Friday, September 06, 2013

Ender Bender 5: Chapter 4, "Launch"

"By the time this war happens, there'll be too much, even for a genius. Too many little boats. He has to work smoothly with his subordinates."
"Oh good. He has to be a genius and nice, too."
"Not nice. Nice will let the buggers have us all."
Each subsequent post on this book makes me more eager to violate my self-imposed rules against foul language.

As becomes apparent toward the end of this chapter and the start of the next--or, since it was already apparent, as becomes really blinking obvious--Orson Scott Card does not think very highly of the military. This is our first taste of it in Chapter 4, with our nameless, undescribed chapter-opening chatters (one of whom is presumably Graff) suggesting that a leader being required to work well with the people under his command is not only unusual but distasteful.

Guys, I'm getting the distinct impression that Orson Scott Card doesn't understand the basic principles of being a leader, chief among them: having followers.

These chapter-opening conversations between nameless adults are tedious, so full of attempted humor and not-at-all-veiled contempt that makes me feel insulted on behalf of all the kids it's pandering to. It's like Statler and Waldorf by way of Funky Winkerbean, with all the lame jokes and insufferable smugness that entails.

Ender's heading the rocket with nineteen other kids, but while they're having a good time and being social, Ender's being the quiet, stoic type, a lonely loner on a lonely road. Alone. But he's watching everything, hyper-aware of how the army people are judging them, how the cameramen are filming them, how he feels naked in this uniform because it doesn't have a belt.

Then there's this truly, truly bizarre digression:
He imagined himself being on TV, in an interview. The announcer asking him, How do you feel, Mr. Wiggin? Actually quite well, except hungry. Hungry? Oh, yes, they don’t let you eat for twenty hours before the launch. How interesting, I never knew that. All of us are quite hungry, actually. And all the while, during the interview, Ender and the TV guy would slink along smoothly in front of the cameraman, taking long, lithe strides. The TV guy was letting him be the spokesman for all the boys, though Ender was barely competent to speak for himself. For the first time, Ender felt like laughing. He smiled. The other boys near him were laughing at the moment, too, for another reason. They think I’m smiling at their joke, thought Ender. But I’m smiling at something much funnier.
God, what a smug little...prat. Prat is the four-letter word I'm choosing to use there. I just...I don't get it. Ender is in that weird outsider-who's-persecuted-but-is-superior-to-everyone-else place that's typically occupied by Tim Burton protagonists, and so his amusement at his own incompetence reads more as feigned humility or persecution fetishism than as actual self-esteem or self-image issues. Especially when it's wrapped up in that arrogant bit of smirking at the secret knowledge he has over the other boys, his own private joke that's so much funnier than theirs.

It's hard to accept a protagonist's token attempts at humility when they always seem to end with him thinking he's the smartest one in the room.

There's this bit about Ender wondering if he should run to the cameras and say goodbye to his sister, and how that'd be edited out of the final film because "the boys soaring out to Battle School were all supposed to be heroes. They weren't supposed to miss anybody." It's a weird notion, because it seems like even propaganda would want to show the "heroes" passionately caring about the people and home they're fighting for, but I guess when the heroes are six-year-olds, it'll play more like being homesick at camp than writing to your best gal back on the home front.

Ender watches Graff climb a ladder, and in another example of his plot-induced weird imagination, decides to imagine gravity acting in different directions and the implications it would have for Graff's movements. He's super-amused by his weird musings on gravity, but the videos they watch prior to launch about starships and the history of space flight are "Very boring stuff" that he's seen before. Oh, our world-weary first grader, so full of ennui.

Card's description of what things are like in zero-g are weird to say the least. Maybe videos of astronauts on the space shuttle or Skylab weren't as common back in '85 as they are now, or maybe Card just found relevant research to be "very boring stuff," or maybe he's just awful at describing things, but almost nothing of how people are described as moving in the weightless environment rings true. It's more like the shuttle has gravity in all directions, as opposed to actual space-flight "zero-g" microgravity.

In any case, Ender's gravitational imaginings tickle him, and Graff makes an example of him. He does the stereotypical drill sergeant thing so stereotypically that Ender's narration hangs a lampshade on what a stereotypical drill sergeant he's being. But after a bit of "What do you think is so funny" back and forth, Graff turns it on everyone else:
It sounded stupid, now, with Graff looking at him coldly. “To you I suppose it is funny. Is it funny to anybody else here?”
Murmurs of no.
“Well why isn’t it?” Graff looked at them all with contempt. “Scumbrains, that’s what we’ve got in this launch. Pinheaded little morons. Only one of you had the brains to realize that in null gravity directions are whatever you conceive them to be. Do you understand that, Shafts?”
The boy nodded.
“No you didn’t. Of course you didn’t. Not only stupid, but a liar too. There’s only one boy on this launch with any brains at all, and that’s Ender Wiggin. Take a good look at him, little boys. He’s going to be a commander when you’re still in diapers up there. Because he knows how to think in null gravity, and you just want to throw up.”
It'd be more shocking and more interesting if Graff and the rest of the cast hadn't made it clear that this really is exactly what they think about Ender.

Naturally, this makes Ender a target, and the other boys start attacking him. Which, of course, means that Card's gonna whip out the dumb insults (here, it's "fart-eater"), and a child is going to get brutalized but it's okay because Ender's the hero.

This time, our hero grabs one of the kids who's trying to hit him and flings him bouncing down the length of the cabin until he smacks into the bulkhead at the end, breaking his arm. Because Ender--who has, as we've just spent two pages establishing, an intuitive grasp of how things move in null gravity--"hadn't realized how null gravity magnified the effects of even a child's movements." Right. Ender goes through a mental back-and-forth between denial ("he had only meant to catch the boy's arm") and self-flagellation ("I am Peter. I'm just like him"), until Graff berates the whole group, reminding them that they're meant to be soldiers, and that "little boys have died in Battle School before."

He also calls them "little dorklings" and reiterates how much better Ender is than everyone else.

When they arrive, Ender and Graff have a heart to heart.
"Was it a good flight, Ender?" Graff asked cheerfully.
"I thought you were my friend." Despite himself, Ender's voice trembled.
The first bit of verisimilitude in awhile. For once, I could kind of put myself into Ender's shoes, remembering the times I've said those very words, because of misplaced trust or immature cruelty, or my own teenage melodrama. So, score one for this book.

Graff explains that he's not supposed to be Ender's friend, and that his job is to make another Napoleon or Alexander or Julius Caesar, but better because all those guys had tragic flaws. And nothing says great literary hero like a protagonist with no flaws, right? And then there's this:
“You made them hate me.”
“So? What will you do about it? Crawl into a corner? Start kissing their little backsides so they’ll love you again? There’s only one thing that will make them stop hating you. And that’s being so good at what you do that they can’t ignore you. I told them you were the best. Now you damn well better be.”
Here's where I managed to put my thumb on some of this book's problems, and it has to do with the weird moral relativism at play. Graff is a bully, flinging insults with as much aplomb as Stilson's crew, and going so far as to basically say 'what're you gonna do, cry about it?' But because we've identified Graff as one of the good guys, or more accurately, because we've identified that Graff's bullying has the purpose of making the kids into better people/soldiers, it's acceptable. It may even be necessary. Bullying isn't bad, if it's done for the right reasons. Just like how Ender's over-the-top violence is fine as long as he has good intent. so far it's a very ends-justify-means ethic here in Ender's Game, or perhaps more distressingly, identity-justifies-means. Ender's the destined heroic leader, so it doesn't matter what tactics he uses, because he's the good guy. "Hero" is a designation applied by fiat, not earned through actions. Which falls right in line with Card's apparent philosophy that one can be a leader without people willing to follow them, and that leaders and geniuses apparently spring forth fully-formed from the collective head of humanity, and that the people beneath them are beneath notice or credit.

Which is more or less what Graff explains over the course of the next page: "We might both do despicable things, Ender, but if humankind survives, then we were good tools."

Finally, Graff sends Ender off before the other boys get the idea that he's "back there licking up to Graff," and I just don't know. Is that some regional variant of "sucking up" or "kissing up" that I'm unfamiliar with, or does Orson Scott Card only have a passing knowledge of basic idiomatic English? A passing knowledge that continually brushes up against being totally creepy?

Of course, once Ender's gone, we get another enlightening Winkerbeanian conversation between adults (Graff and a teacher identified as Anderson), and we learn that Graff really does have a heart of gold:
"The kid's wrong. I am his friend."
"I know."
"He's clean. Right to the heart, he's good."
"I've read the reports."
Yep, clean right to his violent, arrogant heart.

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