Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, in which Bean is distressed that no one understands how awesome he is

(Content: racism, bullying. Fun content: more of Card's own fanfiction.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 175--217
Chapter Twelve: Roster

Pressure to get Ender to Command School because war soon et cetera.  Graff has started holding all of his secure meetings in the battleroom control centre, because it has a separate air system Bean can't creep through.  That seems like a totally reasonable solution, as opposed to, like, assigning any of your spectacularly advanced monitoring technology to follow him, or perhaps a literal person.  But yeah, reorganise your office space completely around this kid.  (Dimak says Bean has grown too big anyway, and stopped doing the weird exercises that were meant to help him crawl through ducts.)

Bean has written and anonymously published a paper, "Problems in Campaigning Between Solar Systems Separated by Lightyears", which all the staff have quickly read and pondered--somehow Graff knows Bean wrote it, even though none of the other teachers do.  (Note from the next scene: Bean literally just wrote it and left it in his directory for them to find.  How does every teacher not know who wrote it?)  It's fascinating to me, noticing how much Card gets away with people having or not having certain information in a way that the reader is meant to ignore.  Dimak likes the idea of just setting Bean loose as a theorist and forgetting military training, but Graff has already put on his xenocide boots and he's not taking them off now.  (Side note: between all his other work, Bean has now taught himself French and German so he can read treatises in their original language.  I kind of like this, on its own, the idea that he's just that absurdly talented with languages, but piling it on top of everything else still gets an eyeroll.)

Here's a bit I've never understood:
"But he believes his false theory only because he doesn't know about the ansible. Do you understand? Because that's the main thing we'd have to tell him about, isn't it?"
This is not the first or last time Graff has insisted that Ender needs to know about the ansible in order to lead the final campaign, but that has never been justified to me.  Ender always thinks he's playing games, and he doesn't need to know about the ansible to do that; it only increases the likelihood that he'll realise the games aren't games.  They even tell Ender the things Bean has guessed--that Earth already launched its fleet, that the Third Invasion is a human attack on the formics--so the only reason Ender apparently doesn't figure it out is that he's just not that bright.  That's as close as we ever get to explicit that they didn't want Ender to be the smartest person ever for their plan, but just smart enough to push the button and take the attention.

They finally try to justify the existence of Bonzo Madrid by saying Bean was partially right in his criticism of officer criteria, because they test for qualities in highly-regarded Second Invasion veterans and the war was too short to "weed out the deadwood".  Graff puts all the blame on "our tests" giving Bonzo command despite his ineptitude, and never discusses the option of, say, teacher evaluations pointing out that he's useless and shouldn't be in space.  (Remember early in Ender's Game when Bonzo was actually moderately competent because he relied on discipline?  Those were the days.)  Of course, we also theorised that Graff wants Bonzo there as Ender's antagonist, so he would talk like his hands are tied by 'the tests', wouldn't he?

Since Bean's got his own ideas about what qualities the tests are missing, Graff decides to finally make him and Ender touch: Bean is assigned to create a full army roster out of launchies and any of the soldiers currently on transfer lists.  When Dimak tells Bean this, of course, Bean rapidly figures out it's a new army for Ender (so they can accelerate him to graduation) and that they'll use the Dragon Army name because of the supposed 'curse'.  Bean is dismissed, but takes the time to talk back to Dimak further about how bad the student evaluation criteria are anyway before he leaves, and then, with no sense of irony, decides that Dimak won't fiddle with the roster as a show of power, because he's a better person than that.  Bean: calculating people's virtues so he can insult them to their face without fear of repercussions.  Charmer.

Bean's so grim writing up his roster (trying to make sure that he won't get passed over for toon leader himself, then actually having a moment of self-awareness about his narcissism) that Nikolai stops by to check on him, jokes about letters from home.  Nikolai knows Bean grew up on the street; Bean knows Nikolai was an only child and immensely spoiled because his parents had to use so much surgical intervention and embryo manipulation just to have him (foreshadow foreshadow).  They banter, Bean goes back to work with three more slots to fill in the roster.  He finally adds Crazy Tom, despite the risk of him hulking out if he disagrees with Ender, and Wu:
...which of course had become Woo and even Woo-hoo. Brilliant at her studies, absolutely a killer in the arcade games, but she refused to be a toon leader and as soon as her commanders asked her, she put in for a transfer and refused to fight until they gave it to her. Weird.
Here we have another case of a girl in Battle School who has never been mentioned before and won't be again, whose character is defined by a combination of skill and refusal to be important.  It's almost artful, to have distilled the Faux Action Girl into such a condensed form, even leaving enough room to make it clear that her comrades-in-arms "of course" found a way to combine a dose of racism with a dash of sexual harassment.  (Seriously, it sucks to have a Chinese name in these books.  Wu?  Woo-hoo.  Han Tzu?  Hot Soup.  Andrew?  ENDER.  Granted, other white people also get stupid nicknames on occasion, like Ducheval being Shovel, but that one actually gets called out and ended, while Hot Soup goes on.)

At last, after some hemming and hawing, Bean puts Nikolai in the final slot, on the basis that he won't drag the team down and Bean wants his bro to be part of the imminent sensation that will be Dragon Army, to be able to tell stories of the days when he was the legendary Ender Wiggin's school buddy.

Dragon Army assembles for the first time in their barracks, and we get the first of the truly parallel scenes--the same dialogue as Ender's Game, but from Bean's perspective and thoughts.  Ender lets them all settle in for three minutes, then calls them to practice.  Bean isn't the one who shouts "But I'm naked!" [drink!] but he is also naked, because they had to cut down a flash suit to fit his tiny monkey frame and he can't figure out some of the makeshift fasteners.  (Buttons: much harder than German conjugation.)  But Bean silently knows he's only really angry at himself, because he should have known they would go straight to practice, so he doesn't complain as he runs naked down the hall with his suit in his arms.

Chapter Thirteen: Dragon Army

In what is presumably a typo, the first two lines of faceless featureless dialogue actually end with "said Sister Carlotta" and "said Graff".  Carlotta wants Bean's genetic info to do a test (she doesn't believe he's Volescu's kid, and hopes that means it's all a lie and he'll live) but Graff confirms that Fleet scientists have already determined Anton's Key probably works exactly the way we were told.  Then they congratulate each other on how awesome their favourite students are.

This chapter is mostly Ender's Game chapter ten, with Bean's snark and narcissism instead of Ender's anxiety and narcissism.  This is the first time we've seen Bean in the battleroom, and of course he's already figured out the same thing Petra did, that the zero-G effects have to be artificial rather than a trick of non-rotation like the school claims.  Bean makes it explicit that gravity-bending machines are utterly unknown in the rest of humanity--again, why is the Fleet allowed to do this,when everyone knows there are no formic spies?  (Anti-grav never comes up in the later Shadow books on Earth, suggesting that the Fleet doesn't let that tech out after the war, either.)

Ender sends them all out in waves, and finally tells Bean that he can use a side handhold, as we know, and Bean's upfront ire ("Go suck on it") is now justified as frustration that Ender made him run naked through the halls because his suit was tricky, but takes pity for his size.  Bean just does his anti-nausea trick as he muppetflails through the room and ricochets off a side wall to join the formation.  Ender does his whole angry-drill-sergeant rant, Bean is bored, Ender teaches them "the enemy's gate is down", off they go on another leap, and Ender starts picking on Bean again to answer his various strategic questions.  We've seen this.

Bean is at first mildly scandalised that Ender doesn't know who he is already, and thinks Ender is making a fool out of himself:
"Excellent. At least I have one soldier who can figure things out." 
Bean was disgusted. This was the commander who was supposed to turn Dragon into a legendary army? Wiggin was supposed to be the alpha and omega of the Battle School, and he's playing the game of singling me out to be the goat.
It goes on, and on, like we saw before, but around the 'string bean' joke, Bean realises that Ender is successfully tapping into everyone else's resentment of him--unifying most of the army in their frustration at how the toddler keeps out-geniusing the rest of them.  Bean, of course, also thinks this is a terrible mistake because Ender is undermining his best soldier, because Bean is awesome and Bean knows it and so should everyone else.  In Ender's Game, this would have been serious; here I'm 80% sure it's supposed to be as ironic as I read it, because Bean is a jerk.

After practice, Bean and Ender have their showdown, and Bean's I-can-be-your-best-or-your-worst remarks are spun in his head as 'I will only be effective with your trust and respect, useless if you mock me', which is a hell of a retcon, but a mechanically fascinating thing to see, as a writer.  Card makes the sensible choice to not literally retcon any of the dialogue, but does his damnedest to create alternate interpretations of lines he wrote fifteen years earlier to mean something completely different.  He does occasionally add Bean's thoughts directly, almost like new dialogue, but doesn't pretend Ender picks up on it:
"So I don't even get a chance to learn before I'm being judged." That's not how you bring along talent.
Maybe the best thing about this whole thing, thematically, is that Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, when they overlap like this, are like a study in how the same events can look very different depending on your preconceptions and biases, which is supposedly the over-arching theme of Game and Speaker.  It's not great writing, but the ideas are neat, and I'd like to see a less-terrible author try the same thing in a book that actually was about that, instead of books that claim to be about that but are actually about how incredibly awesome Ender Wiggin is.

Post-argument, Bean is shaken up, and realises that he's reached the point where he can feel sick with fear even when he's not at risk of dying in a cold gutter anymore--he's counting on Ender seeing his potential and giving him an awesome future, like he did with Poke.

Chapter Fourteen: Brothers

There's not actually a whole lot to analyse here that I can see (commenters are encouraged to disagree if y'all have your own copies and thoughts), but I'll at least recap.

Graff reports to Carlotta that Volescu really isn't Bean's genetic father, though he's a close relative, and so Carlotta goes off to find Volescu's secret half-brother.  In the meantime, we're also warned that Achilles has been removed from his ground school, on Graff's decision that he's super-smart and belongs in Battle School.  Carlotta tells him that if they're both in Battle School, one will definitely die, and accuses Graff of being "determined to let them find out which is fittest in the best Darwinian fashion", because Carlotta is the best character.

In the barracks, Bean and Fly Molo (leader of A Toon and apparently therefore second-in-command for Dragon Army) get into a fight over strategy when Fly criticises Ender's fragmentation and delegation.  When Bean's snark gets too sharp, Fly rushes him, and Nikolai comes to his aid, tragically not screaming DEATH FROM ABOVE.  Han Tzu finally breaks it up, they all agree they were insubordinate, and Nikolai explains to Bean that he's tense because he's sure he's the worst soldier in Dragon.  Bean does a bad job reassuring him, because his spectacular analysis and empathy skills have been turned off this scene to show that he has flaws.

Carlotta sherlocks her way through bureaucracy and secret files to find Bean's genetic parents, discovers that they had twenty-three frozen embryos stored years ago for impregnation (the twenty-fourth was already born, Nikolai), and they collectively discover that the remaining twenty-three were stolen.  Carlotta shares as much about Volescu as she's legally allowed, and discovers that if they had another boy, they were going to name him Julian, for his father.  Dad correctly guesses that one of the twenty-three stolen embryos wasn't destroyed and has since grown up a bit, and Carlotta confirms it and promises that if she can make it happen, they'll meet one day.

Back on Battle School, Major Anderson has a chat with Nikolai, basically saying "You are literally the only person Bean likes, please keep being his friend", and Nikolai has some realistic dialogue about dissociation (thinking of himself in his baby pictures as a different person, and seeing that person in Bean), but ultimately insists that Anderson has nothing to worry about, because they're not friends, they're brothers, and it's all very heartwarming and mildly out-of-place in this book, as the only scene not from Bean or Carlotta's perspective.  I suppose it helps, in that it gives Nikolai some psychological justification for his weird attachment to Bean the jackass ultragenius, but it also just feels like a lot of self-indulgent irony, with the 'chosen brothers' secretly being genetic brothers as well, because genetics are the best everything.

Next week: Bean's secret and completely ineffectual war to proselytise for Ender and stop Bonzo.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters nine, ten, and eleven, in which Bean is a god and Ender is a messiah


(Content: ableism, homophobia, Nazi war crimes. Fun content: spaaaaaaace.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 139--174
Chapter Nine: Garden of Sofia

The tagless dialogue blocks are back to vaudeville style as Dimak and Graff discuss Bean, starting with his investigation of the emergency maps, which Graff thinks is alone worth sending him home:
"After three months in Battle School, he figured out that defensive war makes no sense and that we must have launched a fleet against the Bugger home worlds right after the end of the last war." 
"He knows that? And you come telling me he knows how many decks there are?"
But of course they are confident that they can deceive the infinite supergenius of Bean as long as they can find a lie he will believe, so that's no problem and he can stick around because his supergenius may yet be useful.  All I can think of right now is that tugboat captain whose life Graff casually derailed into indefinite isolation because Graff couldn't be bothered to schedule his ride in advance or ask for volunteers.

Sister Carlotta, in the meantime, has met with Anton, who doesn't have a last name, ever, despite appearing in later books.  Anton is another supergenius and thus very adept at exposition:
"I'm just an old Russian scientist living out the last years of his life on the shores of the Black Sea."
Said no actual human ever.  Anton tries to shock Carlotta by indicating that he's fantasising about her, but Carlotta is unflappable and/or has excellent gaydar*, so she just goes on to tell him what she learned: that he is cited constantly by academic papers on the subject of genetic engineering on human intelligence, but none of his papers actually exist in any other record; he never published.  Now, I mean, I'm sure back in the dark ages (1999) when this book was published these things might have been less automated, but here in the modern world, Google Scholar (the godsend of students writing academic papers everywhere) can track citations in a fraction of a second, so I'm struggling a little with the idea that the government obliterated this guy's life's work, placed a chip in his head to prevent him from ever talking about it again, and put him under permanent armed guard, but they decided editing other people's bibliographies was a step overboard.

Carlotta "hypothetically" describes Bean's situation, absurdly smart and perhaps modified, and asks how she could "hypothetically" test for the change, and Anton's explanation leaps cheerfully back and forth over the ableism threshold as he describes 'savants' in less-than-clinical terms that I won't quote here and sums up with "How can they be so brilliant, and so stupid?"  He almost goes on to explain his discovery, but cuts himself off, "because I have been served with an order of inhibition."  Basically, he's wired into an anxiety feedback loop so that if he ever gets stressed out--for example, by talking about his work--he immediately falls into an incapacitating panic attack.

Of course, much like the bibliographies that were too much effort to scrub, this too can be overcome with a calming ritual and some roundabout dialogue, so Anton starts bantering with Carlotta about theology, and it's actually kind of entertaining (I kind of wish the later books were just about them on adventures).  It's also an excuse for more of the Biblical allusions that Card never tires of, but after a couple of pages he gets around to the point, that humanity could be immortal, "but God made us with death inside":
"Two trees--knowledge and life. you eat of the tree of knowledge, and you will surely die. You eat of the tree of life, and you remain a child in the garden forever, undying."
He doesn't last much longer before he stops being able to trick his own brain into believeing that he's not revealing forbidden secrets, and he collapses; Carlotta turns him onto his back--no, wrong, wrong, you turn people onto their side, Carlotta--and waits for the guard to come running.
The man was youngish, but not terribly bright-looking. The implant was supposed to keep [Anton] from spilling his tale; it was not necessary for his guards to be clever.
Oh lord, not only is intelligence the only metric of human worth but now we can see it by looking at people.  (The guard racks up several more insults from the narrative for the rest of the scene.)  Carlotta diplomatically gets out of there rather than wait for him to wake up, which seems cold at first, but maybe she figures she is herself now a panic trigger for Anton.  More importantly, she understands Anton's Key now, a genetic tweak that makes Bean an ultragenius but cuts his lifespan short, and resolves to find the person who used it.

Chapter Ten: Sneaky

Carlotta and Graff also continue bantering and it's much less entertaining (she wants more clearance, he wants her to psychoanalyse Bean), but at least for once someone points out:
"There's a war on, yet you fence me around with foolish secrecy. Since there is no evidence of the Formic enemy spying on us, this secrecy is not about the war. It's about the Triumvirate maintaining their power over humanity."
This really should be a bigger deal.  If Carlotta knows the Formics aren't spying on humanity, presumably everyone knows that.  If everyone knows that, then the secrecy around everything--the hidden asteroid base, the fleet supposedly in the asteroid belt which nevertheless no one on Earth can see--should raise some serious questions about the decision-making processes of the people in power.  Now, one meta level up, they put a chip in Anton's head rather than killing him because we're still supposed to see humanity's leaders as good people, and two meta levels up, he had to be alive so Carlotta could talk to him, but if I wanted a Doylist interpretation here, I wonder if the point of the incredibly circuitous and resource-intensive 'order of inhibition' isn't just to be able to show people that of course the government cares most of all about protecting human lives, look at all the trouble we go to, and so don't bother asking tricky questions or looking too hard at the gladiatorial arena we're building in the school showers.

Bean is finally ready to make his exploratory spelunking expedition through the Battle School air ducts, and it goes on for pages of twisting and crawling that we don't need to detail, up and down, inconveniently placed ducts that let him see teachers' quarters but not their computer screens, hot vents and cold walls (Card runs with the usual assumption that vacuum is 'cold', which is not quite as true as he'd like, but whatever).  Oh--and Bean is naked the whole time.  Get out your shot glasses, people, we're back in Battle School and pants are for losers who aren't secure in their heterosexuality!

Bean finds a teacher headed for a shower and decides to wait until the guy comes back and logs into his computer again (so Bean can get his password) but he hears a conversation further up the duct and goes to find Dimak holo-skyping with Graff.  (Are holograms really that cheap now?  Would a flatscreen not do the job?)

They're talking about 'giving her access' and 'whether the boy is human' and 'can't get him into the mind game' and 'what makes him tick, and after a page Bean realises they're talking about him: "New species. Genetically altered. Bean felt his heart pounding in his chest. What am I?"  They also talk about a security breach and needing to lock him down, and, in clearly the best moment, Graff wonders if it counts as saving humanity if they only win the war by replacing themselves with a new species:
"Foot in the door. Camel's Nose in the tent.  Give them an inch." 
"Them, sir?" 
"Yes, I'm paranoid and xenophobic. That's how I got this job. Cultivate those virtues and you, too, might rise to my lofty station."
This is as good a time as any to remember that, according to the story, no one but Ender could have won the Third Invasion, and no one but Graff could have made him do it, and the formics weren't planning to invade Earth again anyway, so Graff's hilarious paranoid xenophobia is the literal sole driving force behind the whole xenocide.

Bean mulls which secret he might have guessed (he suspects it's the invasion fleet, or that Battle School was created to strip Earth's nations of their future military leaders).  He goes back, memorises the now-showered teachers' login, and heads back to bed, mulling his luck and figuring out very rational reasons that it was actually all a result of his own good decision-making.  With that ego-stroking settled, he decides on his new plan to allay the teachers' suspicions about his character:
He had to become Ender Wiggin.
This book would be both spectacularly awful and utterly amazing if the rest of it consisted of Bean's slow Talented-Mr-Ripley absorption of Ender's identity, but no luck.  I'm honestly not sure what this means; I don't remember Bean doing anything to make himself look Enderier.

Chapter Eleven: Daddy

The teachers figure out what Bean's done as soon as he makes himself his own teacher-class identity, but they resolve to let him have it--if he won't play the mind game, they can see how he plays his own games, and Dimak insists he's the look-not-touch type of snooper.  Bean's first priority is apparently reading every student's profile.  He scored better than any of them, but he realises that everyone in Battle School is a genius, and he's not necessarily any more charismatic, courageous, cautious, or able to outguess his opponents than they are.  He sets about trying to solve the mystery of Ender Wiggin, who gives so much of his time to newer, inept students instead of focusing on building himself up.  There's another page of talking about how wonderful and mysterious Ender is, then bro-time with Bean and Nikolai bonding (Nikolai is dubbed "a place-holder" in his profile, sparking Bean's ire and sudden uncertainty about whether the teacher's evaluations mean anything, for Bean is a protective unknowing brother), and then it's time for another cameo, when Bean tracks down Ender's oldest friend, Shen.

Shen stumblingly explains how wonderful Ender is, trying to describe how he unified his launch group by making friends with Alai to then neutralise Bernard, and this is such an Ender-worship chapter I almost forgot which book it was:
"Ender's good, man. You just--he doesn't hate anybody. If you're a good person, you're going to like him. You want him to like you. If he likes you, then you're OK, see? But if you're scum, he just makes you mad."
This is the verbatim definition of protagonist-centred morality, and the person it's centred on once murdered a child on the playground for shoving him.

All of the charisma talk makes Bean fear that Ender is Achilles again, secretly ready to kill anyone for crossing him, but that's not enough to stop his obsessive research, as he apparently continues interviewing Ender's friends and reading all the files.  The deadline is closing in on war, Bean decides, as the teachers focus their attention on their favourite students ever more.  Bean puts it down to career militarism, the popularity contest that gets entrenched in any institution that favours a particular attitude and look.  This is interesting mostly because of Bean's thoughts on Petra Arkanian:
...who had obnoxious personalities but could handle strategy and tactics in their sleep, who had the confidence to lead others into war, to trust their own decisions and act on them--they didn't care about trying to be one of the guys, and so they got overlooked, every flaw became magnified, every strength belittled.
This whole book is kind of a saving throw for Petra, telling us she's actually much better than her girls-can't-cut-it presentation in Ender's Game would suggest, but who is Card talking to at this point?  Is he arguing that Petra was always good enough but people focus on the negative aspects of her character's presentation because she's a girl?  Or is this just a throwaway line telling us that Petra is underappreciated in-universe?  There isn't much evidence for that, since she's been promoted to commander of Phoenix Army by now and stomping all over the competition in laser tag.

Last scene for this week: Carlotta has a new security clearance and very quickly sherlocks her way back to Volescu, the scientist who ran an 'organ farm' in Rotterdam that was actually a genetic engineering lab.  He's amused by her questioning:
"This is like those Nazi medical crimes all over again. You deplore what I did, but you still want to know the results of my research."
The historical significance of Nazi medical experiments is something I'm not informed enough to give any kind of lecture on, although if you can stomach it there are essays worth reading.  The one point I want to include is that we tend to have this idea that there are incredible secrets, the Forbidden Knowledge of the Universe, that we could get if only we were unethical enough to test it, and the reality is that this is rarely true.  Humans are bright enough creatures that if we can figure out what information we're looking for, we can generally also figure it out how to get it without destroying a person.  This is why Mythbusters is a great show and not a carnival of horror.  Do not trust anyone who thinks the only way to learn something is via atrocity.

Volescu fills in the last blank: with Anton's Key turned in Bean's genetics, he is permanently in child-mode, learning at lightning speed, always forming new brain pathways, and always growing at an accelerated rate.  By his mid-twenties, he'll be a giant, and his heart will give out from the strain.  Volescu claims that he made all the embryos with his own genes, and he is therefore Bean's father, but Carlotta vows that Bean will never find this out, because dad's a monster.  Quest complete!  The new quest is to save Bean's life.

Next week: turns out Anakin built C-3PO Bean created Dragon Army.

---

*I thought it was in this book, but no, here he pretends to flirt with Carlotta; it's not until book three, Shadow Puppets, that Anton says he's gay, although of course he says it in the most amazingly offensive way possible:
"...I was of a disposition not to look upon women with desire. [....] In that era, of my youth, the governments of most countries were actively encouraging those of us whose mating instinct had been short-circuited to indulge those desires and take no mate, have no children. Part of the effort to funnel all of human endeavor into the great struggle with the alien enemy. So it was almost patriotic of me to indulge myself in fleeting affairs that meant nothing, that led nowhere. Where could they lead?"

I--wow.  I had forgotten just how incredibly bad this was.  I don't know if Card is obsessed with genetic continuity because he's a huge homophobe or vice-versa, but if we had any doubt, that should be gone now.  Where do I point to show how incredibly wrong this is?  Ellen Degeneres and Portia di Rossi?  Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka?  Wanda and Alex Sykes?  Alan Cumming and Grant Shaffer?  No wonder Card is terrified of same-sex marriage; it's providing more and more concrete proof that he's been lying his whole life.

The pages that follow this are no better and maybe worse, explaining how everyone (including those rascally gays) feels an absolutely incontrovertible bone-deep desire to marry someone of the inscrutable 'opposite sex' and create children, and basically that's why Ender's Shadow is the last Orson Scott Card book I will write about on this blog.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters seven and eight, in which Bean confirms that the author is right about everything

(Content: bullying, justification of genocide.  Fun content: Mallory Ortberg's brilliance, Amy Pond's scorn, and marquesses.  Marqueese?)

Ender's Shadow: p. 101--136

Chapter six ends with Carlotta viewing the very same plastic-lidded toilet tank that Bean hid within, and confirming his story with the janitor, Pablo de Noches.  In case we forgot, he is a not-very-bright unpretentious blue-collar sort of man, who saved Bean because "I thought God was the baby. Jesus say, if you do it to this little one, you do it to me."  Card never seems to have room in this series for people who are neither supergeniuses nor hapless oafs.  (Pablo seems to struggle with speaking Common, but he and Carlotta only slip into Spanish for one line each, and separately.  Card's insistence on shoving bits of Spanish in and making his character fumble through English the rest of the time is especially weird in a novel where it's so easy to just say "Carlotta asked him in Spanish", but then we wouldn't get the awkward sentence structure that Card prefers in order to showcase ethnicity.)

Carlotta works her way through various theological thoughts about the beast of Revelation ("the Bugger, the Formic monster") and the false prophet, and how wonderful and impossible Bean is, and returns home to start researching genetic engineering and to seal up all of Bean's clothes and bedding for DNA evidence.  She figures he's either the saviour or the antichrist and either way she wants to know, so, high-five to her.

Chapter Seven: Exploration

We open with the teachers discussing their student tracking data, which has picked up Bean's twenty-one minute post-lunch tour from last chapter, but the data in question is hilariously, implausibly bad.  Just so we're clear:
"Tracking the uniforms that departed from the mess hall and the uniforms that entered the barracks, we come up with an aggregate of twenty-one minutes. That could be twenty-one children loitering for exactly one minute, or one child for twenty-one minutes. [....They arrived] spaced out in groups of two or three, a few solos. Just the way they left the mess hall."
These folks are running uniform-tracking software that knows who's wearing what suit (as soon as they palm into the system for lunch) and tracks how long uniforms aren't where they're supposed to be, but somehow it was overbudget for them to actually track which uniform goes where when.  But if they know what the arrival pattern back in the barracks was, they must be tracking that somehow--I am struggling to imagine any kind of tracking system that would allow them to collect only the 'aggregate' without actively throwing out more information that had been given to them freely.

Atrocious security is kind of a theme in this chapter: Dimak arrives to teach them all how to palm into their desks, and because there's an empty bunk available, Bean takes the opportunity to use his left hand to palm into that bunk's system as well, so he has two computer accounts.  The computer keeps a tally of how many accounts there should be, and so one other kid is locked out of the system until Dimak overrides it.  Bean concludes that they know what he's done, and so he will use his second account to keep a secret diary of secrets that will distract the teachers while he does all of his actual private work with his main account.  I'd like to think that the Battle School teachers are prepared for 'look over there, a distraction!', but this is Bean, so probably not.  He also instantly sees through the reverse-psychology that Dimak uses to encourage them to play the Mind Game, by telling them they're only allowed a few minutes after their homework is done.

More touring, the gym, the arcade, and Bean waxes philosophical about the existence of bullies, no longer fighting over food and survival, but still enforcing a social order by shoving little kids out of the way as soon as their mandated turn is over.  Bean observes and complies dispassionately:
No point in getting emotional about anything. Being emotional didn't help with survival. What mattered was to learn everything, analyze the situation, choose a course of action, and then move boldly. Know, think, choose, do. There was no place in that list for "feel." Not that Bean didn't have feelings. He simply refused to think about them or dwell on them or let them influence his decisions, when anything important was at stake.

This is it.  This is peak Objective Man.  I CHOOSE NOT TO BE AFFECTED BY EMOTIONS, says the five-year-old knot of fear and ambition.  I can't adequately respond to this myself, so I'm just going to ask Mallory Ortberg to tell four minutes of male novelist jokes while I compose myself.

(Fun aside: my brother, a former reservist officer, was taught to follow the OUDA Loop to avoid locking up in field situations: Observe, Understand, Decide, Act.  That's basically identical to Bean's process, making it possibly the most accurate bit of military theory in this whole series.)

Ender isn't in the arcade, of course, but Bonzo is, and he attracts Bean's attention by being the only one who hates Ender.  Bean investigates, first learning that random passers-by think Bonzo is "contemptible", and then directly asking Bonzo to tell him the truth about Ender, "because you won't lie to me".  Bean, of course, secretly believes that Bonzo will do nothing but lie, and so is thoroughly prepared when Bonzo recaps Ender's time in Salamander, how Ender navigated the teachers into getting him his own practice time in the battleroom (which Bean thinks is an impressive solution) and adds interjections like "I'm not stupid!" (which Bean thinks is a guarantee of stupidity).  Bonzo insists that Ender's disloyalty means no commander in the school wants him, but at this point Ender is either the best soldier in Rat Army or the second-in-command under Petra Arkanian's Phoenix Army, so presumably that's not true either.

Bonzo moves on, having made his plans to violence Ender clear, and Bean silently concludes "If they leave you in command of an army for another day, it's just so that the other students can learn how to make the best of taking orders from a higher-ranking idiot", which... is that true?  Bean's word is gospel, generally, but we never really have resolved the mystery of how Bonzo got to be a commander, not just briefly, but for five nonlinear years when the Battle School structure allows at most a single-digit percentage of students to ever get any time in command.  I'm sure in some prior post I theorised this very thing, that Graff keeps Bonzo around specifically to play the villain to Graff's Chosen One(s), but I so did not expect that to become canon.

Back in his room, Bean writes a fake diary entry, in which he pretends he's planning to assemble his own street gang and model himself off Achilles, and then tries to fall asleep at the designated lights-out.  He overhears other children crying, homesick, and mulls how much he's not like them.  He doesn't have feelings.  He just plans his ascension to command and thinks about how silly empathy is even if it makes Ender strong because it also makes people stupid like how it got Poke killed and then what are these tears on his pillow that is ridiculous.

Back on Earth, Graff emails Carlotta to ask who Achilles is, and they power-play at each other a bit until Graff skypes with her.  Carlotta plays ignorant, talking about the mythical Achilles until she finally corrects Graff that the bully's name is pronounced "ah-SHEEL. French."  She instantly sees through Bean's diary ruse, counsels Graff on not underestimating Bean, and lets on that Achilles is probably a murderer.  (As someone who runs a tabletop RPG, I reach helplessly at the book, trying to stop Carlotta from telling Graff that this new upstart protagonist has a ready-made villain to face in dramatic conflict to further his character arc at the end of Act Two.)  Carlotta asks in return for information on illegal human genome projects from the last decade:
"I think you're going to end up relying on this boy, betting all our lives on him, and I think you need to know what's going on in his genes."
Author's genetic inevitability and evo-psych fetish: sated.  I didn't really notice this bit when I first read the book, but after the obsession with genetics in Speaker for the Dead, I wonder if they don't literally mean that Bean's psychology is going to be determined more by the consequences of genetic engineering than it is by the environments and unaware, unmodified people he's growing up with.

Chapter Eight: Good Student

Three months later, Bean is getting perfect scores on every test and the teachers think he's spending all his free time reading seventeenth-century treatises on military fortifications.  He is, of course, actually hacking their system (slowly, in a refreshing burst of omniscience) and just making it look like he's reading the works of Vauban and Frederick the Great.  He manages to assemble, out of emergency maps, a rough schematic of the entire Battle School, seven times larger than most students believe it is (nine decks per wheel, not four, and three wheels, not one), and makes plans to go spying through the air ducts as soon as possible.

Dimak pulls him aside to ask Bean how he's doing, socially, and comment on his lack of friendships.  Bean attempts to bluff his way through obediently, but trips up, which I like in the same way that I always feel relief when Our Heroes actually screw up:
"And don't think we haven't picked up on the way you obsess about Wiggin." 
"Obsess?" Bean hadn't asked about him after that first day. Never joined in discussions about the standings. Never visited the battleroom during Ender's practice sessions. 
Oh. What an obvious mistake.
This of course also neatly explains why Ender's never heard of everyone's favourite bunny-muppet when they do finally meet in Dragon Army.

Dimak also confronts Bean about his search history library use, and what Vauban has to do with space war.  Bean starts bluffing, improvising off the top of his head what he could learn from Vauban's fortifications, how impossible it is to create 'walls' when fighting in three dimensions to protect an entire planet, and from there leaps to the conclusion that the only defence is a faster offence.  So, in the space of a page, Bean takes us from "fortifications are impossible in space" to:
"So we build a fleet as quickly as possible and launch it against their home world immediately. That way the news of their defeat reaches them at the same time as our devastating counterattack." [....] it dawned on him that he was right about everything "That fleet was already sent. Before anybody on this station was born, that fleet was launched."
Bean also found a copy of Ender's Game in the library.

Now, that's a neat conclusion, sure, but I'm not sold on it being the only conclusion.  Like: Bean notes that the larger their 'fortification' is, the more they get stretched out, so protecting the entire solar system is impossible, but he also notes that the only thing they need to protect is Earth, so I'm not sure why we should care that we can't protect the whole system.  He notes that only one ship needs to get through in order to devastate the planet, as they saw with the famous Scouring of China, but if they had the resources to create an invasion fleet immediately after the Second Invasion, could they honestly not construct an adequate planetary defence in another seventy years?  (What are all their ships doing, if the supposed big defence fleet out in the Belt doesn't exist?  How many people know the truth about the fleet and how has no one else figured it out?)  They have the Ecstatic Shield installed in enough places around Earth to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used effectively, and if you can stop a nuke in flight, you can stop a ship as well.  What kinds of assaults might Earth not be safe from?  I can think of two options:

  1. Relativistic bombardment.  Ramp a ship up to near-lightspeed, aim it at Earth from light-years away, and go.  It doesn't even need to be a ship; it can just be the heaviest rock you can strap engines to.  This technique is not, to our knowledge, used by the humans or the formics in any war, which suggests to me that it's impossible or there's some easy defence they've already figured out, like Star Wars interdictor fields that kill warp drives and make said projectiles easy catches.
  2. Doctor Device.  Humanity has no reason to think the formics know how this works, since we came up with it on our own, but anyone smart enough to invent such a thing would have to realise that it's the greatest planet-buster imaginable.  (I forgot how great that comment thread about the Doctor Device was; if you're a physics nerd you should go read it again.)  So, while it's certainly terrifying to think that they could invent one and bring it to Earth, we've got an ultimate weapon against them, we know how their queens work, and we would leave behind no evidence that they could use to reverse-engineer it if we dusted their incoming fleet.
I mean to say, it's one thing when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, and another if you give an entire planetary fleet an unstoppable force to swing, an immovable object to hide behind, and exactly one thing to protect.  They thought this was a worse plan than their desperation xenocide fleet?


Anyway, Dimak brushes this off and leaves, but Bean saw him sweat, and spends some time mulling why the Fleet would bother hiding this Obvious Truth from everyone.  He's also read enough of human military history now that he can make all the references to old wars that people kept spewing in Ender's Game, and he concludes, like Dink Meeker, that the Fleet exists instead to keep Earth from imploding into a vortex of global war and to keep the child-geniuses out of nationalistic hands.  He's sure this plan is doomed to fail, and thus he needs to make friends with his classmates, the future warlords of Earth.

A kid named Nikolai apologises to Bean for telling Dimak that Bean stole his password, and asks what Bean was doing rummaging in the station maps.
Until this moment, Bean would have blown off the question--and the boy.
And you have no idea how hard I'm resisting the obvious military-school-queer-subtext jokes, but (spoilers) Nikolai is actually Bean's twin brother, so I'm not going there.

Instead, Bean shares his discover of the other two wheels and five decks, and Nikolai suggests that those parts were never actually built, but the maps remain because bureaucrats never throw anything away.
"I never thought of that," said Bean. He knew, given his reputation for brilliance, that he could pay Nikolai no higher compliment. As indeed the reaction of the other kids in nearby bunks showed. No one had ever had such a conversation with Bean before. No one had ever thought of something that Bean hadn't obviously though of first. Nikolai was blushing with pride.
Ye gods, Bean is supposed to be the one no one really likes; why is Nikolai blushing already?  But they start talking and socialising like real people, including one girl who is named here Corn Moon and then never mentioned again, ever, in this or any other book, quality representation, well done.

Next week: the only kind of acceptable gay man in Card's world is one who has been punished, tamed, and speaks only of regret for his forays into forbidden knowledge.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters four, five, and six, in which Bean just barely doesn't sprint into the fourth wall

Y'know, this book really isn't as bad as Ender's Game for a very simple reason: Ender's Game is about what a burden it is to be an amazing person whom everyone else torments even though you're destined to save the entire world someday, and Ender's Shadow is about what it's like to be Bean.  Where Game couldn't go a chapter without telling us how wonderful Ender is or making proclamations on absolute human nature, Shadow is more of a straight underdog story interspliced with a bit of Science Mystery and Finding Your Family in both literal and figurative terms.  I'm finding, as I read ahead, that it's no worse than most books I intentionally keep on my shelves.  And I didn't make this blog to give maximum publicity to Orson Scott Card, so rather than detail every chapter of the book regardless of content, I'm going to start skimming to hit the interesting points.

(Content: starvation, child death, hostile teachers. Fun content: OSC writes his own fanfiction.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 54--101
Chapter Four: Memories

Graff and Carlotta, discussing Achilles and Bean, are basically a standup routine.
"He gives the right answers, but they aren't true." 
"And what test did you use to determine this?" 
"He committed murder." 
"Well, that is a drawback."
Is it, Graff?  Is it really?  But Graff tells her to forget Achilles, then, and focus on Bean.  Bean starts getting Battle School cram school, and when he's not studying, he gets to draw, or play games, or tell Carlotta about his past.  He remembers flawlessly, back to when he was only a few months old, learning to crawl, climbing out of his crib in "the clean place" (some kind of laboratory full of babies) because he had picked up from the adults that there was something bad coming.  So he hid, and a janitor found him but wasn't allowed to keep him (they're in the International Territory and he's not allowed to adopt, despite not having any kids of his own?), so Bean ran away and starved for three years until he found Poke.

Carlotta tells him that this is all impossible ("I guess that means I'm dead") unless God was watching over him, and Bean interrogates the idea that God kept Bean alive because he loved him but he let all those other kids starve   This is again a substantial improvement for Card, I think, as Bean takes a plausible atheistic stance when Carlotta says God kept him alive for a purpose:
It was like, she wanted to give God credit for every good thing, but when it was bad, then she either didn't mention God or had some reason why it was a good thing after all. As far as Bean could see, though, the dead kids would rather have been alive, just with more food. [....] Because if there was somebody in charge, then he ought to be fair, and if he wasn't fair, then why should Sister Carlotta be so happy that he was in charge?
Looking ahead to the later Shadow books, Bean never quite converts; I believe at one point after losing Carlotta he makes an off-hand reference to whatever God thinks and, when asked if he believes, responds 'More and more, and less and less', which I could take to mean that he sees more and more evidence that someone is scripting the universe, but less and less reason to believe that they're any kind of brilliant/benevolent God-figure like Carlotta believes in.  We never really get into the question of millions of starving children again either way.

The rest of the chapter is just investigation, as Bean realises that Carlotta is trying to figure out what kind of lab Bean came from, so he learns how maps work and runs away to track down the janitor with his perfect memory.  When he does, Carlotta arrives with the cops and reveals that she followed him:
"I didn't want to interfere until you found him. Just in case you think you were really smart, young man, we intercepted four street thugs and two known sex offenders who were after you." 
Bean rolled his eyes. "You think I've forgotten how to deal with them?" 
Sister Carlotta shrugged. "I didn't want this to be the first time you ever made a mistake in your life."
Sister Carlotta is probably my favourite of all Card's creations, but lest we forget she's one of Card's creations, we have the next scene.

They interrogate the janitor, Pablo de Noches, and work out that since the company who owned the space Bean came from has no existing records, it was obviously an organ farm, buying babies from poor immigrant families and harvesting them for parts to save rich peoples' babies with defects.  The inspector is the Designated Stupid Character for the scene, and so brushes all of this off as irrelevant even as he explains it to scornful Carlotta.  Carlotta insists that Bean's parents must be remarkably smart and thus prominent, and the Designated Stupid Character continues to be insightful:
"Maybe.  Maybe not," said the inspector. "I mean, some of these refugees, they might be brilliant, but they're caught up in desperate times. To save the other children, maybe they sell a baby. That's even a smart thing to do. It doesn't rule out refugees as the parents of this brilliant boy you have."
Carlotta agrees that this is possible (spoilers: no, Bean's parents aren't broke refugees) and leaves with the conclusion that Bean is a miracle, so it's time to ship him to space.

Chapter Five: Ready or Not

Graff is still snarky about Carlotta sending Bean to Battle School, despite telling her to do literally exactly what she's done, but here we get the reveal that Bean even beat Ender's test scores, to make sure that whomever Card is writing is still the smartest person in the room.

Bean explains away his initial crying in front of Carlotta as a mistake of openness that he learned not to repeat once he realised she kept secrets from him, too, and so he's distanced himself by the time she sends him to the shuttle.  He does methodically calculate that, when she hugs him, she wants to believe he will miss her, and therefore he hugs her back, playing along, in payment for the safety and food and opportunities she's given him.  He may or may not slip a 'beep boop' in there to reassure himself that he does not feel human emotions, but he also justifies it as "the kind of thing Poke would do", helping someone else when it costs him nothing.

We get the Shuttle Scene Redux, and it gives me a strange joy how thoroughly Card is writing fanfic of his own book.  He at first stares at all the other kids on the shuttle, so healthy and well-nourished, and thinks about how easily Sergeant could destroy any one of them, and he feels a brief stab of anger in his emotion chip as he wishes they knew what it was like to starve: "...the dizziness, the swelling of your joints, the distension of your barely, the thinning of your muscles until you barely have strength to stand. These children had never looked death in the face and then chosen to live anyway."  Of course, he then immediately fears that he can never catch up with anyone who's got such a head start on him, and he's torn between wanting to climb to the top of their social hierarchy or disdaining the whole thing as beneath him.

I am oddly charmed by Bean's insistence that he's a cold computer when he's actually this complete emotional mess of repressed fear and hunger and ambition and FEELS.  (He's going to fit in so well among Manly Men.)  If he stayed like this, of course, he'd be insufferable, but his whole arc is about grappling with the existence of emotions and learning to act out of compassion and reason instead of fear and mistrust.

But then we get into the actual replay of the original shuttle scene, where a teacher (Dimak) shows up and tells everyone to keep their egos in check because everyone here is at best on equal footing, if not outclassed, and some boy says that this is obviously not true because someone has to have the highest scores.  So Dimak shuts him down sarcastically:
"You, however, understand the profound truth that you must reveal your stupidity openly. To hold your stupidity inside you is to embrace it, to cling to it, to protect it. But when you expose your stupidity, you give yourself the chance to have it caught, corrected, and replaced with wisdom."
Not really a spoiler: Dimak is president of the Hyrum Graff fan club and intentionally trying to mimic his techniques with Ender.  So, while Bean's Spider-Sense warns him that he had the best scores and so he's going to end up the real target of this scene, the teacher goes on to tell the students how stupid they are, and that even if he had been wrong, it would be a waste of time to point it out.

I would like to believe that this is supposed to be commentary on the American school system, since Dimak also adds that 'teachers are powerful, students are not; don't provoke when you can't defend'.  Bean agrees with this, but silently adds that you have to notice when the teachers are wrong, you just shouldn't point it out because that gives everyone else your advantage.

I'm rarely on-board with stories where the protagonist is meant to be unlikable, but Bean is an exception and I have to conclude that it's because I do actually relate to him, once he's off the streets.  His deep social awkwardness and attempts to calculate appropriate social responses to stimuli, his 'excuse me, I didn't request to be supplied with feelings' ways.  A jackass, but one with the potential to do better, unlike Ender, who's already 'perfect' and just needs the plebes to stay out of his way.

Dimak says that this one loud student was less wrong than normal, because someone aced almost all of the tests, all of the psychology and command-relevant questions, but had terrible physical scores.  Card doubles-down for the paraquel: instead of Graff telling the group that Ender is the only one who matters, Dimak asks Bean to guess who this was, makes Bean say it, then congratulates him on his accurate self-assessment, concluding that the only thing that matters is winning the war, so worship the smart ones and hope they rain undeserved mercy on you.  Bean just thinks about how stupid his tactical advice is, recommending that no one commit to a fight unless they're sure of their advantage, and they blast off into space while Dimak replays Graff's zero-G headstand tricks.

Chapter Six: Ender's Shadow

Graff boggles to learn that Dimak apparently pulls these stunts with every launch group he brings up, because he likes the way it causes an immediate sorting-out of children into differing statuses, because Dimak is a goddamn awful teacher.  His flight summary apparently includes seven pages about how awesome Bean is ("He's cold, sir. And yet--" "And yet hot. yes, I read your report.") which I'm sure isn't meant to be a self-deprecating dig at how this series lavishes adoration on its heroes, but for one lone time I empathise deeply with Graff.

Bean concludes that, since obviously no one will help him, everyone in Battle School is either irrelevant, a rival, or an enemy, "so it was the street again".  That's an interesting frame of reference for schools--personally, all the schools I went to were either in nice enough neighbourhoods or I was out of the loop enough that I can't always relate to the things my friends remember about those days.  We get an SFFy reintroduction to Battle School life, nothing y'all don't remember, but this bit irks the fuck out of me, when older students walk past them in the halls and shout catcalls like 'fresh meat' and 'they even smell stupid':
Some of the launchies ahead of Bean in line were resentful and called back some vague, pathetic insults, which only caused more hooting and derision from the older kids. Bean had seen older, bigger kids who hated younger ones because they were competition for food, and drove them away, not caring if they caused the little ones to die. He had felt real blows, meant to hurt. He had seen cruelty, exploitation, molestation, murder. These other kids didn't know love when they saw it.
So here's a thing about humanity: we're extremely relative.  Happiness is a complicated thing, but it's getting studied, and the results are only shocking to people who think, like Bean, that feelings are calculated decisions. We compare our happiness to our environment and adjust accordingly, which is why billionaires aren't billions of times happier than people on welfare.  As someone currently dragging himself out of a kind of abrupt depressive episode like I haven't felt in years, I'm particularly aware that mental health isn't solely determined by your environment or what seems reasonable.

My point being that Bean is foolish to assume that passing insults are a sign of affection just because he's seen children kill each other, and to think that the other children are all wrong and just don't understand and appreciate the love being poured onto them.  And if those other launchies feel attacked because they are being catcalled, that's not invalid, because any hypothetical intentions don't just neutralise the distress they create.  The normalisation of 'I do this thing, even though you say you hate it, because I want to show affection' needs to be pulled out of our culture by the root.  Anything that resembles 'tough love' can fuck off.  Parents abusing children to 'toughen them up', men catcalling women on the street, children picking on other children on the playground because they don't know what to do with a crush: these things are not equivalent, but they come from a common poisoned well, and it's this nonsense.

Bean in particular gets catcalled for being so small, and thus compared to Ender.  He spends the chapter piecing together Battle School culture: older students form officially-recognised crews (armies), but while they have the potential to be bullies, they only matter because the teachers have turned them against him, so the teachers are the real enemy.  He realises Ender is some kind of celebrity, so being compared to him boosts his ego, but reduces his ability to blend.

There's more food-rejection nonsense; like Ender before him, Bean thinks they served him too much, so he shoves the excess onto other kids' plates.  On the one hand, "letting his hunger be his guide" is excellent advice; on the other, everyone we're supposed to like in this series only ever eats less than they're told.  Sigh.

The rest of his scene is wandering Battle School after lunch, figuring out how to get around, where things are, who the armies are.  He gets caught up in a class-change and catcalled more (two years later, Dink Meeker gets called out for using the exact same line about walking between his legs without touching his balls that he used on Ender, THIS IS FANFICTION) and then grabbed by Petra Arkanian, who solves problems.  She's rational enough that Bean is willing to talk to her, but he brushes her off as "a take-charge person and didn't have anybody to take charge of until he came along", so I guess we're not at the part where we're supposed to go back to liking Petra yet.  (She does, however, make the useful point that it's impossible to do anything without revealing your character to the teachers, such as how Bean's sneaking around will show his insistence on solitude and exploration.)

There's more repeating, this time without the charm, such as Bean showing up in the game room, reaching exactly the same conclusions as Ender about how badly the other kids play the game, asking for a turn, and getting laughed at (though this time they leave rather than actually following through on the offer).  There's an extended sequence about him fitting himself into an air duct just to see if he can, and figuring out that he's just fulfilling his need to always have an escape route, before he finds his barracks again (perfect memory) and settles in for naptime.

There's one more scene in this chapter, but since we've ramped up the pace, I'll leave it until next week.  What do y'all think of moving at this rate?  Anyone who's read Shadow yourselves, did I miss anything that you would have liked to see examined more?

Also, make sure to come back on Thursday for a new post from the blogqueen, especially if you know Judge Dredd.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapter three, in which Bean is first an apostle

The second-last thing I did with this post was write its title, and as soon as I did that bit of snark I realised how accurate it is.  Ender's Shadow has a nun's POV, so it's excusable that it's even more religiously-flavoured than Game, but some of the metaphors stretch to the breaking point.  In this chapter, someone thinks of Achilles as God and Poke as Jesus, which leaves Bean to be at best an apostle, but really, that's what he always is: Ender is the messiah, Bean is his best disciple, chronicling the holy man's journey and sacrifices and struggling with the confusion that comes from standing next to the Most Important Person In The Universe.  Now I'm going to start wondering if it's possible to directly link the jeesh to specific individuals.  (Though if Petra is Peter, Card has a lot of explaining to do.)

(Content: transphobia, homelessness, violent death. Fun content: book recommendations and attempted autopsychoanalysis.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 40--53
Chapter Three: Payback

The other thing about Carlotta, as Bean's pseudo-parent, is that she is this book's Graff, constantly having to tell other people how brilliant her favourite student really is, and focusing all of her time on making sure said student is given appropriate treatment by the space military.  So of course when she, as the New Graff, encounters the Old Graff, they must snark until one of them gains dominance to be the Alpha Graff.  She's still pushing for Achilles:
"If he passes your exacting intellectual and personality requirements, it is quite possible that for a minuscule portion of the brass button or toilet paper budget of the I.F., his physical limitations might be repaired."
It occurs to me that this book is part of a theme in my teenage reading--I read both Game and Shadow when I was 14, around the same time that my favourite fantasy novel was the magnificent Villains By Necessity by Eve Forward, which is a parody and commentary on the stock tropes of quest fantasy.  Villains By Necessity features one portion that's an extended mockery of the cast from Dragonlance, which I didn't realise for well over a decade, because I got maybe fifty pages into Dragonlance before consigning it to the shelf of never getting picked up again.  (As one friend once said of Dragonlance, it's the kind of book where you can hear the dice rolling in the background.)  It's by no means an inaccessible book for people who haven't read the standbys of fantasy, but it's got one thing in common with Ender's Game: part of the appeal is in the judgment.  (Mind you, Villains By Necessity is an affectionate judgment, riffing off everything from Jack Vance to the Smurfs yet still running a plot that's essentially grounded in the philosophical implications of D&D alignments, while Ender's Game is, as we've seen, the extended indulgence of people who think they're always the smartest person in the room.)  And then came Ender's Shadow, which is basically Card's fix-fic and commentary on his own smarter-than-everyone story, so that's two levels of meta and judgment, and then we're through the looking glass.

My point, I suppose, is that there was a key period in my teenage years when my favourite books were the ones that got really meta with their commentary on other books, some of which I had never actually read, and I'm like 30% sure this is why I now write a blog that dissects and comments on other people's books*.

Anyway, since Carlotta is to Graff as Bean is to Ender, she's smart enough to tell Graff not to close off his options, and she notes that Bean also has great potential, despite his apparent limitations: "Small. Young. But so was the Wiggin boy, I hear."  (By my estimates, Ender has already been at Battle School for more than a year at this point, so I think that would put him in Rat Army, doing well enough that his reputation could have spread, though I'm still surprised Carlotta would know details.  I guess Graff's email blasts are still going out every Wednesday afternoon.)

Back on the streets of Rotterdam, Bean reports that Ulysses (the bully who got bricked in line) is back for revenge, and Achilles declares that he'll have to go on the run for his family's protection.  Bean thinks this is foolish and asking for trouble, but he stays quiet and resolves to remain with the crew, since this leaves Poke in charge again and he still thinks she's as sharp as a bag of hammers.

That night, with Achilles gone, Bean follows Poke out of the alley where they hide and into the alley that serves as their latrine, where he confronts her on a series of matters: they all know she's a girl, that she still bears a grudge against Achilles, and that she's planning to do something about the current situation, but let's focus on that first bit.
"I guess if you were going to tell about me you already would have," she said. 
"They all know you're a girl, Poke. When you're not there, Papa Achilles talks about you as 'she' and 'her'."
This is Card we're talking about, who would presumably rather suckerpunch Jesus than affirm the identity of anyone trans, but the statistics are pretty clear: trans people face homelessness at a drastically greater rate than cis people, and it's if anything even worse for trans youth, although it can be hard to tell since queer kids don't always get surveyed and aren't always willing to out themselves due to the dangers they face.  In canon, Poke just presents as male because she hopes people will take her more seriously that way, and they don't really get into whether this is intended to protect her from street predators.  Thing is, we have no idea what the backstory is for any of these kids--they just sprang into existence as street urchins.  People are homeless for reasons, and usually not ones as SFFy as Bean's.

So I can't exactly call this a missed opportunity, because Poke is about to get fridged and if there's something we need even less of than cis women in refrigerators, it's trans people in refrigerators.  But while we're glossing over the matter of gender presentation among homeless kids, we can just note that both Achilles and Bean are colossal jackasses on this point.  If Poke were a trans boy, then Bean and Achilles would be misgendering him and substantially increasing the dangers he faced from predators and other violent people on the cruel streets of Rotterdam, since predators select targets carefully based on who's least able to fight back.  If Poke were a cis girl presenting as a boy for protection, then Bean and Achilles would still be removing that protection, only for the apparent sake of proving their intelligence and 'lowering' Poke in the others' eyes.

The point is that people will generally tell you what they want to be called and then that's what you call them.

Anyway, Bean's not sure what her plan is--he suspects she's going to run off and protect Achilles, or kill Ulysses, or kill Achilles herself and frame Ulysses--but she denies it, tells him off, and banishes him back to their sleeping alley.  I'm fuzzy on how much time is supposed to have passed, but Bean has apparently grown substantial musculature since we met him, because he literally parkours after her:
He went back into the crawl space where they slept these days, but immediately crept out the back way and clambered up crates, drums, low walls, high walls, and finally got up onto a low-hanging roof. He walked to the edge in time to see Poke slip out of the alley into the street. She was going somewhere. To meet someone.
Also unaddressed: Bean found Poke in the alley but knew she wasn't there to relieve herself, and then she waited in the alley long enough for him to clamber his way up top to watch her leave.  What was she in there for, except to give him time to follow her?  (The whole roof-climbing business is immediate abandoned as Bean slides down a rainpipe and follows her on street level.)

He's sure she's either meeting Ulysses or Achilles for one reason or another, but he can't imagine why--obviously not to plead, persuade, or sacrifice herself: "these were all things that Bean might have thought of doing--but Poke didn't think that far ahead."  If we didn't have the narrative constantly telling us so, would we have any reason to believe Poke wasn't just as smart as all of the other 'brilliant' children in this book?

She gets to a riverside dock and meets a boy there, in the shadows, and Bean can't see who it is, only that they embrace and kiss.  The only words he can pick out are Poke saying "You promised", and then a passing boat light illuminates Achilles' face.  Bean leaves and thinks about how little he understands "this thing between girls and boys".  But among Bean's superpowers is his danger sense, a combination of Spider-Man intuition and Sherlock Holmes analytical scanning that combine into a flawless fear awareness--if he feels scared, it is 100% of the time because there is something to be afraid of, even if he doesn't know what yet.  (Mind you, if Achilles and Poke were a couple, the earlier insistence on calling her a girl is suddenly explained by Achilles 'no homo' reflex.)

He processes for awhile, and decides that Poke made Achilles promise not to kill Bean, but Bean (being the smart one, unlike Poke, who is stupid, did we know, had we heard) realises that Poke is a nine-year-old girl who stood over Achilles with a brick in her hand, and therefore she's the one he hates most, the one that he has to kill in order to erase the shame of that memory from his mind.  Now, he realises, Achilles can blame Ulysses, and call it defence of his family when he kills the other bully, because he was patient.

But remember, Bean doesn't have any capacity for empathy or understanding what's going on in other people's minds.

Bean runs back too late, of course, and though he thinks for a moment that Achilles is the one who knows how to love and Bean is the broken one who thinks about the best time to murder helpless children, he finds Poke already dead in the water.  He muses on how kind and decent and stupid she was, but at least admits his own mistakes (trusting Achilles at all) and acknowledges that she made some good decisions after all (Achilles was smart enough to revolutionise street crew culture).  And, because he's so brilliant, he comes up with a cunning plan to escape Achilles' wrath now that Poke isn't around to protect him: nothing.  Literally nothing except lying awake at night, aware that one day Achilles intends to murder him too.

But then it's Nun Time again, as Carlotta tries to grapple with the children's loss and provide spiritual comfort even as she continues testing Bean (since Achilles is gone).  Bean, of course, doesn't care for religion.
Well, if compassion didn't work, sternness might.
I would snark about how this is our beacon of refinement and civilisation, except that her version of 'sternness' is explaining what the tests are actually for, how there's a vast world of humanity of which Rotterdam is a tiny fragment, and Bean might yet go to  School in space and learn to fight off the alien hordes.
"The whole human race, Bean, that's what this test is about. Because the Formics--" 
"The Buggers," said Bean. Like most street urchins, he sneered at euphemism.
Unless our pioneering xenobiologists have literally given the aliens the scientific name 'Buggers', that is the euphemism, Card.  Accept that you got called out on your homophobia and move on with your life.

As soon as Bean hears about going to space, he asks if he can start over, and Carlotta gives him a second set of tests, designed not to be completed in the allotted time, although of course Bean does, with near-perfect scores.  She gives him the full six-year-old tests next, and although he lacks the life experience to fully understand the questions, he still does better than anyone else she's ever tested.

Carlotta becomes suspicious, and questions Bean more about the revolution in street life, whose ideas these were, and bit by bit he reveals that he was the one who suggested it to Poke, whose only mistake was choosing Achilles.  (One more time: Poke's first words on hearing Bean's idea were to assert she'd already had the same idea but she didn't trust any bullies to stay bought.  Poke was 100% right about everything.)
"You mean because he couldn't protect her from Ulysses?" 
Bean laughed bitterly as tears slid down his cheeks.
But remember, Bean is a cold, calculating robot incapable of fully engaging in normal human emotions.

Carlotta pieces it together quickly, and realises Bean mostly wants to go to space to get away from Achilles.  She's torn since she knows Achilles isn't necessarily disqualified from Battle School just because he murdered a kid.  Unlike Stilson, they wouldn't even have to cover this one up!  Bean insists that only one of them should go to space, since if they're together Achilles will murder him, and Carlotta hopes that if she can just get Achilles off the streets, that will be enough to properly civilise him.
Then she realized what nonsense she had been thinking. It wasn't the desperation of the street that drove Achilles to murder Poke. It was pride. [....] It was Judas, who did not shrink to kiss before killing. What was she thinking, to treat evil as if it were a mere mechanical product of deprivation?
In case it wasn't clear yet, Achilles is our new Bonzo, and therefore unsuited to saving humanity; only to being given a rare and valuable leadership position in the Battle School games for a period of extended and nonlinear time.

Carlotta invites Bean to stay with her while she has his tests processed for entry to Battle School, and we go back to the crew, for Sergeant's only POV section of the book, where Achilles appears the next morning, saying that he couldn't stay away.  Poke and Bean are gone, and Sarge does his rounds of town, picking up rumours, until he hears they pulled a body out of the river.  He finds the authorities still with her body, checks under the tarp, and identifies her as Poke, murdered by Ulysses.  On hearing this, Achilles reluctantly agrees that Ulysses has to die, and sends Sergeant out to spread the message:
"Let it be known on the street that the challenge stands. Ulysses doesn't eat in any kitchen in town, until he faces me. That's what he decided for himself, when he chose to put a knife in Poke's eye."
But of course Sarge didn't tell them how Poke died, and so immediately realises that Achilles was the one who really killed her, but he goes along with it anyway, for his own survival and that of the rest of the children.
She was like Jesus that Helga preached about in her kitchen while they ate. She died for her people. And Achilles, he was like God. He made people pay for their sins no matter what they did. 
The important thing is, stay on the good side of God. That's what Helga teaches, isn't it? Stay right with God.
It can be hard to keep track of exactly how we're supposed to interpret the references to Christianity in these books, but presumably this is meant to be a grievous misunderstanding that nevertheless illustrates how the wisdom of the Bible can fit to a variety of circumstances even when it's being twisted by the uneducated.  I dunno.  The point is, Sarge doesn't turn Achilles in, and so life for the urchins can be presumed to continue in the direction it's been going since he assumed power, so with any luck they'll have conquered Europe in a month.

Next week: we begin to unravel the mystery of Bean the Tiny Ultragenius.

---

*A substantial credit also goes to the TV show Supernatural.  I missed large portions of seasons 2/3/4, but I started watching again when angels and demons were going on, and I got curious as to what the 'real' story of Lucifer was, because I had never read the Bible.  (Turns out there isn't one?)  This kicked off my grand exploration into deuterocanonical Biblical interpretations and the broader Lucifer mythology and long story short I ended up an avid follower of Fred Clark's work on the Left Behind books, and that's the actual reason we're here now.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapter two, in which Bean is a singing muppet

These posts are actually proving a little trickier than I thought, if only because there are fewer things that agonise me in this book.  So this feels a little heavy on the recapping, relatively speaking.  We'll see if that improves in future.

(Content: violence against children, starvation. Fun content: Bean Bunny, I kid you not.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 25--39
Chapter Two: Kitchen

The featureless plane of dialogue this week is Carlotta speaking with Helga, manager of the local shelter kitchen, whom we also haven't met yet.  Helga bemoans the way the bullies prevent the smaller children from ever getting into the kitchen, or brutalising them later if they do manage to sneak in, but reports that this has suddenly changed.  It's a glimpse forward into the middle of the chapter:
"I mean, can civilisation suddenly evolve all over again, in the middle of a jungle of children?" 
"That's the only place it ever evolves."
That's deep, dude.

Bean spends the next few weeks being unobtrusive in the crew, because he has no more brilliant ideas despite being an ultra-genius and the only child capable of grasping how much better life could be in the slums.  He knows Achilles is still watching him, and suspects he plans some revenge for the way Bean originally told Poke to kill him, but he also figures he's powerless enough that there's nothing he can do about that if Achilles does decide to get his murder on.  Bean can even be pragmatically dismissive of his own life, which is something I haven't seen often in a protagonist.

Achilles keeps them up until last light practicing their bully-swarming tactics, advising them on how bullies are likely to fight back and react.  Poke continues to act as crew boss, which Bean thinks is a further indication of her stupidity, because she fails to recognise how powerless she is, unlike Bean does.  No consideration given to whether, maybe, Poke is also acting in the way she thinks will best protect her by keeping the matriarch position that she's held.  (Spoilers: when Poke dies, the kids do in fact grieve for her, indicating that she did still have their support and they may have been one of the factors keeping her alive until then, since no one wanted to risk provoking her crew and their bricks.)

The next morning, they deploy in soldierly fashion, with Poke's 2IC Sergeant taking the most dangerous role as bait.  They head to the kitchen lineup and Sarge slips into line just in front of a bully that Achilles points out, and Bean reverse-engineers the decision to determine that Achilles picked the strongest bully without any friends around, so they won't get into a brawl when they take him down.

The bully is shocked that Sarge would provoke him, gives him a shove (to the side), and Sarge intentionally sprawls into the next bully in line, then pulls the cunning "He pushed me into you" maneuver.  He bluffs well enough that the two bullies snap at each other ("Watch yourself, skinny boy"), and Achilles chooses that moment to leap in and start berating their target for pushing "my boy" into "my friend", and before the second bully can say he's not Achilles' friend, the crew hits their target's legs and pass loose cobblestones to Achilles, who bricks the downed bully.
The others in line backed away from the fight. This was a violation of protocol. When bullies fought each other, they took it into the alleys, and they didn't try for serious injury, they fought until supremacy was clear and it was over. This was a new thing, using cobblestones, breaking bones. It scared them, not because Achilles was so fearsome to look at, but because he had done the forbidden thing, and he had done it right out in the open.
Once again, we've got a character astonishing their enemies so badly that they're incapable of even speaking a word of protest against his magnificence, but this still bothers me less than Ender wowing Battle School, again because Achilles is supposed to be scary to us.  Evil wizard; yes good.

Achilles signals Poke to bring the crew into the line (but she's still totally not important or a leader, y'all) while he rants at the other bullies about how they can disrespect him all they want but if they harm his family "some truck's going to come down this street and known you down and break your bones", a"s he has declared just happened to the downed bully, "right here in front of my soup kitchen!"  The "my" is a challenge, Bean tells us, and as he continues to rant, the other bullies say nothing, keeping their eyes too much on the little kids who tripped the first kid.  We don't really get a sense of numbers here, although there are apparently bullies enough that they can eat all the food the kitchen offers.  And no one homeless over age 13 comes here either, because this must be as close a parallel to Battle School as possible.  I'm not sure how I feel about that; maybe if they specified that there were other shelters around but this one was just for children it'd fly smoother for me.

They at least don't win with a single ambush and rant; Achilles gets right up in the face of the most-belligerent-looking bully and then they floor the next-ranked-down bully.  Achilles doesn't brick this one, just threatens to and then sends him to the back of the line as a show of dominance.  Before anything else can happen, Helga opens the door and Achilles is there to thank her for feeding "my family".  They get in, they eat their soup as fast as possible, stash their bread, and prepare to book it before any of the bullies start thinking about retribution, but not before Achilles can talk about how terrible the 'truck accident' was, and the need for a guard and a light at the door to keep the kids safe.  Bean can see that Helga is waffling, so he turns on maximum Adorable Street Urchin to thank her for feeding them and keeping them safe.

Then they book it to avoid the bullies, and while Helga puts in new precautions (lights, a guard cop), the bullies do not in fact embrace Achilles' new world order, that day or in the weeks that follow.  Although Achilles can still bluster his way into the kitchen every day with the crew, they still have to hide afterwards.  Something else that the first Ender books could have done with more of: the brilliant character makes a prediction about things, pulls off an audacious feat, and doesn't actually get the result they claimed.

So Bean pulls another Adorable Street Urchin move in line one morning: he asks another bully, in front of Helga, why he doesn't bring his family to the shelter.  Helga is delighted by the idea that other bullies keep 'families', and agrees it's a new rule that 'families' eat first.  Achilles is displeased with Bean for taking this initiative, but buys the argument that they'll be safer if the other bullies are busy trying to win over their own kids, and Bean thinks the probability he'll get murdered some day drops a little.

Bean subtly persuades Helga.

So now we properly meet Carlotta the nun, who's come to find the great civiliser.  She's a Nun On The Edge; her order doesn't like that she works for the I.F., but she's threatened to try to revoke their tax/draft-exempt status if they stop her, and she fully expects to get kicked out when the war ends.  Carlotta gives Card the desperately-needed opportunity to gets lots of theological references in the books, opening with stuff about God putting strength in humble places, Jesus the son of a carpenter, et cetera.  She's never yet sent anyone to Battle School, but she's got some kids into school and her early successes are graduating from college, so that ain't bad for a vocation.

Without getting into Shadow of the Hegemon too much, the things about Carlotta are thusly: I actually really like her character.  She's a good person, she's got a sharp mind, and she is never, ever awed by Bean or anyone else.  She's a woman whose attractiveness will never be discussed at all, unlike the gratuitous hot nun of Speaker's first chapter.  But she is also Bean's 'mother' (not literally) and she will never in these books be important for any reason except as a satellite to Bean's story: she nurtures him, sends him off, investigates him, rescues him, guides him, and eventually (ongoing spoiler warning okay y'all) dies in the next book literally because the villain wants to hurt Bean.  She gets some great dialogue, but her treatment is 100% devaluation and marginalisation of women as accessories for men.

And because two (counting Petra) Strong Female Characters is the extent of the weight Card can bear, she is introduced in contrast to Helga, who runs the soup kitchen and is a babbler.  Helga talks like a one-scene witness in a police procedural who needs to establish the 'realism' of her character immediately with run-on sentences and bad diction and then get out of the way to make room for the protagonists.  She recaps events from her own perspective, how Achilles has brought order and compassion to the streets right in response to seeing bullies fight in the kitchen line, since she doesn't think he could possibly have been involved in Ulysses' savage bricking.

We also get this self-righteous gem, the first of the Shadow retcons:
"...little Bean, it was true, I didn't know how he had muscles enough to walk, to stand, his arms and legs were as thin as an ant--oh, isn't that awful? To compare him to the Buggers? Or I should say, the Formics, since they're saying now that Buggers is a bad word in English, even though I.F. Common is not English, even though it began that way, don't you think?"
Shazam, the aliens are henceforth evermore referred to as formics.  I wonder if Card would tell us that this, too, was not about 'bowing to the prudes' who noted that he named his evil alien horde with a homophobic slur, but to improve the clarity of the intent of his artwork by preventing misunderstandings among new readers who wouldn't grasp the subtlety of whoops I've stopped caring.

Carlotta comes to see the children line up, sees Achilles' injury, and knows Battle School won't take him unless it can be repaired.
Few adult men were good fathers. This boy of--what, eleven? twelve?--had already learned to be an extraordinarily good father. Protector, provider, king, god to his little ones.
Carlotta's standards could use some improvement.  I mean, 1) Achilles hasn't protected them from anyone for weeks, if ever; 2) we've heard about no shows of affection towards the kids, only worshipful rituals where they offer him shares of their bread each morning; 3) the kids are used to getting beaten and otherwise abused by adults, so their own standards for 'good fatherhood' are pretty fricking low.

 Achilles refuses to leave his family, ever, so Carlotta agrees to meet them in the alleys to teach them a bit.  Achilles agrees, noting that none of the kids can read, and she reflects that he probably can't either.
But, for some reason, [...] the smallest of them all, the one called Bean, caught her eye. She looked at him, into eyes with sparks in them like distant campfires in the darkest night, and she knew that he knew how to read. She knew, without knowing how, that it was not Achilles at all, that it was this little one that God had brought her here to find.
She shakes this notion off immediately, and I continue (as I have from the beginning) to find it all needlessly twee.  Nice phrasing, no idea how to picture that imagery, nothing added to the story from this incident.

Bean stays quiet during 'school', hiding his multilingualism and math skills, luxuriating in just listening to her, "in the sound of high language well spoken", because Bean is a street kid and therefore still absolutely buys into the hierarchy of appropriate grammar and punctuation that sets the academically-educated apart from slum dialects.

After a week, he screws up; she passes out a multiple choice 'Pre-Test' and he starts circling answers before she's begun guiding them through, thus giving away his reading and other skills.  Carlotta catches him, looks it over, and demands that he finish, though he tries to backpedal.
"You did the first fifteen in about a minute and a half," said Sister Carlotta. "Please don't expect me to believe that you're suddenly having a hard time with the next question."
Carlotta is my favourite.  (Though, really, she might consider why Bean is hiding his brilliance and not call him out where everyone can here him

After the lesson, Sarge confronts Bean about knowing how to read, about not teaching the rest of them, and rather than explain that he didn't want to get murdered for being a danger to Achilles, Bean takes off for a day.  He's vulnerable, as a known 'son' of Achilles, since most bullies are having a hard time keeping children loyal to them and so are still resentful of the new hierarchy.

Bean nevertheless sneaks around to watch other families and realises that Achilles doesn't make the common mistakes, ruling through fear and punishment instead of being their smiling god.  (Not an intentional WTNV reference.)
Poke had chosen right, after all. By dumb luck, or maybe she wasn't all that stupid.
DO YOU THINK, BEAN?  This is the only time he considers this; forevermore he will think of poor sweet stupid Poke who was kind instead of smart.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Because she had picked, not just the weakest bully, the easiest to beat, but also the smartest, the one who understood how to win and hold the loyalty of others. All Achilles had ever needed was the chance.
Poke has realised that Achilles still bears a grudge against her, and she loves him the way all the kids do, so Bean hopes that maybe the emotional rejection Achilles shows will be 'revenge enough'.  (Nope.)  But while he mulls this, Bean overhears some bullies talking about how Ulysses is out of the hospital and looking for revenge, and how they hope he kills Achilles outright and they can leave his kids to starve, so he heads back homeward to report on the danger and we out.

Next week: Poke gets fridged and everyone is still smarter than Bean thinks they are.