have biological children, but not through artificial insemination because that would just be silly! Okay? Great, back to our story."


    That said, the third and fourth books are all about marriage and babies trumping all, including the welfare of the babies in question. Bleargh.

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