Wednesday, August 30, 2023

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

God, could you have a more pretentious chapter title?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 28, 2023

47% → 73% → 100%

Remember 2013?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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