Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Ender Bender 17: Chapter 10, "Dragon"

Oh cool, this is the chapter where Ender glues Colonel Graff to a wheelchair and lights him on fire. "Valentine: changing. Do you see?"

We begin, as usual, with a conversation between Colonel Swan and Murphy Anderson. They make explicit here at the beginning all the stuff that Ender's going to figure out in the chapter, because Orson Scott Card learned that the four r's of writing are repetition, redundancy, repetition, and really uncomfortable descriptions of naked children. It's important for military leaders to give firm direct orders, not to make suggestions. Ender's been deliberately given a taste of happiness and companionship just so he can be made isolated and miserable again. Oh, and they're making him a commander.

Entering the chapter proper, Ender gains command of Dragon Army, which hasn't existed in some time because it's cursed and boy does "kid is assigned to the cursed house in a boarding school in space" sure makes this book sound better than it is. As commander, Ender finally gets a hook, the symbol of his authority, the tool that every commander has which allows them to move freely in the zero-gravity environment of the Battleroom.
Many times during his evening practice sessions Ender had wished that he had a hook, instead of having to rebound off walls to get where he wanted to go.
Boy, wouldn't that moment have some gravitas if they'd mentioned the hook at any time previously in the book, or at least given an indication that Army Commanders had special abilities that the rest of their soldiers didn't? But instead, First-Draft Orson introduces it here, and further explains that it only works during scheduled practices which is why other commanders don't hold extra practice. But since Ender hasn't had one this whole time, he won't end up using it like a crutch the way all those other commanders do. 
They depended on the hook, and it wouldn't do anything for them during the extra times. If they felt that the hook was their authority, their power over the other boys, then they were even less likely to work without it. That's an advantage I'll have over some of my enemies, Ender thought. 
And this is just such frustratingly, characteristically bad writing at this point. It's like Card has read some book about story structure and understands that there needs to be an artifact to symbolize each transition to a new stage. When Ender became a launchie, he got his new desk. When he joined an Army, he got his uniform. And now, when he gets his own command, he needs something else to symbolize it, so they invent the hook. But the other artifacts had been properly seeded earlier in the story, and we're deep enough in the book that it feels strange to be introducing new elements, especially when you're retroactively saying that those elements have been present all along, that they've been vital aspects of strategy, and that Ender has been envious of them.
And it would be so easy to fix. Move the exposition about the hook to an earlier chapter. Insert a few lines describing how Bonzo uses it to soar around the Battleroom, elegantly dodging enemy fire, how Rosen always seems to use his as an afterthought but it often gets him out of imminent danger. A line of dialogue from Dink or Petra saying the commanders wouldn't be such hot stuff if they didn't have their hooks. 

But instead we get this, an exposition dump that tells us how Ender got a new thingy, and he always wanted the thingy, and all the other commanders have the thingy, but Ender doesn't even need the thingy, so that makes him even more betterer than them.

Ender is given the Island of Misfit Soldiers to command, rather than being able to choose or trade them. They're all younger and less experienced than him, but he decides to make the best of it, doing things differently from the other commanders he's served under by switching up the bunk assignments so he can get to know the younger soldiers as well as the veterans. 

And then he immediately sets in to berate and belittle them. He gives them three minutes to get dressed before practice, know what's coming, right?
After three minutes, though many of them still weren't dressed, he ordered them out of the room.
"But I'm naked!" said one boy.
"Dress faster next time. Three minutes from first call to running out the door—that's the rule this week. Next week the rule is two minutes. Move!" It would soon be a joke in the rest of the school that Dragon Army was so dumb they had to practice getting dressed.
Five of the boys were completely naked, carrying their flash suits as they ran through the corridors; few were fully dressed. They attracted a lot of attention as they passed open classroom doors. No one would be late again if he could help it.
Ender is an abusive and bullying commander, re-enacting the same behaviors he's observed from superiors since he first strapped in on the rocket, down to berating his soldiers for their lack of understanding of zero-g physics, in case you needed the point driven home. He singles out the smallest kid, an underage boy named Bean (who Card helpfully informs us was one of the kids who'd been forced to run down the hall naked), a fast learner with an attitude, and isolates him just as Ender had been, both with insults and with praise. 

And to be fair to Ender, he realizes this is a problem even as he's doing it. 
Why am I doing this? What does this have to do with being a good commander, making one boy the target of all the others? Just because they did it to me, why should I do it to him?
To be less fair, he comes up with a justification for why he has to be a hardass on his first day:
On the first day even his mistakes had to look like part of a brilliant plan. 
Oh yeah, the sign of a great leader is pretending that every stumble is a part of their five-dimensional chess game. I can't possibly imagine how that could go badly, how pretending like a misstatement about drinking bleach or a typo about coffee is actually a brilliant secret message to supporters, could ever lead to any kinds of problems anywhere. 
2023 Tom's Note: Feel free to replace those timely 2018-2020 references with, say, "pretending that your joke about buying a social media site for the weed number was actually about protecting free speech and removing bots."
Also, wow, remember "covfefe"? Who would have thought that guy would be the figurehead of a fascist insurrection? Wild stuff.

A little later, Bean does some showboating, and Ender has to restrain himself from punishing the kid, instead turning the moment into a learning experience for the other kids. 

I don't have any military experience, but I do have some experience with managing kids, and I'm reminded of a story that a motivational speaker named Pat Quinn (not the former Illinois governor) told at a presentation I saw once. A teacher he'd once worked for would start the year, before any students arrived, by taking his trash can and putting it in the middle of the room. Then he would leave the room, let the students come in and find their seats, and would enter after them. Whereupon he would storm over to the trash can, say "Who the hell moved my trash can?!" and kick it across the room. 

He never had discipline issues. But it was because the kids feared him, because he'd shown himself to be irrational and unstable, not because he'd demonstrated any kind of good leadership abilities. It's hard to look at Ender's actions here, along with his and Grafderson's justifications, and not see an endorsement of the trash-kicking teacher model of achieving obedience, this idea that people will only follow you if they fear you.

Ender leads his group through some more practice, and plans to have Alai and Shen assist during the evenings. He has a confrontation with Bean wherein he physically assaults the kid for being arrogant and seeing through his tactics. He realizes that he's acting like a bully, just like Bonzo and Peter, and just like his teachers have taught him to do.

This could be a really interesting moment for Ender, recognizing that he's been abused and that he's perpetuating the cycle of abuse because it's all he knows how to do. This could be the moment where he decides that there's a better way. He almost gets there:
Why couldn't he talk like he always did in his evening practice group? No authority except excellence. Never had to give orders, just made suggestions. But that wouldn't work, not with an army. His informal practice group didn't have to learn to do things together. They didn't have to develop a group feeling; they never had to learn how to hold together and trust each other in battle. They didn't have to respond instantly to commands.
One thing that's been clear from the introduction to the book is that Card has a particular understanding of the military, that there is a commanding officer at the top and then a bunch of nameless interchangeable cogs that respond mechanically to the officer's commands, and that this isn't just the best system, but the only system that works. And this is why Ender can't break the cycle of abuse: because, at some level, Card seems to think that abuse is not just effective, but necessary. Bullies may not be fun to be around, but they get things done. We see this reinforced constantly. Graff's cruel manipulation molds Ender into the perfect soldier. Valentine is able to influence global politics using Peter's plan and tactics. Peter represents this extreme of cruelty; Valentine, the extreme of compassion; and Ender is the balance between the two. He's cruel to Bean and feels bad about it, but he's not going to stop, because cruelty works.
And given the trajectory of the rest of the story, the other things that are treated as unpleasant, but necessary because of their effectiveness, it's hard not to see this as a general endorsement that this is the way things ought to be. Leaders ought to be manipulating their followers, because only leaders can see the big picture and make the tough decisions. Problems only arise when the Wrong People become leaders; good leaders are Special People with Special Abilities who sound like Alexanders and Napoleons and Caesars even as children.

It represents such an abhorrent tangle of ideologies, and given Card's other stated ideologies, that's not entirely surprising.
(One positive thing about taking ten years to write this series is that I finally read Dune in 2021, and I strongly suspect that Orson Scott Card read it sometime before 1978, but we'll get into that sometime in the wrap-up.)

Ender's epiphany continues:
Graff had deliberately set him up to be separate from the other boys, made it impossible for him to be close to them. And he began now to suspect the reasons behind it. It wasn't to unify the rest of the group—in fact, it was divisive. Graff had isolated Ender to make him struggle. To make him prove, not that he was competent, but that he was far better than everyone else.
If Ender were a girl or a person of color or queer or disabled or otherwise marginalized, this would be some real on-the-nose allegory, but at least it would be making a statement. 

We're uncovering assumptions again: when people are forced to struggle, they come out stronger. It's a common variant on the just world fallacy, and here it's used as it so often is in reality: to justify abuse and cruelty. Recall again the Grafderson conversation that started the chapter: putting Ender through Hell has worked. Cruelty isn't pleasant, but it gets the job done. 

After practice, Ender learns that his evening practices are over because nobody wants their soldiers training with a different commander. This leads to an encounter with Alai. It gets uncomfortable really quickly.
"You're a full cubit taller than I am."
"Cubit! Has God been telling you to build a boat or something? Or are you in an archaic mood?"
"Not archaic, just arcane. Secret, subtle, roundabout. I miss you already, you circumcised dog."

They have a genuinely good, tender moment.
"Salaam, Alai."
"Alas, it is not to be."
"What isn't?"
"Peace. It's what salaam means. Peace be unto you."
And they part, knowing that in the future, the system would force them to be rivals. Their friendship has changed. Well, I say "friendship," but...
Ender felt as if part of himself had been taken away, an inward prop that was holding up his courage and confidence. With Alai, to a degree impossible even with Shen, Ender had come to feel a unity so strong that the word we came to his lips more easily than I.
But Alai had left something behind. Ender lay in bed, dozing into the night, and felt Alai's lips on his cheek as he muttered the word peace
There is certainly discourse to be had here about how toxic masculinity abhors intimacy outside the context of a heteronormative romantic relationship (and often even there), and how that can cause us to infer romance wherever we see intimacy. Ender compares Alai in this paragraph to Valentine, the other strong, unforgettable bond he has with another human being, his sibling. 

But there's also the fact that Ender's relationships with Shen and Alai are consistently described in very romantic ways. There's the scene where he watches Shen undress and float around, and now he's lying in bed remembering how Alai kissed him. Finding subtext here is not exactly a stretch. And it's fascinating how, in the midst of this very weird and creepy book by a raging homophobe, we are getting these intimate homosocial-if-not-homoromantic relationships. Are there Ender's Game shippers on Tumblr? 
2023 Tom's Note: I wrote that section above back in 2020, and the topic of Ender's Game and queerness is something I'm going to have to dig into in the wrap-up, because having gone back and re-read the book, I was only even scratching the surface three years ago. This is a rich vein, and my fumbling around on JSTOR has not turned up as much scholarship on the topic as I would have expected. 

Ender resolves to be strong enough to defeat his teachers, which puts us right back into that cycle of abuse issue. He recognizes that they are using his bonds with Alai and Valentine to isolate him and break him down, but he also thinks those tactics are useful enough to be doing them himself. If the manipulation he's felt from his teachers has made him strong enough to stand against them, doesn't that justify the methods? Doesn't that prove them right?

I wish I had confidence that the book was even aware of this question, let alone that it would eventually address it in a satisfying way. Ah well. 52%
2023 Tom's Note: Oh, you poor innocent fool. 

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