Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Ender Bender 18: Chapter 11, "Veni Vidi Vici" (Part 1)

Graff is worried that the battle schedule they've developed for Ender will burn him out. He says not one word about any of the kids under Ender's command, even though they presumably have the same schedule. As we all know, it's the commanding officers who work the hardest in war. There's that System of a Down song about it (2023 Tom's Note: I honestly have no idea what I was referencing here, but apparently at one point I knew a third System of a Down song). They also talk about how Russia is afraid of some Internet trolls destabilizing world governments and boy was it nice when that kind of thing was limited to dystopian science fiction novels.

Once we get past the ping-pong dialogue bit, we learn that Ender has been training his army in an unconventional way, breaking them into small groups with individual leaders that could act semi-independently, like some sort of chain of command. It's a brilliant idea that only a ten-year-old brain genius or literally any high school band director could come up with. Ender wonders why this happened.
Did they give him thirty Launchies, many of them underage, because they knew the little boys were quick learners, quick thinkers? Or was this what any similar group could become under a commander who knew what he wanted his army to do, and knew how to teach them to do it?
I think it's telling that both of these options center Ender. Either he's been assigned kids who are just really good at learning the way he was, or he's just so good at teaching that he could make any team just as effective in a similar amount of time. The possibility that his team members are contributing something to the process never merits serious consideration. 

They're assigned to battle Rabbit Army, and naturally they dominate over the veteran team.
Even with less than four weeks together, the way they fought already seemed like the only intelligent way, the only possible way.
The entire enemy team is frozen, while Ender's army is mostly unscathed. Before he unfreezes Rabbit Army, he assembles his team in formation to win the psychological victory. 
They may curse us and lie about us, but they’ll remember that we destroyed them, and no matter what they say other soldiers and other commanders will see that in their eyes; in those Rabbit eyes, they’ll see us in neat formation, victorious and almost undamaged in our first battle
This is, as it has been since the battle with Stilson, and as it will be through the end of the book, Card's most deliberate theme: Don't just beat your enemy, but beat them down, so they never even think about fighting again. It's the lesson that the teachers deliberately want Ender to learn, and in a more competent book, there might be some point where Ender repudiates it, but that never really happens. The book consistently validates this approach to warfare on both the large and small scale, in such a way that becomes utterly incoherent once you consider even some of the implications. But hey, let's leave something for the wrap-up posts.

He wages a similar psychological battle on his army as well, playing the hardass commander but telling his subcommanders to be lenient, as a way of binding the groups together. This is, ultimately, similar to what he did with Bean last chapter, giving the soldiers a common enemy to unite against. It's nice that he's putting himself in the line of fire here, but since we haven't heard anything about Bean yet this chapter, it feels like picking a teacher's pet and then directing the soldiers' ire at the teacher is likely to just make things worse on him.

And then there's this normal thought that a normal person would have:
He washed himself twice and let the water run and run on him. It would all be recycled. Let everybody drink some of my sweat today.
Hashtag just shower thoughts. 

There's some more training, Ender goes to lunch at the commanders' mess hall for the first time because it's been his first victory, which raises the question of where he's been eating for the last month, but apparently this is just how it works. More worldbuilding-by-retcon. Lunch is for winners. Naturally, he's at the top of the scoreboard. He has a conversation with Dink Meeker that causes Ender to question whether or not his friends are still his friends now that he's a hotshot commander. 
That's the problem with winning right from the start, thought Ender. You lose friends.
"We're going to win so much, you're going to be sick and tired of winning."

Meanwhile, the Rabbit army commander, Carn Carby, stops by to be a gracious loser again and shower Ender with some more praise. 
"I'll try," Carn Carby left, and Ender mentally added him to his private list of people who also qualified as human beings.
Deciding which people are worthy of being considered human? Well, that's definitely a good look that won't later look bad in light of some kind of genocide. 

Speaking of characters who are treated as second-class humans, Petra Arkanian is here. She deliberately ignores Ender all through Commander Lunch, and then the next morning he gets a last-minute announcement that he'll be battling her army. And here's where things get extremely frustrating, because Ender talks about how he was a member of Petra's army up until he received his command four weeks prior. 

We spent a fair amount of time with Bonzo and Rose the Nose, and how Ender chafed under their incompetent leadership. But then there's Petra, who by all accounts is clever and effective, who Ender considers a friend and a competent leader. He even almost gives her partial credit for how good Phoenix Army is:
Partly because of Ender's influence, they were the most flexible of armies, responding relatively quickly to new situations.
See, Ender's army is good because Ender is their commander. And Petra's army is good because Ender was a part of it, but also Petra being commander probably has something to do with it. Anyway, so much of these chapters have been belaboring Ender's lessons about what good leadership looks like, but when he finally gets a good leader? It merits two brief mentions three chapters ago, with nothing even approaching detail. We're told that Petra is one of a very small number of girls good enough to get into Battleschool (indeed, she's the only one we've even heard mentioned). We're told that commanders generally get some choice of soldiers, meaning she either deliberately picked Ender after watching him train launchies after hours or didn't ask to trade him when he was assigned to her. We're told that her army is really good and that she recognizes Ender's skills enough to make him a (sigh) toon leader. 

He spent at least half a year under her command, in an army that becomes so good it comes closer to beating Ender's than any other (which is still not very close), and none of his experiences, nothing that he learns merits a single mention.

But when Ender's army beats hers, well...
Petra was not gracious about bowing over his hand at the end, either. The anger in her eyes seemed to say, I was your friend, and you humiliate me like this?
Ender pretended not to notice her fury. He figured that after a few more battles, she’d realize that in fact she had scored more hits against him than he expected anyone ever would again. And he was still learning from her. In practice today he would teach his toon leaders how to counter the tricks Petra had played on them. Soon they would be friends again.
He hoped.
She's just irrationally angry, everyone! But it's okay, once she sees that she's the best of the people losing to someone who was her subordinate a month ago, all will be forgiven. Ender assumes.

Nothing about this makes any sense, not Petra's anger and apparent feelings of betrayal, not Ender's optimism that she'd be his friend again in the end. Part of that is because Petra hasn't had a line of dialogue since Chapter 7—the chapter that introduced her—and that doesn't change here. A competent writer would have realized what an important moment it would be for the story for Ender to have an effective commander, one he considered a friend, after a string of people who underestimated or loathed him. A competent writer would have given us character interactions to illustrate how Ender being subordinate to Petra might have strained their friendship. A competent writer might recognize that Ender and Petra both belong to marginalized groups in this world—Petra being a girl, Ender being a Third—so both have to be ten times better than everyone else just to be taken seriously, and that this could be a common experience that they bond over but also something that creates conflict when they’re pitted against each other. A competent writer would have laid some groundwork for this interaction, but Orson Scott Card mentioned Petra in passing once or twice in the last four chapters and then gives us this moment where a friendship that's been an afterthought at best breaks for no clear reason besides Petra being irrationally emotional and unable to see the bigger picture. 

And it all happens without her saying a word. Ender needs no input from her in order to perfectly interpret her state of mind. Our omniscient narrator, everyone.

Oh, and he trades some more barbs with Bean that clearly upset the younger kid. Leadership!

After seven straight days of victories, Ender is beloved by some commanders and reviled by others, but he's clearly better than all of them.
A few of them sat with him at every meal, carefully trying to learn from him how he had defeated his most recent opponents. He told them freely, confident that few of them would know how to train their soldiers and their toon leaders to duplicate what his could do.
And I'd like to contrast that quotation with this one: 
There were many, too, who hated him. Hated him for being young, for being excellent, for having made their victories look paltry and weak.
Yes, that's why they hate you, Ender. Because you're young and excellent and better than them, not because you're a condescending, supercilious ass who deliberately tries to demoralize your opponents. Like, Ender acts like he knows that the purpose of Battle School is to turn out precisely one Perfect Chosen General who is better than all the others. And narratively, he's right, just as Hogwarts was designed to facilitate the adventures of one Chosen Doofus and his pals, but it doesn't make sense for the character to behave like he knows that's the case. If the school's understood goal is to produce the leaders of the army that's going to protect the human race, wouldn't it make sense for him to try to train the interested commanders hard enough that they could understand his methods and communicated them to their soldiers and toon leaders? Wouldn't that be a natural evolution of the leadership he showed as a soldier, training interested launchies in his free time?
But why bother with character development when your character is already perfect?

No comments: