On the plus side, we have reached the halfway point! (Pagewise, specifically. Chapterwise this is 10 of 15, but they're often twice the length they have been up to now.) Are you as excited as I am? Up until now, there have been limiting factors on Ender's awesomeness, because he is always under someone else's command. Now he takes command and the indulgent "I am so awesome I broke the winometer" is going to rev up and roll for most of the rest of the book. Except for this chapter, which introduces Bean, who is the protagonist of Ender's Shadow, and that means that this chapter is one in which Ender screws up (maybe) and everyone acknowledges it. (They even acknowledge it in this book, although it gets compounded in Shadow.) So, there is some hope of refreshing narrative-supported critique here.
(Content: bullying, bully apologism. Fun content: blatant queer fanfic fodder.)
Ender's Game: p. 154--172
Chapter Ten: Dragon
Today's fifteen minutes of Ender Time contain the order to go ahead and promote Ender to command. Graff is a little reluctant to give the order, because, as he explains:
"I'm not a commander. I'm a teacher of little children."Good lord'n'butter, Graff, you are a colonel and a godawful teacher; you'd better have some kind of command skill. Anyway, having received Valentine's letter and conquered the End of the World a couple of months ago, Ender is apparently happy now, and so ready for command. There's some of the typical supervillain banter between Graff and Anderson about how they're doing terrible things to him in order to save the world, but it just bores me now.
Ender has apparently been top of the standings for three years now, so no one is surprised that he's getting promoted at age 9.5 instead of 11 (apparently the normal age, except that makes Bonzo even more ridiculous). Given that Ender's big thing is supposed to be tactics and strategy, it just seems completely gratuitous to me that he's also the best soldier of all time. In three years no one has shown up with even the physical potential to surpass Ender? No one's a better shot, or more coordinated and thus better at maneuvering in zero-G? I'm all for emphasising the importance of hard work, but Ender being The Best At Everything is tiresome. Anyway, while being fitted for his new suit, he checks the name on the form: Dragon.
"I've never heard of Dragon Army," Ender said.
"That's because there hasn't been a Dragon Army in four years. We discontinued the name because there was a superstition about it. No Dragon Army in the history of the Battle School ever won even a third of its games. It got to be a joke."We've discussed this before: armies have names like Rat and Rabbit and Salamander and then Ender gets goddamned dragons. It's such a blatant cool-factor thing. How does Card justify giving the Ender the ridiculously cool name? By making it the in-universe loser name. I'm a bit torn on this, and I think it's the type of thing I'd probably let slide in a book that wasn't already causing me to primal-scream so often. Occasionally, by being good, an author earns the right to indulge in simple cool factor. Ender has more than tapped his supply and everyone else's.
Graff issues him his commander 'hook'; a gravity-warping hand gadget that will basically allow him to fly freely in the Battle Room during his regularly-scheduled practice sessions, and delivers the usual congratulatory speech, then adds that they've done something funky with Ender's new army by giving him a specially-selected roster mixing extremely fresh students with moderate veterans. I'm not totally sure what the point was of this aside in this book; it'll be explained in much more detail in Shadow, possibly just to retcon more importance to Bean. Right now it just looks like more emphasis on how special Ender is. He's also forbidden to trade any of his soldiers, and told that if he has any problems with them, he'll just have to "get along with him" (foreshadow foreshadow).
Ender arrives at his new barracks and "took charge at once", telling his soldiers to arrange themselves so that the most senior are at the back and the newbies are at the front, the opposite of the usual. He's so brilliant! He has even revolutionised the dorms. On his initial assessment, he guesses he has 30 straight out of their launch group and the remaining 10 are soldiers, but not standouts, not toon leaders, and not older than him. As soon as they're bunked, Ender orders them into their flash suits for morning practice, and we get the hilarious introduction of Ender the Hardass Drill Sergeant:
"Officially you have a free hour between breakfast and practice. We'll see what happens after I find out how good you are." After three minutes, though many of them still weren't dressed, he ordered them out of the room.
"But I'm naked!" said one boy. [Drink!]
"Dress faster next time. Three minutes from first call to running out the door--that's the rule this week. Next week the rule is two minutes. Move!" [....]
Five of the boys were completely naked [drink!], carrying their flash suits as they ran through the corridors; few were fully dressed. They attracted a lot of attention as they passed open classroom doors. No one would be late again if he could help it.Just in case anyone was still holding out hope that when Card says 'naked' he actually means 'only wearing their longjohns' or something like that: NOPE. I know that it's pretty normal in armies for soldiers to become completely inured to each others' nakedness, but that's, y'know, infantry who are expected to face a huge variety of dire circumstances where modesty can't be a priority. Ender and his classmates are proto-generals who need to embrace their nakedness about as much as law students do. This isn't about breaking down inconvenient cultural baggage, this is about shaming and bullying.
They get to the battleroom, the naked ones finish dressing, and Ender tells them to deploy into the room as if they were attacking the enemy gate. They're expected to leap up to use the ceiling handholds for this, which makes no sense to me because they're leaping into zero-G and there's no obvious reason why the ceiling (in the gravity-bound hallway) would give them a better controlled launch than taking off from the floor, but apparently it does. They're all bad at it, shockingly. The last one to take off is the smallest boy, "obviously underage", whom we shall discover is Bean, and he immediately wins my heart:
"You can use a side handhold if you want," Ender said.
"Go suck on it," said the boy.This whole scene appears in Ender's Shadow as well, from Bean's perspective, where it is even better, but the important thing is that at last we have a character who is even more the underdog than Ender, is his intellectual peer, and has no awe whatsoever for the Legendary Soldier. (Of course he'll be won over in time, but never to a worshipful degree.)
Bean is also bad at flying: he misses the handhold, twirls off like a gyroscope into the room, and Ender muses on whether he likes the kid's determination or disapproves of his insubordinate frownyface. All of the soldiers eventually form up at the far end and it's time again for Gravity Games With Ender Wiggin as he 'stands' upside-down in the battleroom and demands to know why everyone else is standing on their heads. Someone eventually dares to say it's the hallway orientation, and Ender continues his loud rant about how directions work in zero-G: "Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember--the enemy's gate is down." Then we get some typical drill sergeant shoutiness about how bad they are at flying, Ender tells them to form up again on the ceiling, and starts mentally grading them based on how quickly they realise that by 'ceiling' he means the wall their own gate is in, and not the wall that he now calls 'north'. Bean gets it first, and Ender judges him to be smart, cocky, rebellious, and probably resentful because he had to run through the halls naked. Uh, exactly as planned? Or something? I'm sure resentfulness is part of the plan.
Ender quizzes Bean, who responds quickly and correctly, and Ender finally asks:
"Name, kid?" ['Kid'. Ender is nine, Bean is six or seven at this point.]
"This soldier's name is Bean, sir."
"Get that for size or for brains?"Et cetera. Ender immediately goes on to praise Bean, and starts explaining his maneuvering methods in zero-G. At first I wondered why Ender would need to explain these things as if they're secret, given that he's been working with armies for two years and he explicitly notes that his 'sudden assault' methods have permeated the entire school, but then I remembered that this group is 75% newbies. Maybe that is why Card decided to give Ender a weirdly fresh army; so that he could justify explaining techniques starting from first principles (his personal fetish). In addition to making it clear that Ender has the deck stacked against him and all his victories are through personal awesomeness, obviously.
At last Ender realises that his simultaneous verbal abuse and pointed praise of Bean ("At least I have one soldier who can figure things out") is exactly what Graff did to him back in the day, making the rest of the army hate him for being the commander's favourite. He suffers an attack of conscience, wishing he could somehow tell everyone to support the little kid and not hate him:
But of course Ender couldn't do that. Not on the first day. On the first day even his mistakes had to look like part of a brilliant plan.People with training in real leadership positions are free to comment here, but is projecting an aura of infallibility (especially when your subordinates already think you're screwing up) really that vital to leadership? Or is this just Ender buying into his own PR and worrying that he'll be considered inadequate if he admits mistakes? (Everyone loves and trusts commanders who refuse to reverse and adjust when they realise they've made a mistake, right? LEADERSHIP.) But I suppose the real message here is that Ender's conscience is wrong, that picking on Bean really will make him stronger, and that he must learn to stamp down on softness in order to be a good leader. Sigh. At least there's some brief acknowledgement that Ender is being a total jackass here and might not always make the perfect decisions every time? I'm not sure anymore.
There's more demonstrations and training, which will be way more interesting in Ender's Shadow because Ender is actually being deeply unreasonable and not thinking things through--he quizzes them and asks them to describe their attack position, because apparently he thinks forty boys will be able to improvise in unison a description of a stance with their legs folded up against their chest and their arms stuck between their knees with their gun pointed straight ahead as they descend face-first towards the far wall. Bean just demonstrates and everyone else follows when Ender shouts at them more. I'm not sure, reading this, whether Card actually had Bean's side going on in his head, or if he went back later, re-read, and constructed the parallax scene to match. There are moments when Bean just stares at Ender for a moment before answering questions, which in Shadow will be filled with paragraphs of internal monologue that make much more sense. If Card wasn't imagining a whole lot going on in Bean's head, I'm not sure what those silences are meant to indicate--yet, in the one scene in this book from Bean's perspective, he's very obviously not the same character. Questions for the ages, but mostly of interest to me as a writer rather than a reader.
Training goes on, Ender muses that he has to work fast because the teachers will probably not give him the usual three months' prep before his first battle. Bean sticks around after practice to continue mavericking:
"Sir," Ender said softly. [....]
"I want a toon."
Ender walked back to him and stood looking down into his eyes. "Why should you get a toon?"
"Because I'd know what to do with it."
"Knowing what to do with a toon is easy," Ender said. "It's getting them to do it that's hard."Ender explains that his shoutiness and singling-out helped Bean because otherwise no one would have noticed him, but now he's going to be the centre of everyone's attention and just has to be perfect in order to win their respect. After all, that has clearly worked so well for Ender. It's not like Ender's life is (Stilson) riddled with strong and (Peter) aggressive people who saw his perfection and hated it and wanted nothing (Bonzo) more than to hurt or destroy him, cough. (In Ender's Shadow, Bean of course gains an archnemesis, but shockingly it has nothing to do with this. It's a completely different context in which Bean's genius earns him someone's malice.)
Now my unfavourite part, because verbal abuse just isn't the same without its complement--as he lectures Bean, Ender pushes him back into the wall to remind this tiny six-year-old which one of them is the Legendary Soldier, and when Bean is awesome and refuses to let Ender's loomingness intimidate him and just snarks back, Ender grabs him by the collar and shoves him into the wall. (Bean continues to smirk.)
Ender let go of him and walked away. When he got to his room he lay down on his bed and trembled. What am I doing? My first practice session, and I'm already bullying people the way Bonzo did. And Peter. Shoving people around. Picking on some poor little kid so the others'll have somebody they all hate. Sickening. Everything I hated in a commander, and I'm doing it.This is the kid whose superpower is his ability to get inside someone else's head so completely that he fully understands their worldview and can't help but love them. This is him in a moment when he seems, for just a moment, to realise that maybe the world is more complicated than warrior-saints and reavers. This should be the moment, in a less-monomaniacal book, in which it occurs to Ender that maybe his 'enemies' aren't that different from himself, that maybe people sometimes make bad decisions because they followed the wrong whim and they aren't strong enough to admit their fault now, that a bully might need to be healed instead of destroyed.
Picture my hand sweeping over my head with a great voom.
Why had he done to Bean what had been done to Ender by commanders that he despised? [....] It wasn't an accident. Ender realized that now. It was a strategy. Graff had deliberately set him up to be separate from the other boys, made it impossible for him to be close to them. [....] Graff had isolated Ender to make him struggle. To make him prove, not that he was competent, but that he was far better than everyone else. That was the only way he could win respect and friendship. It made him a better soldier than he would ever have been otherwise. It also made him lonely, afraid, angry, untrusting. And maybe those traits, too, made him a better soldier.
Ender's elite practice sessions are brought to an end by teacher fiat, and anyway other commanders don't want their soldiers practicing with Ender now that he has his own army. I'm not really sure why being commander is considered a much bigger conflict of interest than being Petra Arkanian's second-in-command, but whatever. (At least the book acknowledges this too.) Ender complains to Major Anderson, who dismisses Ender's concerns and tells him to grow up and take responsibility. He holds another practice, then goes to the arcade to mess around a bit before bed, where he finds Alai.
"Don't you know? We're enemies now. Next time I meet you in battle, I'll whip your ass."
It was banter, as always, but now there was too much truth behind it. Now when Ender heard Alai talk as if it were all a joke, he felt the pain of losing his friend, and the worse pain of wondering if Alai really felt as little pain as he showed. [....]
"Alas, it is not to be."
"Peace. It's what salaam means. Peace be unto you." [....]
Ender turned around. Alai was already gone. Ender felt as if a part of himself had been taken away, an inward prop that was holding up his courage and confidence. With Alai, to a degree impossible even with Shen, Ender had come to feel a unity so strong that the word we came to his lips much more easily than I.
But Alai had left something behind. Ender lay in bed, dozing into the night, and felt Alai's lips on his cheek as he muttered the word peace. The kiss, the word, the peace were with him still.I complain on occasion that the lack of same-sex romance in media is one of the reasons it took me so long to realise I am bi, but reading something like this, I wonder just how gay a scene would have to get before my teenage self would have noticed. The fanfiction writes itself so easily that I think my desktop is spontaneously generating textfiles of extended makeout scenes after Ender and Alai are teenagers at Command School within the dark tunnels of the asteroid base Eros. (Note to those who haven't read the book before: except for the makeouts, all of that happens. Yes, Eros. No, I don't know what Card thought it symbolised. We'll see when we get there.)
The most terrible thing, though, was the fear that the wall could never be breached, that in his heart Alai was glad of the separation, and was ready to be Ender's enemy. For now that they could not be together, they must be infinitely apart, and what had been sure and unshakable was now fragile and insubstantial; from the moment we are not together, Alai is a stranger, for he has a life now that will be no part of mine, and that means that when I see him we will not know each other.So awkward when you're just walking around space military school and you see your ex and they're with their new commander. I legitimately can't see any other way to interpret this--the only times I can think of when I have felt I had to choose between the most intense closeness or staying as absolutely far away as I possibly could were romantic relationships (or failures thereof). I wish this had been written by another author, so that I could just call it good. Instead we've got this weird scenario where I have to take joy in the fact that plenty of queer readers picked up on this, simply read Ender as a gay hero, and Card has accidentally given support and succour to the people he so desperately wants to erase.
When they had turned Valentine into a stranger, when they had used her as a tool to work on Ender, from that day forward they could never hurt him deep enough to make him cry again. Ender was certain of that.
And with that anger, he decided he was strong enough to defeat them--the teachers, his enemies.Yes, Ender. Defeat your enemies, the teachers, by following all of their rules and doing everything they say, falling directly into the agony and mortal danger they intend you to face, and doing the shockingly immoral jobs they have planned for you. That'll defeat 'em real good. Mon Dieu, the pretension of badassery here is incalculable. I can only guess that Ender's 'victory' consists of hanging onto his sanity and reputation through all of this, but if you want to be considered a defiant hero, you actually have to defy. Otherwise you're just a Left Behind protagonist and people make fun of you on the internet.
Next week: Ender wins at everything because obviously.