(Content: adult negligence, violence, death, minor self-harm. Fun content: the Patrons.)
Ender's Game: p. 200--227
Chapter Twelve: Bonzo
Dap, who still has a soul, has caught on to Graff's plans and filed a report, so today's Ender Time for Graff is about playing stupid.
"He feels--paternal toward the students here. He feels your neglect of a potentially lethal situation is more than negligence--that it borders on conspiracy to cause the death of serious injury of one of the students here."DING DING DA-DA-LA FUCKING DING.
"Colonel Graff, the name of Ender Wiggin has percolated through the high command. It has even reached my ears. I have heard him described modestly as our only hope of victory in the upcoming invasion. [....] You have known for eight days that there is a conspiracy among some of the more vicious of these 'children' to cause the beating of Ender Wiggin, if they can. [....] And you, fully warned of this danger, propose to do exactly--"
"Nothing. [....] Ender Wiggin has been in this situation before."Graff and General Pace--just a second here. This guy's name is General Pace. PACE. The person who is trying to stop Graff from getting Ender to kill Bonzo is named for an old word that means 'peace' and is used in the modern day to indicate 'person whom I acknowledge but disagree with'. That is an impressive amount of meaning to fit into four letters, but seriously, Card, you named the guy who tries to prevent Bonzo's death COMMANDER WRONG?! I am no longer sure I believe this book is real. Am I being punk'd?
So they both know that Ender has been harassed by bullies before, and Graff specifically cites Stilson as precedent that Ender can take care of himself, which is interesting to me because Stilson is also precedent that Ender absolutely will murder a kid to make himself feel safe, so I can't figure out what Graff thinks he's going to learn from this second kill. Graff goes on about how Ender needs to know when he holds the future of the fleet in his hands that no one will come to save him, and that if he graduates Bonzo now Ender will know that he was rescued, because "heaven knows Bonzo isn't a good enough commander to be promoted on merit". This at least collapses the waveform--we were introduced to Bonzo as hardass but reasonably effective, then told how stupid he was, and now we're told that he just sucks in general. Yet somehow he's been able to hold command for over four years. Graff, you know that demotions are a thing too, right? Bonzo has been in command twice the normal length of time and we've already done the math that command positions should be rare and coveted; how has no one else taken command of Salamander? How has Bonzo not gone wherever it is that non-commanders go when they graduate? Where would Bonzo be if you had actually graduated him two years ago like you should have? Is it possible he'd have found something else in life that he's actually good at, and his honor obsession might have been redirected? What would have happened to Bonzo if he'd been given a fraction of the attention and special treatment you're giving Ender?
Graff snarks that, while he will deserve to get court-martialled and globally shamed if he is wrong, he deserves a few dozen medals if he's right, "for keeping you from meddling". He is, without question or mitigation, a monster.
Ender is watching Bean's Ridiculous Ops toon practice weird techniques, like disarming an enemy with their feet in close combat. Bean has somehow acquired a deadline, the near-invisible near-indestructible cord used to anchor objects in space during construction. By tying himself to a wall, he can take a great arcing leap at ridiculous speed. We don't find out until Ender's Shadow how he got this, but it's a bit bizarre--I can only think that Card either felt he had run out of ideas or he was just deadset on using particular scenes that he couldn't justify any other way.
As they leave practice, they start noticing the students in the halls are improbable--too many older students, too many Salamanders and others known to hate Ender, all just casually hanging around or pretending to very slowly leave the area. The Dragons catch on, but fake relaxation. Ender knows his army is young and worries what will happen if they're attacked now.
Petra shows up to look like a complete fool and this, again, will not be explained until Shadow. She asks to talk to Ender, who refuses to break his stride, and when she finally jogs to catch up, she warns him that there are students planning to attack him--she admits that she hated him too after he beat Phoenix, and Ender says he doesn't blame her, which is still weird to me. Why is the immediate reaction to losing a game in this school to hate the other commander with the fury of ten thousand suns? Is this supposed to be part of them being realistic children?
Ender points out that they just passed a tons of kids waiting to ambush him, and asks if Petra really didn't notice them. She angrily declares that she did not and that Ender should learn to recognise his friends. Given that this message was useless and her attempt to deliver it was dangerous, the options are that 1) Petra is supposed to look totally incompetent here or 2) Card knew all along what she was really thinking (get in a fight, take a few punches, win, everyone will have vented their feelings and no one dies) and just waited a couple of decades to let everyone else know. 2 seems implausible but 1 seems excessive even for him. I dunno.
His toon leaders honor-guard him to his private cabin, where he finds a text from Dink Meeker: Don't be alone. Ever. This is our first hint that the Dinktron 4X Victory And Friendship Unit has broken down and the real Dink Meeker is back to remind everyone that they're playing goddamn laser tag so chill out. Ender dreams of Stilson, and sees him now as a posturing 6-year-old bully rather than a monster, but in his dreams they beat him anyway, and when Ender wakes up he reassures himself that he's too brilliant for the teachers not to protect him against real threats even if they skew the game against him. It's a fairly neat bit of work--in a couple of paragraphs Card undercuts Ender's first kill to tell us that murdering Stilson isn't actually proof that he will still kill freely, and he assures us that Ender really is in fact counting on protection from the teachers just like Graff suspects. Which will apparently hold him back from reaching his full potential, somehow? That part still isn't clear, even if you buy this part.
The morning's battle is a long slugging match with Badger Army, in a thicket of stars and with Badgers recovering from partial damage over time--only complete freezes are permanent. Dragon wins, obviously, but they've missed breakfast and Ender cancels practice, and instead naps all morning, which--upon waking--he considers "slacking off" and so forces himself to climb the rope in the gym three times before finally going to shower. He's alone in there for some time before seven people arrive at once, led by Bonzo. He reaches for his towel.
It wasn't there. One of the boys was holding it. It was Bernard. All it would take for the picture to be complete was for Stilson and Peter to be there too. They needed Peter's smile; they needed Stilson's obvious stupidity.Taking a moment to note that Stilson's intelligence can apparently be judged by looking at him and that stupid people hate Ender. Yes, folks, we're back into the Sullen Judgmental No-One-Understands-Me Smart Kid Fantasy mode. Ender quickly decides that Bonzo is the only one he really needs to worry about--the others want to humiliate him; Bonzo wants him dead.
"You can go home and tell your father, Yes, I beat up Ender Wiggin, who was barely ten years old, and I was thirteen."
Not to interrupt the drama, but seriously. Ender was "six years, nine months, and twelve days old" when he transferred to Salamander Army. That was three years ago--almost exactly three years, based on the age estimates we've been given and the duration Dragon Army has been in operation (which is, near as I can tell, less than two months). In order for Bonzo to be 13 now, he would have had to have been 10 then. He wasn't a new commander, either--Ender told us earlier that armies normally have a game every two weeks, Bonzo declared in his first appearance that Salamander was rising out of obscurity by winning twelve of its last twenty games, and Ender also told us that commanders don't inherit the records of their predecessors, which means at minimum Bonzo had been commander for a full year at that time (40 weeks of games plus the two-month warm-up period after promotion). In order for Bonzo to be 13 now, he would have had to have been promoted at age 9, the same as Ender, and Ender's promotion was unheard of, whereas Graff assures us that Bonzo is an incompetent fool.*
All of this can be avoided by two things: either make sure your timeline is vague, or don't seed incredibly specific information throughout the book that adds up to a blatant contradiction. (Option three, of course, is that no one actually cares, which I imagine is what Card would say really matters--it's about the story, not about being fussy over details. Except that this is the kind of story that falls apart because of details, and in point of fact that's perhaps the most important thing about this story: it only works if you want to believe it does. Very meta.
"You shut up," said bonzo. "Shut up and stand out of the way." He began to take off his uniform. "Naked [drink!] and wet and alone, Ender, so we're even. I can't help that I'm bigger than you. You're such a genius, you figure out how to handle me."I'm going to skim the fight proper, because it is of itself just not that interesting. There are plumbing fixtures everywhere which they realise are the key weapons. Bonzo's stance shows that he's taken ground fighting classes more recently than Ender. Ender starts turning on faucets for the steam, so that he'll be more slippery, with the soap and the sweat. Bonzo declares that he's not afraid of hot water, and moves in.
If there isn't yet a pornographic parody based on this scene, there will be by the end of the year.
Dink Meeker bursts in and begs Bonzo to stop, which feeds Bonzo's need for power, but then screws up by declaring that the games don't matter, the point is the war with the aliens, and Ender might be the only one who can win it. Dink has regained perspective, but the thought that Ender is important and Bonzo is not just locks Bonzo into murder mode and the brawl begins.
"If you touch him you're a buggerlover!" cried Dink. "You're a traitor, if you touch him you deserve to die!"Etc. There is much talk of being "too slippery" and how "Bonzo's tight, hard ribs came against Ender's face" and Bonzo thrusting his hips away "to keep Ender from reaching his groin" and finally Ender smashes Bonzo's nose with his face. Ender does his whole 'I must win extra-hard or I will have to fight this fight again' rationalisation and so sets in with further savage kicks (specifically including the groin), until Bonzo collapses under the hot spray and doesn't move. At last the medics show up and Dink hauls Ender away to his room and tries to comfort him by telling him how awesome he is.
There was no doubt now in Ender's mind. There was no help for him. Whatever he faced, now and forever, no one would save him from it. Peter might be scum, but Peter had been right, always right; the power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can't kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you.Within the context of the school, sure, okay, but only to the extent that he is in an environment completely controlled by people who are actively trying to destroy him. What isn't at all clear to me is how this is supposed to make Ender a better commander in an environment where he is supposed to lead and plan and be brilliant and, above all else, count on other people to back him up. If I wanted to dwell on this longer, I would point to nonviolent resistance and to basically every part of human history that shows how the threat of destruction is useless against those who would rather be dead than surrender their ideals. The power to destroy is the greatest power only as long as you assume destruction is the worst fate. But addressing that would be another novel. Ender bursts out again that "I didn't want to hurt him! [...] Why didn't he just leave me alone!" and eventually falls asleep.
Ender awakens again at 1820 that same day to find another battle notification--Dragon versus Griffin and Tiger at once. The Dragons are excited; Ender goes to shower again and wash off Bonzo's blood.
In the dark battleroom, their view is immediately blocked by stars, so Ender sends Bean's Ridiculous Ops squad to scout by using the aforementioned high-speed deadline arc flight hurricane howling scorpion strike technique art move. Bean reports that, after the first block that Dragon is assembling on, the battleroom is completely empty until they reach a fortification of stars on the far side where the enemy has gathered.
"In a real war, any commander with brains at all would retreat and save this army."
"What the hell," said Bean. "It's only a game."
"It stopped being a game when they threw away the rules."
"So you throw 'em away, too."I can't believe they didn't use that dialogue in the film trailer. It sounds exactly like every action movie with a maverick hero. Anyway, Griffin and Tiger lie in wait and are eventually baffled to see a huge formation move out from Dragon's blockade--a literal wall of frozen soldiers, with a cylinder stretching back from it, tied together in a close formation with active Dragons shielded inside and firing. Bean has used the deadline to make a giant (phallic, sorry to say it but it is) armored vehicle of boys to penetrate enemy lines. The formation abruptly splits apart and most of it reverses direction, drawing enemy attention back towards the Dragon gate. The Griffin leader realises something is weird, scans the room, spots a bunch of Dragons near his own gate, takes aim, and the lights come up because Dragon won. They skipped the actual fighting portion of the battle and sent a little squad to dash through the gate. (This is a very thematically-inspired battle, with the sacrificial shields and the complete disregard for normal safety in favour of laser focus on the goal.)
In several decades of Battle School operations, apparently no one has ever thought of just going straight for the goal. Does Earth no longer have capture-the-flag games? This is such a revolutionary tactic that Anderson declares they're going to change the rules so you can't go through the gate until the entire enemy army is out of commission. Ender is first calm, then furious when Anderson walks away, but everyone (Tiger and Griffin included) just start cheering him and saying that as long as he's on one team, no match can ever be equal anyway, so forget the rules.
Ender cancels practice forever, declares he's finished with the game, and hides in his cabin until Bean arrives to tell him Dragon has been dissolved--all of the toon leaders have been promoted to command of their own armies, including Bean, the new Rabbit Leader. Ender rants at Bean while Bean fumbles at being a comforting friend, and again I'm skimming this because it's more wallowing in Ender's angst at how he was 'forced' to beat Bonzo, and this is a much more interesting scene in Ender's Shadow. Anderson arrives, rebukes Ender for his 'insubordination' in the game room, and then gives him a graduation slip--he's going to Command School, which Bean assures us never happens before age 16.
They leave, and Bean goes back to his bunk and tries to understand his own sorrow, until at last he realises that it's Ender, Ender is gone and Bean will never see him again. "He bit down on his hand to stop the feeling, to replace it with pain. It didn't help." Wow, okay, so this version of Bean medicates with self-harm. I had not caught that before. That'll get retconned out. He forces himself to calm down and fall asleep:
his breathing was quick and light. He was a soldier, and if anyone had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wouldn't have known what they meant.Bean is maybe age seven. He's been at Battle School for a year. We don't know it yet, but Battle School is a goddamn paradise compared to his early childhood as a starving scavenger in the Netherlands. This school is absolutely unconscionable child abuse, but the idea that it's converted him into an adult in a matter of months still doesn't make sense to me. It's possible to abuse people without magically causing them to mature as well. That which does not kill you does not necessarily make you stronger.
Ender gets onto a shuttle to go home, and Graff is coming with him. They have to return to Earth to get a long-range shuttle to fly to Command School, and that means Ender gets to see family. They land in Florida, and Ender finds it strange, and it's the best and truest bit of the chapter:
Everything was far away and flat; the ground, lacking the upward curve of Battle School floors, seemed instead to fall away, so that on level ground Ender felt as though he were on a pinnacle. The pull of real gravity felt different and he scuffed his feet when he walked. He hated it. He wanted to go back home, back to the Battle School, the only place in the universe where he belonged.We get a final scene with Imbu and Anderson, the new principal, discussing how Graff has been maybe-arrested by Pace and ordered to report to the Polemarch, and we get the Shocking Reveals that Bonzo is dead, not that they will tell him, and that this is the second time:
"They didn't tell him about Stilson, either."
"The kid is scary."
"Ender Wiggin isn't a killer. He just wins--thoroughly."If we're not defining 'killer' to mean 'person who kills' anymore, I am seriously not sure how to English. Ender absolutely is a killer. What they're saying is that Ender doesn't kill anyone they care about. If Ender really wanted to win, if he wanted freedom, he would kill Graff, and that would scare the fuck out of them. Then he would have taken out the greatest threat to his own safety and health. Ender only kills the people they throw into the arena with him, and that is what makes him useful, but it does not make him innocent.
Next week: Ender breaks, Valentine fixes him, rinse, repeat.
*How much more sense would all of this make if Bonzo wasn't incompetent, but was in fact a potential Chosen One? What if he was almost Ender, but not quite good enough, and his ego had only become his fatal flaw when Ender appeared and he realised that he wasn't Graff's favourite anymore? What if he had gone through all of these same trials that Ender has gone through, but sometimes he slipped up, he never made it past The End of the World, he made it through two unfair fights but lost his third one, and Ender arrived and suddenly Bonzo was told that being the best student Battle School had ever seen up to now meant nothing, because they only needed one supreme commander? What would Ender have become if, just now as he's become a commander and weathered all this abuse, some new kid showed up and was even more brilliant?