Friday, August 23, 2013

Ender Bender 3: Chapter 2 "Peter"

Each chapter presents me with a new reason to laugh at Card's introductory reminiscence that he used to rewrite other people's scripts to punch up the dialogue. If this is what "punched up" looks like, I'd hate to see the untouched stuff.

"Peter" begins with another bit of at least two people talking without any clear indication of who they are. There's this bit:
"You just saw him beat the guts out of the leader of a gang."
"He was thorough. He didn't just beat him, he beat him deep. Like Mazer Rackham at the--"
"Beat the guts." "Beat him deep." I don't even know.

Anyway, we learn that the folks monitoring Ender through his...monitor...could experience his sensations first-hand, and that they haven't stopped monitoring him even now that it's been taken out. And then we get beaten over the head with one of the book's themes about adults:
"I like the kid. I think we're going to screw him up."
"Of course we are. It's our job. We're the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive."

Ender spends most of this chapter sharing a tender moment with his older siblings, brother Peter and sister Valentine. And by "tender moment," I mean "his brother is a psychopath who tries to murder him."

When I was younger, I read some of the Goosebumps books. Once I figured out the formula, I read a ton of Goosebumps books. I realized, in an early bit of critical thought, that every chapter in a Goosebumps book ended with an unnecessary scare moment, which (especially early on) turned out to be nothing. That meant that the vast majority of the middle of the book was just meandering you from one jump scare to another, without really advancing the plot. Which meant that you could read the first five or so chapters, skip to the last five or so chapters, and get the whole story. Once I figured that out, I could burn through a Goosebumps book in less than five minutes.

Chapter 2 makes Ender's Game feel like a Goosebumps book, except replace "jump scare moment" with "life-or-death battle." Chapter 3 breaks the streak (not to get too far ahead of myself), but if even 2/3 of the chapters in the book have a battle scene where someone tries to murder Ender, then I think it speaks a lot to how popular this novel is.

Peter's introduction to this chapter is great:
Peter walked into the parlor, chewing on a mouthful of bread and peanut butter.
"Chewing on a mouthful of bread and peanut butter" seems like the kind of thing that an alien or android would say to describe "eating a peanut butter sandwich." The flesh-thing moved its mouthparts to crush and moisten bread and peanut-butter for more efficient absorption. Orson Scott Card just a racist homophobic android? Is he Hate-Bot 9000, built only to loathe? It would explain some things.

Peter is upset that Ender has apparently failed out of the monitoring program, and further breaks my suspension of disbelief that Card didn't know exactly what he was doing by using the word "bugger." He coerces Ender into a game of buggers and astronauts, and while Valentine expresses disapproval and tries to find adult supervision, she doesn't really do anything about it. It doesn't stop her from getting some verbal abuse:
"Keep your fat face out of it, fart mouth," said Peter.
Look, I realize that there are issues with making up slang and curse words for sci-fi franchises. Words like "grife" and "frak" and "frell" come off as cutesy and artificial. But seeing a kid from a century or so into the future call his sister "fart mouth" like he's a character in "The Sandlot" or something just feels anachronistic. I don't know exactly what names my dad called his little sister, or what names my great-grandfather called his little sister, but I suspect that they'd be very different from the names I would have used as a kid. It just rings false, and it took me way out of the story. And it'll take me way out of the story again and again.

And come on, "fart mouth"? At least go with "fart breath."

Peter gives Ender a bugger mask, and Ender spends a little time trying to get into the head of a bugger. That doesn't really help him when Peter knocks him down, steps on his crotch, and breaks kayfabe:
"I can see you for what you really are. They meant you to be a human, little Third, but you're really a bugger, and now it shows."
Again, Card had to know what "bugger" meant, right?

Anyway, Peter kneels on Ender, openly threatening to kill him and explaining how he'd get away with it, making it look like it was an accident from playing too roughly. Valentine, who has apparently been standing there the whole time, chimes in with the voice of reason:
"I'll tell," Valentine said from the doorway.
"No one would believe you."
"They'd believe me."
"Then you're dead, too, sweet little sister."
"Oh, yes," said Valentine. "They'll believe that. 'I didn't know it would kill Andrew. And when he was dead, I didn't know it would kill Valentine too.'"
I like her. Too bad she's apparently going to be absent from most of the rest of the book. Valentine's clearly the smart one here, having already planned ahead for what would happen if Peter killed her--or at least, bluffing well enough that Peter believes her. He tells her that she gets to be Ender's monitor now (GET IT?). And then they get into the most insufferable conversation ever, where Valentine actually says "We're all such wonderfully bright children," and Peter outlines how he's going to kill Ender and make Valentine feel bad about it, in a speech that reads like a first draft of Westley's "to the pain" speech in "The Princess Bride."

Then Valentine calls him an asshole. "The biggest asshole," in fact. It's a first-degree sick burn.

The one bit of this that rings true is the way that Peter flips it around to claim it was all a joke afterward, and how he was just manipulating them and they were so dumb to fall for it. That sounds like bully behavior. Ender, on the other hand, is basically a sociopath:
Ender stood there watching him laugh and thought of Stilson, thought of how it felt to crunch into his body. This is who needed it. This is who should have got it.
As if she could read his mind, Valentine whispered, "No, Ender."
I mean, I've been there. I've felt that impotent rage against a bigger, badder bully who delights in winding you up. The difference is that I didn't have superhuman strength and combat skills. I realize that that's what ticks this over into adolescent power fantasy, that Ender gets to be the kid that every victim of bullies wishes they were. The problem, to me, is the motivation and execution. Spider-Man and Superman get to play that wish-fulfillment role as well: Peter gets to humiliate Flash Thompson, Clark gets to turn Steve Lombard's pranks back around on him. If Ender were in their shoes, Flash and Steve would be dead, or only spared death by someone cooling off the hero's white-hot murderous fury.

I suspect that might have resonated with me as a geeky teen, but I'm glad I read Spider-Man and Superman comics instead.

Not content to leave well enough alone, Ender shows Peter the blood on his shoe from beating Stilson, which is about as threatening as you might expect (that is, not).

Mom comes home and commiserates with Ender over losing the monitor, and Ender feels ashamed that he failed out of the program. That night, Peter gets up to use the bathroom (a thrilling scene, I assure you), and Ender is convinced that he's going to kill him. Instead:
He whispered, "Ender, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I know how it feels, I'm sorry, I'm your brother, I love you."
Maybe Peter really is "a murderer at heart." Maybe that's the honeymoon phase of the cycle of abuse.

Or maybe Ender's an unintentionally unreliable narrator who's not as good at morality or judging other people's characters as he thinks.

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