Saturday, September 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ender Bender 7: Chapter 6, "The Giant's Drink"

Hey, remember how last chapter spent more time comparing Ender to a bugger, and ended with Ender thoroughly humiliating one launchmate for noticing how another moved his butt, even though Ender noticed it enough to diagnose the problem?

"I don't care. His [Ender's] fault or not, he's poisoning that group. They're supposed to bond, and right where he stands there's a chasm a mile wide."
"I don't plan to leave him there very long, anyway."
"Then you'd better plan again. That launch is sick, and he's the source of the disease. He stays till it's cured."
Subtext, everybody!

It's another conversation between Graff and the fleet commander whose name I can't remember and don't care enough about to look up. This one's pricklier than usual, as the fleet guy makes the good point that Ender's supposed to be a great commander but can't even socialize with his launch group, while Graff thinks that's totally cool as a leadership trait. It's played, however, as Graff bristling under the military command's unnecessary meddling and micromanagement, because Graff obviously knows best.

We finally make our way into the much-ballyhooed battleroom, which is like the Danger Room minus gravity and anything interesting. Ender notices a bunch of things about his suit--it's restrictive but also amplifies his movements--and takes the plunge into the zero-g area, bouncing around with little control. But because he's Ender, we get a painstaking description of how observant he is, learning from every bit of it, until he's got the hang of it.

I could mostly be done there, since that's repeated for about 80% of this chapter.

Ender tries to get Shen to join in, but he's too scared. Bernard isn't though, and his best friend Alai shoots off right behind. Bernard is understandably tense and hesitant in the zero-g environment, and Ender decides to file that information away for future reference. Because I guess it's important for a leader to know how to exploit all his subordinates' weaknesses, I guess.

Alai, on the other hand, takes to the air like a pro, and makes the other kids look like idiots in the process:
Alai shouted and whooped, and so did the boys watching him. Some of them forgot they were weightless and let go of the wall to clap their hands. Now they drifted lazily in many directions, waving their arms, trying to swim.
The part of me that watches lots of videos from the International Space Station is trying to picture how that works. Like, things in microgravity mostly stay where they are unless a force is involved, so unless they're pushing off the wall when clapping their hands, it's not entirely clear why they'd end up helplessly drifting. But I don't really have a feel for the layout here either. It was important to describe the layout of the rocket they took to the space station, not so important to describe the basic features of the room that so much of the book has been leading up to.

Also notice that despite the lip-service paid to there being some girls at the academy, none have so far appeared. "Boys" is the collective noun for academy students. I guess having girls around would complicate things with cooties and an expanded readership.

Ender spends a good deal of time trying to figure out how you would deal with being set adrift in zero-gravity. He has the clever idea to see if his lazer tag gun could be used for propulsion. He even remembers (it's not explained how or from where) that marines use repulsor beams "hand rockets" when boarding enemy ships. But after fiddling with all the buttons on his gun, he finds that one shoots the beam of light we heard of earlier, one is a flashlight, and one apparently does nothing.

Look, I get that Card is trying to suggest here that the best way to train soldiers/educate children is the sink-or-swim method, where they're given minimal information and expected to work everything out for themselves. There are certain benefits to that method in some circumstances. But, I don't know, how hard is it to label the buttons on your ray-gun weapons? Is that really going to be such a crutch? Why would you have a button that apparently does nothing? Why not have a propulsion setting? Maybe this military really is run by incompetent nincompoops.

After a page of Ender learning in grand detail what his gun does (not much) and how it would help him if he were set adrift (it wouldn't), Ender realizes how important it is to launch yourself properly at the start. He makes his way to Alai, the only other kid who seems to have the hang of things, and decide to practice together. It's actually a decent moment of people who don't particularly like each other being forced to work together and build a mutual respect. It's also a decent moment of kids acting like kids, since they turn it into a race.
"Last one there saves farts in a milk bottle," Alai said.
It's also a nice example of Card's obsession with flatulence. Milk bottles apparently make a resurgence somewhere between now and the distant future.

Oh, and I almost forgot the subtext:
Then, slowly, steadily, they maneuvered until they faced each other, spread-eagled, hand to hand, knee to knee.
"And then we just scrunch?" asked Alai.
"I've never done this before either," said Ender.

Alai wins the race, and there's a decent exchange where Ender actually acts like a good sport about losing. With the success of that practice, they decide to test out the guns. Of course, Ender assumes that Alai is as sadistic as he is, and wants to just start shooting at the other kids. Alai, being infinitely more sensible, thinks they should just shoot each other in the foot so they can see what happens. Hey, isn't it weird how a guy who apparently hates the military and has never served is playing out a stereotypical draft-dodging tactic in his book about the future military? Crazy.

They find out that the guns basically just freeze up the suits, which makes this not just zero-g Lazer Tag, but zero-g Lazer FREEZE Tag, which is obviously much better for training soldiers.

And then they decide to just start shooting at the other kids. But first, Ender has a shocking suggestion!
They grinned. Then Ender said, "Better invite Bernard."
Alai cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"And Shen."
And then it just gets shocking.
"That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?"
Ender decided that Alai was joking. "Hey, we can't all be n*****s."
Alai grinned. "My grandpa would've killed you for that."
"My great great grandpa would have sold him first."
Hoooo boy.

I don't know where to start, but I guess I'll start with the good: at least Alai isn't the jive-talking older kid from the last chapter. Why, until this moment, we had no indication of his race. I'm sure Card would point to that as being progressive.

But that's about it. Racism is alive enough in the future that a six-year-old knows the n-word (it's not redacted in the text, by the way) and uses it casually in a joke. But it's okay, see, because the black kid threw out the first racial slur. Besides, minorities have mellowed out in the future. They've learned to just laugh it off when white people use racial slurs in a joking manner, because it's just joking. They're not oversensitive like today's black people who get all upset over harmless racist jokes. In the future, racism won't be a problem, and white people will be able to tell racist jokes and use racial slurs with impunity.

It's a very white heterosexual male privilege utopia, the world of Ender's Game. Everyone just accepts that women don't belong in positions of power or the military, because biology. Everyone just speaks the same language in the same way, except the French, and it's not imperialism but sensibility--obviously everyone just adopts the most superior language, English, probably with a homogenized midwestern accent. But while the French are nasty rebels for clinging to their accents, Ender's parents are heroic rebels for clinging to their religious beliefs, because the only artifacts of culture that matter are things like religious traditions that white culture values. Homosexuality only exists as an insult, a sinister taint that people can be accused of (especially those effete French, attracting people with their exotic accents), because deviation from a masculine ideal is unconscionable. Racial divisions no longer matter, because we've gotten rid of the political correctness that makes people feel guilty when they say racist things, and minorities finally just learned to be cool with racial slurs.

But let's also take a look at the timeline of this utopia. Card has said recently that it's "set more than a century in the future," but let's be charitable and suspect that he means the more than a century after 1984, when the book was written. So we'll imagine that the story is taking place in 2085. Ender and Alai are, presumably, six years old, born in 2079. We'll assume that they have older parents, let's say 40 each when they were born. That means their parents would have been born in 2039. Let's say that their grandparents were similarly old, which puts their birth in 1999. So Alai's grandfather, born in 1999, would have killed Ender for saying the n-word. But Ender's great great grandfather would have sold him first. So let's go with the same assumption of 40-year-old parents. That would have put his great-grandfather's birth in 1959, and his great-great-grandfather would have been born in 1919.

Sixty-four years after the end of the American Civil War.

I know, I know, they're kids. They don't know things like dates or ages or the fact that in all likelihood, neither of their great-great-grandparents were involved in the slave trade. That can be explained away. What can't be handwaved, though, is that a lily-white author thought that this was an appropriate exchange to put into his book for and about children. And that's where any of the "but the black kid is racist too, and he doesn't mind" defense falls apart: there is no black kid. There's a thirtysomething white author from the southwest who's active in a church that didn't allow black people into the priesthood until he was in his late 20s, who was educated at a school that spent at least part of the '60s and '70s as the target of protests over racist treatment and policies. He's not writing "The Wire" or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn here. He's not trying to accurately represent the real racism of the present. There's no verisimilitude achieved by having two six-year-olds trade racist comments with each other in the distant future. The only point is to allow a privileged writer to imagine a future world where the only relevance race has is to slurs and jokes and insults, because all cultural differences have been flattened out by imperialism.

Orson Scott Card is a disgusting human being, is mostly what I'm getting at.

And there's still more. Naturally, the four kids who decide to surprise-attack all their other classmates who are drifting helplessly around the room, win easily. Presumably their next battleroom test will involve fish and barrels.

Dap arrives and unfreezes the losers, berating them for being unready for an ambush on their first trip into the battleroom with weapons, suits, and zero-gravity physics that they have no information about.
"Why weren't you ready?" asked Dap. "You had your suits just as long as they did. You had just as many minutes flapping around like drunken ducks. Stop moaning and we'll begin."
Another chapter, another instance each of "intent is magic" and "bullying is okay if the good guys are doing the bullying."

The other kids assume that Bernard and Alai led the battle. He lets Alai take the credit, which is totally gracious of him, since Alai was better than him at zero-g maneuvers and had the better idea about testing out their equipment. The black kid is better than the white kid at all the skills relevant to success in the battleroom, but only gets accolades because the white kid is willing to be generous. Yeah, no problematic racial politics here.

The group dynamics change as a result of this little battle:
Bernard still blustered and sent his cronies on errands. But Alai now moved freely through the whole room, and when Bernard was crazy, Alai could joke a little and calm him down. When it came time to choose their launch leader, Alai was the almost unanimous choice. Bernard sulked for a few days and then he was fine, and everyone settled into the new pattern. The launch was no longer divided into Bernard's in-group and Ender's outcasts. Alai was the bridge.
Have you gotten it yet? Do you get it? Alai's name? Alai, the bridge between two otherwise hostile groups? Alai, the one who was willing to be Ender's friend? Maybe say it out loud: "Alai." Get it? GET IT?

Nothing problematic about naming the only explicitly black character in the book so far after the role he serves in the plot, right?

Notice, too, that Alai is the one who unites the launch. Alai also was the one--quite literally--who reached out to Ender initially. Despite Ender breaking his friend's arm on the first day. It sure does seem like Alai is the natural leader of the group, the one who should be destined for a command role, and not the less-talented, less socially competent, less confident, less friendly white kid that the book's named after.

I need to stop thinking about the racial politics of this book, or I'm never going to finish this post.

The remainder of the chapter is more of Ender playing video games, this time on his lap-top "desk." The descriptions are absolutely bizarre, since they waffle between making it seem like this is a more advanced arcade game, and making it full-on virtual reality. It reminds me of "Tron"--not because it actually has any plot elements in common, but because it has the same "we have no idea how computers or video games work, they're just magic" feel to it. To whit:
He had lots of deaths, but that was OK, games were like that, you died a lot until you got the hang of it.
Not inaccurate, just a really weird way of putting it. "He had lots of deaths."

The game seems pretty open, with the character sprite changing in response to the game environment, and the environment changing to match what the player spends more time doing. A lot of it sounds like pretty standard video game stuff--dodging cats as a mouse, avoiding "divebombing mosquitoes" and running up slopes to escape landslides--but then it comes to the giant, which Ender thinks is "a dumb game and I can't ever win." Which, honestly, reminds me a lot of playing video games as a kid. Presumably the academy has outlawed Game Genies.

Much though he hates it, Ender can't stop trying to beat the Giant, which is a straight-up Jack and the Beanstalk riff:
And when he jumped down off the bread, he was standing on a table. Giant loaf of bread behind him; giant stick of butter beside him. And the Giant himself leaning his chin in his hands, looking at him. Ender's figure was about as tall as the Giant's head from chin to brow.
"I think I'll bite your head off," said the Giant, as he always did.
I wasn't going to say anything about the rampant comma splicing in that last quotation, but the misused semicolon here has me twitching. Anyway, the Giant's game, which is always the same, is to set down two glasses filled with liquids, different ones every time.
"One is poison and one is not," said the Giant. "Guess right and I'll take you into Fairyland."
Of course, no matter which one Ender guesses, it's always poison. You would think, this being a riff on standard fairy tale material, that it would be solved in the same way, with the protagonist being clever and out-thinking the Giant. That's what we've been setting up all this time, right? Ender is the smartest kid in the room, always noticing things no one else does, cataloging the flaws and weaknesses even of friends. So he's going to find the way to trick the Giant and outsmart the test. Or maybe, since we saw his skill in reprogramming the desks to display messages, and in making the fake account and hacking Bernard's account and securing his own, he'll be pulling the Captain Kirk maneuver, and reprogramming the game to make the parameters of the test different.

Instead he dies a few more times. Then he gets angry and frustrated.
I hate this game. It isn't fair. It's stupid. It's rotten.
And instead of pushing his face into one of the liquids, he kicked one over, then the other, and dodged the Giant's huge hands as the Giant shouted, "Cheater, cheater!" He jumped at the Giant's face, clambered up his lip and nose, and began to dig in the Giant's eye. The stuff came away like cottage cheese, and as the Giant screamed, Ender's figure burrowed into the eye, climbed right in, burrowed in and in.
And after all that, the Giant falls down dead and Ender ends up in Fairyland, where a bat says "Nobody ever comes here."

So not only is Ender so special that he figured out how to defeat the Giant when no one else does, but the solution to the problem was not intellect and perception, but petulance and violence. Maybe Ender is destined to be a great leader in this universe, because those are the two things he excels at.

But, naturally, instead of reveling in his specialness and skill, he sulks. "I'm a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me." Ugh, this kid.

Can I read Alai's Game instead?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Game Change

Life stuff has worked out differently than I expected the last couple of weeks, so I'm going to move Ender Benders to Saturdays for the foreseeable future.

But there will be one this Saturday! And it will be the worst yet.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ender Bender 6: Chapter 5, "Games"

The fifth chapter--and by every measure, the longest so far--is when I finally figured this book out. But first, there's yet another introduction where adults have a conversation that Orson Scott Card intends to be clever. As it turns out, Orson Scott Card has ideas and opinions about the military (you're shocked, I know). First:
"Call for help? I thought that was what you valued most in him--that he settles his own problems. When he's out there surrounded by an enemy fleet, there ain't gonna be nobody to help him if he calls."
So...he's going to take on the enemy fleet alone? No fleet of his own? No crew on his ship? All this stuff about him learning to be a leader and commander seems like it's pretty pointless if there's no one for him to lead or command. You know, people who will come to help him if he calls.

You guys, I don't think Orson Scott Card understands how command works.

But that's okay, because he's a writer, and that makes him way better than the dum-dums in the military.
"Just one more example of the stupidity of the military. If you had any brains, you'd be in a real career, like selling life insurance."
"You, too, mastermind."
"We've just got to face the fact that we're second rate. With the fate of humanity in our hands. Gives you a delicious feeling of power, doesn't it? Especially because this time if we lose there won't be any criticism of us at all."
The editor in me screams at those comma placements. But I think this is where I pegged what this book reminds me of, and why it's so terrible: It's Anthem.

To date, Anthem is the only Ayn Rand novel I've read, mostly because it's very short. That size doesn't prevent it from being a treatise on Rand's philosophy and an attempted indictment of society and altruism. The story, if you're not familiar, centers around an oppressive dystopian collectivist society, and the protagonist is a guy who just happens to be an expert genius at everything he tries to do. It's meant to show that he's better than the anti-individualistic Luddites who run his society, but it mostly just shows that he's a preternaturally arrogant jerk who thinks his impossibly lucky breaks are the result of skill, and that his ability to use people to achieve his own ends is a mark of total independence.

The peripheral characters in Anthem, so much as I recall (it's been some years now since I read it), are less characters and more tools. They serve to illustrate points, and to provide a contrast between the altruistic fools and parasites dragging down society, and the self-sufficient hero who rises above and ought to lead them all.

And that's basically what I'm getting out of Ender's Game so far, except I read Anthem in an afternoon. Ender is our preternaturally-skilled hero (we know because everyone keeps telling us so), and everyone else is there to torment him, fawn over him, or provide a contrast to him, or some combination of the three.

In these bits with the adults talking, part of it is obviously and explicitly to set up how important Ender is, and part of that is achieved as it was with his parents and teacher, by showing how ineffectual and incompetent they are by comparison. I get the feeling that Card is trying to go for a whistling-past-the-graveyard tone with the conversations, that our adults are trying to make light of a bad situation. Unfortunately, coupled with Card's commentary in the introduction, it feels more like "ha ha no but really," that this has the plausible deniability of being a joke, but really is what Card thinks. And guys, it looks like Orson Scott Card is not a fan of the way the military does things.

It'd be so much better if they instead trained six-year-olds with video games and laser tag.

The bit ends (yes, all that is just the introduction. This chapter is a doozy) with the explanation that if Ender thinks there's an easy way out of any situation, it'll wreck his effectiveness. How that squares with not being able to call for help doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but whatever.

Ender makes it to the barracks, where the other boys have chosen their bunks, and have left Ender with the crap bunk. So we get this great bit of unreliable narration:
Sure enough, the bottom bunk right by the door was the only empty bed. For a moment it occurred to Ender that by letting the others put him in the worst place, he was inviting later bullying. Yet he couldn't very well oust someone else.
So he smiled broadly. "Hey, thanks," he said. Not sarcastically at all. He said it as sincerely as if they had reserved for him the best position. "I thought I was going to have to ask for low bunk by the door."
So right after the narrator explains that Ender knows this is the crappy bunk that will lead to greater bullying, we're told that he sincerely and without sarcasm thanks them and tells them that it's the bunk he wanted. Which he does not because it's true, but to undercut their attempt at getting to him. Which is kind of the opposite of sincerity.

But--o-ho!--it turns out that that really is the best bunk, where the student-elected leader sleeps. Because of course it is. Now maybe Dap (their den-mother-slash-commander, more or less) is just continuing on the same "isolate Ender through favoritism" tactic that we saw in the previous chapter, but either way it just made me groan. Even when Ender's the target, it works out for his benefit.

There's some description of the technology here, from the not-a-laser ray guns that can "make a three-inch circle of light on a wall a hundred meters off" (ooh. Impressive.) to the simulated gravity via rotating the ship, all of which I'm sure will come back to be gravely important later. Meanwhile, the kid whose arm Ender broke--a French boy named Bernard, with an exotic accent that gives Card the opportunity to hate on the French a bit--is setting up a posse against Ender.

We next get a scene that I'd actually like to see more of, because it's the first time that the central concept of a combat boarding school in space has approached my interests. It's the classic outsider-teen movie image, where Ender's in the cafeteria, noticing how everyone's divided up and he doesn't have a group to sit with. Honestly, if this book were "'Mean Girls' in Space," I would be way more on-board.

Ender doesn't end up eating in the bathroom, though. A kid named Mick sits next to him, and hoo boy:
A bigger boy came to sit by him. Not just a little bigger--he looked to be twelve or thirteen. Getting his man's growth started.
I...I don't even know. A quick Googling for "his man's growth" finds mostly people talking about Ender's Game, and the purplest prose this side of a Strawberry Shortcake erotic fanfic contest. But surely there's no subtext to that line coming from a raging homophobe. Besides, Card hates subtext. Hates it so much that he gets all Geoff Johns in the next section.

"I'm Mick."
"That's a name?"
"Since I was little. It's what my little sister called me."
"Not a bad name here. Ender. Finisher. Hey."

For cryin' out loud in the mud, we couldn't just let that be a bit of obvious symbolism? Had to go and make it explicit? And from a guy who apparently thinks "Ender" is a weird name on a space station run by people named "Graff" and "Dap"? Ugh, let's move on.

Mick explains that every launch has "a bugger," the kid nobody likes at first. He also waxes philosophical...
"Me? I'm nothing. I'm a fart in the air conditioning. I'm always there, but most of the time nobody knows it."
...or something. But just as it starts to look like Ender's making a new friend, Mick gets all depressed, because he's never been a leader, and "only the guys who get to be leaders have a shot at [Tactical School]." He tries giving Ender some advice, but then gets suddenly indignant and calls Ender stupid.

Mick takes on the contrast role here. Ender's not special because everyone hates him; there's someone everybody hates in every group. Ender's special because he's a leader, so he won't end up pathetic and useless and unimportant like Mick. I'm beginning to think that Card doesn't recognize a difference or distinction between "leader" and "boss." Because part of being a leader, I would think, is that you inspire people to follow you. At best, Ender manipulates people, and that off-putting air of superiority certainly wouldn't endear him to would-be followers.

Anyway, Ender makes himself sad and homesick, so he "did what he always did when Peter tormented him. He began to count doubles." Meaning he worked his way through the powers of two until the pain was suppressed. There's some verisimilitude in Ender avoiding painful emotions by finding solace in an intellectual pursuit, and I suspect that speaks to a lot of the kids who spend their time doodling Pascal's Triangle in their notebooks or otherwise using geekery for escapism. But it also reads like some seriously obvious foreshadowing. It's Chekov's times tables.

He finally gives into the tears in bed that night, but it's okay because no one notices, so he's still totes manly and brave. And when Dap comes in to check on the kids, and other ones start crying audibly, Ender notes that his experiences with Peter have given him the uncanny ability to hide his feelings, and that's probably really healthy.

The next section gives us our first description of what school is like for the new recruits. Lip service is paid to the notion of classes, but what's really important are the games.
Some of the games they knew; some they had even played at home. Simple ones and hard ones. Ender walked past the two-dimensional games on video and began to study the games the bigger boys played, the holographic games with objects hovering in the air.
The bit about the "two-dimensional games on video" (which suggests to me that Card doesn't really know what "video" or more specifically, the phrase "video games," actually means) got this scene running through my head:
...and I wished so hard that I wasn't reading Ender's Game.

Ender watches some older kids play a holographic game involving ships and tunnels, and even though he couldn't see the controls, just by watching them play he knows he could beat the computer and most of the players as well.

I talked about this online elsewhere a little, and I guess it's not as universal as I expected, but there are few things in life I've found as boring as watching other people play video games. It's gotten a bit better as games have gotten more complex and cinematic, but I'd still generally rather have a controller than watch someone else with one. That said, reading about someone watching other people play video games reaches grand new depths of metaboredom.

And then Ender asks if he can play the winner.

"Lawsy me, what is this?" asked the boy. "Is it a bug or a bugger?"
Apparently in the future, cool teenage slang emulates Aunt Jemima stereotypes from the early 20th century. And lest you think that this is just Orson Scott Card writing dialogue as though he were an alien who read about human dialogue once in a book, it manages to become even more bizarre and offensive.
“A new flock of dwarfs just came aboard,” said another boy.
“But it talks. Did you know they could talk?”
“I see,” said Ender. “You’re afraid to play me two out of three.”
“Beating you,” said the boy, “would be as easy as pissing in the shower.”
“And not half as fun,” said another.
“I’m Ender Wiggin.”
“Listen up, scrunchface. You nobody. Got that? You nobody, got that? You not anybody till you gots you first kill. Got that?”
I scarcely know where to begin. "As easy as pissing in the shower"? The utter non sequitur of "I'm Ender Wiggin"? Or maybe the way that the last kid's AAVE-style dialect (in a world where, we're told, having a French accent is a sign of a rebellious separatist nation because everyone else learns "Standard" from an early age) combines with that "lawsy me" to present a pretty racist imagery. I was surprised by that until I was reminded that, earlier this year, Card wrote an essay about how Obama was going to turn America's gangs into his personal army to oppress white people. So, you know, Card is the human equivalent of hot garbage.

Ender picks up the slang as quickly as anything else, using it to taunt the older kids: "If I'm nobody, then how come you scared to play me two out of three?"

It's just so painful to read that I knew you had to join me in it.

The game goes as you might expect. Ender loses the first round, but come the second he "pull[s] off a few maneuvers that the boy had obviously never seen before. His patterns couldn't cope with them." He wins the second game, then the third, sending the older boys off in a puff of sour grapes. See, kids, your parents were wrong: the only skill you need in this world is being good at video games! It'll pay off, I swear! And when your older siblings play the game and "let you watch" so you can "learn how to play," you totally can and you'll be even better as a result (note: yes, I absolutely did this, because I was a terrible older brother).

Ender's pretty impressed with himself, and it's clear that by being a smug showoff, he's quickly establishing his leadership bonafides. He's going to be the best spaceship captain since Zapp Brannigan.

Anyway, it's not all high scores and self-indulgence for Ender. He also has to deal with his bully, Bernard. Now, given Card's prominent personal beliefs, what other trait do you think an exotic European bully might have? The way Bernard decides to go after another student, named Shen, might give you a little clue:
Shen was small, ambitious, and easily needled. Bernard had discovered that quickly, and started calling him Worm. "Because he's so small," Bernard said, "and because he wriggles. Look how he shimmies his butt when he walks."
Shen stormed off, but they only laughed louder. "Look at his butt. See ya, Worm!"
The next sequence is all about how Ender humiliates Bernard and eliminates his control over his posse by finding clever technological ways to insinuate that he's gay. Bullying is okay as long as the good guy is doing the bullying.

Eventually, everyone's calling Bernard "Buttwatcher," and Shen bonds with Ender over the whole thing.
"Do I wiggle my butt when I walk?"
"Naw," Ender said. "Just a little. Just don't take such big long steps, that's all."
Shen nodded.
"The only person who'd ever notice was Bernard."
And Ender. There's that pesky subtext again.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Postponed Game

Due to my allergies kicking me in the head all week, and a giant pile of work, I won't have the next Ender Bender up Friday morning. It will, however, be up by Saturday.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

DC's Goat Song

So apparently Dan Didio said at a convention today that "Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives," which is the kind of simplistic, foot-in-mouth overgeneralization that you might expect from a company whose PR disasters include pushing two more creators off a title through editorial micromanagement, leaving creator credits off covers without letting anyone know, and releasing an art contest where the challenge is to draw a naked woman attempting suicide, and that's just this week. But it's reflective of the larger problems facing the company right now. And what the hell, it's been awhile since I did a post with a bulleted list, so here goes.
  • Editorial Rules: Maybe it was just the naïveté of youth, but it seemed in the past like there was a back-and-forth between editorial and the writers and artists. I keep thinking of "The Death of Superman," certainly a story with a heavy editorial mandate behind it, but one at least allegedly designed at an editorial retreat where Mike Carlin and (at least) the Superman title creative teams hammered out long-term plans. Maybe it was Carlin wielding an iron fist over everyone else, and because it was pre-Twitter, we just never heard about it. But then, the Superman titles had pretty consistent creative teams without anyone walking off unceremoniously, so I kind of doubt it.

    What seems to be the case now is that editorial whims become inviolable law, without regard to creative teams or stories or basic sensibility. And that would be one thing, but it seems like those whims are changing without proper communication to or regard for the creative teams. George Pérez walked off Superman and said that what got printed was often not what he wrote, and that he had no idea that Morrison was working on Superman's early days in the other title. Rob Liefeld tweeted about getting jerked around over whether or not his books were going to be involved in a crossover or with guest stars. Multiple creators have talked about being informed of relevant changes by press releases or other impersonal means. Long-term planning seems like a lost art at best, and the natural progression of a story is taking a backseat to mindless, unflinching editorial edicts like "no married heroes," even in places where such an edict makes absolutely no sense, such as with Aquaman and Mera. Editorial rules are inviolate and unconcerned with petty things like plot and characterization, which leads us to...
  • Homogenization: I'm reading more Marvel books than I have since I was a young kid, and for good reason. Even different books by the same authors (Fraction's "Hawkeye" and "FF," Waid's "Daredevil" and "Indestructible Hulk") have wildly different tones and styles. "Young Avengers," "Hawkeye," and "Daredevil" are all striking brilliant balances between humor, action, and poignancy; "Thor: God of Thunder" is working with epic themes; "X-Men," "Fearless Defenders," and "Superior Spider-Man" are all doing more-or-less traditional superheroics with interesting twists. At DC, things are a bit different.

    Well, no, actually they're not. That's kind of the problem. With few exceptions, all the books at DC are telling the same kind of grim-n-gritty superheroics with heroes fighting other heroes who are all jerks, and over-the-top villains who might as well have stepped out of the "Saw" franchise. Some books have bucked the trend and done their own thing--"OMAC," "Dial H," "Batman, Inc.," "Green Team"--and mostly have been cancelled as a result. Even the books that you might expect to have something different by virtue of genre--"Sword and Sorcery," "Men of War," "All-Star Western"--have been shockingly bland, with even Amethyst working in an attempted rape plot and making the Shazam-esque central conceit a more standard superhero fish-out-of-water idea. There are some creative teams who are telling good stories within the apparent stylistic confines that DC has set, and some books that appear to be flying under the radar a bit, but mostly DC has a single, unified voice, tone, style, and costume design. There's no "Hawkeye" or "Daredevil" at DC right now, and it doesn't look like anyone there thinks that's a bad thing. I get the feeling that people who want something else--whether creators or consumers--are getting it from other places, leaving DC with a market who only wants the same kind of homogenized endless-event dour superhero tales. Which means that there's even less chance for unique concepts or unique voices to get a foothold, making DC ultimately an interesting microcosm for the problems that have plagued the comics industry since comics moved out of newsstands and onto retail shelves exclusively.
  • Hopelessness: That uniformity might not be so bad if it weren't in service of the depressing status quo that Didio outlines in the quote above. Sure, not every hero should have a happy personal life, but when every hero's personal life sucks, and when it appears that "personal life sucking" is an unalterable law of nature in the DC universe, it doesn't leave much room for variety or growth or really even something to fight for. Drama is necessary to the superhero lifestyle, and the best heroes have sources of drama both in-costume and out. But even Peter Parker occasionally got to get one over on Flash Thompson or go on a date with Gwen Stacy. When the hero's personal life doesn't give them any solace or joy, then we start to wonder what they're fighting for, and I think even the writers start to wonder why we bother with the whole secret identity schtick. If your dual identity is just another way to invite misery into your life, why would you ever put on the glasses or take off the mask?
  • The Wrong Escapism: I think the source of that comes from the same source as the "no marriage" edicts, which is largely that the audience has shifted, and the creators have shifted the way they're looking at the escapism of superhero stories. As a kid, reading about superheroes wasn't just about dreaming of flying and super-strength, it was about imagining that I could be an adult with a cool job like reporting or photography and true love with a smart, beautiful woman. I wanted to be Peter Parker just as much as I wanted to be Spider-Man. But I think the guys working at DC right now--and a sizable portion of their now-older audience--still wishes for the superpowers, but instead want to remember the glory days of youth and singlehood, before having uncool jobs and unsatisfying love lives. I think it's sad that people--men, particularly--are so conditioned by culture to see marriage as the end of adventure and a source of boredom and stagnation, but it's sadder still to see that become the life they're looking to escape from.

    But the end result of foisting that onto characters immersed in a universe where everything is pessimistic and grim, is that you have heroes whose whole lives suck. They can't get ahead as heroes or as civilians, so where's the escapism for the reader?
Hopefully there'll be a sea change at some point. Hopefully someone somewhere will realize that there's only so much talent you can alienate, only so many creative people you can hemorrhage. I just worry that the fanbase is becoming so inbred and insular, and the mismanagement so central to the company's operation, that there won't be a DC Comics left at the end of it.

And I worry further that that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Ender Bender 5: Chapter 4, "Launch"

"By the time this war happens, there'll be too much, even for a genius. Too many little boats. He has to work smoothly with his subordinates."
"Oh good. He has to be a genius and nice, too."
"Not nice. Nice will let the buggers have us all."
Each subsequent post on this book makes me more eager to violate my self-imposed rules against foul language.

As becomes apparent toward the end of this chapter and the start of the next--or, since it was already apparent, as becomes really blinking obvious--Orson Scott Card does not think very highly of the military. This is our first taste of it in Chapter 4, with our nameless, undescribed chapter-opening chatters (one of whom is presumably Graff) suggesting that a leader being required to work well with the people under his command is not only unusual but distasteful.

Guys, I'm getting the distinct impression that Orson Scott Card doesn't understand the basic principles of being a leader, chief among them: having followers.

These chapter-opening conversations between nameless adults are tedious, so full of attempted humor and not-at-all-veiled contempt that makes me feel insulted on behalf of all the kids it's pandering to. It's like Statler and Waldorf by way of Funky Winkerbean, with all the lame jokes and insufferable smugness that entails.

Ender's heading the rocket with nineteen other kids, but while they're having a good time and being social, Ender's being the quiet, stoic type, a lonely loner on a lonely road. Alone. But he's watching everything, hyper-aware of how the army people are judging them, how the cameramen are filming them, how he feels naked in this uniform because it doesn't have a belt.

Then there's this truly, truly bizarre digression:
He imagined himself being on TV, in an interview. The announcer asking him, How do you feel, Mr. Wiggin? Actually quite well, except hungry. Hungry? Oh, yes, they don’t let you eat for twenty hours before the launch. How interesting, I never knew that. All of us are quite hungry, actually. And all the while, during the interview, Ender and the TV guy would slink along smoothly in front of the cameraman, taking long, lithe strides. The TV guy was letting him be the spokesman for all the boys, though Ender was barely competent to speak for himself. For the first time, Ender felt like laughing. He smiled. The other boys near him were laughing at the moment, too, for another reason. They think I’m smiling at their joke, thought Ender. But I’m smiling at something much funnier.
God, what a smug little...prat. Prat is the four-letter word I'm choosing to use there. I just...I don't get it. Ender is in that weird outsider-who's-persecuted-but-is-superior-to-everyone-else place that's typically occupied by Tim Burton protagonists, and so his amusement at his own incompetence reads more as feigned humility or persecution fetishism than as actual self-esteem or self-image issues. Especially when it's wrapped up in that arrogant bit of smirking at the secret knowledge he has over the other boys, his own private joke that's so much funnier than theirs.

It's hard to accept a protagonist's token attempts at humility when they always seem to end with him thinking he's the smartest one in the room.

There's this bit about Ender wondering if he should run to the cameras and say goodbye to his sister, and how that'd be edited out of the final film because "the boys soaring out to Battle School were all supposed to be heroes. They weren't supposed to miss anybody." It's a weird notion, because it seems like even propaganda would want to show the "heroes" passionately caring about the people and home they're fighting for, but I guess when the heroes are six-year-olds, it'll play more like being homesick at camp than writing to your best gal back on the home front.

Ender watches Graff climb a ladder, and in another example of his plot-induced weird imagination, decides to imagine gravity acting in different directions and the implications it would have for Graff's movements. He's super-amused by his weird musings on gravity, but the videos they watch prior to launch about starships and the history of space flight are "Very boring stuff" that he's seen before. Oh, our world-weary first grader, so full of ennui.

Card's description of what things are like in zero-g are weird to say the least. Maybe videos of astronauts on the space shuttle or Skylab weren't as common back in '85 as they are now, or maybe Card just found relevant research to be "very boring stuff," or maybe he's just awful at describing things, but almost nothing of how people are described as moving in the weightless environment rings true. It's more like the shuttle has gravity in all directions, as opposed to actual space-flight "zero-g" microgravity.

In any case, Ender's gravitational imaginings tickle him, and Graff makes an example of him. He does the stereotypical drill sergeant thing so stereotypically that Ender's narration hangs a lampshade on what a stereotypical drill sergeant he's being. But after a bit of "What do you think is so funny" back and forth, Graff turns it on everyone else:
It sounded stupid, now, with Graff looking at him coldly. “To you I suppose it is funny. Is it funny to anybody else here?”
Murmurs of no.
“Well why isn’t it?” Graff looked at them all with contempt. “Scumbrains, that’s what we’ve got in this launch. Pinheaded little morons. Only one of you had the brains to realize that in null gravity directions are whatever you conceive them to be. Do you understand that, Shafts?”
The boy nodded.
“No you didn’t. Of course you didn’t. Not only stupid, but a liar too. There’s only one boy on this launch with any brains at all, and that’s Ender Wiggin. Take a good look at him, little boys. He’s going to be a commander when you’re still in diapers up there. Because he knows how to think in null gravity, and you just want to throw up.”
It'd be more shocking and more interesting if Graff and the rest of the cast hadn't made it clear that this really is exactly what they think about Ender.

Naturally, this makes Ender a target, and the other boys start attacking him. Which, of course, means that Card's gonna whip out the dumb insults (here, it's "fart-eater"), and a child is going to get brutalized but it's okay because Ender's the hero.

This time, our hero grabs one of the kids who's trying to hit him and flings him bouncing down the length of the cabin until he smacks into the bulkhead at the end, breaking his arm. Because Ender--who has, as we've just spent two pages establishing, an intuitive grasp of how things move in null gravity--"hadn't realized how null gravity magnified the effects of even a child's movements." Right. Ender goes through a mental back-and-forth between denial ("he had only meant to catch the boy's arm") and self-flagellation ("I am Peter. I'm just like him"), until Graff berates the whole group, reminding them that they're meant to be soldiers, and that "little boys have died in Battle School before."

He also calls them "little dorklings" and reiterates how much better Ender is than everyone else.

When they arrive, Ender and Graff have a heart to heart.
"Was it a good flight, Ender?" Graff asked cheerfully.
"I thought you were my friend." Despite himself, Ender's voice trembled.
The first bit of verisimilitude in awhile. For once, I could kind of put myself into Ender's shoes, remembering the times I've said those very words, because of misplaced trust or immature cruelty, or my own teenage melodrama. So, score one for this book.

Graff explains that he's not supposed to be Ender's friend, and that his job is to make another Napoleon or Alexander or Julius Caesar, but better because all those guys had tragic flaws. And nothing says great literary hero like a protagonist with no flaws, right? And then there's this:
“You made them hate me.”
“So? What will you do about it? Crawl into a corner? Start kissing their little backsides so they’ll love you again? There’s only one thing that will make them stop hating you. And that’s being so good at what you do that they can’t ignore you. I told them you were the best. Now you damn well better be.”
Here's where I managed to put my thumb on some of this book's problems, and it has to do with the weird moral relativism at play. Graff is a bully, flinging insults with as much aplomb as Stilson's crew, and going so far as to basically say 'what're you gonna do, cry about it?' But because we've identified Graff as one of the good guys, or more accurately, because we've identified that Graff's bullying has the purpose of making the kids into better people/soldiers, it's acceptable. It may even be necessary. Bullying isn't bad, if it's done for the right reasons. Just like how Ender's over-the-top violence is fine as long as he has good intent. so far it's a very ends-justify-means ethic here in Ender's Game, or perhaps more distressingly, identity-justifies-means. Ender's the destined heroic leader, so it doesn't matter what tactics he uses, because he's the good guy. "Hero" is a designation applied by fiat, not earned through actions. Which falls right in line with Card's apparent philosophy that one can be a leader without people willing to follow them, and that leaders and geniuses apparently spring forth fully-formed from the collective head of humanity, and that the people beneath them are beneath notice or credit.

Which is more or less what Graff explains over the course of the next page: "We might both do despicable things, Ender, but if humankind survives, then we were good tools."

Finally, Graff sends Ender off before the other boys get the idea that he's "back there licking up to Graff," and I just don't know. Is that some regional variant of "sucking up" or "kissing up" that I'm unfamiliar with, or does Orson Scott Card only have a passing knowledge of basic idiomatic English? A passing knowledge that continually brushes up against being totally creepy?

Of course, once Ender's gone, we get another enlightening Winkerbeanian conversation between adults (Graff and a teacher identified as Anderson), and we learn that Graff really does have a heart of gold:
"The kid's wrong. I am his friend."
"I know."
"He's clean. Right to the heart, he's good."
"I've read the reports."
Yep, clean right to his violent, arrogant heart.