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.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapter one, in which Bean is not as smart as he thinks he is

Welcome back, gentle reader, to the blog of presumptuous, holier-than-thou mudslinging against the bestselling and most critically acclaimed literature of our times.  My novel-writing month was excellent, thank you.  I'm 50K words into a new book about a girl who takes career advice from Satan and the formerly-indentured gay dragon pianist she recruits to help her burn down the capitalist oligarchy.  I'm pretty excited about it.  But the first draft of that probably won't be done until the end of the month, and it would be excessive to leave this blog bereft of content for so long, so, without further ado or due consideration of making good decisions, let's just leap into the Parallax Novel (read: author's own fanfiction) of the first book I leapt into more than a year ago: Ender's Shadow.

(Content: starvation, death, child abuse. Fun content: WHERE CAN SHADOWS HIDE?)

There is no terrifyingly oblivious introduction to this book, only a foreword that explains how it happened: Card remembered that linear time exists, that there are 3000 years of history to cash in on between Game and Speaker, and so we get Bean's story.  Okay, I lied about leaping directly in.  First, an anecdote.

I once met Orson Scott Card, when he came to a local bookstore on the launch tour for this book.  My copy of Ender's Shadow was signed by him, so I know the date: September 29, 1999.  (The inscription to my mother, who took me to the signing and thus introduced me to his books--for which I forgive her--reads "In the light, where can shadows hide?", which I don't hate as much as you might think.  Sure, it's pretentious nonsense, but it's a neatly generic phrase that he could scribble inside basically any fan's book to make it something more than his giant signature.  It's not, like, actively offensive.  That's pretty good for Card.)

Card was, in person, pretty normal.  He said he figured everyone there was going to read the book anyway (it wasn't a huge group), so rather than read aloud a passage, he just talked.  He told us about the many failed drafts of the Ender's Game movie script, which he had to veto because they insisted on giving Ender a love interest.  He talked about how Ender killing Stilson had been cut from the script, because it didn't work as well onscreen and it gave more weight to killing Bonzo later.  He also said that he expected to keep going with these: he would write a second book with Bean, and then go back and write another book from Petra's perspective.  That ended up not happening, of course; as of the next book, Shadow of the Hegemon, Petra is a main character in this series.  And, IRONIC SPOILERS, as of the third book, Shadow Puppets, she is relegated to being Bean's love interest.  Apparently no one vetoed that.

But I don't hate Bean and Petra as a couple, partly because Bean is a vastly better character and person than Ender.  Bean gets justifications: he's wicked smart because of MAD SCIENCE, but he's grievously lacking social skills and empathy, and those things hold him back.  Bean makes actual mistakes, which Ender could never be allowed.  Bean gets to be wrong, and grow, and in spite of his supposed coldness, Bean appreciates people in a way Ender never, ever approaches.  So, with the awareness that this is still a Card novel and reliably terrible, now let's get to it.

Ender's Shadow: p. 15--24
Chapter One: Poke

We're back once more to the realm of disembodied voices.  This time, it's Sister Carlotta talking to her liaison in the International Fleet.
"You think you've found somebody, so suddenly my program gets the ax?" 
"It's not about this kid that Graff found.  It' about the low quality of what you've been finding. [....] Your kids are so malnourished that they suffer serious mental degradation before you even begin testing them." [....] 
"They also represent possibility, as all children do." 
"That's the kind of sentimentality that discredits your whole project in the eyes of the I.F."
Carlotta is a nun of the Order of St Nicholas (Santa!), travelling the slums of Europe, supposedly searching for Battle School candidates, but more accurately trying to save street children, get them food and shelter and education, and using I.F. cash to do it.  I once again credit Card's craft if not any of his ideas; he quickly anchors us at the same time that Graff has started to focus on Ender, without making a big deal about it.  (Although I do wonder how it is that Carlotta heard about Ender.  Does Graff do a weekly email blast rating children he's seen lately from best to worst?)

But the rest of the chapter happens in the slums of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands (called the International Territory in the future, for reasons that are never fully explained).  We meet a girl named Poke, nine years old, leader of a crew of even younger children, watching out for dangers like cops with magnetic whips, who harass and abuse homeless kids in her city, and for the older children, eleven to thirteen.  The adults ignore children, but the older kids, "bullies", thieve from the younger ones all the time, because it's safer than stealing from stores and they get a power rush.

While on watch, Poke spots a tiny kid (she figures age two) who has climbed a garbage can to survey the street.  Poke immediately picks him out as smart, from the alertness in his eyes as he watches, but he's also obviously starving, days from death at best.  Poke thinks he's wasting his time, and we get the absolutely cartoonish level of deprivation in the slums:
If he wanted to survive, he should be following older scavengers and licking food wrappers behind them, getting the last sheen of sugar or dusting of flour clinging to the packaging, whatever the first comer hadn't licked off.
I'm in no position to talk--I'm writing this as I eat peppered broccoli from the farmers' market next to my building--but this has always struck me as taking the 'clinging to the edge of survival' imagery too far out from reality.  Like, you could try to get by on twice-licked pastry wrappers, but I'm pretty sure simple caloric math means you're going to last a day.  What was he eating a week ago that he's alive now?

Poke is briefly accosted by a pair of twelve-year-old prostitutes, whom she attempts to placate with half a stale pastry she's saved for exactly this kind of extortion.  They end up fighting over it, the fight ends when one flees, and they immediately cease to exist in the narrative, since their purpose is complete.  It's a step up from Card's past devotion to tell-not-show.  Poke turns around to see the tiny child, whom she pushes down, but he gets back up anyway.
"No, you little bastard, you're not getting nothing from me," said Poke. "I'm not taking one bean out of the mouths of my crew, you aren't worth a bean."
Guess who the kid is!  He asks why she submits to extortion, and suggests that they should instead hire a bully: get one big kid to agree to protect them in exchange for steady food.
"You think I never thought of that, stupid?" she said. "Only once he's bought, how I keep him?  He won't fight for us." 
"If he won't, then kill him," said the boy. [....] "You kill one bully, get another to fight for you, he want your food, he scared of you too."
He argues that a crew could easily take down a bully with coordination, if they tripped him up and had bricks ready to murder with.  Poke starts out hostile, thinking she'll have to kill him for being so defiant and uppity, but the plan entices her, especially the prospect of getting into the local kitchen.  Poke's self-appointed second-in-command, Sergeant, sarcastically says the kid is, after all, worth "one damn bean", and so he is named.  Poke reluctantly gives him a half-dozen peanuts she's been saving, which he eats one at a time, because he's too weak to make a fist himself.  Fed, Bean goes back to watch from his garbage can, telling Poke again to be ready to kill the first bully if he's too dangerous.

Bean is, predictably enough, a jerk inside his head, but at least this time it makes sense.  He's contemptuous of Poke on one level, thinking she's too compassionate and not ruthless enough to keep herself well-fed, but also acknowledges that he'll only survive because she's compassionate enough not to murder him now that she's taken his idea on.

He's also contemptuous of all the other children.  He came up with his carrot-and-stick hired-bully plan as soon as he understood the way of life in the slums, but couldn't figure out why no one else did it, so he focused on learning everything he could (including Dutch and IF Common) to figure out what he had failed to take into consideration.  He ultimately concluded that there was no other factor, and the other kids hadn't already implemented his plan because they were just too stupid.

Let the record show that Poke literally said she had already thought of Bean's plan but didn't trust that any bully would stay bought.  Bean isn't smarter; he's just too arrogant to believe his plan will fail to convert everyone.

Bean watches in anguish as Poke picks what he thinks is a terrible target: a bully with a damaged leg, called Achilles.  (I'll save you all a huge re-learning headache by saying now that it's pronounced in French style, 'ah-sheel', which the book fails to mention for several chapters, at which point it was too late for me to change the way I read it.)  Bean wanted a big burly guy who wouldn't think too much, but figures Poke has gone for the easy target, since he's disabled.  Poke overacts her subservience, alerting Achilles to the ambush, but with his limp, he can't get away in time.  (Pure coincidence: I'm also walking with a limp today, due to a bike crash.  Please do not ambush-murder me on the street.)  Bean climbs down and across the street again by the time they've bricked him onto his back.
"You get us into the food line at the shelter." 
"Sure, right, I will, I promise." 
Don't believe him. Look at his eyes, checking for weakness. 
"You get more food this way, too, Achilles. You get my crew. We get enough to eat, we have more strength, we bring more to you. You need a crew. The other bullies shove you out of the way--we've seen them!--but with us, you don't got to take no shit. See how we do it? An army, that's what we are."
Let the record further show that Poke specifically tailors her recruitment speech to Achilles in a way that Bean never addressed.  She picked a bully who survives by wits and sells him more with the logic than the threat of force.  She runs with Bean's ambush idea to the point of declaring her crew to be an army that can continue to pick off bullies at will.  Poke never gets credit for any of this, is my point.  Not even in Bean's later reflections on his childhood.  Card continues his theme of writing smart, capable women and failing to acknowledge their capabilities at all.

Achilles asks why they've never done this before, and catches her eyes flicking over to Bean.
"Kill him," said Bean. 
"Don't be stupid," said Poke. "He's in." 
"That's right," said Achilles. "I'm in. It's a good idea." 
"Kill him," said Bean. "If you don't kill him now, he's going to kill you." [....] 
"The next guy won't have my bad leg," said Achilles. "The next guy won't think he needs you. I know I do. [....] It's your crew, not mine [....] This is my family.  These are my kid brothers and sisters. I got to look after my family, don't I?"
Bean instantly determines that Achilles has instantly won the little kids over, by offering them the sense of love and belonging that they hunger for, and therefore it's too late to kill him, so he has to stop Poke as she prepares to brick him one last time.  To recap, these kids were totally on-board with bricking him savagely about five minutes ago, but the instant he says 'you're my siblings' he's untouchable.  This is Ender-level magical charisma we're dealing with, but with a vitally important twist: it's in the hands of the villain.  So, while I still think it's unearned in a narrative sense, it's never bothered me as part of the story.  Villains don't have to explain their magic; that's what makes them scary.  But, at least retroactively, he works for it with his actions for the rest of the chapter.

Poke tries to tell Bean to shove off (Bean's gamble on her compassion failed after all, weird, almost like he's not as smart as he thinks he is) but Achilles turns it into a test of authority by declaring that, crew or not, Bean is family now and therefore Poke can't exile him unless she's willing to kill Achilles as well.  Poke relents.

Achilles starts checking his injuries and laughingly praises the kids who just stoned him to the ground.  He starts learning all their names, apologising when he fails.
Fifteen minutes later, they loved him. 
If he could do this, thought Bean, if he's this good at making people love him, why didn't he do it before? 
Because these fools always look up for power. People above you, that never want to share power with you. Why you look to them? They give you nothing. People below you, you give them hope, you give them respect, they give you power, cause they don't think they have any, so they don't mind giving it up.
This is a pretty good passage, even if it's a little weird for Bean to draw this conclusion after a day in which he's forced his way from starvation into a place of honor in a new street militia/family by demanding respect from people stronger than him.
[Achilles] reached into his pocket, took out the most incredible thing. A bunch of raisins. A whole handful of them. They looked at his hand as if it bore the mark of a nail in the palm.
You're a four-year-old science experiment in the Dutch slums and you don't know what a grape is, Bean; why are you making references to stigmata?

Bean gets the first raisin, as "the one who brought us all together", and Achilles jokes about how holding it in your mouth never turns it back into a grape ("What's a grape?"), and Bean thinks about how this, too, will win them away from Poke.  Poke, he explains, never gave them so much food from her own stash at once, because she never had it, but Bean is sure that they will fail to understand this and will think only of how much more generous Achilles is, "because they were stupid".  Bean hasn't been right in his estimations of anyone this chapter, but he does seem like he'd get along well with Peter 'You're All Sheeple' Wiggin.
So, on the one hand, Bean is supposed to be really bad at people; on the other, he's our viewpoint character and he's making sweeping tell-don't-show proclamations about the nature of humanity.  It's a little hard to decide if we're supposed to think he's right, here, but I suspect we are.  Still, death of the author, and I'm quite happy to take this as evidence of Bean's various failings.  Let's see how long my optimism lasts.

Next week: the Card classics: savage child violence, easily-manipulated adults, and nuns.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, introduction, in which we solve a mystery by studying its genetics

It's been a hell of a ride, hasn't it?  This is the final Speaker for the Dead post, and July is a novel-writing month, so I wouldn't count on a lot of new blog content during that time.  After that, I may return with Ender's Shadow, the retelling of Ender's Game from Bean's perspective, which I still consider to be Card's best novel (I just think that's a lower bar than I used to).  Or maybe I'll move on to something else entirely.  Maybe something good?  Or at least better?  Erika the Blogqueen has contemplated doing a series on Mistborn; I've got like eighteen books partly read lying around my apartment and half of Wheel of Time that I inherited from a former roommate.  We'll keep you posted on our post-July posting plans.

(Content: ableism, partner abuse, racism. Fun content: y'all like point-form lists, right?)

Speaker for the Dead: p. ix--xxii

So... Speaker for the Dead, eh?  What was up with that?  It takes some careful planning to create a story where all of the problems exist solely because people would literally rather die than ask a direct question.  As I belaboured back in chapter fourteen, Ender was in a much better position to play an antagonist who proves to be a friend than he was to be the hero, yet he's presented to us as the hero because he's the only one who isn't afraid of the truth.  This needs explaining, and in the spirit of Speaker for the Dead, I'm going to argue that we can figure out what caused this atrocity by tracing back its evolutionary history to a catastrophic plague the 1980s.
Speaker for the Dead is a sequel, but it didn't begin life that way--and you don't have to read it that way, either.  It was my intention all along for Speaker to be able to stand alone, for it to make sense whether you have read Ender's Game or not. Indeed, in my mind this was the "real" book; if I hadn't been trying to write Speaker for the Dead back in 1983, there would never have been a novel version of Ender's Game at all.
Interesting premise.  Let's summarise Speaker for the Dead by chapter:

  1. Pipo rescues young Novinha from sadness by taking her in as his daughter (in a weirdly romantic relationship with her pseudo-brother), then is horribly murdered by the mysterious primitive aliens.
  2. Ender Wiggin is super-smart and philosophical and a three-thousand-year-old war hero, and people have very strong opinions on the morality of being an alien because his ultra-brilliant sister wrote an essay about fjords a couple of months ago.  He also owes a mysterious debt to someone.
  3. Novinha hides all the science that somehow led to Pipo's confrontation and death, and also breaks up with her pseudo-brother to protect him, but also summons Ender Wiggin to cross the galaxy to solve the mystery that she believes must never be solved.
  4. Ender Wiggin's girlfriend is the internet and he's super rich and he carries the last survivor of his accidental genocide. 
  5. Ender Wiggin breaks up with his newlywed pregnant sister to cross the galaxy in a private star cruiser in hopes of protecting aliens.  His best student figures out the truth and devotes her life to serving his sister's family.
  6. Novinha's children are terrible.  Ender arrives and immediately astonishes the mayor with his knowledge and history, learns that Libo died after all, scares children because the Bishop has told them he's the devil, and befriends one of Novinha's kids.
  7. Novinha's children are terrible.  Ender enters their home, subdues them by physical force or argument, refuses to leave, and tells them how foolish they are for not understanding their little brother.  Novinha's dead husband used to beat her.
  8. Novinha comes home.  Ender tells her he knows everything, she's a terrible mother, and he will redeem her.
  9. Ender's literal internet girlfriend Jane reveals that all of Novinha's kids were fathered by Libo.  Libo's kids, Miro and Ouanda, are bad at science.
  10. Ender befriends the local monastic sect because he was besties with their founder two thousand years earlier.  Jane distracts Ender, so he switches her off for a bit.
  11. Being cut off from Ender for an afternoon utterly devastates Jane and she spends the equivalent of 50,000 years in recovery, then sparks an interstellar police action.
  12. Ender is super rich, Novinha is obsessed with him, and her children are fractionally less terrible now that they're obsessed with him as well.
  13. The aliens demand to meet with Ender because he is everything.  Ela reveals to Ender that she's secretly been doing real science for years.
  14. Miro and Ouanda take Ender to meet the aliens.  Ender tells them that they're terrible scientists, and the aliens then reveal everything to him because he's so important.
  15. The government locks down the planetary computers, but they save some vital information because Ender is special.  Ender makes the entire colony sympathise with a dead abuser by explaining that he couldn't have kids and his wife cheated on him.
  16. Everyone tells each other everything now that Ender is there.  Miro wants to run away to the forest to marry his sister, but grievously injures himself instead through terrible science.  The colony rebels because Ender is so special that he can completely prevent any consequences to rebellion for the next thirty years.
  17. The aliens tell Ender everything else they haven't said.  Ender teaches them how not to be terrible warmongering savages, signs a contract, and ritually murder-metamorphoses an alien volunteer to seal the deal.
  18. Miro is permanent disabled and shoved in temporal storage for later.  Ender gets the girl, brings civilisation to the primitive aliens, learns that his sister is uprooting her family to come meet him, and revives the last survivor of his war crime, clearing his conscience.
Now, on the one hand, this synopsis does make it clear that there wouldn't be much of this book left without Ender there.  On the other hand, without Ender's Game as background, Ender literally never earns anything--he's just a brilliant rich straight white male ex-soldier poet-priest whose very presence elicits awe even from people who claim to hate him.  I'm curious if anyone has read Speaker and not Ender's Game, and whether they found Ender remotely sufferable.  I find him aggravating and I've read about all the harsh childhood and suffering and abuse that is supposed to have turned him into who he is in this book.  (I've even read Ender in Exile, y'all.  Never let it be said I'm not dedicated.)

Back to the introduction.  Card explains that the 'speaker for the dead' concept is the result of his dislike for eulogies that erase anything uncomfortable about the dead person and therefore make them less like real people in memory.  He insists that the only story worth telling (despite it being unknowable) is the story of what the person meant to do with their life.  I'm a little unclear on how this is possible--surely, if the true story is unknowable, then the speaker has to take a guess at it, and in doing so they still erase the real person in favour of an explanation that makes sense to them and is therefore "much easier to live with", which is exactly the problem he has with 'normal' eulogies?

This really gets to the heart of the problem, because Card insists that intentions are all that matter to morality, but even he admits that we can never really know what a person's intentions were.  In that case, the logical conclusion seems to be that we can never know how moral a person is, and maybe then we end up at the traditional Christian 'judge not', but Ender's assertion seems instead to be that everyone has good intentions all the time and therefore they are ultimately good even if shallow outsiders think they're 'bad' just because they do stuff like start bar fights and abuse their families.

The next point is interesting:
So when I thought of the idea of an alien species which, in order to reproduce, had to slaughter each other in terrible intertribal wars, it was only natural that I decided the story should be told from the viewpoint of a human scientist studying them.  Only gradually, over several years, did I develop the idea of the piggies and their strange lifecycle, and the intertribal war receded in importance--so much so that I didn't need to make it an issue in Speaker for the Dead at all.
This explains a fair bit--the wars (which play some kind of vital role in Little One society by allowing males to go tree without having to be selected by the females, circumventing their usual honor-related system) seem like they should be a bigger deal, and everything that happened to Pipo and Libo would make more sense if the Little Ones specifically required speedy, violent death, but that wasn't the story Card wanted to tell.  He also couldn't quite bear to get rid of it (and it does allow for that great scene where civilised white Ender teaches primitive little Human about non-aggression treaties and peaceful alliances), so it stayed in some vestigial form, an offshoot that evolution doesn't really need but hasn't had cause to eliminate either.

Originally the role was the Singer of Death, but Card's wife pointed out that all of his acclaimed works had some kind of music thing going on, so he ditched that and attached instead to the only one that didn't: the short story of Ender's Game.
What if Ender Wiggin comes to an alien world as a Speaker of Death, and accidently gets caught up in the mystery of why these piggies are slaughtering each other? It had a delicious symmetry to it--the man who, as a child, destroyed one alien species now has a chance to save another.
On the one hand, I think Card made the smart choice here by having the ultimate threat be 'scared humans with guns' rather than having to understand why the primitive aliens keep slaughtering each other when it's actually harmless.  On the other hand, the story we have got is basically 'humans colonise a planet wrong, so Ender teaches them to colonise it right and the primitive natives are much better off, and this makes other humans angry'.  At no point do we seem to have any hope of 'humans discover the aliens are actually handling their own affairs just fine and if they'd stop trying to force the aliens into human institutions we'd all float on okay'.  One way or another, regardless of whether the endless reproducto-war is centre stage or an afterthought, we're pretty sure that Ender needs to save these people from their ignorance.

Card set up the deal for Speaker of Death in 1983, only to find:
...that the book was unwritable.  In order to make the Ender Wiggin of Speaker make any kind of sense, I had to have this really long, kind of boring opening chapter that brought him from the end of the Bugger War to the beginning of the story of Speaker some three thousand years later!  It was outrageous.  I couldn't write it.
Card then details the short conversation that abruptly led to him having a contract to do a novel of Game before Speaker, but I'm left confused.  That's quite literally what this book does for the first few chapters: show us Ender of three thousand years later, rich and respected and forgotten, and tell us all about his childhood achievements.  What made the original 'outrageous' draft so different?  (Card acknowledges that Ender Wiggin wasn't really a full character until he fleshed out Ender's Game, which is a fair point and presumably made a difference in trying to approach Speaker, but that's not a problem with the story of Speaker, that's a reminder that you have to know your characters before you can write them, or you'll be visibly flailing to figure out their deal on the page.)

With Ender's Game written, he approaches Speaker again, starting with Ender arriving on Lusitania to speak the death of "an old lout named Marcão", but two hundred pages in found it hollow, even after adding Novinha, Pipo, and Libo.  Card was on a trip with a friend and former student, Gregg Keizer, who took some time to read the manuscript of Speaker.
He had many good ideas. Of course, most of them dealt with small fixes for problems in the manuscript as it now stood. One comment he made, however, illuminated everything for me. "I couldn't tell Novinha's kids apart," he said. "I couldn't remember which was which."
This, Card tells us, was the key.  Novinha's kids were "nothing but placeholders", like a younger sister in another novel whom he would forget existed for hundreds of pages at a time until he finally decided to retcon her into dying in infancy, because I guess the death of a baby sister is exactly the same as her never existing?  But he couldn't just cut her kids:
Because I wanted Novinha to be voluntarily isolated, I had to have her be otherwise acceptable to her neighbors. In a Catholic colony like Lusitania, this meant Novinha needed to have a bunch of kids.
Wait, what?  There's an entire sect of teacher-administrators on this planet whose whole deal is that they are married without children.  (I'm not entirely sure what to make of the assertion that Novinha is and had to be voluntarily isolated, given that we're told she was isolated from a young age because no one took the time to understand her and for the rest of her life no one tried to stop Marcos from beating her--Card's insistence that Novinha literally signed up for physical abuse still horrifies me.)
Once you've read Speaker, of course, you'll wonder what the story would be without Novinha's children, and the answer is, It wouldn't be much!
Novinha's children, in order of relevance:
  • Miro: informed almost-protagonist, fails to get useful information, gets permanently injured trying to run away to marry his sister, gets put in storage so people don't have to deal with him being all physically disabled at them.
  • (Honorable mention because she's not Novinha's kid: Ouanda: like Miro, but female and therefore less important.  Does basically nothing of consequence; exists mostly to assist Ender, be told she's screwing up, and create angst for Miro.)
  • Ela: runs the actual household and does the actual science.  Gives Ender vital information a few times and tells everyone that all of their problems are Novinha's fault.
  • Olhado: gives Ender vital information several times and likes him first.  Records key incidents with his cyborg eyes because a pocket camera just wouldn't feel sci fi enough.
  • Grego: poster child for broken household, violent, needs proper physical discipline from a strong man.
  • Quim: religious zealot, shows that even Ender's least-rational fanatical enemies like his work.
  • Quara: like Grego, but female and therefore less important.  Quiet, needs signs of affection from a strong man.
Card goes on to complain that genre heroes never seem to have parents and we never see them grow up and become parents either, and he's not wrong about that.  Showing protagonists as part of a larger family makes a big difference and we could do with more.
The romantic hero is unconnected. He belongs to no community; he is wandering from place to place, doing good (as he sees it), but then moving on. This is the life of the adolescent, full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay and bear the consequences of error. [....] Only when the loneliness becomes unbearable do adolescents root themselves [....] many fail at adulthood and constantly reach backward for the freedom and passion of adolescence. But those who achieve it are the ones who create civilization.
Card decided that, if he couldn't write a parent's perspective, he could at least write the perspective of an adult who feels responsibility to a family, and thus this book was an opportunity to show"the miracle of a family in transformation".  This, at least, explains a little more of why Novinha is such a non-entity in her family.  Card had already decided that the caring adult was Ender, and Novinha was 'voluntarily isolated', so there was no hope of her actually doing anything for her kids.

This undertaking, Card wants us to know, was haaaaard:
Most novels get by with showing the relationships between two or, at the most, three characters. This is because the difficulty of creating a character increases with each new major character that is added to the tale.
Characters A and B just have an A-B relationship, he explains, but add C and you've got A-B, A-C, B-C, and A-B-C.  And we change all the time depending on who we're dealing with, so A might be a very different person with B than with C, and so each one is multiplied and it's so hard.
What happens, then, when you start with a family with a mother, a dead father, and six troubled children, and then add a stranger who intrudes into the family and transforms every one of them?
In this book?  Apparently you reduce half of them to caricatures and ignore the relationships that aren't with Mighty Whitey.  Quick, someone tell me how Ela's relationship to Miro changes as a result of the transformative impact of Ender's presence on both of them over the course of the story.  (I'm pretty sure they talk to each other... once in the whole novel?  Was it once?)
I sat there with Gregg, assigning some immediate and obvious trait to each of the children that would help the reader keep track of them. Oh, yes, Olhado is the one with the metal eyes; Quara is the one who says outrageous things after long silences; Grego is the violent one; Quim is the religious fanatic; Ela is the weary mother-figure; Miro is the eldest son, the hero in the others' eyes. These "hooks" could only serve to introduce the children--I'd have to develop them far beyond that point--but having found those hooks, I had a plan that would let me proceed with confidence.
I'm not sure I have anything left to say about how far these characters have been developed beyond the lines above that I haven't already said over the last six months and three weeks.  Perhaps it will suffice that ppfffbbfbttthaaaaahaaaahahahahaha.

Card notes as well that Jane wasn't in any of the original outlines for Speaker; Ender's computer uplink wasn't sentient (I guess he personally hacked all the things?), but Card started the idea and just enjoye it too much, finding that she brought Ender to life.  This is one of those moments where someone almost has an epiphany and then just barely misses it and runs in the opposite direction: Jane made Ender more interesting because Jane is interesting and Ender's just got a lot of backstory.  Sure, Jane's computer powers are a plot device, but no less than Ender's magical intuition.  Jane could have made a fascinating protagonist, knowing everything and incapable of doing anything without human assistance.

She did apparently get spun off to play a major role in the third book, which came out of nowhere when Card's agent told him she had sold the 'Ender trilogy' to an English publisher.  Card immediately realised that, in the same way that he had turned the Speaker idea into a book by jamming Ender into it, he could turn his concept for another story, 'Philotes', into the third book (Xenocide) by the same process.

Just in case anyone got their hopes up, I'm not reading Xenocide.
Besides--and here you are about to learn something truly vile about me--having a third book would mean that I didn't have to figure out some way to resolve the two loose threads that I knew would be dangling at the end of Speaker: what happens to the hive queen? And what happens to the fleet that Starways Congress sends?
Gotta say, not sure that's more vile than the stuff you happily publish about them disgusting homosexuals, Card.  I mean, sure, self-deprecation can be comedy gold, but it kind of plays better when you're not actually terrible?

There's more rambling that doesn't strike me as vital to our purposes, except that Card loops back to the same thing he said in the last intro, that the story in the book is the result of the reader interpreting and transforming with their mind the materials that the author has put there.  "I hope my tale is true enough and flexible enough that you can make it into a world worth living in."

Flexible, you say?  Flexible.  Okay then.  Let's bend it.

What would Speaker for the Dead become if we cut Ender out of the story and split his part among other people?
  • Chapters 2, 4, and 5 get ditched entirely, along with their obsession with sniping at Calvinist theology that matters so little for the rest of the book.
  • Chapters 6 through 8 can get enormously condensed, because we don't need any time to fawn over the pageantry surrounding Ender's arrival or his invasion of the Ribeira house.
  • Chapter 9: Someone else has to be doing the actual investigation.  I nominate Ela, the only person on the planet who actually does her job (unlike Novinha the UnScientist, or Miro and Ouanda the Missionaries).  The only thing Ela needs to discover in order to set everything off is that she and her siblings were fathered by Libo, not Marcos.  There are a score of ways this could happen, since she's a biologist.  For whatever reason (her insistence on studying Descolada in case it comes back, for example, or her desire to ensure that none of her siblings are going to die from Marcos' disease) she realises that Libo was their father, and this begins unravelling everything she thought she knew about her family history.  Much like Ender, once she knows Novinha didn't hate Libo, she has to figure out why else she would try to cut him out, and steadily comes back to the way Descolada files have been locked away.
  • Chapter 10 can get cut.  So can 11, if scientists elsewhere in the galaxy catch Miro and Ouanda's meddling with the aliens without needing Jane's help, because at least one other scientist also does their job.
  • The rest of Ender's meddling is substantially reworked.  I'm going to suggest that Ela tries to engage Miro with some of the things she's discovered, but he is too removed from the family and focused on his work to particularly care.  Ela argues that he's just repeating what their mother did, hiding in science because she rejected her family, he says it's not his responsibility to fix her mistakes (he considers his future family with Ouanda to be the only one he needs to care about), and we get into those same issues Card was talking about with adolescent heroes never dealing with consequences or families, and the way adulthood means dealing with the situation you are in rather than running off to somewhere fresh.  Miro considers literally moving into the woods with Ouanda and cutting humanity off, since no one else can come through the fence without their clearance.
  • There is still a need for the critical point where Ela confronts people with the truth--the colony knows it will be locked down, and Miro resolves to run away, but Ela drags him and Ouanda and Novinha together (maybe others? Ye Must Love Reapers?) to reveal all that she knows.  Miro and Ouanda have the stark choice to either flee or to try to understand and fix things like responsible adults.
  • Miro, who is his mother's repetition, stays with her and tries to hash things out about why she did everything she did (they both broke so many rules of good science for bad reasons) while Ela and Ouanda go into the woods to resolve the science mystery.  (They agree that if Ouanda comes back with answers, they will rebel to defend the Little Ones, but if they get ritually murdered like Pipo and Libo, Miro will go to stand trial without her to protect the colony.)  As in the book, they know the government has left them with all-or-nothing options and so they, like Ender, toss aside their not-even-half-assed attempts at secrecy, but keep to other anthropological good practice like 'Don't remake other societies in your own image'.  They're also damned sure going to tell the Wives that they think they could, with permission, save the lives of the Mothers with a scalpel, some thread, and a mashed yam, rather than let the males keep that fact to themselves.
  • I don't particularly care if one of them has to carve Human open to seal the contract or not.
  • In a final optional twist, Novinha realises her childhood dream of becoming a Speaker for the Dead to help humanity understand the Little Ones, but not before she (with Bruxinha's permission, if she mentions Libo's infidelity with her) Speaks the death of Marcos herself.
At this point, we've covered the same ground in substantially less time and with fewer asides to talk about how much Calvinists suck and partner abusers are sometimes just misunderstood, which should leave some room to deal with the arrival of the deadly Evacuation Fleet, rather than leaving that for another book.

So now we've got Card's own account of why the hell Ender was in this book: he didn't actually realise he needed to write the other characters until someone read his manuscript and told him to write the other characters.  He was more prepared to write an entire 'prequel' novel about Ender's childhood than he was to figure out what anyone on Lusitania was thinking or doing.  They didn't matter until they were set pieces, the boy with cyborg eyes and the girl who doesn't talk and the young woman trying to be sister and mother and scientist all at once.  He got halfway through the first draft before he acknowledged that they needed some attention.  He already knew which character he identified with: the white guy from another land.

And that, as best I can tell, is what the hell was up with that.  /speakerpulpit

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter eighteen, in which Card hurriedly scrawls To Be Continued across the page

I don't see any useful way of splitting this chapter up, and practically nothing actually happens, so we're just going to go for a huge sprint to the end.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel, because the tunnel is on fire.

(Content: ableism, incest, sexualisation of minors, misogyny.  Fun content: Stephen Hawking's wikipedia biography tells this book's story better than it does.)

Speaker for the Dead: p. 356--382
Chapter Eighteen: The Hive Queen

The final intro-excerpt is from the Speaker for the Dead's latest publication, The Life of Human.  It's a fairly straightforward depiction of life inside the mothertree, drinking sap and occasionally making a dash for the light when the tree opens, until one day he's fast enough to make it through and discovers there is an entire new world out there, transitioning from the first life to the second life.  There's nothing particularly super-empath about this section, so I assume the magic words have to come in later (unless this is another case of Ender just intuiting information rather than asking the Little Ones what it's like inside the mothertree, or asking them to relay the words of Human's tree).

What does get me is that this is another case of a Miraculously Brilliant and Heartbreaking publication from someone only naming themselves Speaker for the Dead, and it's got to be a matter of public record that the only Speaker on Lusitania is Andrew Wiggin, and maybe someone might take another crack at piecing together the way all three of the great Speaker texts were anonymously published on planets where a guy named Andrew Wiggin lived, and the first such Andrew Wiggins were the brother of Peter the Hegemon and of Valentine who was Demosthenes and maybe could a historian connect some dots please.  (It's presumably a retcon, but according to the Shadow series, everyone found out who Locke and Demosthenes were within a couple of years of Ender and Valentine leaving Earth.)

We return to Miro, whose malice towards science has been turned back around on him, because he rapidly heals from all temporary damage but also rapidly runs into a layer of permanent damage that Dr Navio can do nothing to address, presumably because he's run out of anti-witch salt.  So, in three days Miro can sort of walk, sort of talk, like "a very healthy man who is a hundred years old", but he's going to stay that way forever.  Science.  (I'm not sure who Navio's reference point is; my grandmother is ninety-nine (and a half) and while she won't be running any marathons, she likes going for walks, she's as sharp-minded and articulate as anyone I've ever met, and for her birthday her friends got her a personalised billiard cue because she's a pool shark.  So his idea of 'very healthy for 100' seems off, to me.)

There's a nice big heap of disability tragedy porn as everyone thinks about how lucky he is not to be bedridden for the rest of his life, how awful he feels listening to his own voice slurring, how he understands why none of them want to stay home with him now that he doesn't need constant attention, and he doesn't want them to stay either; he wants to be out asking the Little Ones direct questions at last.  There's no actual explanation for why he can't do that--he's at least partly mobile, and they should be able to create some sweet mechanised wheelchairs in the future, not to mention speech-generating devices that could help with his intelligibility (he could probably even use his own voice, given all the audio notes they've saved).

Speaker was written and published in the mid-1980s, pretty much exactly the same time that Stephen Hawking was publishing A Brief History of Time and also got his first speech-generator equipment.  (I strongly recommend reading up on Hawking; his life story hits a lot of the themes that this book goes for, loss and recovery and incomparable brilliance and bringing enlightenment to the masses and complicated marriage dynamics, but without the huge shovelfuls of racism and colonialist apologism.)  I don't know if Card was making any intentional reference, or if he had any particular interest in Hawking's work, but I feel like the publication of mass-market science by a man with significant motor and verbal disabilities should probably have made it easy to find out what the cutting edge of assistive devices looks like and try extrapolating that three thousand years into the future.  My point is that Miro's life here doesn't suck because he's disabled now; Miro's life sucks because Card and all of his characters have no interest in helping Miro maintain any connections to his family, job, or lifestyle.

Card is at least upfront about some of this--Miro relays questions to Ouanda for her to ask the Little Ones, but apparently Ouanda doesn't value her colleague now that they're not going to bang, soshe gets direct answers to his questions and leaves them at that rather than ask follow-ups or probe issues.  For that matter, the Little Ones have been running around Milagre for years even when it was illegal; why aren't any of them just coming to see Miro at home and chat for a few hours?

Miro is still creepy as hell himself, since privately in his own mind he still wants to run away with Ouanda and live in the woods and Lannister it up, but he knows that she is "a believer, a belonger. She couldn't possibly violate the only universal human law."  I am deeply distressed that Miro casts 'not wanting to bone your sibling' as the product only of bowing to popular belief and not, like, a reasonable reaction to a messed-up hypothetical.  I don't think peer pressure is the issue here.  (I'm always unsettled when people talk about morality like it's the result of popular vote or only external sources, as in that old favourite 'how can you be moral without God', and I'm just saying that the main places I hear this concept come from are conservative Christians and that Miro is our only confirmed atheist in the cast.)

In a neapolitan twist of horror, Miro compares his situation to that of his mother, since Novinha and Libo boned even though it was against the rules (extramarital affairs are apparently just like incest), but concedes that there is a difference (yay) because Libo was able-bodied and "not this useless carcass" (goddammit).

Enough of Miro.  Ouanda's helping the Little Ones develop phonetic alphabets for Males' and Wives' languages,Quim is trying to figure out how to translate the gospels, and Ender and some construction workers are colonising the hell out of them by installing plumbing, computers, teaching them more agriculture, and trying to domesticate cabra to pull plows.  (Apparently they can have a computer terminal with full galactic library access but a mechanical plow is out of the question.)
At the same time, Ender was trying to keep them self-sufficient, inventive, resourceful. The dazlle of electricity would make myths that would spread through the world from tribe to tribe, but it would be no more than rumor for many, many years. It was the wooden plow, the scythe, the harrow, the amaranth seed that would make the real changes, that would allow piggy population to increase tenfold wherever they went.
Misogyny Update: medical intervention to allow mothers to survive to adulthood is disgusting colonialist meddling that might completely overturn their society in unpredictable ways, but technological intervention to increase their total population by 1000% is just neighbourly.

Ela is frankensteining away in her lab, creating anti-Descolada plants, animals, and insects from Earth roots, because clearly what this fragile ecosystem characterised by unprecedentedly weird and unspeakably fast mutation really needs is a bunch of foreign species introduced in rapid succession--I mean, they managed to dodge that amaranth had the potential to choke out literally all other vegetation on the planet, so clearly there's no risk making dozens of new species intended to neutralise the infection that is the foundation of all plant, animal, and insect reproduction in the world.  Novinha, for her part, is working specifically on creating something to let the hive queen and the formics resist the Descolada, which sounds borderline impossible, so I'm going to guess it'll take seven weeks.

More disgusting ableism through Miro, who considers himself "less human than the piggies were [....] he was varelse now".  Remember when this book started and I thought the Hierarchy of Exclusion was sort of adorably gratuitous and illustrative of Card's ego?  I hate it.  I hate it so much.  It has never once been actually used to bring someone closer together, to say 'you think these people are incomprehensible but you just don't understand them'; its sole purpose is voting people out of personhood.

One day Miro finds that he's accidentally somehow cut through multiple layers of security into Ouanda's confidential science files, but rather than admit it, he just steers the conversation towards the same subjects, and they talk a little more like old times, about actual science.  Then the computer starts feeding him everyone's files (except Ender), and becomes intuitive to his commands rather than needing exact typing every time.  When he tries to tell the mayor, Ender shows up instead and says it's not a program helping him, but a person, an impossibly fast person with very few friends.
"Not human," said Miro. 
"Raman," said Ender. "More human than most humans."
What the hell does that mean?  How are we grading humanness in this galaxy?  By my tally, here is our current in-universe ranking of humanity from most-human to least:

  • Ender Wiggin
  • People Ender Wiggin likes and/or has claimed ownership of
  • The immortal consciousness of the internet
  • Practically everyone else
  • Pig-shaped alien genius-savages who turn into trees when you cut them open (or are devoured by their young)
  • Bug-shaped alien psychics with absolute control over billions of drone-bodies they birthed themselves
  • People with disabilities
Miro snarks that he doesn't want a companion or a pet, Ender snaps at him not to be a jackass and to show her absolute trust and loyalty, because her only other friend once showed her an hour's thoughtless disloyalty and things were never the same again after that.  Miro realises that Ender is passing a dear friend over to him, and suddenly the whole thing gains a new level of creepy; a man giving ownership of a woman to another, younger man.  Not sold on the creepy?  Miro turns back to the terminal when Ender leaves, and there's a hologram:
She was small, sitting on a stool, leaning against a holographic wall. She was not beautiful. Not ugly, either. Her face had character. Her eyes were haunting, innocent, sad. Her mouth delicate, about to smile, about to weep. Her clothing seemed veil-like, insubstantial, and yet instead of being provocative, it revealed a sort of innocence, a girlish, small-breasted body, the hands clasped lightly in her lap, her legs childishly parted with the toes pointing inward. She could have been sitting on a teeter-totter in a playground. Or on the edge of her lover's bed.

Jane is smart enough to first make it clear that she's ungropeable, and Miro pauses to think about how no one will ever sleep with him because he's gross now.  She goes on about all she sees and hears in the galaxy, and Miro admits that he wants to leave Lusitania, and there's a bunch of ironic flirtation because I guess that's the only way a boy and a three-thousand-year-old philotic consciousness containing the knowledge of all humanity which is currently projecting itself in the ghostly holographic shape of a girl can really get to know each other.

Elsewhere, Ender and Olhado go exploring--he lets Olhado drive the shuttle, presumably because there are no pilots on Lusitania and also Card was exhausted after naming all those other characters.  (Plus Olhado can plug his eye into the computer and, I don't know, pilot with his mind or something; it's not clear.)  They're surveying for a spot to release the hive queen.  We get a quick breakdown of Ela's findings, which all just validate her initial guesses: land life on Lusitania consists of reeds/flies, riverbank grass/snakes, grass/goats, vines/birds, vines/worms, bushes/bugs, and trees/Little Ones.
That was the list, the whole list of surface animals and plants of Lusitania. Under water there were many, many more. But the Descolada had left Lusitania monotonous. [....] Lusitania, like Trondheim, was one of the rare worlds that was dominated by a single motif instead of displaying the whole symphony of possibility. [....] Lusitania's climate and soil cried out a welcome to the oncoming plow, the excavator's pick, the mason's trowel. Bring me to life, it said.
I don't even know what to say to that; apparently bringing landscape to life means plowing fields clear, digging up the rocks you like best, stacking them into huge buildings, and letting loose a scourge of your favourite alien critters that have been genetically engineered to kill the molecular symbiote of the entire world.
Ender did not understand that he loved this place because it was as devastated and barren as his own life, stripped and distorted in his childhood by events every bit as terrible, on a small scale, as the Descolada had been to this world. [....] He fit this place as if he had planned it. The boy who walked beside him through the grama felt like his true son, as if he had known the boy from infancy.
Ender's really an excellent poster boy for appropriation and colonisation; all he has to do is assert how strongly he feels something and suddenly 'I was severely bullied' is indistinguishable from 'mass extinction-level event', and 'I really like this kid I've hung out with for a few weeks' means he can just assert legitimate fatherhood (without asking Olhado).  I don't mean to suggest that bullying is a minor issue, or that it's not wonderful to find a person and immediately feel a comfortable, trusting bond, but the parade of Ender declaring his personal experiences and feeling equal to everything and everyone else he meets is goddamn exhausting.

They find a spot for the hive queen, and Jane reports (businesslike) that Novinha's ready with daisies that the formics can drink from to ward off the Descolada.  Ender is sad that she doesn't joke with him anymore, but reflects instead on his new family and how much he loves his almost-kids and how sad he is that Miro's life is irrevocably stolen from him and no one can do anything to help.  Olhado comes up with a solution: literally ship him away for a while, Mazer-Rackham-style, to bring him back in time for the Evacuation Fleet to arrive.  (Olhado says Rackham only experienced two years, while Ender's Game said eight, but, again, Card fucking hates calendars.)
"Miro's the smartest person in Lusitania, and the best. He doesn't get mad, you know. Even in the worst of times with Father. Marcão. Sorry, I still call him Father." 
"That's all right. In many ways he was."
Card's genetic-continuity fetish also means that it's magnanimous to declare that the person who was actually around his kids and to some degree helped raise them might have some claim to fatherhood comparable to the man who secretly provided a gamete and then never spoke to them again if he could avoid it.  Also, the kid whose most noteworthy recent decision was to cross an agony field with only the protection of alien grasses because he was afraid he wasn't going to be allowed to marry his sister--this is the guy you want making decisions in thirty years, but you also want to make sure he only has a couple of years' time to reflect and mature before he gets those responsibilities?  This sounds like a good idea... why?

As they return home, Ender admits that he is the Xenocide, and Olhado is amused because, in his estimation, saying the Speaker was the Devil made for good sermons, but if The BISHOP had said Ender was the Xenocide the people of Lusitania would have murdered him on the spot.
"Why don't you now?" 
"We know you now. That makes all the difference, doesn't it? Even Quim doesn't hate you now. When you really know somebody, you can't hate them."
Apparently, when you really know somebody, anything terrible they say and do ceases to be terrible?
"Or maybe it's just that you can't really know them until you stop hating them." 
"Is that a circular paradox? Dom Cristão says that most truth can only be expressed in circular paradoxes."
This chapter was written specifically to cause me pain.
"It's just cause and effect. We never can sort them out. Science refuses to admit any cause except first cause--knock down one domino, the one next to it also falls. But when it comes to human beings, the only type of cause that matters is final cause, the purpose. What a person had in mind. Once you understand what people really want, you can't hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can't hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart."
This would be a vastly more compelling argument to me if I felt that I had to be absolutely pure in order to draw any kind of moral conclusion.  Suffice to say that I don't.  I mean, I don't think hatred is inherently productive or valuable either, but I don't feel any particular need to try to identify with the perspective of people who hate me for whatever reason, philosophy or politics or religion or orientation.  And as I think we've seen, the stuff that Ender thinks is a universal desire includes 'expanding to engulf the whole of existence', so I don't think he's a good source on universal human nature either.

(As a side note, Ender states that even if he had known what he was doing in the final battle, he would still have destroyed the formic homeworld, thus undermining the central conceit of the book and all the vast secrecy around his training.  Olhado asks if she might not now get revenge; Ender says he's as sure of it as he is of everything, and admits he's gambling everyone's lives on it without so much as asking them.)

The next day, Valentine calls, twenty-two years older than when Ender last saw her.  She's coming to Lusitania--in the face of panic and anti-Little-One propaganda and the threat of the Descolada, she's revived Demosthenes, found out the fleet has Doctor Device, and they're leaving now, with all their electronic tracks covered by someone called Jane.  She, and Jakt, and their three kids, and Plikt.  Ender volunteers to send Miro to meet them and "make the last week of your voyage very educational", because apparently he figures Miro's two-decades-out-of-date information will be more valuable than, say, stopping to pick up an ansible transmission with a few years' worth of scientific notes and journal updates from the entire family?  He doesn't bother to ask Miro; Jane has already convinced him, and showed him the recording of Ender and Valentine's discussion, because privacy is still forbidden.  Ender is unsettled just to realise that Jane is now Miro's bestie more than his own, which is at least a taste of actually empathising with all the people whose privacy Ender has trampled every day for the last couple of decades.

Before he goes, Miro wants to know properly why Pipo and Libo died.  Ender says that it was an honor, but more to honor Leaf-eater and Mandachuva, and the only reason that the humans died instead was the Little One's I-kill-you-or-you-kill-me honor system.  Libo brought them the amaranth, but Leaf-eater convinced the Wives to allow a huge generation to be born, gambling that there would be food waiting for them when they left the tree.  (In this description, the amaranth wasn't the first technology that the xenologers gave the Little Ones--from flipping back through the book, it is possible that the first thing was the process for neutralising the cyanide in merdona root, then a bunch of other stuff like bows and arrows, then amaranth, then they killed him.)  For advocating this and being proven right, Leaf-eater was given the honor of getting sliced, but Libo refused.  Okay.  Sure.

But then we go back to Pipo and it's worse than ever.  Ender reports that Pipo's great discovery was that the plague that killed humans was naturally part of the Little Ones, "that their bodies could handle transformations that killed us".  Mandachuva's great achievement was concluding that humans were not gods, just an older and more experienced race with advanced tech.  So he was granted slicing, and asked Pipo to do it, and when he refused, tried to make Pipo's body undergo a transformation which they had literally just been told was fatal to humans.

God, I'm glad this book is almost over.
"There are worse reasons to die [...] than to die because you cannot bear to kill." 
"What about someone," said Miro, "who can't kill, and can't die, and can't live, either?" 
"Don't deceive yourself," said Ender. "You'll do all three someday."
How the hell is 'you'll kill someone someday' supposed to be heartening?

Miro leaves the next day, and no one likes hanging around at home for some weeks because they feel his absence.  Ender reflects on his own parents and suspects that they didn't hurt so much when he left, or want him back.
He already loved another man's children more than his parents had loved their own child. Well, he'd get fit revenge for their neglect of him. He'd show them, three thousand years later, how a father should behave. Bishop Peregrino married them in his chambers.
Not included: 'But Ender did not feel any hatred toward his parents, because deep inside he could find his own desire to abandon his children to a brutal military school and never see them again'.

Having reviewed all the science available, Ender lived with the Little Ones for a week while writing the Life of Human, and got reviews and input from Leaf-eater and Mandachuva (and they were to be planted within "a hand of hands of days" from Human's planting, so apparently all of this has happened in less than 25 or so days, unless the Little Ones have more than five fingers, meaning Novinha solved the Descolada for the formics in maybe two weeks, as opposed to my estimate of seven).  He invites everyone he likes out to Human's sapling, now three metres tall, and reads it to them--it takes less than an hour, and I wonder what all he has to say after the first five pages of larval form--a lot of interactions with the xenologers and blazed-out stumbling around Milagre in the middle of the night, I guess?
"Speaker," said the Bishop, "almost thou persuadest me to become a humanist."
I still don't get this.  First, why would understanding biology and alien cultures cause the Bishop (living next to aliens for decades) to abandon Catholicism in favour of a label that specifically excludes aliens?  Is he taking a subtle shot at Ender?  I think he's taking a shot at Ender and no one else is catching on.  I love meta-Bishop.
"This was why I called you here," said Novinha. "I dreamed once of writing this book.  But you had to write it."
Ender says she was important, both her scientific work and the way her family 'made him whole', thus making it appropriately clear that women support men who are responsible for actually achieving the things women aspire to.

Jane spams the galaxy with the book, and with the text of the treaty, and the images of Human being converted into a tree.  Most people think it's some kind of fake, or believe it but still think the Little Ones are too alien and terrible, but some buy into it completely and start protesting, start calling the fleet a Second Xenocide, and trouble spreads across the galaxy.  I wonder if maybe they should have tried doing that before they launched Miro into space in a time-dilation process that everyone compares to death.

And then they place the hive queen's cocoon in the ground in the spot Ender chose, next to some anti-Descolada daisies and a dead cabra, and fly off, and Ender sobs in his seat as he picks up on the philotic overflow of the queen's joy as she breaks free of the cocoon, feeds, lays the first dozen eggs, and starts to grow.

Next week: We interrogate the introduction to figure out what the hell was up with this book.