Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ender Bender 6: Chapter 5, "Games"

The fifth chapter--and by every measure, the longest so far--is when I finally figured this book out. But first, there's yet another introduction where adults have a conversation that Orson Scott Card intends to be clever. As it turns out, Orson Scott Card has ideas and opinions about the military (you're shocked, I know). First:
"Call for help? I thought that was what you valued most in him--that he settles his own problems. When he's out there surrounded by an enemy fleet, there ain't gonna be nobody to help him if he calls."
So...he's going to take on the enemy fleet alone? No fleet of his own? No crew on his ship? All this stuff about him learning to be a leader and commander seems like it's pretty pointless if there's no one for him to lead or command. You know, people who will come to help him if he calls.

You guys, I don't think Orson Scott Card understands how command works.

But that's okay, because he's a writer, and that makes him way better than the dum-dums in the military.
"Just one more example of the stupidity of the military. If you had any brains, you'd be in a real career, like selling life insurance."
"You, too, mastermind."
"We've just got to face the fact that we're second rate. With the fate of humanity in our hands. Gives you a delicious feeling of power, doesn't it? Especially because this time if we lose there won't be any criticism of us at all."
The editor in me screams at those comma placements. But I think this is where I pegged what this book reminds me of, and why it's so terrible: It's Anthem.

To date, Anthem is the only Ayn Rand novel I've read, mostly because it's very short. That size doesn't prevent it from being a treatise on Rand's philosophy and an attempted indictment of society and altruism. The story, if you're not familiar, centers around an oppressive dystopian collectivist society, and the protagonist is a guy who just happens to be an expert genius at everything he tries to do. It's meant to show that he's better than the anti-individualistic Luddites who run his society, but it mostly just shows that he's a preternaturally arrogant jerk who thinks his impossibly lucky breaks are the result of skill, and that his ability to use people to achieve his own ends is a mark of total independence.

The peripheral characters in Anthem, so much as I recall (it's been some years now since I read it), are less characters and more tools. They serve to illustrate points, and to provide a contrast between the altruistic fools and parasites dragging down society, and the self-sufficient hero who rises above and ought to lead them all.

And that's basically what I'm getting out of Ender's Game so far, except I read Anthem in an afternoon. Ender is our preternaturally-skilled hero (we know because everyone keeps telling us so), and everyone else is there to torment him, fawn over him, or provide a contrast to him, or some combination of the three.

In these bits with the adults talking, part of it is obviously and explicitly to set up how important Ender is, and part of that is achieved as it was with his parents and teacher, by showing how ineffectual and incompetent they are by comparison. I get the feeling that Card is trying to go for a whistling-past-the-graveyard tone with the conversations, that our adults are trying to make light of a bad situation. Unfortunately, coupled with Card's commentary in the introduction, it feels more like "ha ha no but really," that this has the plausible deniability of being a joke, but really is what Card thinks. And guys, it looks like Orson Scott Card is not a fan of the way the military does things.

It'd be so much better if they instead trained six-year-olds with video games and laser tag.

The bit ends (yes, all that is just the introduction. This chapter is a doozy) with the explanation that if Ender thinks there's an easy way out of any situation, it'll wreck his effectiveness. How that squares with not being able to call for help doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but whatever.

Ender makes it to the barracks, where the other boys have chosen their bunks, and have left Ender with the crap bunk. So we get this great bit of unreliable narration:
Sure enough, the bottom bunk right by the door was the only empty bed. For a moment it occurred to Ender that by letting the others put him in the worst place, he was inviting later bullying. Yet he couldn't very well oust someone else.
So he smiled broadly. "Hey, thanks," he said. Not sarcastically at all. He said it as sincerely as if they had reserved for him the best position. "I thought I was going to have to ask for low bunk by the door."
So right after the narrator explains that Ender knows this is the crappy bunk that will lead to greater bullying, we're told that he sincerely and without sarcasm thanks them and tells them that it's the bunk he wanted. Which he does not because it's true, but to undercut their attempt at getting to him. Which is kind of the opposite of sincerity.

But--o-ho!--it turns out that that really is the best bunk, where the student-elected leader sleeps. Because of course it is. Now maybe Dap (their den-mother-slash-commander, more or less) is just continuing on the same "isolate Ender through favoritism" tactic that we saw in the previous chapter, but either way it just made me groan. Even when Ender's the target, it works out for his benefit.

There's some description of the technology here, from the not-a-laser ray guns that can "make a three-inch circle of light on a wall a hundred meters off" (ooh. Impressive.) to the simulated gravity via rotating the ship, all of which I'm sure will come back to be gravely important later. Meanwhile, the kid whose arm Ender broke--a French boy named Bernard, with an exotic accent that gives Card the opportunity to hate on the French a bit--is setting up a posse against Ender.

We next get a scene that I'd actually like to see more of, because it's the first time that the central concept of a combat boarding school in space has approached my interests. It's the classic outsider-teen movie image, where Ender's in the cafeteria, noticing how everyone's divided up and he doesn't have a group to sit with. Honestly, if this book were "'Mean Girls' in Space," I would be way more on-board.

Ender doesn't end up eating in the bathroom, though. A kid named Mick sits next to him, and hoo boy:
A bigger boy came to sit by him. Not just a little bigger--he looked to be twelve or thirteen. Getting his man's growth started.
I...I don't even know. A quick Googling for "his man's growth" finds mostly people talking about Ender's Game, and the purplest prose this side of a Strawberry Shortcake erotic fanfic contest. But surely there's no subtext to that line coming from a raging homophobe. Besides, Card hates subtext. Hates it so much that he gets all Geoff Johns in the next section.

"I'm Mick."
"That's a name?"
"Since I was little. It's what my little sister called me."
"Not a bad name here. Ender. Finisher. Hey."

For cryin' out loud in the mud, we couldn't just let that be a bit of obvious symbolism? Had to go and make it explicit? And from a guy who apparently thinks "Ender" is a weird name on a space station run by people named "Graff" and "Dap"? Ugh, let's move on.

Mick explains that every launch has "a bugger," the kid nobody likes at first. He also waxes philosophical...
"Me? I'm nothing. I'm a fart in the air conditioning. I'm always there, but most of the time nobody knows it."
...or something. But just as it starts to look like Ender's making a new friend, Mick gets all depressed, because he's never been a leader, and "only the guys who get to be leaders have a shot at [Tactical School]." He tries giving Ender some advice, but then gets suddenly indignant and calls Ender stupid.

Mick takes on the contrast role here. Ender's not special because everyone hates him; there's someone everybody hates in every group. Ender's special because he's a leader, so he won't end up pathetic and useless and unimportant like Mick. I'm beginning to think that Card doesn't recognize a difference or distinction between "leader" and "boss." Because part of being a leader, I would think, is that you inspire people to follow you. At best, Ender manipulates people, and that off-putting air of superiority certainly wouldn't endear him to would-be followers.

Anyway, Ender makes himself sad and homesick, so he "did what he always did when Peter tormented him. He began to count doubles." Meaning he worked his way through the powers of two until the pain was suppressed. There's some verisimilitude in Ender avoiding painful emotions by finding solace in an intellectual pursuit, and I suspect that speaks to a lot of the kids who spend their time doodling Pascal's Triangle in their notebooks or otherwise using geekery for escapism. But it also reads like some seriously obvious foreshadowing. It's Chekov's times tables.

He finally gives into the tears in bed that night, but it's okay because no one notices, so he's still totes manly and brave. And when Dap comes in to check on the kids, and other ones start crying audibly, Ender notes that his experiences with Peter have given him the uncanny ability to hide his feelings, and that's probably really healthy.

The next section gives us our first description of what school is like for the new recruits. Lip service is paid to the notion of classes, but what's really important are the games.
Some of the games they knew; some they had even played at home. Simple ones and hard ones. Ender walked past the two-dimensional games on video and began to study the games the bigger boys played, the holographic games with objects hovering in the air.
The bit about the "two-dimensional games on video" (which suggests to me that Card doesn't really know what "video" or more specifically, the phrase "video games," actually means) got this scene running through my head:
...and I wished so hard that I wasn't reading Ender's Game.

Ender watches some older kids play a holographic game involving ships and tunnels, and even though he couldn't see the controls, just by watching them play he knows he could beat the computer and most of the players as well.

I talked about this online elsewhere a little, and I guess it's not as universal as I expected, but there are few things in life I've found as boring as watching other people play video games. It's gotten a bit better as games have gotten more complex and cinematic, but I'd still generally rather have a controller than watch someone else with one. That said, reading about someone watching other people play video games reaches grand new depths of metaboredom.

And then Ender asks if he can play the winner.

"Lawsy me, what is this?" asked the boy. "Is it a bug or a bugger?"
Apparently in the future, cool teenage slang emulates Aunt Jemima stereotypes from the early 20th century. And lest you think that this is just Orson Scott Card writing dialogue as though he were an alien who read about human dialogue once in a book, it manages to become even more bizarre and offensive.
“A new flock of dwarfs just came aboard,” said another boy.
“But it talks. Did you know they could talk?”
“I see,” said Ender. “You’re afraid to play me two out of three.”
“Beating you,” said the boy, “would be as easy as pissing in the shower.”
“And not half as fun,” said another.
“I’m Ender Wiggin.”
“Listen up, scrunchface. You nobody. Got that? You nobody, got that? You not anybody till you gots you first kill. Got that?”
I scarcely know where to begin. "As easy as pissing in the shower"? The utter non sequitur of "I'm Ender Wiggin"? Or maybe the way that the last kid's AAVE-style dialect (in a world where, we're told, having a French accent is a sign of a rebellious separatist nation because everyone else learns "Standard" from an early age) combines with that "lawsy me" to present a pretty racist imagery. I was surprised by that until I was reminded that, earlier this year, Card wrote an essay about how Obama was going to turn America's gangs into his personal army to oppress white people. So, you know, Card is the human equivalent of hot garbage.

Ender picks up the slang as quickly as anything else, using it to taunt the older kids: "If I'm nobody, then how come you scared to play me two out of three?"

It's just so painful to read that I knew you had to join me in it.

The game goes as you might expect. Ender loses the first round, but come the second he "pull[s] off a few maneuvers that the boy had obviously never seen before. His patterns couldn't cope with them." He wins the second game, then the third, sending the older boys off in a puff of sour grapes. See, kids, your parents were wrong: the only skill you need in this world is being good at video games! It'll pay off, I swear! And when your older siblings play the game and "let you watch" so you can "learn how to play," you totally can and you'll be even better as a result (note: yes, I absolutely did this, because I was a terrible older brother).

Ender's pretty impressed with himself, and it's clear that by being a smug showoff, he's quickly establishing his leadership bonafides. He's going to be the best spaceship captain since Zapp Brannigan.

Anyway, it's not all high scores and self-indulgence for Ender. He also has to deal with his bully, Bernard. Now, given Card's prominent personal beliefs, what other trait do you think an exotic European bully might have? The way Bernard decides to go after another student, named Shen, might give you a little clue:
Shen was small, ambitious, and easily needled. Bernard had discovered that quickly, and started calling him Worm. "Because he's so small," Bernard said, "and because he wriggles. Look how he shimmies his butt when he walks."
Shen stormed off, but they only laughed louder. "Look at his butt. See ya, Worm!"
The next sequence is all about how Ender humiliates Bernard and eliminates his control over his posse by finding clever technological ways to insinuate that he's gay. Bullying is okay as long as the good guy is doing the bullying.

Eventually, everyone's calling Bernard "Buttwatcher," and Shen bonds with Ender over the whole thing.
"Do I wiggle my butt when I walk?"
"Naw," Ender said. "Just a little. Just don't take such big long steps, that's all."
Shen nodded.
"The only person who'd ever notice was Bernard."
And Ender. There's that pesky subtext again.

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