(Content: violence, death threats, abusive family environment.)
Chapter Two ("Peter") begins again with the Unlabelled Unset Dialogue of the Powers That Be, who have observed the brutality that Ender just unleashed and are trying to decide what it means. They were, apparently, still observing this happening, but the analyst protests that he can't be sure what to read into it since he doesn't have the spinal monitor dealy. Also, worldbuilding name-drop:
"He was thorough. He didn't just beat him, he beat him deep. Like Mazer Rackham at the--"
"Spare me. So in the judgment of the committee, he passes."
"Mostly. Let's see what he does with his brother, now that the monitor's off."It's a bit of a clunker, that reference to Mazer Rackham, but it could probably be much worse. We'll find out shortly that Mazer saved humanity in the last war with the aliens, and is essentially the inspiration for this whole 'perfect general' system they run. More terrifyingly, they don't think they know why Ender killed Stilson, but they're pretty sure they're cool with it, and now want to see what happens when he goes home to his volatile and violent brother. But first, this boggling passage:
"I went back through the tapes. I can't help it. I like the kid. I think we're going to screw him up."
"Of course we are. It's our job. We're the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive."So: they can look at one child murder another and their response is not merely 'Huh', but in fact 'Gosh, he's so innocent and we're really going to ruin him'. I don't--
Ender is at home; Valentine is expressing sympathy that he's apparently been kicked out of the military screening program, and Peter arrives munching PB&J and looking like every grown-up's idea of a "beautiful ten-year-old boy". Ender doesn't notice his brother's perfectly-shaped features, we're told, because he's only ever interested in identifying anger or boredom in Peter, "the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain". So, for whatever reason, apparently Ender has been getting tormented for quite some time now by his brother, and there has been no intervention from anyone. I'm not sure how that meshes with the earlier implication that the bullies at school wouldn't touch Ender for fear of soldiers appearing out of nowhere, but this is what we're told. I guess the totalitarian military government does rank familial privacy over the salvation of the entire species, which is in turn ranked over the lives of random children. Anyone is welcome to try to figure out how this is consistent.
Peter is angry that Ender kept his monitor until age six (he lost his at four; Valentine at three). He notes that he's not being monitored anymore for pain or threats; I'm no longer sure what this means, but presumably he feels free to do worse than he's done before. Peter cheerfully suggests they play 'buggers and astronauts' and digs out the toy masks and rayguns, telling Ender he'll have to be the bugger. Valentine nonchalantly suggests she's going to try to contact their parents, and Peter counters that neither of them are near home or going to answer the phone, which--okay, apparently parents in this world really just don't take any kind of precautions, since even if no one in the house was a nascent killer, the implication is that if anything else goes wrong, all three kids are without any assistance.
Ender briefly recollects that their mother wasn't happy about the toys, but their father had successfully argued that the war wouldn't go away if you didn't play war games and that playing these games might give them a better chance of surviving invasion. There are a variety of reasons this is stupid in the specific (yes, let's simplify the realities of logistics and morality in engaging in what might be a war of extinction with an entire civilisation down to 'shoot the bad things'; clearly this can't harm anything and will teach valuable life skills) and so I think it's safe at this point to conclude that the parents of these three genius children are themselves as sharp as a bag of hammers.*
Ender puts on the alien mask and immediately starts trying to get into character. He wonders if alien children on their world put on human masks to play games, and wonders what they call humans. Humanity calls them buggers because they look like bugs, with their exoskeletons; he decides that they call us soft and oily folk 'Slimies'. Points given for consistency: Ender's signature move is trying to understand how the aliens think, right from the start. Points withdrawn: he didn't do a damn thing trying to understand how Stilson was thinking prior to their fight. Ender doesn't appear to try to understand what's going on inside any human's brain (I'm thinking ahead here of many, many failures in this area) but he's obsessed with the aliens' minds. I hadn't noticed that until just this moment, and I'm not sure if it's a consequence of the other themes or something entirely new. Neat. (And more than a little disturbing.)
He manages to get into character and call Peter a 'Slimy' once before Peter decks him and declares that, having caught an alien alive, they must now vivisect him for science. He quickly drops the facade of the game and whispers to Ender--trapped on his back with Peter kneeling on his chest--about how he could just keep pressing down and let Ender die and claim it was an accident. Valentine says she'd tell; Peter threatens her too; Valentine declares that she has secret computer programs set up so that in the event of her death they will automatically send letters to various people stating that her accidental death was in fact Peter's doing. She's implied to be making this up, but that's a pretty good improvisation on the spot.
So, obviously this family is fucked in all of their heads. More to the point, this is the best chance we have to explain Ender's bizarre mindset: he defaults to fighting for his life because his brother makes death threats, and he assumes no one will come help because, well, no one ever comes to help. This isn't the perfect explanation that it might be--if the monitor really was making Peter hold back, then he presumably hasn't been making death threats until now--but maybe it explains why Ender is convinced he's alone: no one has ever stopped Peter. Ender knows that the military has been listening in on his life, and apparently Peter has been allowed to continue with minor torments at a whim. Maybe this isn't some kind of inborn trait; maybe this is what the monitor has taught him. Top notch job, faceless military tyrants! Are you familiar with the Heisenberg Principle?
Peter abruptly lets Ender go, moves like he's going to attack Valentine, and then falls over laughing at his own joke. Well:
"Not a joke, a game. I can make you guys believe anything. I can make you dance around like puppets." In a phony monster voice he said, "I'm going to kill you and chop you into little pieces and put you into the garbage hole." He laughed again. "Biggest suckers in the solar system."Peter's argument is that he's not doing it for the violence, but for the fun of exerting power. Ender and Valentine insist that they (and only they) know that Peter is "a murderer at heart"; I'm not sure if that's agreeing or not. This comes up again later in the Shadow books, the idea of being "a murderer at heart", and that might be an interesting philosophical discussion except ENDER LITERALLY MURDERED A KID LAST CHAPTER. I don't even know how to begin parsing the cognitive dissonance and the hypocrisy here, for Ender to be sneering at his (total jackass, no question) older brother for having an impure soul while Ender himself still has a dead boy's blood on his shoes. (He does; he tries and fails to intimidate Peter with it.)
Their parents arrive and commiserate with Ender for having been kicked out of the program and gush about how wonderful it is that they now get to keep all three of their kids, causing Ender more Third Angst. That night, Ender lies in bed and Peter stirs, wanders to Ender's bedside, and Ender fears that Peter's about to kill him, but instead he whispers:
"Ender, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know how it feels, I'm sorry, I'm your brother, I love you."And then goes back to bed, and Ender cries himself to sleep. When I first read this, I was totally on board with Ender's side; I was convinced that Peter was a terrible monster and that this last outpouring was some kind of playacting--not precisely a lie, but a futile attempt to pretend to be a better person. Looking back, Peter is still awful, but he seems a lot more sympathetic, given that he too has grown up in this deeply awful society and family environment, trying to manipulate everyone to either adore or fear him. It's bad enough feeling like the new baby will replace you in your parents' eyes; it's got to be worse when the new babies might grow up to be the salvation of the entire world.
Nothing excuses Peter's actions, but like Ender, he mostly seems like he desperately needs some kind of therapy. (And indeed that's sort of what his plotline will be about in this book. Ender, not so much.) It's very hard to see him as the biggest monster in the room, even when he's tormenting and torturing his siblings, when Our Hero murdered someone that afternoon. The implication it seems like we're left with is not that Peter is too violent, but that Peter wants to be liked, while Ender just wants to be left alone. Peter has social skills (in the way that sociopaths do) while Ender can't tell the difference between someone pushing him around for fun and someone trying to kill him. Of the two of them, Peter actually seems much more normal to me, a conflicted mess, and that apparently makes him useless as a heroic general.
Our agreeing with this depends on us caring more about Peter's cruelties (mostly off-page, even later in the book) than Ender's actual atrocities. And I'm more than a little freaked out that Card thinks he can sell this. Protagonist-centred morality is one thing in a narrative and another when it apparently permeates the entire world and affects interplanetary military strategy.
Tune in next time to see one of the Faceless Nameless Voices show up in person, Ender's mother be the only reasonable person in the room and so automatically shushed by the menfolk, and basically everything continue to be awful forever. I promise to find some way of making it more entertaining by then, because the stark horror is kicking is way earlier than I expected.
In the meantime, have a corgi in a scarf.
*Card eventually noticed the same apparent contradiction, and the Shadow sequels will retcon/explain that their parents are in fact similar calibres of geniuses but played daft for their kids, both to make them feel better (I have freedom because I can outsmart my guardians) and to make the kids underestimate them, thus retaining some advantage. This family is messed.