Friday, August 16, 2013

Ender Bender 2: Chapter 1, "Third"

I'm having a hard time being charitable.

The book begins with dialogue between two unnamed, undescribed people about three other unnamed, undescribed people. It's not exactly "Call me Ishmael," and it may not even be "Call Me Maybe." We can gather that there are three siblings, two of whom "tested out impossible" of an undescribed test for reasons that are also undescribed. The third is "too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will." And the solution to that is just to surround this third individual with enemies all the time, because he won't submit to them.

Oh, also, I know much hay has been made out of the alien villains in this book series, but seriously:
If the buggers get him, they'll make me look like his favorite uncle.
Card's not exactly making the jokes difficult. If the subtext is not meant to be about a talented, impressionable boy who won't submit to "buggers," then Card's doing a pretty poor job of laying something else in there.

The story proper begins With Andrew/Ender Wiggins (so far, we don't know the genesis of the nickname) getting a "monitor" removed from the back of his neck. The "monitor" is never described in this chapter, but I can't help imagining a small, full-on CRT screen implant. Either way, this scene helps to establish that Ender has the adults all figured out, specifically that they lie and say "this won't hurt a bit" but it is going to hurt, but since you know they're reliably lying, you can at least count on that.

Or something along those lines.

We also learn that Ender/Andrew had his monitor a whole year longer than his brother Peter, who resents him for it. They're different people: Peter likes playing "buggers and astronauts," Ender likes reading books. Like the kids reading this book! He's just like you, audience!

Of course, Peter is a belligerent jerk:
There was something in Peter's eyes, when he was in that mad mood, and whenever Ender saw that look, that glint, he knew that the one thing Peter would not do was leave him alone. I'm practicing piano, Ender. Come turn the pages for me. Oh, is the monitor boy too busy to help his brother? Is he too smart? Got to go kill some buggers, astronaut? No, no, I don't want your help. I can do it on my own, you little bastard, you little Third.

You'll be happy to know that in the future, doctors are men and nurses are women. At least our stereotypes remain intact. The removal of Ender's monitor sends him into a spasming fit, which is relieved with an injection of some muscle relaxant/sedative. The nurse who brought the syringe in apparently doesn't know anything about the drug inside it, which seems like a failure of training, and the doctor is shaken by how easily they "could have unplugged [Ender] forever."

So we have an early bit of action, an indication that these procedures are dangerous, and an indication that adults are incompetent liars. The rest of the chapter strengthens these themes.

Ender returns to school, where he has a realization that "he was just like everybody else now." Spoiler: he's not.

Miss Pumphrey talked about multiplication. Ender doodled on his desk, drawing contour maps of mountainous islands and then telling his desk to display them in three dimensions from every angle. The teacher would know, of course, that he wasn't paying attention, but she wouldn't bother him. He always knew the answer, even when she thought he wasn't paying attention.
And here's the first place where I realize that my window for enjoying this story and identifying with its protagonist has long since passed. The teacher in me is amused to see that even in a high-tech future, differentiation that reaches and stimulates every student is difficult to achieve. The teenager in me notes that, if we were inclined to think of Ender as an unreliable narrator, "contour maps of mountainous islands" could very easily be a pompous, "I've already come up with an exculpatory but implausible excuse" way of doodling boobs.

But the rest of me can't help but think of Liz Lemon or that recent Daredevil issue about pompous young Matt Murdock. Yes, Ender has problems with bullies, and he doesn't deserve the blame for the taunts and violence that are visited on him. However, here he's flaunting how he doesn't have to follow the rules (the teacher yells at the kid who makes fun of him, but doesn't reprimand Ender for inattentiveness), and how much smarter than everyone else he is. Maybe the teacher doesn't care if he's not paying attention (or, speaking from some experience, doesn't have anything else for him to do or is tired of having the same conversations with him over and over), but I'll bet the other students care. Ender should not be in this class; if we assume that he is, in fact, well above the material. There are lots of kids who assume that they're well above the material and don't pay attention, only to discover that their self-assessment was in error. If he has to be in this class, then the teacher should be modifying his workload so that he's stimulated. That she hasn't, and that she openly lets him get away with things other students receive punishment for, makes Ender an even bigger target to the people who don't have it so easy in the classroom.

And I suspect it'd help if he weren't so insufferably smug about the whole thing.

I want to scratch something I said earlier: it's not that I don't identify with Ender. I do. I identify him as the same smug, insufferable tool I was in grade/middle school, doodling superheroes because I already knew everything already and every thought I had was profound, original, and brilliant. I just don't see that character as a hero, I see that character as an unfortunate and embarrassing phase.

Case in point: a classmate makes the derogatory word "THIRD" show up on and circle around Ender's desk. Ender's response:
Ender smiled. He was the one who had figured out how to send messages and make them march--even as his secret enemy called him names, the method of delivery praised him.
Ha ha, got you dummy! Again, as a kid I probably would have seen this as a smirkworthy, table-turning private victory. Now, I just see it as...insufferably smug. I have a feeling that's a phrase I'm not done with yet.

We learn that the government wouldn't normally allow "thirds" into school; I suspect that if Ender hadn't lucked into this government experiment, this book would just be Anthem.

There is a nice prescient bit here where the kids are working with their electronic desks:
The bell rang. Everyone signed off their desks or hurriedly typed in reminders to themselves. Some were dumping lessons or data into their computers at home. A few gathered at the printers while something they wanted to show was printed out.
The idea that we'd still be (presumably) using paper printers in this distant future might be a bit unlikely, but the bit about sending data to a remote location is shockingly cloud-esque for 1991. Orson Scott Card predicts Dropbox.

This naturally leads Ender into a reverie about how great, smart, and talented he is. Unfortunately, he also realizes how his monitor provided him with constant surveillance, and now that it's gone, he no longer has that protection. So it's no surprise when Stilson, the bully from class, starts picking on Ender, calling him a "bugger-lover" (really?), and ganging up on him with friends. The scene rings fairly true (except the part where somebody says "see-saw, marjorie daw," which I have never seen nor heard outside of truly ancient books of nursery rhymes), with the bullies flinging stupid taunts and insults, and Ender getting himself in worse trouble by trying to be clever.

But then the magic of adolescent power fantasies kicks in--literally!
But they let go of him. And as soon as they did, Ender kicked out high and hard, catching Stilson square in the breastbone.
Note: my childhood love of Hardy Boys books had me anticipating a blow to the solar plexus.
He dropped. It took Ender by surprise--he hadn't thought to put Stilson on the ground with one kick. It didn't occur to him that Stilson didn't take a fight like this seriously, that he wasn't prepared for a truly desperate blow.
There's a moment where the other bullies think Stilson might be dead, and Ender muses on the "unspoken rules of manly warfare," which he decides, like the rules of the classroom, don't apply to him. So he kicks Stilson several times while he's on the ground, as a message to the others. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen:
["]But just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me. From then on you'd be wondering when I'd get you, and how bad it would be." He kicked Stilson in the face. Blood from his nose spattered the ground nearby. "It wouldn't be this bad," Ender said. "It would be worse."
Ender walks away, and cries once out of the bullies' sight, musing that he's just like his brother. It's nice to see that this combat prowess isn't seen as a wholly positive trait. I'm just curious if the smug self-assuredness will also be getting a less laudatory treatment down the line.

Then again, I read Card's introduction. So, you know, probably not.

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