Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ender Bender 8: Chapter 7, "Salamander" (Part 1)

So far we've had the misogyny of female irrelevance, outright homophobia, and shockingly deep-seated racism. What fresh bigotry will Card reveal in this chapter?

I want to pause a moment here. I wrote that intro last week, before I actually started reading the chapter. I was mostly being facetious. I had no idea what I was getting into. This chapter. Holy crap, this chapter.

The chapters keep getting longer, something that feeds into some thoughts I've had about Card's writing that I'll elaborate on later in this post.

We begin, as always, with the adult conversation, this time remarking on Ender's slaying of the giant last chapter. One says "he won the game that couldn't be won," which further marks out the Giant's Drink section as Card's attempt at a Kobayashi Maru scenario. "Wrath of Khan" came out three years before this full novel was released, and I have a hard time believing that Card wasn't influenced. It's a shame that he couldn't learn the key lesson from it, which was that Kirk beat the impossible situation through intellect, not brute force.

There's a telling bit of dialogue here, which I absolutely love:
"Does it ever seem to you that these boys aren't children? I look at what they do, the way they talk, and they don't seem like little kids."
"They're the most brilliant children in the world, each in his own way."
"But shouldn't they still act like children? They aren't normal. They act like--history. Napoleon and Wellington. Caesar and Brutus."
"Hey, have you noticed that our cast of six-year-olds doesn't act or sound like any six-year-olds that have ever existed? Gosh, that's weird. Not weird enough to go back and revise anything that's already written, just weird enough to hang a lampshade on it so it looks intentional and not like terrible writing."

The chapter proper opens with Alai and Ender talking about how Ender accomplished that prank some time ago where he used the electronic desk system to humiliate Bernard. Alai needs Ender's technological expertise.
"Can I finish eating?"
"You never finish eating."
It was true. Ender's tray always had food on it after a meal. Ender looked at the plate and decided he was through. "Let's go then."
First, if a normal human being were to say that someone "never finish[es] eating," that would indicate a character who is constantly eating, who is never done. Not someone who never cleans their tray completely of food. "Finish my plate" might make more sense, but lots of things would make more sense. Like introducing this apparently relevant character detail in one of the several other meal scenes we've had in this book so far (at least two, right?). Not, you know, in chapter seven.

They get back to the barracks, but Ender can't open his locker. Hey, remember when I noted last chapter how "progressive" it was that Card didn't write Alai's dialogue in that faux-ebonics slang that he used a few chapters ago?
"What up?" asked Alai.
In answer, Ender palmed his locker. "Unauthorized Access Attempt," it said. It didn't open.
"Somebody done a dance on your head, mama," Alai said. "Somebody eated your face."

Ender's been reassigned from the launch group to Salamander Army. It's unconventional, since Ender's so young and not even that great at the battleroom, and it sucks because things are finally going right for Ender, for once. Being so much better than everyone is so hard you guys. Ender gets upset but tries to force himself not to cry.
Alai saw the tears but had the grace not to say so. "They're fartheads, Ender, they won't even let you take anything you own."
"Fartheads." I should have kept count of how many flatulence references Card makes. It's getting ridiculous.

I should also have a running subtext count:
On impulse, Ender hugged him, tight, almost as if he were Valentine. He even thought of Valentine then and wanted to go home. "I don't want to go," he said.
Alai hugged him back. "I understand them, Ender. You are the best of us. Maybe they in a hurry to teach you everything."
Gag me. It's the first rule of writing, isn't it? "Show, don't tell"? We haven't seen that Ender is "the best of" anyone at anything, except maybe playing with computers. But as long as we keep having characters (and Ender himself) talking about how great and awesome and better than everyone else he is, then it doesn't matter what his actions show, right? "Words speak louder than actions," that's how that phrase goes, isn't it?

There's a part of this that does speak to me. I moved around a lot as a kid, so I get that feeling of being ripped away from things just when they were starting to go right--and even escaping bad situations and getting to make a fresh start, like he did when going to the school. It's really the only bit of Ender's character that feels genuine, and I wish we saw more of it.

Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, "Salaam." Then, red-faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks. Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden. A suppressed religion, perhaps.
I suppose it's, again, "progressive" to have a Muslim character in a book like this, showing that Catholics and Mormons aren't the only ones continuing to practice their religion in secret. But then, having the only black character also being the only Muslim character (at least so far) feels like ticking boxes on the stereotype chart.

Ender leaves--without so much as a word about Shen, the first friend he had in the launch group. But Shen wasn't talented at the battleroom or at leadership, so he doesn't really matter, I guess. Instead of heading to his newly-assigned barracks, he goes to play video games instead. He's angry, so he wants to do something violent, and I imagine that rings true for most of us who play violent video games. Instead, he ends up in a playground with a bunch of children, and his own avatar has become a child as well--and the smallest one, at that.

He keeps trying to join the children in their games, but the playground equipment is rigged so he keeps falling through things and being humiliated. The children point and laugh at him each time. Ender's response is completely healthy: "Ender wanted to hit them, to throw them in the brook. Instead he walked into the forest."

But when he gets to a well in the forest, he's surrounded by wolves--who used to be the children at the playground, and they eat him! SYMBOLISM.

Eventually he lures all the wolf-children into traps using the rigged playground equipment, and kills each one in turn. He makes his way back to the well, and ends up at the bottom, where he finds a door marked "THE END OF THE WORLD" in glowing emeralds. He steps through, falls from a cliff, and gets carried by a cloud to a castle where a rug turns into a snake that says "Death is your only escape."

The video game sequences strike this bizarre balance between game mechanics, psychedelic surrealism, and plot-relevant symbolism that somehow manages to be both obtuse and heavy-handed. I just find them terminally boring.

Anyway, Ender's desk flashes with a notice that he's spent too much time playing video games and now he's late and it's almost like how I'm writing this post late after forgetting about it and playing a bunch of FTL.

But he can't get the game out of his head:
Perhaps it's called the end of the world because it's the end of the games, because I can go to one of the villages and become one of the little boys working and playing there, with nothing to kill and nothing to kill me, just living there.
As he thought of it, though, he could not imagine what "just living" might actually be. He had never done it in his life. But he wanted to do it anyway.
Ender just wants to be a normal kid! It's so hard to have everyone telling you how awesome you are!

He follows the green-green-brown color coding to get to his new barracks, where no one really even notices him. They're all bigger and older than he is.
He tried to see which of the boys was the commander, but most were somewhere between battle dress and what the soldiers called their sleep uniform--skin from head to toe. Many of them had desks out, but few were studying.
It starts softly & subtly, but the stuff about children walking around naked gets really weird, really quickly.

Ender's looking for his new commander, Bonzo Madrid. And we get this truly confusing exchange.
Now another boy joined the conversation, a smaller boy, but still larger than Ender. "Not bahn-zoe, pisshead. Bone-So. The name's Spanish. Bonzo Madrid. Aqui nosotros hablamos español, Señor Gran Fedor."
"You must be Bonzo, then?" Ender asked, pronouncing the name correctly.
"No, just a brilliant and talented polyglot. Petra Arkanian. The only girl in Salamander Army. With more balls than anybody else in the room."
First, the Spanish: I know enough to have recognized the meaning off the bat: "here we speak Spanish, Mr. Great/Big," but "fedor" appears to either be slang or Portuguese, and might mean "stink." It makes the most sense, since it sounds like it ought to be a diminutive insult, but it's weird that such middle-school-level Spanish would suddenly shift like that. Either way, I think we can safely count it as a fart joke and add it to the tally.

It doesn't really matter. Whether Petra is just lying or whatever, Salamander Army never speaks Spanish again. Which, I suppose, makes sense in a world where we've established that everyone speaks "Common" (read: English), except the rebellious French. Are the Spaniards also rebels? Is Petra a student of dead languages? Should we expect consistency and continuity within a single novel? Questions we'll no doubt never know the answers to.

I read that section over several times, to make sure I had it right. It's not just me, is it? That Petra is described as "another boy...smaller...but still larger than Ender"? I guess Card's trying to get across that Petra is so boyish that she looks like just another one of the guys, but it's still a really weird way to introduce her.

But don't worry, it gets weirder.
"Mother Petra she talking," said one of the boys, "she talking, she talking."
Another one chimed in. "Shit talking, shit talking, shit talking!"
Quite a few laughed.
"Just between you and me," Petra said, "if they gave the Battle School an enema, they'd stick it in at green green brown."
Good to see the casual sexism and lazy scatological humor continuing, though Petra's retort is actually pretty good. Ender doesn't think so, though. Continuing to prove what a wonderful human being he is, he gets all morose over his circumstances, and is angry because "he had made exactly the wrong friend." See, it doesn't matter that Petra's one of few girls with enough skill for this thoroughly sexist system to treat her as moderately equal with all these boys, it doesn't matter that Petra's clearly the smartest person in the room, it doesn't matter that she's the only one who talks to him like a human being. Being friends with her is politically inconvenient, because she's clearly unpopular.

It's becoming a theme, isn't it? Ender doesn't want to be like the loser older kid that he meets when he first gets to Battle School. Shen gets shoved to the sidelines when Ender makes friends with Alai, because Alai is talented and popular. Now, just after lamenting how he was losing everything and being thrust into an unfamiliar place, he's going to begrudge a friend because it might not improve his standing? Beggars, apparently, can be choosers. And Ender continues to be the most terrible character in the book.

I'd love to summarize and skip forward, but this paragraph just keeps getting worse.
For a moment, as Ender looked around at the laughing, jeering faces, he imagined their bodies covered with hair, their teeth pointed for tearing. Am I the only human being in this place? Are all the others animals, waiting only to devour?
Then he remembered Alai. In every army, surely, there was at least one worth knowing.
There's at least one worth knowing, unless it's a chick, amirite fellas? And let's not ignore the oh-so-subtle racism of "these people act like animals oh hey that reminds me of my black friend."

But then it all stops. All but the subtext:
A boy stood there, tall and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender lips that hinted at refinement. I would follow such beauty, said something inside Ender. I would see as those eyes see.
Just...moving on. This, of course, is Bonzo Madrid, with his perfect hair. He grills Ender, which turns into a ritualistic pep talk designed to bring the army together in the face of adversity. But Ender's a liability that Bonzo wants to trade away as soon as possible. He's clearly not part of the group...and he's not the only one:
"Nothing personal, Wiggin, but I'm sure you can get your training at someone else's expense."
"He's all heart," Petra said.
Madrid stepped closer to the girl and slapped her across the face with the back of his hand. It made little sound, for only his fingernails had hit her. But there were bright red marks, four of them, on her cheek, and little pricks of blood marked where the tips of his fingernails had struck.
Holy crap. I mean, after the racism surrounding our first black character last chapter, I should have been expecting some hardcore misogyny, but actually backhanding the first female character not related to the protagonist, and then going right on as if nothing happened, that was well beyond anything I expected.

Bonzo orders Ender to sit on the sidelines during battles and do nothing. Petra remains silent--because of course she does--and Ender decides that he might as well make friends with her because he's obviously got nothing to lose by doing so. Ender's "all heart," too. The heart of a sociopath.

Ender finds his bunk, notices that the lockers don't lock and his desk is unsecured, and realized his days of having privacy are over. Why, it's like he's naked--SYMBOLISM.

Petra comes and talks to him, outlining her position in the group and how much disdain she has for the losers Bonzo stuck her with. Ender's careful to distance himself from her remarks--just because he wants to be her friend doesn't mean he wants the other people to think he agrees with her or anything. But they hit it off anyway because Ender can make friends even when he's a standoffish jackass, because he's so great. And then there's this:
"Bonzo isn't going to let you practice. He's going to make you take your desk to the battleroom and study. He's right, in a way--he don't want a totally untrained little kid to screw up his precision maneuvers." She lapsed into giria, the slangy talk that imitated the pidgin English of uneducated people. "Bonzo, he pre-cise. He so careful, he piss on a plate and never splash."
Oh hey, that slang which just happens to be obviously patterned after African-American Vernacular English, that's the "pidgin English" of "uneducated people." Good lord.

Petra offers to train Ender one-on-one, and there's some description of the mechanics of the battlerooms, which comes up again later and is super interesting both times. And then there's bedtime:
Getting toward bedtime. Ender didn't know which bathroom to use.
"Go left out of the door," said the boy on the next bunk. "We share it with Rat, Condor, and Squirrel."
Ender thanked him and started to walk on past.
"Hey," said the boy. "You can't go like that. Uniforms at all times out of this room."
"Even going to the toilet?"
"Especially. And you're forbidden to speak to anyone from any other army. At meals or in the toilet. You can get away with it sometimes in the game room, and of course whenever a teacher tells you to. But if Bonzo catch you, you dead, eh?"
"And, uh, Bonzo get mad if you skin by Petra."
"She was naked when I came in, wasn't she?", she wasn't. At least, there was no indication that she was. And it would suggest that she was naked during their whole conversation later on, because it happened right after. Which makes the image of her standing there with blood trickling down her face that much more disturbing and misogynist.

But it also makes the scene where she's described as a boy make a lot less sense, unless Ender's pre-Battle School education didn't include, you know, anatomy. Yes, there's a difference between sex and gender, but I'm pretty sure the guy who was on the board of the National Organization for Marriage wasn't trying to make progressive sci-fi with a prominent transgendered character.

In fact, what I think is going on is a complete lack of revision. I highly doubt that Card so much as looked at a page once he was done writing it. I don't imagine there was much editing done in general--and given Card's ego, given his introduction where he talked about editing other people's work to punch up the dialogue--I don't imagine he would have taken suggestions for change well. But it's the only way I can make sense of these weird out-of-order details--retroactive nudity here, the detail about Ender's eating habits introduced this chapter, the lampshade-hanging on the children who don't act like children, the continuity errors with the language, even the lack of uniformity in the chapter page lengths, all speaks to a book that's still an early--if not a first--draft. Card thanks two editors in the acknowledgements, and I can only imagine what they did to release a manuscript that's still so rough.

Ender thinks about what a stupid rule that is, since "Petra still looked like a boy," and how it just served to set her apart and split the army. Ender, of course, knows better. He's an expert at bringing armies together, like he did with the launch group, or more accurately, like Alai did. Ender's ability to bring people together was well-honed by his pre-Battle School experience bringing together his peers at school and bringing together his siblings.

He does think that Alai makes a better commander than Bonzo, but that's about the closest to real that his delusional reverie gets on the way to the bathroom.

Someone talks to him in the bathroom, breaking a cardinal rule of the man code:
"Hey, look! Salamander's getting babies now! Look at this! He could walk between my legs without touching my balls!"
"Cause you got none, Dink, that's why," somebody answered.
Add "balls" to the list of things Card's fascinated with.

On the way out, someone mentions Ender's name, remembering it from his time in the game room. They also call him a "smartass," making that person the most relatable character in the book so far. Ender gets a smug sense of self-satisfaction at being recognized, and vows that "they'd all know his name soon enough."

Maybe Ender's on his way to becoming a supervillain? That would actually be kind of interesting. In any case, we'll pick it up again next week, because this chapter is too terrible for just one post.

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