Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter three, which is much less terrible than previous chapters, or maybe I'm just getting inured to it all

So, for the sake of pacing, the first Book Club post on Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut will be next Sunday, not today.  All you dedicated people get for today is the next episode of Ender's Game.  How will you ever bear the deprivation?  I recommend lying back and being happy that you're not the one who has to pour over every word of this and try to figure out what Card was thinking and not-thinking at the time.  Also, there was a corgi in a scarf two weeks back which really does help quite consistently.

(Content: sexism, gender essentialism, reproductive coercion. Fun content: the mighty warrior Stefen Colbear.)

Ender's Game, p. 16--26
Chapter Three: Graff

This chapter's exchange on the Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue is brief and regards how much Ender loves Valentine ("our weak link" who "can undo it all"), and Graff's plan to ensure that she does not:
"I'll lie to him." 
"And if that doesn't work?" 
"Then I'll tell the truth.  We are allowed to do that in emergencies. We can't plan for everything, you know."
Excellent work, unaccountable military authorities!  I appreciate a we're-allowed-to-tell-the-truth-in-emergencies joke as much as anyone, but I think it's worth noting that your lies have, within the last twelve hours, resulted in the unanticipated murder of a child by another child and, within the last few years, probably psychologically and emotionally warped untold numbers of other children, so your continued casualness mostly reads as pure sociopathy.  I get using grim humour in order to stomach doing terrible things, but so far, given the way you've talked about your monitoring technology allowing you to experience the sensations and emotions going through these kids' heads, this entire testing process looks hideously gratuitous.  They really have not made it clear what made this last series of brutal events so important.  This should be the part where Graff explains it all.  (Spoiler: NOPE.)

It's the next morning, Ender is having breakfast and reflecting on facing Stilson and his gang at school.  At long last, it appears to have occurred to him that he can't really guarantee that they won't just beat the hell out of him in revenge today.  He's pretty sure they won't, but he's still afraid and doesn't want to go.  There's some plausible banter between the sons and parents, although Mrs and Mr Wiggin remain about as deep as a lunch tray--he's reading the paper and responding only when needled (Peter makes a joke about obviously getting all of his genius genes from mom); she's trying to convince Ender to eat more and he's suggesting she should hook him up to a breakfast IV.

The table beeps, meaning someone rang the doorbell, and the camera shows a man from the International Fleet, "the only military uniform that meant anything anymore".  Which is kind of strange, since later books and even later events in this book will make it clear that Earth still has a lot of big, well-equipped, highly trained militaries that aren't the IF.  Why don't those mean anything?  I guess because the IF gets to make shadowy decisions to let people die at their whim?  Also because they're in charge of maintaining the shields that prevent international nuclear attacks.  They have their fingers on the buttons that make all the other The Buttons irrelevant, which sounds like a good job to be in.

No one says it, but everyone makes it clear that they think the IF dude is here for Ender, which of course sets Peter off a bit, but that gets cut off when they reveal that Stilson is "in the hospital".
Ender shook his head.  He had expected someone from the school to come about Stilson, on an officer of the fleet.  This was more serious than he had thought.  And yet he couldn't think what else he could have done.
We've already belaboured everything else he could have done, with options heavy on 'running' and 'getting help from the many nearby adults'.  But no, the world's greatest strategic genius can only think of one hyperviolent way to solve his problem.  What the hell.  Anyway, the IF dude asks if Ender can explain himself, and Ender cannot, because "he was afraid to reveal himself to be any more monstrous than his actions had made him out to be".  Ender hopes they'll just punish him and get it over with.  This is the same kind of self-loathing (but lack of repentance) that Peter displayed at the end of last chapter, not that I'm surprised neither of them realises it.  THERAPY.  THERAPY FOR EVERYONE.

Time for some longer quotes, because this is another foundational chapter.  Card lays the groundwork early and thick.
 "We're willing to consider extenuating circumstances," the officer said.  "But I must tell you it doesn't look good.  Kicking him in the groin, kicking him repeatedly in the face and body when he was down--it sounds like you really enjoyed it." 
"I didn't," Ender whispered. 
"Then why did you do it?" 
"He had his gang there," Ender said.
"So?  This excuses anything?" 
"No." 
"Tell me why you kept on kicking him.  You had already won." 
"Knocking him down won the first fight.  I wanted to win all the next ones, too.  So they'd leave me alone. [....*] You took away the monitor," Ender said.  "I had to take care of myself, didn't I?"
Mr Wiggin says Ender should have asked a grown-up for help, but the officer cuts himself off and introduces himself as Hyrum Graff, director of the Battle School, and invites Ender to enter their program.  Mrs Wiggin rightfully freaks out and ironically asks if they'd be offering him a medal as well if he'd killed Stilson.  Ender asks why they're letting him in now.
"The final step in your testing was to see what would happen when the monitor came off.  We don't always do it that way, but in your case[...] It isn't what he did, Mrs Wiggin.  It's why. [...] It wasn't a charade, Mrs Wiggin.  Until we knew what Ender's motivation was, we couldn't be sure he wasn't another--we had to know what the action meant.  Or at least what Ender believed it meant."
I suppose that Graff is stopping himself from saying "we couldn't be sure he wasn't another Peter", reminding us of course that there is a vast difference between Ender, who dispassionately murders an incapacitated child in order to intimidate the others, and Peter, who threatens and torments his siblings to cope with his inferiority complex.  Those are clearly totally different things.  INTENT: STILL MAGICAL.

If I wanted to be charitable for a change, I'd suggest that Graff is pleased that Ender is thinking in terms of long-term strategy, but knows that they will have to school him in discipline and threat assessment and considering all tactical responses, but the book is going to remain pretty consistent on the idea that Ender's limitless willingness to destroy is exactly what they want.  I'm not sure why that's supposed to be so valuable, since there are lots of people obviously willing to destroy pretty much anything to win, and Ender's real gift is supposed to be his empathy, which he has tremendously failed to display in this incident.

Graff explains that Mrs and Mr Wiggin already gave their consent for Ender to go when he was born, so now it's just Ender's decision, since they only take volunteers for officer training.  There's some sales-pitching; Graff says that any student who's ever made it through first year at Battle School has become a commissioned officer, and none has ever retired from a position lower than CEO of an interplanetary ship, and also I guess when they hiccup they emit a flock of eagles?  It's pretty obviously the greatest thing ever for anyone, the only job worthy of Ender's time, and everybody will be ashamed to be so much less awesome when they meet him.


The only extant portrait of Commander Mazer Rackham.

Graff and Ender speak privately, and Graff admits that Ender won't be able to see his family again for a decade if he goes.  Ender privately thinks that this is a good thing because Peter presents a legitimate threat to his life.  Graff adds that he has seen enough of the monitor recording to know that Ender won't miss his parents, which brings up yet again: what do those monitors actually monitor?  Do they get feelings?  Are they straight-up telepathic bonds that let people hear his thoughts?  Because it's very weird that they seem to be able to read his mind but they still think they don't know how his brain works.
"You'd be amazed how sensitive the instruments are.  We were connected directly to your brain.  We heard all that you heard, whether you were listening carefully or not.  Whether you understood or not.  We understood."
Graff also says that Ender's parents won't miss him for long--not because they don't love him, but because they are Secretly Religious and have a complicated relationship with family size.  Dad, John Paul Wiggin (formerly Wieczorek) was seventh of nine children.
Nine children.  That was unthinkable.  Criminal.   
"Yes, well, people do strange things for religion.  You know the sanctions, Ender--they were not as harsh then, but still not easy.  Only the first two children had a free education.  Taxes steadily rose with each new child.  Your father turned sixteen and invoked the Noncomplying Families Act to separate himself from his family.  He changed his name, renounced his religion, and vowed never to have more than the allotted two children.  He meant it.  All the shame and persecution he went through as a child--he vowed no child of his would go through it.  Do you understand?"
Except not really, because John Paul and Theresa Wiggin are still religious (she's Mormon and tries to hide that she was born in Utah).  They gave their kids saints' names, and one of the things their religions agreed on was big families, which Ender simultaneously symbolises (a forbidden but permitted Third) and shames them for (because they dare not have more kids and they feel like they should).  What could be more fun than competing forces of cultural and governmental reproductive coercion?  This is all very interesting backstory and could make for a good premise for a book.  Too bad it won't be relevant ever again in this novel!

Graff further entices Ender by describing the Battle Room, the original concept from which the rest of this story sprawled out, but we don't need to cover that yet.  Ender asks if all the students are boys.
"A few girls.  They don't often pass the tests to get in.  Too many centuries of evolution are working against them.  None of them will be like Valentine, anyway.  But there'll be brothers there, Ender." 
"Like Peter?" 
"Peter wasn't accepted, Ender, for the very reasons that you hate him." 
"I don't have him.  I'm just--" 
"Afraid of him.  Well, Peter isn't all bad, you know.  He was the best we'd seen in a long time.  We asked your parents to choose a daughter next--they would have anyway--hoping that Valentine would be Peter, but mildly.  She was too mild.  And so we requisitioned you."
Girls: evolutionarily predisposed to not be useful.  And let's again be clear here, Valentine and Ender are both empathetic, but Ender sometimes chooses to be brutally violent and Valentine does not.  That's why they're taking him and not her.  I get that they only want soldiers who will commit to battle, but the case so far for Ender Wiggin being their greatest hope ever seems really patchy.
"Our tests are very good, Ender.  But they don't tell us everything.  In fact, when it comes down to it, they hardly tell us anything.  But they're better than nothing."
Stilson: dead because 'well, this test won't tell us much, but it's better than nothing'.

Graff goes on, saying that the IF has a much better fleet than they did eighty years ago when the aliens first ravaged Earth, but they need a general, and the only reason they defeated the Second Invasion was because they had the most brilliant commander in history, Mazer Rackham.  It's a pretty good speech, but I think this post has been quote-heavy enough already.  Card is a capable writer and he knows how to make this kind of propaganda and declamation shine.  (Backhanded compliment, but so it goes.  I do sincerely think these sequences are done well, though.)
"I'm afraid," said Ender quietly.  "But I'll go with you." 
"Tell me again," said Graff. 
"It's what I was born for, isn't it?  If I don't go, why am I alive?" 
"Not good enough," said Graff. 
"I don't want to go," said Ender, "but I will." 
There's no packing, just tearful goodbyes and dad promising to write and Peter shouting 'kill some buggers for me' and Valentine begging him to come back some day, and then they're gone.

While rife with the usual sexism and excuses for needless cruelty that suffuse the book as a whole, this chapter is easily my favourite so far, and pretty much where I think the book actually begins.  Chapter one exists so Card can make a statement about how personal virtue can excuse stunning atrocities, chapter two exists to try to convince us that Ender and Peter are radically different.  Chapter three gives us backstory, worldbuilding, and presents Our Hero with a real choice to jump at the call of adventure and try to save the world, or stay in that which is familiar and safe where people love him.  It's relateable, it's sympathetic, and it doesn't depend on us thinking that Ender was totally justified in murdering a bully.  If this novel were about the story instead of The Philosophical Point, this would be chapter one.

And I should note that Card agrees with me there.  I mentioned in comments previously that I once met Card; I was at a reading/signing when Ender's Shadow was published, and he was talking about the various iterations of the Ender's Game movie scripts that were cycling along.  He noted that, in the script, he'd had to cut Stilson because in a movie that level of violence wouldn't work for introducing the main character.  As much as I support the idea that books can tell stories that movies can't, I think it's important to note that books put us inside characters' heads and in movies we just watch them like they're other people.  In this, movies are vastly more like the real world than books are.  And I think there's a big point to be considered when the daring and brilliant opening chapter to your novel falls flat when presented in a format that more closely resembles reality.

Come back next Sunday for the first installment of the Book Club with chapter one of Cat's Cradle, and of course don't miss the unbearable writing of EL James in Erika's next Fifty Shades post this Thursday!

(Also, we appear to have adopted rot13 for ciphering spoilers on this blog, which can be translated on rot13.com if needed.  That's just for things that aren't Ender's Game, though; spoilers for the book are free game.  Stilson is dead, by the way.)

---

*This snips a passage about how Ender hates to cry and is ashamed to be seen doing so by his parents and a military man, because that is obviously a healthy sentiment to have been instilled in a six-year-old boy.  No one says anything about it--his father doesn't reprimand him for showing weakness--so how the hell did he get this idea established in his head?  Manly warfare?  Don't cry?  Who is teaching him these things before the age of six?

22 comments:

  1. "Girls: evolutionarily predisposed to not be useful"

    That really sums it up, doesn't it?

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  2. Manly warfare? Don't cry? Who is teaching him these things before the age of six?

    Peter has to have helped with this. But it wouldn't surprise me if all the schools taught it explicitly, given the society Ender lives in.

    They really have not made it clear what made this last series of brutal events so important.

    Frak if I know how they decided Ender in particular needed to kill Stilson - the magical monitor, I suppose. But otherwise it seems pretty clear.

    Card has technically said that nobody in the book chose to commit total genocide. And that seems more or less true (if we ignore the reboot/re-frame with Bean, as I feel inclined to do.) For a long time the people in charge didn't even accept the hypothesis that killing the Hive Queens would kill the whole species. But the military sent all their ships to attack the bugger worlds. They must have known (through the Author Monitor, maybe) that the buggers have sent no further attacks on Earth, and would send no attacks before humanity could strike, because otherwise this would be suicidal. And for the same reason, they can't have planned to do anything less than wipe out the buggers' technological civilization. (I don't know how they decided the survival of humanity requires this, but in fairness it makes more sense than Pascal's Wager.) So they must want someone they can manipulate into committing genocide as legally defined, and doing so for unclear reasons despite having great tactical genius. They want a Dalek who will cleverly and foresight-idly achieve absurd goals without ever re-examining the premise. And they need him to apply empathy selectively by thinking about what 'the enemy' will do when tactical thinking requires it, but not enough to start questioning the need for war.

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  3. But it's okay, because some girls overcome evolution and act like boys and thereby become useful, so obviously it would be silly to think Card is sexist.


    AUGH. I like Petra as a character, I genuinely do, but she's so much the Exceptional Girl and it is agonising.

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  4. They must have known (through the Author Monitor, maybe) that the buggers have sent no further attacks on Earth, and would send no attacks before humanity could strike, because otherwise this would be suicidal.


    They actually address this, near the end of the book, and Mazer admits that it's entirely possible that there's a third incoming alien fleet that Earth is thoroughly unprepared to fight. So yeah, they know their plan might be totally pointless, but they've decided it's the best move regardless. It boggles the mind. (Bean does work out in Shadow that 'fortifications' are basically impossible in space, and thus decides that pre-emptive strikes are the only way, but he's talking in very big generalisations.)

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  5. being happy that you're not the one who has to pour over every word of
    this and try to figure out what Card was thinking and not-thinking at
    the time.



    Sorry, I'm now thinking of you pouring transparent Liquid Book full of printed words over Card's body, in the hope that it will forensically reveal his thoughts.

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  6. If I try to steel-man it, maybe they have reason to think the 'enemy' does not yet have the planet-destroying Little Doctor. So an attack now would be bad but not necessarily fatal. Then Pascal's Wager* would tell them to destroy the other technological civilization before it can develop the Device.


    *Focusing on one hypothesis to the exclusion of other important possibilities.

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  7. Charles Matthew SmitApril 22, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    "Boys don't cry" was pretty thoroughly internalized in me by about age four, iirc.

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  8. That is an excellent opening chapter. Except for the rank sexism on display and the fact that this is a six year-old child that is being asked to commit his life to the military, which has been explicitly described to him in terms that suggest it will mirror the uncertainty of his home life.

    Regarding "boys don't cry" - well, the easiest way for that to have been installed would have been a combination of bullying (Peter, maybe Stilson and gang) that escalates when Ender shows emotion and indifferent adults and authority figures (either saying "be a man" or not providing comfort.) A few sequences like that, and Ender would probably have it firmly ground in that crying isn't an acceptable action.

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  9. Yeah, I think the most logical explanation isn't that they're looking for "The One," they're looking for someone who can be sold as an "Innocent Genocide." They want someone who will commit genocide for them, but who won't outwardly act like they like it, or be so broken up that they can't be used to sell that it was necessary. In which case, deeply messed up homicidal Ender Wiggin is perfect.

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  10. That's the whole idea of the book, the notion of an "innocent genocide." The way Card twists the plot and reshapes his world to try to make Ender into an "innocent genocide" is pitiable.

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  11. "Girls: evolutionarily predisposed to not be useful."

    Yah, because evolution delights in the creation of spandrels. Mother Nature adores species which are full of leftover spare bits rustbucketing around, because they strike her as unique and quaint. (Ornamental, even.) That's why she sets up evolution in such a way as to work "against" selected groups peculiar to each species* so they can turn out nice and ineffectual and can provide her with amusement in the off-hours when she's not busy, um, building worlds.

    Well, okay then, you come up with a better explanation.

    *"...Too many centuries of evolution are working against them..."

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  12. I know. It's kind of sad, really. The story of a messed up kid maneuvered into being an "innocent genocide" could have interesting things to say about war, the lengths people will go to to win/survive, the nature of humanity, etc, etc. With the author doing the maneuvering (and believing in the idea, it seems...or worse, since he also apparently makes Ender the savior of the Formics as well, which is the icing on the creepy cake), we're just in for a disturbing mess.

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  13. OMG, I love this post so much. This post is like pure concentrated GENIUS. The kind you keep in the freezer and mix with water to dilute it because otherwise you would get brain-freeze and die from ALL THE GENIUS.

    and also I guess when they hiccup they emit a flock of eagles?

    *dies from genius*

    Girls: evolutionarily predisposed to not be useful.


    This. And, gonna be honest, I never really felt like Card could write a believable girl character. For all Valentine's "empathy", I never felt like she empathized with the people of earth that she was happy to fool and control ostensibly for their own good. Empathy does not mesh well with megalomania. But, hey, it's been years since I read the book and maybe he wrote that bit better than I remember. We'll see!! :D

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  14. Mother Nature adores species which are full of leftover spare bits
    rustbucketing around, because they strike her as unique and quaint.
    (Ornamental, even.)


    LOLOLOLOLOL! So women are basically ceramic cats to be placed above the fireplace. Makes sense!

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  15. There is an argument there about how evolution works. See the case of the peppered moth. Most of them were light-colored, and that was an adaptation to their environment that camouflaged them against trees and lichens. Then Industrial Revolution tinted the trees black with soot and killed the lichens, and the light moths became highly visible to predators for the same reason they weren't before. The dark-colored moths became the most common then. Confronted with a sudden change in environment, previous evolutionary advantages can work against a species.
    Also sexual selection can start taking a species on a path that ends up badly. Peacock tails give peacocks a sexual advantage with the peahens, but are a nuisance for survival.

    None of that matters though because Card is just being sexist as hell and using scientific concepts to justify bigotry.

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  16. If I try to steel-man it, maybe they have reason to think the 'enemy' does not yet have the planet-destroying Little Doctor. So an attack now would be bad but not necessarily fatal. Then Pascal's Wager* would tell them to destroy the other technological civilization before it can develop the Device.

    I kinda suspect they don't fully realize Dr. Device is actually a planet-killer. I mean, the fleet they send has heavy battleships in it. There is absolutely no reason for that, unless they don't understand it's true power. (Personally, if I had known that, I'd have just sent half a dozen missiles loaded a with a few hundred Dr. Devices, zoom at up a good fraction of C, release submunitions... either that, or if I had to send a fleet, I'd launch a diversionary attack on the Formic homeworld, while a squad of fighters move to the sun... seriously, that's the kind of overpowered we're dealing with here.) I definently got the impression *Ender* didn't fully understand their power, he just did the most stupid and repulsive thing he could think of... (and maybe also hoping to throw their simulation for a loop) and unfortunately, it happened to work.

    They actually address this, near the end of the book, and Mazer admits that it's entirely possible that there's a third incoming alien fleet that Earth is thoroughly unprepared to fight. So yeah, they know their plan might be totally pointless, but they've decided it's the best move regardless. It boggles the mind. (Bean does work out in Shadow that 'fortifications' are basically impossible in space, and thus decides that pre-emptive strikes are the only way, but he's talking in very big generalisations.)

    'Fortifications' of a sort are possible in space, (or at least, holding a territory - especially since this is a universe with slow/no FTL. You scan the area for any intruders, and send your ships out to intercept them before they arrive). There are ways to get past that, though, and normally this wouldn't be too much of a problem, but the sheer power of Dr. Device means that *any* attack can be lethal, especially if the enemy realizes its destructive potential is effectively infinite and goes for the sun (if it can survive full-speed reentry, it can probably survive long enough to hit the upper 'surface' of the sun...)

    This is a MAD situation, and the correct solution is to adopt MAD strategies - namely, maintain second strike capability at all costs. This is where the vastness of space works for you - just put a bunch of ships way off in the middle of nowhere with orders to counterattack if Earth is destroyed, and the capacity to determine the source of such an attack. That way, any use of Dr. Device will likely result in annihilation for both parties. The key thing, here, is that you never, ever, ever, want to actually *attack*. The other guy is likely to realize the same thing, and any premptive strike will likely result in disaster, whether you win or not. It's not the *first* attack that matters, but the second. But I guess a strategy that basically depends on hoping it's never actually invoked isn't 'manly' enough.

    Of course, the disadvantage here is that MAD is based on human psychology, and since this series is big on Really Alien Aliens, it might not always work...

    The *really* nice thing would be developing a countermeasure against the wank that is Dr. Device. On a ship-to-ship level, ablative panels held in place via magnetic fields *might* work. Maybe...

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  17. Oh, heck, girls don't cry was instilled in me by that age. But then I was the only child of a career Marine.

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  18. Something's been bothering me and I know what it is now: why did Ender ask him if there were girls at Battle School in the first place? Is the school he was going to boys-only? Did he have experience with gender-segregated spaces? Was it to give the adult the opportunity to talk about how girls suck? Or to show that Ender is straight and is already thinking about puberty?

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  19. I don't have the book on hand, but I think Graff makes a remark about getting put in teams "with other boys", so Ender wants clarification as to whether it's all boys there. (His most positive relationship is with his sister, and he's got mutual hostility with various boys, so this seems like a realistic thing for him to focus on.) Doylistically speaking, Card presumably was taking the opportunity to explain why he's going to, 99% of the time, only talk about "boys" even though there are a few girls up there because he's Realist Not Sexist.

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  20. Yeah, it's pretty deeply imbedded in our culture. Even if his parents never told him that, it's likely he heard it from a myriad of other sources. Maybe by the time this book takes place we'll be past that idea, but currently it's something parents would have to actively work against instilling, not just passively not push.

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  21. By the way Peter is the most sympathetic character so far, because I can actually RELATE to what he feels/thinks. Ender seems much more like an alien child; Valentine is too bland; the parents - like you said very 1D, the general is too morally grey, but then again - I am just going by your re-caps. Awesome one, as always. =)

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  22. Thank you. I can't disagree--as much as Peter is terrible to his siblings in what we've seen of him so far, he at least makes sense, with a mixture of dashed hopes, jealousy, and a lack of appropriate support. (The testers know that he's a super-genius and very aggressive, but they've just left him in the normal school program rather than a gifted program with really well-trained psychologists? Are they doing their best to waste his potential?) He makes much more sense than Ender, whom everyone keeps calling sweet and innocent, but who needs only to feel scared to think that beating a kid to death is a reasonable plan.

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