Ender's Game: p. 37--53
Chapter Five: Games
There are a lot of people on the web doing this analytical thing like we do here, and there is one thing that basically all of them eventually run into, which is that when books are bad, they eventually cease to be entertainingly bad and instead become gruelling. Those of y'all who read Erika's Fifty Shades posts have long been familiar with these times (I once joked that people looked forward to the sex scenes because it meant the characters would stop talking--I no longer view this as a joke).
I do actually believe Ender's Game is mostly well-written. I think the ideologies it promotes are abhorrent and it has a tendency to tell us things about the characters that are contradicted or not backed up, but if you ignore the authorial fiats, characters are actually painted well and in interesting ways. I know, for example, that Card's whole thesis is that Ender and Peter are exact opposites, but I'm finding them much more interesting when I read them as presented, nearly identical (and Ender being the vastly more dangerous one). Ender's Game is a novel of ideas, and when it focuses on those, if nothing else, it can be fascinating.
This chapter is not fascinating.
This chapter is basically Ender As Chosen One/Outcast Nerd Revenge Fantasy, the most boring and uncomfortable side of his character. We open with a dose of Graff's characterisation being contradicted, which maybe is supposed to make him look less perfect, because obviously that is a thing we would be in danger of thinking. It turns out Graff didn't mean for Ender to get into a physical fight on the shuttle last chapter, but to call for help. I have no idea why Graff thought this would happen, or why he wanted it to happen, since he and the "mastermind" (Graff's own sarcasm) he's talking to agree that Ender must never believe he can count on anyone else to bail him out.
"His isolation can't be broken. He can never come to believe that anybody will ever help him out, ever. If he once thinks there's an easy way out, he's wrecked."
"You're right. That would be terrible, if he believed he had a friend."
"He can have friends. It's parents he can't have."So, Ender can't be allowed to escape any situation by asking for help, but Graff was expecting/hoping that the fight on the shuttle would be resolved by Ender asking for help. What.
Whatever. Ender arrives at his Space Dorm at Space School. The room is child-scale; six-year-old Ender can reach up and touch the ceiling. That would seem dangerous--adults will have trouble getting into the room if they need to intervene in something--but a couple of pages later we'll be told about adults hanging out in there like it's whatever, so... I don't know. Non-Euclidean architecture. Careful use of baked goods from Wonderland. Battle School was built by Time Lords and the rooms are taller from the top down than from the bottom up. Take your pick.
Ender is the last one to arrive, and the only bunk left is the one at floor level by the door, which he immediately determines is the Worst Bunk (I guess you get the most traffic?), but he plays it up like this is exactly what he had been hoping for, because, as previously noted, everyone except Ender is incredibly stupid and of course they will assume his "Gollygosh thanks guys!" is sincere. (Or maybe it's just supposed to Ender telling them he refuses to suffer?) Their supervisor shows up, a young man named Dap who tells them that he is their 'mom', because apparently that's the only possible name for a nurturing parental figure. Whatever. Battle School has now canonically endorsed genderqueer expressions in their supervising authorities! Well done, Battle School. Maybe there's hope for you yet.
Dap informs them that the bunk Ender is now in is usually reserved for their elected Group Leader, which seems like a weirdly unnecessary detail unless it's a metaphor. Ender has, as a result of bullying, been forced to take the position of power and authority without even knowing that was what he was doing. ...Huh, yeah, that's this entire story in one sentence. Pointlessly twee, but I guess points to Card for condensing it so neatly.
Ender checks out the equipment in his palmprint-encoded locker: jumpsuits, a school desk, and a practice laser, which Dap tells him is for "one of the games". Credit where due, Card has been doing a good job of building up to the introduction of the Battle Room (which we still won't see this chapter). We've been told that it's a big deal, the core of the school, we're seeing some equipment, and when the kids go to dinner, they see the team standings on the leaderboards and all the older boys are wearing flashier team uniforms, Scorpion and Manticore. It's a solid example of sprinkling information to entice our interest.
Ender of course has to sit by himself in the lunchroom, until a 12-year-old named Mick shows up to tell Ender that if he's the 'bugger' in his class, he needs to start sucking up to people if he wants to get anywhere. (I thought Card was opposed to buggers making friends by sucking.) Mick apparently puts the lie to Graff's claim that anyone who sticks with it ultimately gets a great job, as he is certain he won't be going on to Tactical School when he's finally forced out sometime soon.
Mick is also the only goddamn person in the entire series who observes that 'Ender' is an absurdly badass name for a soldier. At least someone said it, but seriously, how does everyone not just laugh in his face when he tries to introduce himself? Nicknames are normal at Battle School, but no one calls themselves Commander Manlybeard or McBearchest or Shark Week.
Mick leaves (taking Ender's dessert, because losers fucking love junk food, I hate Card so much sometimes) and Ender decides that no, he will succeed through awesomeness, although he then gets struck with debilitating homesickness for the rest of the day. At night, Dap patrols the room, trying to offer a comforting hand here and there, but it backfires:
The touch of kindness in this frightening place was enough to push some over the edge into tears. Not Ender, though. When Dap came, his crying was over, and his face was dry. It was the lying face he presented to Mother and Father, when Peter had been cruel to him and he dared not let it show. Thank you for this, Peter. For dry eyes and silent weeping. You taught me how to hide anything I felt. More than ever, I need that now.So, the old cruelty was beneficial because now it helps him pretend that the new cruelty doesn't bother him, which is important because if he showed that cruelty bothered him, it would cause people to be more cruel to him.
They start classes the next day, interspersed with weirdly propagandic videos of marines getting torn up fighting aliens aboard ships, and ships in space firing on each other.
Ender worked as hard as anyone; all of them struggled for the first time in their lives, as for the first time in their lives they competed with classmates who were at least as bright as they.Except when they are not, which is all of the time, because Ender is so, so much smarter than them. As he proves on his second day, when Dap takes them to the arcade, a vast shining vault of lights on the upper levels of the school, where gravity is weaker: when Ender gets pushed around, he literally gets knocked off his feet and drifts across the room. This happens a lot, because he immediately heads into the 3D game tables, where older boys are playing commanders of holographic fleets. He watches them play against the computer for an hour, at which point he is certain that he could easily beat the computer on any humanly-feasible difficulty setting, because that is not at all hilarious. "Eh, I don't think I need to play this game, I'd pretty obviously be able to beat it already if it was a fair match."
Ender wants to play against another boy instead, and asks for a turn. The older students mock him in some realistically vapid dialogue that only partially feels like a forty-year-old trying to use teenager slang. It helps that they don't really use slang much, but a kind of cadence. It does not help that this cadence sounds vaguely like a stereotypical urban hoodlum (and by 'urban' I mean 'black', and by 'hoodlum' I mean 'one-scene TV knockoff').
"I'm Ender Wiggin."
"Listen up, scrunchface. You nobody. Got that. You nobody, got that? You not anybody till you gots you first kill. Got that?"
The slang of the older boys had its own rhythm. Ender picked it up quick enough. "If I'm nobody, how come you cared to play me two out of three?"Ender loses the first match, then:
They played again, and this time Ender was deft enough to pull off a few maneuvers that the boy had obviously never seen before. His patterns couldn't cope with them. Ender didn't win easily, but he won.
The bigger boys stopped laughing and joking then. The third game went in total silence. Ender won it quickly and efficiently.There is a woman who went by the name limyaael, and she wrote this extremely valuable essay on "Moments when the protagonist awes other characters, curing the addiction to". This scene gives us a little characterisation of the social order at Battle School, and a little sense of how Ender thinks, but more than either of those things it shows us the quiet smart kid who just sits back and watches and then when he gets his turn he is totally awesome and all the bigger boys have to shut up because they can't handle the truth. Harmless 'nerd revenge' fantasy on its own, but this is only the first instance thereof, and it's only going to get worse, and for anyone who doesn't harbour their own nerd revenge fantasies, kind of incredibly boring.
So the boy whose arm Ender broke last chapter is Bernard, who is French and therefore an arrogant Separatist--no idea what this means, since he's probably not talking about Québec separatism. (To my knowledge, Canada is never mentioned in these books.) Maybe they want to separate from the EU, which apparently still exists in the same format centuries from now and which was largely born out of French diplomacy with Germany? Whatever. Bernard is King Bully of the class, and Ender watches and figures out who's who in his hierarchy, the lieutenants and the hangers-on and the people who actively resent him.
Ender's first potential ally is Shen, whom Bernard calls 'Worm' because he supposedly wriggles his butt when he walks. (I'm going to do my best to ignore the homoerotic/homophobic subtext throughout this section. I'm just going to note that 'he shakes his ass and it offends me' is a very specific thing to single someone out for.) Ender plays with the student instant messaging system and cracks enough of the code to invent a new student identity, named God, for anonymity. With this, he sends everyone the same message every 30 seconds: "Cover your butt. Bernard is watching. --God". Bernard freaks, sends a message to Ender accusing him, Ender plays it cool, Shen is just delighted. Bernard's bullies torment Ender more over the following days; Ender ups the ante by figuring out a way of faking another's ID and sending a new message, this time when Dap is around:
I love your butt. Let me kiss it. --BernardBernard freaks harder; Dap is slightly amused and just says he knows who did it; Ender concludes that the teachers mean for the students to break into the system a little bit, which is why their security is literally weak enough for a six-year-old to crack. His first clue was the root directory password.
Dap shuts Bernard down mid-rage, everyone laughs at him, and the next day Shen gleefully informs Ender that Bernard has been nicknamed 'Buttwatcher' and his power is broken and I guess the Rohirrim have driven the orcs out of the Pelennor Fields or something. Only the most vicious kids are staying loyal to him.
(We can take this moment to note that Alai will pop into existence next chapter as one of Bernard's close friends who is also intelligent and highly compassionate. Where is he in this chapter? Where did he fit in Ender's observations of Bernard's hierarchy? Was he built by monks to hold a cosmic key? Whatever.)
The novel of Ender's Game is as old as I am, so I can understand Card not predicting the advent of cyber-bullying or that it would be a meaningful contributor to teenage suicide. What I am less kindly disposed towards is the idea that bullying + MORE bullying = justice.
There are (at least) two ways to read this part of the chapter. One version is that Ender was targeted for vicious treatment by a sadist who tried to turn everyone against him, but through the clever use of his brain instead of physical violence, Ender disassembled the sadist's social power and helped his victims.
The other version is that Ender broke another kid's arm for attacking him, FOR SOME REASON got ostracised by the rest of the class, and so retaliated with the help of computerised anonymity to make accusations of homosexuality (ha ha I lied) and promiscuity against that same kid to humiliate him and ostracise him instead.
Neither one of those stories is complete, but I think they're about equally true. Ender and Shen become friends, and a couple of other kids join their table at lunch, all brought together by how much they hate Bernard and how much he totally deserved to get bullied. This apparently comes as a shock to Card, but it turns out that you can't actually fight fire with fire without getting fire on your hands. Ender is no less a bully than Bernard; he just picked a victim people resented even more than they resented Ender.
On the plus side, maybe now that Bernard has been dethroned, we can be done with the nerd revenge fantasies for a while and move on to--
Ender's isolation was over. The war was just beginning.Goddammit.