Saturday, October 21, 2023


As you might be able to tell by the lack of posting, this has been the most hellaciously busy month or so of the year. Planning to resume posting in November!

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Ender Bender 18: Chapter 11, "Veni Vidi Vici" (Part 1)

Graff is worried that the battle schedule they've developed for Ender will burn him out. He says not one word about any of the kids under Ender's command, even though they presumably have the same schedule. As we all know, it's the commanding officers who work the hardest in war. There's that System of a Down song about it (2023 Tom's Note: I honestly have no idea what I was referencing here, but apparently at one point I knew a third System of a Down song). They also talk about how Russia is afraid of some Internet trolls destabilizing world governments and boy was it nice when that kind of thing was limited to dystopian science fiction novels.

Once we get past the ping-pong dialogue bit, we learn that Ender has been training his army in an unconventional way, breaking them into small groups with individual leaders that could act semi-independently, like some sort of chain of command. It's a brilliant idea that only a ten-year-old brain genius or literally any high school band director could come up with. Ender wonders why this happened.
Did they give him thirty Launchies, many of them underage, because they knew the little boys were quick learners, quick thinkers? Or was this what any similar group could become under a commander who knew what he wanted his army to do, and knew how to teach them to do it?
I think it's telling that both of these options center Ender. Either he's been assigned kids who are just really good at learning the way he was, or he's just so good at teaching that he could make any team just as effective in a similar amount of time. The possibility that his team members are contributing something to the process never merits serious consideration. 

They're assigned to battle Rabbit Army, and naturally they dominate over the veteran team.
Even with less than four weeks together, the way they fought already seemed like the only intelligent way, the only possible way.
The entire enemy team is frozen, while Ender's army is mostly unscathed. Before he unfreezes Rabbit Army, he assembles his team in formation to win the psychological victory. 
They may curse us and lie about us, but they’ll remember that we destroyed them, and no matter what they say other soldiers and other commanders will see that in their eyes; in those Rabbit eyes, they’ll see us in neat formation, victorious and almost undamaged in our first battle
This is, as it has been since the battle with Stilson, and as it will be through the end of the book, Card's most deliberate theme: Don't just beat your enemy, but beat them down, so they never even think about fighting again. It's the lesson that the teachers deliberately want Ender to learn, and in a more competent book, there might be some point where Ender repudiates it, but that never really happens. The book consistently validates this approach to warfare on both the large and small scale, in such a way that becomes utterly incoherent once you consider even some of the implications. But hey, let's leave something for the wrap-up posts.

He wages a similar psychological battle on his army as well, playing the hardass commander but telling his subcommanders to be lenient, as a way of binding the groups together. This is, ultimately, similar to what he did with Bean last chapter, giving the soldiers a common enemy to unite against. It's nice that he's putting himself in the line of fire here, but since we haven't heard anything about Bean yet this chapter, it feels like picking a teacher's pet and then directing the soldiers' ire at the teacher is likely to just make things worse on him.

And then there's this normal thought that a normal person would have:
He washed himself twice and let the water run and run on him. It would all be recycled. Let everybody drink some of my sweat today.
Hashtag just shower thoughts. 

There's some more training, Ender goes to lunch at the commanders' mess hall for the first time because it's been his first victory, which raises the question of where he's been eating for the last month, but apparently this is just how it works. More worldbuilding-by-retcon. Lunch is for winners. Naturally, he's at the top of the scoreboard. He has a conversation with Dink Meeker that causes Ender to question whether or not his friends are still his friends now that he's a hotshot commander. 
That's the problem with winning right from the start, thought Ender. You lose friends.
"We're going to win so much, you're going to be sick and tired of winning."

Meanwhile, the Rabbit army commander, Carn Carby, stops by to be a gracious loser again and shower Ender with some more praise. 
"I'll try," Carn Carby left, and Ender mentally added him to his private list of people who also qualified as human beings.
Deciding which people are worthy of being considered human? Well, that's definitely a good look that won't later look bad in light of some kind of genocide. 

Speaking of characters who are treated as second-class humans, Petra Arkanian is here. She deliberately ignores Ender all through Commander Lunch, and then the next morning he gets a last-minute announcement that he'll be battling her army. And here's where things get extremely frustrating, because Ender talks about how he was a member of Petra's army up until he received his command four weeks prior. 

We spent a fair amount of time with Bonzo and Rose the Nose, and how Ender chafed under their incompetent leadership. But then there's Petra, who by all accounts is clever and effective, who Ender considers a friend and a competent leader. He even almost gives her partial credit for how good Phoenix Army is:
Partly because of Ender's influence, they were the most flexible of armies, responding relatively quickly to new situations.
See, Ender's army is good because Ender is their commander. And Petra's army is good because Ender was a part of it, but also Petra being commander probably has something to do with it. Anyway, so much of these chapters have been belaboring Ender's lessons about what good leadership looks like, but when he finally gets a good leader? It merits two brief mentions three chapters ago, with nothing even approaching detail. We're told that Petra is one of a very small number of girls good enough to get into Battleschool (indeed, she's the only one we've even heard mentioned). We're told that commanders generally get some choice of soldiers, meaning she either deliberately picked Ender after watching him train launchies after hours or didn't ask to trade him when he was assigned to her. We're told that her army is really good and that she recognizes Ender's skills enough to make him a (sigh) toon leader. 

He spent at least half a year under her command, in an army that becomes so good it comes closer to beating Ender's than any other (which is still not very close), and none of his experiences, nothing that he learns merits a single mention.

But when Ender's army beats hers, well...
Petra was not gracious about bowing over his hand at the end, either. The anger in her eyes seemed to say, I was your friend, and you humiliate me like this?
Ender pretended not to notice her fury. He figured that after a few more battles, she’d realize that in fact she had scored more hits against him than he expected anyone ever would again. And he was still learning from her. In practice today he would teach his toon leaders how to counter the tricks Petra had played on them. Soon they would be friends again.
He hoped.
She's just irrationally angry, everyone! But it's okay, once she sees that she's the best of the people losing to someone who was her subordinate a month ago, all will be forgiven. Ender assumes.

Nothing about this makes any sense, not Petra's anger and apparent feelings of betrayal, not Ender's optimism that she'd be his friend again in the end. Part of that is because Petra hasn't had a line of dialogue since Chapter 7—the chapter that introduced her—and that doesn't change here. A competent writer would have realized what an important moment it would be for the story for Ender to have an effective commander, one he considered a friend, after a string of people who underestimated or loathed him. A competent writer would have given us character interactions to illustrate how Ender being subordinate to Petra might have strained their friendship. A competent writer might recognize that Ender and Petra both belong to marginalized groups in this world—Petra being a girl, Ender being a Third—so both have to be ten times better than everyone else just to be taken seriously, and that this could be a common experience that they bond over but also something that creates conflict when they’re pitted against each other. A competent writer would have laid some groundwork for this interaction, but Orson Scott Card mentioned Petra in passing once or twice in the last four chapters and then gives us this moment where a friendship that's been an afterthought at best breaks for no clear reason besides Petra being irrationally emotional and unable to see the bigger picture. 

And it all happens without her saying a word. Ender needs no input from her in order to perfectly interpret her state of mind. Our omniscient narrator, everyone.

Oh, and he trades some more barbs with Bean that clearly upset the younger kid. Leadership!

After seven straight days of victories, Ender is beloved by some commanders and reviled by others, but he's clearly better than all of them.
A few of them sat with him at every meal, carefully trying to learn from him how he had defeated his most recent opponents. He told them freely, confident that few of them would know how to train their soldiers and their toon leaders to duplicate what his could do.
And I'd like to contrast that quotation with this one: 
There were many, too, who hated him. Hated him for being young, for being excellent, for having made their victories look paltry and weak.
Yes, that's why they hate you, Ender. Because you're young and excellent and better than them, not because you're a condescending, supercilious ass who deliberately tries to demoralize your opponents. Like, Ender acts like he knows that the purpose of Battle School is to turn out precisely one Perfect Chosen General who is better than all the others. And narratively, he's right, just as Hogwarts was designed to facilitate the adventures of one Chosen Doofus and his pals, but it doesn't make sense for the character to behave like he knows that's the case. If the school's understood goal is to produce the leaders of the army that's going to protect the human race, wouldn't it make sense for him to try to train the interested commanders hard enough that they could understand his methods and communicated them to their soldiers and toon leaders? Wouldn't that be a natural evolution of the leadership he showed as a soldier, training interested launchies in his free time?
But why bother with character development when your character is already perfect?

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. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Ender Bender 16: Chapter 9, "Locke & Demosthenes" (Part 3)

I never thought I'd be relieved to be following Ender's exploits again. 
Nothing was different, nothing had changed in a year. Ender was sure of it, and yet it all seemed to have gone sour.

Ender and his friends have risen up in the world, even the teachers respect him, but he's sad because none of his peers treat him like a peer. Gosh, maybe it's because he's spent the entire time that he's been here in Battleschool acting like he's superior to everyone.

So he wallows in self-pity, then plays his video game. Orson Scott Card invented GamerGate.

Some dwarves have made a village out of the giant's corpse, but Ender just can't figure out how to get past the castle at the End of the World, where he always sees his brother's face and he always dies. Card may have been able to predict 4Chan, but he couldn't predict GameFAQs.

And just like that, we're back to Valentine. Military officers are at her school, and she's afraid that her secret identity's been exposed. But no, Colonel Graff has come at great expense to ask her why Ender keeps seeing Peter's face in the computer game. In the future, the Internet and Message Boards exist, but not Skype (2020 Tom's note: this paragraph was written in 2018. Readers in 2020 should substitute Zoom in this very timely technology reference). The fact that the Colonel is asking Valentine about a game she's never played and a brother she hasn't had contact with in years is lampshaded, but Graff threatens the Wiggin family if she doesn't share her insights.

So Valentine relents and describes Peter's bullying and manipulation tactics, and his threats to murder his siblings. And then she falls into a shame spiral about how she's been pulled into Peter's plans and abandoned Ender, in case you wondered whether the other female character in this book has any individuality beyond her relationship to male characters. Graff convinces her to write a reassuring letter to Ender, to tell him that he's not actually like Peter, which would likely be more convincing if she knew about what Ender's been doing that makes him feel like he's going down that path. There's a bit more of "the military is mean and unfair and shitty for no reason," but Valentine eventually gives in because she's ultimately kind of spineless and there's a "you can't fight city hall" message woven throughout this book.

Which is maybe the part that feels the most out of place from a 21st century standpoint. For all that Ender's Game presaged the world of modern YA, with fantastic schools where exceptional young people are sorted into competing teams and get caught up in a larger conflict, most of them involve some degree of rebellion against an oppressive state. Even the Harry Potter series—and I think there are a lot of comparisons to be drawn between Card and Rowling both as writers and as people—which is ultimately about protecting and maintaining a rightful state system, has the heroes fighting back when that system is corrupted. But in Ender's Game, at least this first book, for as sinister and incompetent and oppressive the government systems are, no one ever even discusses overthrowing them or rebelling against them. "The adults are the enemy," but unlike every other enemy in this book, no effort is made to fight them, let alone leave them so completely destroyed that they do not try to start another fight.

Maybe that's later in the series? I doubt I'll ever know.

So Ender reads the letter. She calls Peter a "slumbitch" and misspells "psychoanalyze" in ways that are apparently distinctive to Valentine even though we've never seen her do any of those things in the book up 'til now. They're payoffs to things that have never been setup, callbacks to details that were never called forward, like so many of the moments in this book. We get some waffling about whether or not Valentine actually wrote it and whether or not it matters because it wasn't her decision to write it and it had to have been approved by the military, which leads us right back into how the military is bad. And look, I'm not unsympathetic to that point of view, I just think I come to that conclusion from the exact opposite position as Card.

Ender cries, then loads up his video game, and for the first time in awhile I feel a sense of verisimilitude. Been there, buddy.

He decides he's not going to play their games anymore and so he plays their game some more in protest. But this time he doesn't kill the snake, he kisses it, and then it turns into Valentine and kisses him back. Instead of Peter, the mirror shows them their fursonas, and then they get to advance past the room where Ender had been stuck.

2020 Tom's note: There's no way it actually gave Ender and Valentine fursonas. That was a joke I came up with in 2018, clearly.

She arose from the floor of the tower room and walked to the mirror. Ender made his figure also rise and go with her. They stood before the mirror, where instead of Peter's cruel reflection there stood a dragon and a unicorn. 

Huh. Orson Scott Card predicted FurAffinity.

Valentine gets a letter from the Strategos, and I don't think we've been told before that his name is Shimon Levy, which feels oddly reminiscent of the "male witch" Isaac Horowitz from Christian rapper Carman's "Witch's Invitation." I suppose it's not so much offensive as stereotypical, but boy oh boy. Anyway, Valentine wins an award for her assistance to the war effort, but won't actually receive it until the war is over. She's angry at how she's been used and goes passive-aggressive through her online avatar, and god I hope this is the last I have to read of this plot cul-de-sac.

2023 Tom's Note: it's not!

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Ender Bender 15: Chapter 9, "Locke & Demosthenes" (Part 2)

In this chapter, Orson Scott Card pioneers trolling, sockpuppeting, and catfishing.

No, seriously. Valentine and Peter get access to the unrestricted Internet and immediately begin creating anonymous accounts with fake identities and getting into debates.
At first Peter insisted that they be deliberately inflammatory. "We can't learn how our style of writing is working unless we get responses—and if we're bland, no one will answer."
That's, like, the textbook definition of trolling from back in the Usenet/BBS days, before it just meant sending death threats to trans people.

The feedback they get helps them make their writing sound more adult, and once they do that, they can properly catfish the world's leaders. Their literal stated goal is to generate memes that influence global political agendas and eventually become so Internet famous by staging arguments with each other under their titular pseudonyms that by the time anyone figures out they're a couple of kids, nobody will be able to stop listening.

Orson "Lowtax" Card.

Valentine's character gets an offer to write a column for a west coast newsnet.
"I can't do a weekly column," Valentine said. "I don't even have a monthly period yet."
Well, it's true, they sure don't talk like real kids.

Valentine doesn't like the way Peter's forced her character to be a "fairly paranoid anti-Russian writer," so I guess Orson Scott Card invented Louise Mensch too. Look, folks, I was not at all prepared for this chapter to be so relevant to 2018. (Future Tom's note: this post was written in 2018. For 2020 readers, feel free to update this trenchant political reference to Rachel Maddow, I guess).

Way Future Tom's Note: Obviously I wrote the preceding paragraph in 2018 and revised it in 2020. I thought about re-revising it, but the political landscape regarding Russia has become so completely different since 2018 that there's not really a way to salvage the joke. Like, all the "fairly paranoid" types now are on Russia's side. What a difference a few years makes. I leave the unedited paragraph for you as an exercise in joke archaeology.

And when Valentine stands up to Peter?
"Are you sure you're not having a period, little woman?"
Father Wiggin likes the cut of Demosthenes's jib, and Valentine's upset because she was sure only an idiot would agree with the ridiculous strawman arguments she puts into Demosthenes's articles. Arrogant teens starting accounts to troll people under the names of long-dead philosophers, and older generations falling for obvious strawman political accounts is so prescient it hurts my teeth.

Locke gets a column in a New England newsnet, Peter talks about the Wiggin kids' collective pubic hair, and oh dear I've thrown my iPad across the room.

Future Tom's note: there's no way that's actually in the book, right? I would have remembered that, right?
A few days later Locke got picked up for a column in a New England newsnet, specifically to provide a contrasting view for their popular column from Demosthenes. "Not bad for two kids who've only got about eight pubic hairs between them," Peter said.
Way Future Tom's Note: You can tell this is bit is from 2023 because it's an I Think You Should Leave reference. I recently scrolled through the reviews for Ender's Game on The Storygraph, and I just can't get over, especially in our current age of moral panics from the Puriteens and the anti-"Groomer" crusaders, how nobody seems to remark on the abundance of gross lines and creepy moments in this extremely popular book. I am increasingly convinced that more recent printings have edited out some of the more egregious content, because it feels like the only rational explanation beyond the entire world conspiring to gaslight me about a bad sci-fi novel from the '80s.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Ender Bender 14: Chapter 9, "Locke and Demosthenes" (Part 1)

God, could you have a more pretentious chapter title?

Says the guy whose NaNoWriMo novel chapter titles were all quotes from T.S. Eliot poems. Glass houses, Tom.

This chapter is another eight pages longer than the last chapter, and it's an interlude following Peter and Valentine. And they're talking about global politics. Combining the politics of Orson Scott Card with the politics of preteens is truly a heretofore undiscovered circle of hell, way to go. 

So our opening dialogue between people who are still unnecessarily unidentified explains that Ender is so good at computer games that he found a place that wasn't programmed!
And since the game is designed to be a mind game for the specific player, we get some thrilling conversation about the possible symbolic meanings of the levels. It's always good to have your characters trying to analyze the text in the text, right? That's why there's that conversation between Nick and Gatsby where Jay's like "hey, man, I think you're putting me on an unreasonable pedestal and overlooking my flaws in much the same way that I do with Daisy oh wait I need to rethink some things."

Anyway, they also talk about how the game is connected to the Future Internet and pulled up a more recent picture of Peter from the Guilford County North Carolina school system, and that's the first of a couple of times that this chapter decides to get really, really specific about geography. Once the chapter starts in earnest, we learn that the Wiggin family has moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, which is, entirely coincidentally, also where Card lives. It's fine to set stories in real places and to pull from real-life experience when you're writing, but it's weird to start developing this sense of place when you're more than halfway through the book. 

I've talked about this in earlier posts, but going back to read the book all in one go made the problem so apparent that it's hard to believe there's any other explanation: I don't think Card ever went back and changed anything significant in earlier sections once later sections were written. He talks in the introduction about "the necessity of being harsh with your own material, excising or rewriting anything that doesn't work" and that he "fix[ed] the errors and contradictions and stylistic excesses" of the first edition, but I see little evidence of that. What I see, throughout an introduction where his smarmy self-assuredness reminds me of no one so much as Dilbert scribe Scott Adams and throughout a text where he is constantly introducing plot elements only immediately before they are relevant rather than when they might more naturally occur in the narrative, is a guy who can't be harsh with his own material because he can't recognize when something doesn't work (or when something else might work better). 

The establishment of the Wiggin home only after they have moved is like so many of those details, ones that could have easily been dropped in description or flavor text or exposition sometime earlier, but instead end up in awkward "as you know Bob" paragraphs peppered through the text. It's hard to see these as any kind of deliberate stylistic choice; like the ever-increasing chapter length (two thirds of the chapters make up roughly half of the book's overall text), it feels like a matter of poor planning or poor editing, or both. 

Moving to Greensboro was meant to be therapy for Peter, hoping that nature would curb his violent impulses. The degree to which authorities are aware of Peter's violence varies wildly throughout the book; here, it's severe enough to uproot the family but also nobody ever really follows up on it. Much of this is chalked up to Peter's manipulativeness, but it ends up being one of a variety of places where we just have to accept that the Wiggin kids aren't just gifted, aren't just mature for their ages, but are vastly more intelligent than everyone around them. It's one of several places where some Ayn Rand seems to seep through the text, not just that the vague eugenics of the Genetically Perfect Chosen One narrative, but the sneering contempt for anyone outside of an elite inner circle. 

Anyway, instead of getting better, Peter is ticking off the serial killer checklist by torturing and dissecting various woodland creatures. He's also a student of Google University, and beloved by the faculty as a result, which is probably a consequence of this book being written before the modern Internet. A violent reactionary conservative teenager who thinks he knows everything because of what he's read online? Oh yeah, that's every teacher's favorite student.

We're told that Peter studies the "binding of cells into organisms through the philotic collation of DNA," and...
Okay, I know, criticizing the science fiction book for its fictional science is nitpicky. But the thing is, we know how cells bind together. We know how DNA works. Neither of those things was particularly mysterious in 1985. The "philotic" thing is Card's Unobtanium; we learn later that it's the branch of physics derived from studying Bugger tech that allows for faster-than-light communication and gravity manipulation. And I don't really have much problem with any of that (though I think the term is goofy and an otherwise-mostly-hard-SF book like this one could have more easily gotten to this point through discussing existing physics concepts like quantum entanglement and gravitons). My problem is invoking it to explain something we already understood. It'd be like Qui-Gon saying that the Midichlorians are what allow people to tap into the Force and are what keep the planets in orbit around the sun.

With an interminable back-and-forth, Peter explains that he's decided not to kill Valentine because Russia is mobilizing their military, in advance (he thinks) of some change in the Bugger War that will lead to a dissolution of the tenuous world peace. Between this and Watchmen, it's interesting that "an alien invasion is all that can bring the world's governments together peacefully" was apparently such a common idea in 1985.

Peter points out that he and Valentine don't think or talk or write like other children, hanging a lampshade on the obvious. If there were any children who did talk or write like other children in this book who could provide a contrast, this might be interesting. Instead, it just feels like it's handwaving how every character has the same damn voice.

Long story short, Peter is good at intimidation, Valentine is good at persuasion, and Peter wants her help to say the right things to the right people to preserve world peace, because on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog or a 12-year-old psychopath.

Also, they call it "the nets," and that is hilarious.

Valentine's internal monologue lays the entire exchange out on the table, analyzing her character and Peter's so that the reader doesn't have to.
In a way, she actually preferred Peter to other people because of this. He always, always acted out of intelligent self-interest.


"Think what Pericles did in Athens, and Demosthenes—"
"Yes, they managed to wreck Athens twice."
"Pericles, yes, but Demosthenes was right about Philip—"
"Or provoked him—"
"See? This is what historians usually do, quibble about cause and effect when the point is, there are times when the world is in flux and the right voice in the right place can move the world."

Keep quotes like that in mind when I bring up the deeply conservative, anti-intellectual, Ayn Randian influences on this book in the wrap-up post.

There's no need for metaphor or interpretation because Card tells you the exact subtext and context for every line of dialogue, and exactly what Valentine's motivations are and what she thinks Peter's must be, in enough detail that it occasionally reads like Vizzini working through the Iocane gambit. It's thoroughly telling-not-showing, and it would have a greater impact if it left something up to the reader. For all that this book is praised as not talking down to gifted kids, it sure does hold your hand through any situation that might have any ambiguity to it.

Which brings us back to the conversation at the beginning, where two characters analyze the text so the reader doesn't have to. No sense trying to imagine what a character's motivation is, they'll tell you, and if your point-of-view character doesn't know for sure what another character's motivation is, they'll exhaustively examine all the possibilities. It's like the book is reading itself for you.

Hey, remember in the introduction when Card scoffed at critics who thought "anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel"? When he said that he "designed Ender's Game to be as clear and accessible as any story of [his] could possibly be"? This, I think, is what he meant. He didn't set out to avoid allegory and dense symbolism—quite the opposite, given all his bloviating about military history and the great generals who inspired the story. He didn't set out to tell a complete and clear story that was compelling even if you didn't understand the deeper layers. He set out to tell a story that left nothing to chance, that spoonfed every bit of meaning to the reader so they couldn't possibly miss the meanings and messages. It's a story that doesn't trust the reader to get anything that isn't explicitly stated. 

It's extremely condescending. Which is ironic, given that the book is often specifically praised for not talking down to its reader base. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

47% → 73% → 100%

Remember 2013?

I know, it feels like several lifetimes ago. Let me help. "The Wolverine" was in theaters (remember theaters?), but we were all still coming down from our collective "Pacific Rim" high, still using that jaeger generator. Doge memes blanketed the Internet as thickly as discourse about the sketchy gender politics of "Blurred Lines." Ted Cruz was ascendant, about to shut down the government over Obamacare and not yet reduced to picking proxy fights with Ron Perlman or stoking sieges on his workplace. 

And I started reading beloved children's sci-fi novel Ender's Game

Between August, 2013 and July, 2017, I read and wrote about the book for a series I called Ender Bender, which (like every series I've tried to do for this blog—remember when I tried to watch every episode of "Silverhawks"?) started out with regular posts and an ambitious plan that petered out into very occasional posting as I got busy with other things and lost interest. I returned to draft a few more posts in early 2018, intending to finally finish the series, but never published them. 

I'm not a person who leaves books unfinished often. I've thought about the books I've abandoned for one reason or another, and I don't think there's more than two dozen across my whole life. On the Road, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, I remember nearly all of them. Some of them I intend to return to someday. 

I left Ender's Game at 47% complete on my iPad. 

Seeing a percent next to the word "game" triggers something deep in me. I'm the guy who completes every Riddler challenge in an Arkham game. So when I found myself thinking about Ender's Game recently, I decided to see if anyone else out there was talking about how much of this book is about bigoted children who are constantly naked. I understand there's a genocide later that probably dominates most people's memories, but, like, I went into It knowing about the preteen orgy, you'd think someone would have mentioned something

In searching for discourse, I came across a series by Will Wildman, also started in 2013 (and, improbably finished in 2013 like some kind of responsible blog series), at the blog Something Short and Snappy, doing something similar to what I would start a few months later. Reading the first few posts there and rereading my own posts got me to decide that I should occasionally try to finish something.

So I'm bringing Ender Bender to a close, for real this time. You can go back and read those old posts like I did, and marvel at how extremely of their times they are (I used the word "transgendered" like it's a verb! I made several references to "Welcome to Night Vale"!). And then feel free to plow ahead, because it's finally happening. The book is finished, the posts are written, and everything is scheduled (or will be before I publish this post). I hope you enjoy it, person who still reads blogs in 2020 2021. 

As you might be able to guess, I didn't write that recently. Back in 2020, when we were all going a little stir crazy, I decided to try to revive and finish Ender Bender. Obviously, I didn't succeed. I left the book at 73%  and don't have a handy screenshot because between then and now, I upgraded to a different version of Marvin on my iPad. 

This year, I've been trying to finish more things. I'm staring down the barrel of one of those round number birthdays and feeling some kinds of existential way. I don't know why Ender Bender is the project I settled on to finish this year. Maybe it's because I noticed that my first attempt to read Ender's Game was precisely ten years ago and that's another round number. Maybe it's because the culture war is currently engaged in genocidal moral panics involving book banning and accusations of child grooming, and this creepy-ass book's never going to enter the conversation because the author is on the same side as the Inquisitors. Maybe it's because of the rule of threes. 

Whatever the reason, I did it, and I did it right. I went all the way back to the beginning this time, rather than trying to rely on memories and my own posts like I did three years ago. And I'm glad I did, because I noticed so much more this time than I did before, both because I had some idea what to expect, and because I'm just more mature and knowledgeable than I was at 29.

And so, I have finished reading Ender's Game. 

Which means I need to finish writing about it. I wrote several posts back in 2020 and 2021, getting all the way up to Chapter 13: Valentine, and leaving myself cryptic notes like "remember the magicians." I'm going to lightly revise those and then bring the series to a close over the course of the next several weeks, aiming for a post each week, and wrapping up with some kind of summary. I might even watch the dingdang movie. If anyone's still out there, I hope you'll join me on this overlong journey, or at least that you'll come back when it's over. 

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Dawn happens every day

It is 2004. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

It is 2006. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

It is 2011. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

It is 2014. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

It is 2016. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

It is 2018. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

It is 2021. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

It is 2023. I am cautiously optimistic about the bold new direction for the Superman titles after a long period of floundering.

I'm just saying, I've been here before. 
I've actually generally enjoyed the Superman comics of the last couple of years. The Warworld Saga was quite good, even if it maybe dragged on a little longer than necessary and definitely needed a recap page, maybe with some character headshots, at the start of each issue. Son of Kal-El has been less good, mostly because Jon has yet to develop anything resembling a personality, but I've been vocal about my issues with that on worse sites.

On paper (which is how comics are printed), this is kind of exactly what I want. Action is now a Superman Family anthology book, and while a Power Girl spotlight and Danny J. rehashing the post-Convergence Lois & Clark status quo aren't exactly what I would have pegged for the initial backups, I'm happy that the former is getting a spotlight and that we're getting to spend more time with bearded Clark and young Jon. And I'm even happier that the Steels and Kong Kenan are in the main group. With Kon, Jon, and the adopted Phaelosians, it's probably hoping too much that we'll eventually see the return of Lor-Zod, but I can be optimistic. Phillip Kennedy Johnson has earned my trust for this run, and I hope he sticks it out for awhile. 

I was a lot more worried about Superman. I thought Williamson's Flash series went off the rails pretty quickly, and the entire Dark Crisis saga was bad even on a purely technical level, let alone as a satisfying story or crossover event. My experience with Williamson of late has felt like he's been reheating Geoff Johns' and Scott Snyder's leftovers, and that has not made for entertaining comics. So I was blown away by Superman #1, which managed to strike precisely the right balance of getting back to basics while introducing enough new story hooks and conflict points to make things feel fresh. The way Superman's secret got put back in the bottle was dumb (and also the second time Manchester Black has been used to do precisely that thing, two_nickels.gif) but they gloss past it nicely here to get to a situation where Lex Luthor is the sinister voice in the back of Superman's head, voicing all of his anxieties and doubts. Lois chafing under the restrictions of being the Planet's temporary Chief makes for some good character beats, and repurposing LexCorp into SuperCorp (which feels like a knowing nod to CW fans) puts Superman in a fascinating position. There's a lot of promise here, and it reminds me a lot of the Busiek/Johns "Up, Up, and Away" story from the post-Infinite Crisis era, which kicked off a pretty decent run of comics, all things considered. I hope Jamal Campbell is in it for the long haul; I'm not particularly familiar with his work prior to this, but this book looks fantastic. 

Adventures of Superman: Jon Kent...remains probably the weakest link in the bunch. Giving Jon a secret identity is a good idea, and something that should have been done back at the start of Son of Kal-El (or, more accurately, should have been done for more than a few pages). Giving him the electric blue suit and powers is an even better idea (even if they keep dragging it out for no clear reason), I've been on the "give someone else in the Superman family that costume" bandwagon longer than anyone. And the series sets up some good drama in Jon's changing powers, his ability to be a civilian for the first time, and how that affects his relationship with Jay, who is publicly recognized as Superman's boyfriend. 

Except that it's ditching all of that to send Jon on a multiversal trip to battle Ultraman because they finally remembered what his backstory was, and have decided that Ultraman is just Gog now. And it's all leading up to a crossover with the Tryhard Injustice universe, and I cannot roll my eyes hard enough. It's honestly nice to see Val-Zod, a character I missed out on but who has a nice design, but Jon's current problem has a lot to do with the fact that he has no clear anchor and few connections to the regular universe, and removing him from it yet again isn't going to fix that problem. Doing it so that Tom Taylor can take a little victory lap around Superman characters he's written just feels like a major disservice to a character who's already being effectively demoted and sidelined. It's a good looking book, and I welcome the chance to see my second-favorite Superman costume on somebody again, but I kind of hope this is Tom Taylor's swan song on the Son of Steel so that someone else can give the kid a real chance at being a star.

Where does that leave us in the long run? It's hard to say. I was just musing recently about what an amazing accomplishment it was that the post-Crisis brain trust managed to churn out a weekly comic of pretty consistently high quality for the better part of a decade, and how unique that is in the history of comics as a medium. We're unlikely to ever see anything like that again, but that doesn't mean we can't have a few years of the Superman comics being Good, Actually. You could say I'm cautiously optimistic, but [calculates average] I guess we'll check back in 2.375 years and see whether or not we're onto another bold new direction.