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?

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