Wednesday, August 30, 2023

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

God, could you have a more pretentious chapter title?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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