(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.