Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ender Bender 9: Chapter 7, "Salamander" (Part 2)

When last we left off, Card was ticking "misogyny" off the list of offenses he's happy to commit in this novel. Ender and Petra have agreed to train together in their off hours, and that's where we pick up now. They have a positively riveting conversation about gravity manipulation, which appears to be borne--like so much of the last few chapters--out of Card's sudden realization that there are some inconsistencies in the world he's created, and his unwillingness to go back and edit things to smooth them out.

And so we consider why the space station which achieves simulated gravity via rotation still has gravity just outside of the zero-g battlerooms, and come to the conclusion that technology has advanced since the last war, and adults have lied about it.

Petra realizes, quite accurately, that gravity manipulation would make for some devastating weapons--something I recall being a plot point in the Mass Effect universe--and Ender concludes that the adults have been actively deceiving them.

But...why? What reason would there be to hide gravity manipulation technology? Are there Bugger spies about, collecting intel on enemy technology? Wouldn't the existence of this technology be something to train with? The zero-g battleroom simulations might give a part of the process--no longer functioning with the assumption of a single gravitational well--but wouldn't do anything to train people in how to function in a variable gravitational field. Fighting when weightless won't do much good if you don't know how to fight when you weigh ten times as much as normal, or when gravity suddenly changes directions.

But then, I'm not entirely sure that I understand the battleroom's purpose anyway. Up to this point, we've heard about the war in terms of "fleets," which implies epic space opera battles between fighters and ships in space, not single soldiers fighting other single soldiers as they careen through a weightless environment. That seems like a terribly inefficient method, honestly, and one that would be easily countered by, you know, using a spaceship.

At the end of all this, Ender makes another theme explicit for the subtext-deficient:
[T]he most important message was this: the adults are the enemy, not the other armies. They do not tell us the truth.

Ender and Petra do some target shooting, learning a bit about how the weapons work. Petra talks about some of the quirks of their light guns, and how lots of people make mistakes because they don't know how it functions--again, something it seems like it'd be worthwhile to teach the recruits. I get that there's a sink-or-swim philosophy going on, but it's not like everyone just learns these things through experience. Ender didn't; he had it told to him, by someone who had figured it out on their own. Meanwhile, others are developing bad habits that might hinder their performance in battle. It's a great method of education, if your goal is to produce a small number of people who function at a high level on any particular skill, and a large number of people who barely get by or worse, but it doesn't seem like it would produce a very effective army.

Afterward, Ender joins the Salamander group on an army drill, during which he's instructed to sit aside and do his schoolwork. Much to my surprise, he recognizes that there's something he's not good at--specifically that Bonzo was right about his combat readiness, since all the other members of Salamander Army, by virtue of a rigid training regimen, are way better than he is.

Not surprisingly, he realizes this because he decides to sit and silently judge Bonzo's tactics, because Ender is obviously the better tactician. Ah well, baby steps toward humility. Not that he needs it, because this isn't Bonzo's Game (which I'm pretty sure involved tossing ping-pong balls into buckets). Ender's the one with his name in the book's title, so he gets to be right about everything, including his realization that the well-rehearsed formations are too predictable, a point which will come into play in like three pages. Card doesn't engage in foreshadowing so much as rightbeforeshadowing.

After the drill, Ender decides to use his free-play time to do actual practice, but the only people he can think of to join him are the kids in his launch group:
"Hey, the great soldier returns!" said Bernard. Ender stood in the doorway of his old barracks. He'd only been away for a day, but already it seemed like an alien place, and the others of his launch group were strangers. Almost he turned around and left. But there was Alai, who had made their friendship sacred. Alai was not a stranger.
Beautiful, perfect Alai with his perfect hair and perfect teeth, and their sacred relationship. And friendly Bernard, of course. No mention whatsoever of Shen, because the people who matter to Ender are not the ones who show him compassion and respect, but the ones whose friendship would be useful or beneficial in some other way.

Naturally, Ender talks them into joining him in some training exercises, but when he gets back to the Salamander barracks, he gets a dressing down from Bonzo. And considering how they already dress down in Salamander...(rimshot).

Bonzo orders him to stop practicing with his launch group, and if you thought Ender was insufferably smug before, just you wait.
“No more practicing with those little farts.”
“May I speak to you privately?” asked Ender.
It was a request that commanders were required to allow. Bonzo’s face went angry, and he led Ender out into the corridor. “Listen, Wiggin, I don’t want you, I’m trying to get rid of you, but don’t give me any problems or I’ll paste you to the wall.”
A good commander, thought Ender, doesn’t have to make stupid threats.
Right, if Bonzo were a good commander, he would have beaten Ender to a pulp to ensure Ender didn't fight back again, and to send a message to anyone else who stepped out of line. Right?

Bonzo grew annoyed at Ender’s silence. “Look, you asked me to come out here, now talk.”
“Sir, you were correct not to place me in a toon. I don’t know how to do anything.”
“I don’t need you to tell me when I’m correct.”
“But I’m going to become a good soldier. I won’t screw up your regular drill, but I’m going to practice, and I’m going to practice with the only people who will practice with me, and that’s my Launchies.”
“You’ll do what I tell you, you little bastard.”
“That’s right, sir. I’ll follow all the orders that you’re authorized to give. But free play is free. No assignments can be given. None. By anyone.”
He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.
It's clear that Bonzo is in the wrong here, and overreaching, but Ender's condescending explanation isn't exactly going to help things. What happened to the kid who allegedly knew how to bring people together? Instead he's going to condescend to his superior, and when that doesn't work, he issues an empty threat.

No, really:
"If you try to control my free play, I can get you iced."
It probably wasn't true, but it was possible.
So a good leader doesn't have to make stupid threats. Except when they do. Add that to "bullying is bad, except when good guys do it" on the list of mixed messages this book is sending. And then, to rub some extra smarm in the wound:
"It isn't my fault you gave me that order in front of everybody," Ender said. "But if you want, I'll pretend you won this argument. Then tomorrow you can tell me you changed your mind."
Spoiler alert: at the end of this chapter, Bonzo punches Ender around a bit. After this bit, I'm inclined to think it was justified. "I'll pretend you won this argument"? Wow.

But Ender's the name in the title, so obviously that's exactly what happens the next morning.

There's a battle between the Salamander and Condor Armies a few days later, and we see that the battleroom setup is a little different in the actual fights. There are big floating boxes designed to be obstacles, called "stars." And they lead to this wonderfully economical couplet:
Apparently the soldiers already knew how to handle the stars.
But it soon became clear to Ender, as he sat and watched the battle from the corridor, that they did not know how to handle the stars.
I...I just...I mean...I don't even. That's exactly how it is in the book, two sentences, one right above the other, with a contradiction that completely invalidates the need for the first one, and which could have been fixed with about thirty seconds of revision. "Ender assumed Bonzo's formations already accounted for the stars, but it became clear as he watched that Bonzo just didn't know how to handle them."

Ender watches quietly, and spends more time on his fascinating notions of how to orient himself in a zero-g environment. He gets shot at one point, which freezes his legs, but in such a way that he can use them as a shield. Not that it does much good, since he's been ordered not to do anything. And he doesn't. As a result, Condor is able to get five soldiers over to open Salamander's gate, ending the game.

I'll note that a paragraph is spent on how good Petra is, calling her "especially deadly," and noting that she became the focus of Condor's fire. Petra is singled out for being the best shot in the group, and while we don't get a lot of indication of her skill relative to the other soldiers, it's pretty clear that she's something special. Which is part of what makes the treatment of women in this book so frustrating. This is "backwards and in high heels," the rare girl who can only be considered a near-equal because she's significantly better than all the boys around her. It's not what we'd expect to see if this were an equal society, nor is it what we'd see if there really were those evolutionary reasons for girls to tend not to make it to battle school. Wouldn't she just be equal, then? Not significantly different than anyone else?

No, instead we see things the way they are in our real world, where women have to work harder and better to achieve less than their male peers. Where women are teachers and nurses and mothers but not soldiers. It's the world we expect to see when there are systematic institutional and social barriers preventing women from achieving equality. It is, yet again, a very straight white male utopia, with a straight white male chosen-one hero destined to save it.

And I don't understand why, honestly, beyond Card's own prejudices. The only thing that would be different so far if half the battle school students were girls is the whole "Bonzo doesn't want you walking around naked in front of Petra" business, which was creepy and weird anyway, and even that wouldn't require much change to stay intact.

Well, there would be one other difference: it would allow us to know, at least on the fringes of the story, that this is a universe where women can be more than just stereotypes and stock characters. Where it's not just the one token girl who's good enough to be one of the boys--and the other token girl who's placed on a pedestal, but still couldn't hack it because she's just too darn compassionate and nice. Madonna and Whedonesque.

Moving right along, Ender realizes he could easily have prevented the loss, but he's a good soldier who follows orders as given. He gets to take smug satisfaction in having the best score of the match, since he never missed a shot and wasn't completely disabled. As a wise man once said, "the two sweetest words in the English language: de-fault!" Ender expects Bonzo to change his mind in light of this, but Bonzo holds fast. And Ender starts talking like a supervillain.

After breakfast, Bonzo looked for him. "The order still stands," he said, "and don't you forget it."
It will cost you, you fool. I may not be a good soldier, but I can still help and there's no reason you shouldn't let me.
You fool, you'll pay for this! RICHARRRDS!

Actually, if this book suddenly turned toward Ender becoming history's greatest villain, it'd be a ton more enjoyable.

Wheels spin for a few pages. Ender trains with Petra and the launchies. Salamander climbs the rankings despite how bad Ender thinks Bonzo's strategic skills are. Ender has a birthday and no one celebrates, but he and Alai kiss over a cake.

Maybe not that last part.

Incidentally he thinks about talking to Petra about home, and it reminds him of Valentine. Crazy how the one female character in the book reminds him of the only other female character in the book. Just crazy how that works. Isn't that crazy? And the only reason Ender's even here in the first place is because he wants so badly to protect Valentine. Because the person who defended him from his murderous brother is the one who needs saving.

Ender begins his fourth game the next day. I don't have the patience to figure out how they're defining "game" or "fourth" at this point, but there definitely haven't been four actual intramural battles in the book so far. It's just a throwaway sentence that allows Card to work the title into the text. Salamander goes up against Leopard Army, which has a much more free-form way of fighting. They lose lots of people, but win the psychological victory, making Salamander panicked and fearful.

Ender, meanwhile, freezes his legs as in the previous battle, so he can use them as a shield. When the last of Salamander's soldiers were defeated, Ender drew his gun and picked off enough enemy soldiers to make the game a draw.

Everyone assumes that this was Bonzo's plan all along, but of course Bonzo is pissed. And rightfully so--stupid or not, orders are orders, and there's a hierarchy for a reason. How is Ender going to look at the soldiers under his eventual command who think they know better than him?

Which is not to say that Bonzo is a great commander or anything, he's clearly a caricature of a terrible, overly-rigid commander, who prizes strict adherence to inflexible dictates rather than training a force that can respond effectively to enemy tactics. He's also, like, ten years old.

Ender's sure that he's outgrown Salamander Army:
I've learned all I'm ever going to learn from you. How to fail with style, that's all you know, Bonzo.
Yeah, because one week with a commander is really all you need to have to learn everything. But no, of course, Ender is right. His name's in the title. He recaps what he's learned:
The enemy's gate is down. Use my legs as a shield in battle. A small reserve, held back until the end of the game, can be decisive. And soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they've been given.
Huh. I wonder if any such soldiers were fighting in Gettysburg or Grant's long campaign. Based on what we've seen from Card so far, I expect these lessons to either come up immediately in the next chapter, or to never become relevant again.

Ender's about to get into bed (naked, Card is compelled to tell us, for some reason) when Bonzo comes to tell him he's been traded to Rat Army. Then Bonzo slaps him hard, and punches him in the stomach, bringing him to his knees.
"You disobeyed me," Bonzo said. Loudly, for all to hear. "No good soldier ever disobeys."
But of course, this begins turning the other Salamanders against Bonzo, because they know Ender's the only reason they didn't lose that battle. Ender Wiggin knows how to bring people together: give them a common enemy.

He and Petra talk the next day about having to cancel their training sessions, rather than anger Bonzo further. Then he heads off for Rat Army--but first signs up for combat training so the next time he gets in a fight with someone like Bonzo, he won't get so badly hurt.

I guess Card forgot that Ender was doing crazy kickflip action in the first chapter.

Let's recap what we've learned: Bullying is bad, except when good guys do it. Friends exist only for your benefit and should be cultivated carefully and discarded quickly on that basis. Good leaders don't need to make stupid threats, the threats a good leader makes are anything but stupid. Soldiers should follow orders except when they think they know better than their commanders.

Such heroism.

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