Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters twenty-one and twenty-two, in which Bean is not the smartest person

(Content: misogyny, emotional manipulation. Fun content: Petra Arkanian and Ace McShane are the best crossover ship.)

Ender's Shadow: pp. 319--351
Chapter Twenty-One: Guesswork

Unnamed Important Military figures (I'm guessing Anderson and... I'm going to pretend Levi as well) open by discussing the logistics of getting Ender's dream-team through all their pre-war training before they're ready for xenocide.  It really drives home just how amazingly inefficient all of their spread-out Secret Schools are:
"ISL is two months away from you,and by the time they're done with Tactical, the voyage from there to FleetCom will be four months. That gives them only three months in Tactical before we have to bring them to Command School. Three months in which to compress three years of training."
The whole 'you have eleven seconds to master this secret technique that most people have to reincarnate to spend a second lifetime to learn' is standard enough child hero fare, but our first question is why again all these various schools need to be so incredibly far apart.  I mean, Eros is only around the orbit of Mars, so we're apparently not using the Park Shift engine for cheap fast easy relativistic flight for some reason, but why are they moving around at all?  This fleet is operating on the basis that there's no difference between having your general aboard the flagship versus sitting at a desk seventy light-years away, but you need to waste half your remaining training time shipping your miracle students on a whirlwind tour of the solar system rather than just using your instant communications tech to access whatever software or skype tutoring they need in one place.  (Sure, they would need to lie properly to cover up the instant communications being used, but as we're about to see, they're already doing that, and not well.)

"I'm not faulting Colonel Graff, you understand, he had no way of knowing." 
"Knowing what?" 
"That Achilles is a serial killer." 
"That should make Graff happy. Ender's count is up to two."

They talk about how amazing it is that Ender, the team-builder, got cornered and went for a solo fight, while Bean the Lonely Loner brought together a squad for a nonviolent solution, and how that's so far against their predilections, apparently forgetting that Ender's establishing moment is killing a bully in a one-on-one fight and Bean's first moment is transforming a street gang into a sort of microfeudalistic patronage.  Also, remember how I talked about the general who picked Ender's friends for his campaign team feeling foolish once Ender decides to go the Distant Unapproachable Genius route for his leading role?  I was clearly wrong, because they didn't actually put that much thought into it.
"So send ten." 
"Which ten?" 
"How the hell should I know?  Well... Bean, him for sure. And the nine others that you think would work best with either Bean or Ender in command, whichever one it turns out to be."
So from three dozen our dream team roster has been retconned down to 'whichever ten you like, plus Carn Carby since we've already got him here'.  The world-saving world-ending assault force command group has been assembled with all the careful consideration and approval processes of a company softball team.

Bean gets his transfer orders, has a final chat with the Rabbit toon leaders about how they lost all five of their games and that's okay because they were learning improvisation and teamwork from each other, which are more important now than the ability to follow one smart guy's completely battle plan, ending with "losing is a much more powerful teacher than winning", which I feel raises some serious questions about Ender's endless winning streak in this narrative.

He then goes to have a last chat with Nikolai, who has been promoted yet again to be the new Rabbit Commander (that's just a fun phrase), and they speculate on whether it's End of the World time.  Bean says the signals are mixed; the teachers are acting like it's the final countdown, but nothing seems to be happening in the solar system to suggest they're bunkering down for an incoming invasion.  Bean says if they were going to launch their own invasion fleet, the time to do that was right after the Second Invasion.  Nikolai points out that humanity might not know where the formic homeworld is (Bean didn't think of that, especially if they don't communicate via light the way we do; Bean insists light is "still faster than anything else."
"Anything else that we know about," said Nikolai. 
Bean just looked at him. 
"Oh, I know, that's stupid. The laws of physics and all that. I just--you know, I keep thinking, that's all. I don't like to rule things out just because they're impossible."
Once again, a thing I actually really like in this book: Nikolai might not be a miracle child, but he's thoughtful and open-minded, and sometimes that means he's smarter than Bean.

Also, Nikolai was one of those who went to trap Achilles, of course, and Bean is very grateful.
"Someday," said Bean, "you're going to need me the way I needed you. And I'll be there."
Flat-out untrue; Nikolai disappears a few chapters into the next book and we will never speak of him again.  Sigh.

So they get loaded onto a destroyer for the four-month journey, and we get a full roster at last: Dink, Petra, Alai, Shen, Vlad, "Dumper", Tom, Fly Molo, Han Tzu, and Bean (Bustopher Kobayashi is of course already there, with Carn Carby).  Bean remains suspicious of Petra's reliability, obvs, but rather than resolve that sidequest just yet, he spends four months in the library reading recent Earth history, learning about how Russia threatens to conquer the world at any moment so easily.  No, for reals.
Where the Chinese simply took it for granted that they were and should be the center of the universe, the Russians, led by a series of ambitious demagogues and authoritarian generals, felt that history had cheated them out of their rightful place, century after century, and it was time for that to end. [....] Everything was in place for a vast power play the moment the Buggers were defeated--or before, if they thought it was to their advantage. Oddly, the Russians were rather open about their intentions--they always had been. They had no talent for subtlety, but they made up for it with amazing stubbornness. [....] Along with their national vigor, the Russians had also nurtured their astonishing talent for misgovernment, that sense of personal entitlement that made corruption a way of life.
It just goes on like this, vast heaving tracts of telling-not-showing about the nature of Earth back home, making up bad future Russians so Card can tell us how they extrapolate from our own contemporary Russians, generalising the millions of inhabitants of a country with "effective borders back to the peak of Soviet power--and beyond" according to some vague traits found among the ruling class of the 20th century.  I mean to say: why is this here?

(Lest we think Card is just an anti-Russian zealot, he also criticises Chinese national narcissism ("To the Chinese, once something was known in China, it was known everywhere that mattered") and the apathy of "the Euro-American nations", which is a phrase almost as hilarious as 'Judeo-Christian' is in glossing and blurring of radically different histories and traditions and mindsets into a vague 'obviously we all get along in our community of whiteness' melange.)

The actual reason it's here is so Bean can bring up Locke and Demosthenes, consider whether they might really be the same person, decide they think and write too differently despite their similar factual premises, and so write an anonymous essay to mail to both of them.  Bean, with his total lack of access to reconnaissance data, accurately draws up the Russian threat, their Obvious Strategy, and how to pre-empt it.  He is also the one to call for the Battle/Tactical/Command School kids to be sent home immediately after victory, so they won't be captured by the Russians "or kept in ineffectual isolation by the I.F."  Within days, Demosthenes and Locke both demand the kids come home (which, of course, is meant to set up the Shadow sequels, but kind of undercuts the point in Ender's Game that Locke and Demosthenes were never supposed to both throw their support behind something until it was the Big Score, saving the world from itself after Ender wins the war).

Three days later, they ship out with Carn.  We'll find out next chapter that this is because the Battle School kids are already being shipped home, but, despite Bean specifically listing, Battle, Tactical, and Command in his essay, apparently everyone back on Earth has rapidly forgotten that Tactical and Command exist.  Slapdash, which is especially weird given that this is Bean collaborating with the Wiggins, all of whom are supposed to be perfect.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Reunion

Graff and Admiral Whomeverthefuck continue to discuss the arrangements for the students at Command School, and top of Graff's mind is the insistence that "Ender can't do his job unless he knows about the ansible" whereas if Bean finds out "he'll leap straight to the core situation", and I know I complained about this last time, but once again, why does Ender need to know about the ansible in order to play his campaign?  Anything.  I will accept literally any practical reason that Ender's video game proficiency would be reduced if he didn't know about our instant communications technology.  I can't find one.  But this, we are told, is basically the whole reason that Ender and his friends never get to spend any time together apart from their voicechat during games.
"But if this is so, then Bean, is not capable of being Ender's backup, because then he would have to be told about the ansible." 
"It won't matter then." 
"But you yourself were the author of the proposition that only a child--" 
"Sir, none of that applies to Bean." 
Okay, wow, this is now also the first canonical indication that Graff is actually the one who came up with the idea that a twelve-year-old is the ideal commander for their xenocidal campaign.  Now, that's not surprising, since Graff's favourite kind of soldier is one whom he can easily manipulate into anything at a whim, but it re-re-re-emphasises the question from the dawn of time: who the fuck is Hyrum Graff?  How did he, a colonel/schoolteacher, convince the whole Fleet Command and Triumvirate to put their entire desperate suicide-mission plan on the shoulders of a child?

Of course, we know Mazer Rackham said the same thing, and Rackham's existence is secret, so maybe Graff is just the 'public' author of Rackham's plan, except this guy knows the whole plan so he must also know Rackham is still alive, so we're back to Graff being inexplicably influential even though everyone hates him and his ridiculous theories.  Graff and Rackham desperately needed to be the same character.

Now it's time for Bean to resolve the Petra plot thread, when people start for the first time talking about their pre-Battle-School lives.  Bean isn't bashful about spewing his whole street kid deal, including Poke, Achilles, and her eventual murder, which of course moves Petra to tears and she flees the room--Bean follows.  He makes an extended plea for her to tell him what she was doing when she baited Ender, how they need to trust each other, how he has "opened his soul" to them (such a natural line, innit), and Petra neatly shuts him down.
"You told me about your feelings. [...] So good, it's a relief to know you have them, or at least to know that you think it's worth pretending to have them, nobody's quite sure about that. But what you don't ever tell us is what the hell is actually going on here. [....] The teachers told you things back in Battle School that none of the rest of us knew."
Petra's wrath makes me all warm and fuzzy sometimes.

Bean is of course shocked to realise that other people are actually paying attention, and he admits that he hacked the student records and the teachers asked him to assemble Dragon Army, which similarly shocks Petra immensely, though, again, the public facts about Dragon Army (rejects and newbies) are still true, so I don't know why everyone thinks this is such a big deal.

Anyway, Petra admits that she did bait Ender in the hallway That One Time, and elaborates her plan: get into a brawl (with herself protecting Ender, and Dragons and other armies sure to join in), Ender gets punched a little but everything cools off, and all of the bullies (who hated Bonzo only a bit less than they did Ender) get bored and Bonzo loses his power to rabble-rouse.  She adds that she thinks the only reason Ender didn't go along with her plan was that Bean was in the middle of it and guaranteed to get mangled like a soft-centred truffle in a snowblower, and thus it's Bean's indirect fault that Ender had his deathmatch in the showers.  Which--I mean, Petra's not wrong about a lot of this.

(I am left wondering where Petra was the next day, when she looked around the commanders' mess that apparently only had a couple dozen kids in it and noticed that neither Ender nor Bonzo were present.  Was she just forbidden to enter the boys' showers?  There's been no mention of gendered facilities and everyone is naked all the time anyway.  Petra wouldn't have been held back like Dink was; Petra would have been this guy:

Bean admits his plan kinda sucked too, even if he doesn't like hers, and responds to mockery by telling Petra he's the best friend she's got there.  (He's apparently not paying attention to the amount of time Petra spends with Dink Meeker, Professional Decent Supportive Person.)  His evidence goes thusly:
"Because I'm the only one of these boys who ever chose to have a girl as his commander."
Bean, you colossal jackass.  You chose Poke as your 'commander' because you thought she was foolishly compassionate, and spent every moment with her meditating on how much smarter you were than her, based on no evidence except your own self-satisfaction.  No one else in your class has ever had the chance to pick their commander anyway.  What kind of self-aggrandising entitlement is this now?

Because he's such a supportive friend, Bean goes on to explain that "you're not really one of the guys" and of the estimated dozen (?!) girls in Battle School, Petra was the only really good soldier.  Bean explains that the only reason none of them have ever asked her why she 'betrayed' Ender is that they don't have enough respect for her to believe she didn't just screw up.  Because what good friends do is tell you all your other friends don't like you as much as you think they do and that you can only trust them, because they once did a Thing that objectively proves they respect women.  Oh my god.  This is, like, their first major interaction that will seed all their future trust and friendship and eventual coupling, and it reads like he's grooming her for abuse.  GET IT OFF OF ME.

They arrive at Eros, which Bean quickly realises was originally carved into a base by the formics, and thus was the goldmine of new technology like the gravity manipulators.  He concludes instantly that the I.F. never announced this because it would have scared people to learn how technologically advanced the formics were.  I think that's a really bad conclusion, because 1) a single formic ship killed a hundred million people in the First Invasion and 2) humanity has now survived two full invasions in spite of advanced technology.  We're used to overcoming enemies with advanced technology, we've been used to that forever, since long before Ace McShane beat a dalek down with a baseball bat.  I'm not sure how finding out their gravity-controlling powers were inadequate to resist the might of the human spirit would scare people more.

Because Card has reached his comfort level with gender equality, Petra gets separate quarters and the dozen boys share two rooms.  The environment creeps Bean out, but when he wakes up from nightmares, he instead realises something else is bothering him: he was talking to a technician today, someone fixing a simulator game, and commented that the thing was completely accurate except there was no time-delay for lightspeed communications, and the technician took a minute to even realise what he meant before brushing it off.  The only possible conclusion: humanity got the ansible from the formics as well.  The only possible consequent: they will wage the war from here, never knowing when it stops being simulator games and starts being an invasion campaign.

Now, within the confines that this book has given us, I do think this is at least relatively clever writing: a tiny slip-up by a technician that Bean extrapolates into all of its possible consequences, seeing how it fits with the other oddities (like how they get trained on older-model ships instead of the newest).  It's not easy to write characters who are supposed to be incredibly smart, and this kind of logical leap makes some sense.  Of course, he still hasn't resolved the question of how we found the formic homeworld (and all of their other bases, which, what?), but that doesn't come up in Bean's self counter-argument, as he tries to convince himself that this can't possibly be true because he doesn't want to get distracted thinking about people dying in space while he's leading them.

They start training with the voice command interface, and everyone takes turns being leader, but Bean declares it's obvious that they're getting set up to play under Ender, and he gets dragged before Graff to explain where he's getting all his secret knowledge.  Their real concern, of course, is that Bean has figured out The Terrible Truth, but Bean insists that if he knows anything, it's obviously not affecting his performance.  Graff laughs, turns off the recorder, and tells Bean about the Battle School kids going home, who Locke and Demosthenes are, and that they found Bean's biological family and he's Julian Delphiki, brother of Nikolai.  He grapples with this unprovoked infodump and decides he's being manipulated with sweet, sweet lies, thinks that he won't give up the name Poke gave him so easily as that, and this is reinforced when they are reunited with Ender, who quickly identifies his besties over the headset: Alai, and Bean.  It's not bad.

Next week: the finale grande, in which Bean is a willing accessory to xenocide.


  1. or before, if they thought it was to their advantage

    Yay! We can be the supreme rulers of Earth right up until the Formic extermination fleet gets here and destroys us all! *happy dance*

    Yes, I realize that real world leaders can and do act like that, but I'm going to facepalm over it anyway. I suppose its that all of the political power playing the various governments of Earth are doing make me think that no one actually believes the Formics are a threat. The presentation is just wrong for a world supposedly terrified of destruction at the hands of a mysterious enemy. It felt off in Ender's Game and it feels even more off here.

    He is also the one to call for the Battle/Tactical/Command School kids to be sent home immediately after victory, so they won't be captured by the Russians "or kept in ineffectual isolation by the I.F."

    What part of what the kids have learned would be of use in an Earth war? I know we've skipped most of their training, but I fail to see what good space laser tag skills or even space fleet strategies are going to be if it's a single planet war. And what would this war be fought with, exactly? There's a No You Don't shield against missiles, right? Are the various governments limited to land and sea warfare? Because I'm pretty sure the strategies there are not going to be very compatible with space war strategies.

    they don't have enough respect for her to believe she didn't just screw up. this a retcon that it's Bean's fault that Petra is the only one to fail in the final battle? Because he destroyed her confidence before it?

    Bean insists that if he knows anything, it's obviously not affecting his performance. Graff laughs, turns off the recorder, and tells Bean

    Graff really is a supervillain. Right down to the overwhelming need to blab everything.

    Is ANY reason given for his sudden decision to infodump? And why in any universe would "Well, if I know anything, it's not affecting my performance." be an acceptable answer to "Where are you getting your secret information and do you know The Terrible Truth?"

    Urgh. I'm going to start saying bad fanfic reads like Card.

  2. "How the hell should I know? Well... Bean, him for sure. And the
    nine others that you think would work best with either Bean or Ender in
    command, whichever one it turns out to be."
    So after "we carefully track every single candidate in the world" and all the battle school screening and careful psychological manipulation and all the rest, this is how they put together their dream team? What the hell? Was that Card admitting, "the others aren't Mary Sue Ender or Almost Mary-Sue Bean, so they don't matter, or at least I don't give a shit about them."

  3. Right:

    1. "Competence in the abstract is of the utmost importance, so competence! competence!! compentence!!! Win win win!!!! You must demonstrate to us that you've got a better head for strategy than the next person and that you're unfettered by human considerations, or we'll send you floating home slowly like a piece of freeze-dried fruit. (The airlock is a wonderful invention: we call it our 'vacuum cleaner.' Hee hee hee!!)"

    2. "But personal relationships rule, don't they? Especially personal relationships with wonder boys. So the way you'll know that the crap's really about to come down is when we throw the meritocratic crap out the window (or we would if we had one) and just pick the kids our favorite sons like best. Hey, it's easier that way!! It's just like being left out of the basketball games our nerd platoons would have been left out of if only they'd gone to school. Hey, what do you want from us!! The tried and true favoritisms are the best!! You try to win a war against a bunch of giant ants!!"

  4. A lot of Bean's super-duper-intelligence comes from having read ahead in
    Ender's Game. Stuff that came as a surprise to the
    first-time reader of EG, Bean figures out effortlessly in ES. From what
    little I remember of the later Shadow books, Bean gets fooled on several
    occasions when a genre-savvy (or at least halfway-intelligent) person wouldn't.

    For a good example of how to write about beings that are incredibly more intelligent than humans, I recommend Peter Watts's Echopraxia. One of the (regular human) characters compares it to chimps considering humans: "If those hairless guys are so smart, how come they aren't flinging ten times the dung that we are?"

  5. I agree that this world doesn't feel very terrified.

    On the other hand, the political maneuvering is one of the most believable parts of this book to me. Likely because I am fairly pessimistic and cynical when it comes to politicians ( I live in Chicago, which may have something to do with that). I look at some of the things going on politically during WWII, when a lot of people did have a strong fear of destruction. It didn't stop some from doing everything they could to maintain and improve their own position.

    Also, the level of denial leading up to that war and the early parts of that war about what was going on in Germany are decent examples of why I can believe Card's characterization of his politicians, at least everyone but the Chinese. The horrible stuff really did happen mostly to the Chinese at least in terms of loss of population, destruction of property, etc.: for everyone else, it happened mostly to the Chinese (who I believe Card certainly sees a a foreign other with everything that comes with that type of world view). Human beings are amazingly capable of believing the horrible bad stuff isn't really happening and if it is, it won't really happen to me.

    It would be a lot easier to plan out how to use grade school children in a war to rule the world if you don't really believe the bad will happen and if it does, let's not have any regrets about not becoming the supreme ruler of Earth while we could.

  6. I still don't know why they have a single dream team. If Bean and Ender are both crazy awesome, why don't they both command part of the invasion fleet?

    Shit, why not train up a couple thousand brilliant kids and give them each a few ships to play with, or rotate them between battles so the enemy can never anticipate their tactics? This whole "find the one smartest commander in the world and make everyone else slavishly obey him" deal is stupid; the Formics are already better at fighting that way than humanity could ever be. We, on the other hand, have several billion independent minds to draw on; you'd think they'd make use of that.

    I mean, Mazer Rackham was just a random pilot who happened to come up with a really good tactic. You'd think the moral would be that even ordinary people can have brilliant ideas sometimes. Instead, they seem to have decided that Rackham was King Smart, the only person who could ever have figured out how to beat the Formics, and the next commander has to think exactly like him only better. Silliness.

  7. But that wouldn't put the full burden of genocide on Mary-Sue Ender's shoulders alone. As I've observed before, Ender's Game is all about getting the bestest human being ever Ender Wiggins to commit an innocent genocide, and Card didn't let any amount of absurdity, illogical, or inconsistency get in his way.