Thursday, December 26, 2013

Die Hard and its Presidential Pretenders

It was this or a picture of Chrissie Hynde.
I love "Die Hard." I'm one of the increasingly large and insufferable mass of people who watch "Die Hard" each Christmas, and I genuinely think it may be the best action movie of all time. Naturally, it's spawned lots of pretenders--not least of which are four other "Die Hard" movies--which I've lately been fascinated by. Fascinated enough that I got together with my Movies Schmovies brother Jon, and we watched a double-feature of "Die Hard in the White House" movies, "Olympus Has Fallen" and "White House Down," which are part of the slightly broader "Die Hard with the President" subgenre that began (as far as I know) with "Air Force One."

"Olympus Has Fallen" was generally pretty joyless, though Aaron Eckhart's turn as recent widower President Benjamin Asher gave me lots of opportunities to say "I believe in Presi Dent," and to imagine the Gotham politics that got him elected, along with Speaker of the House Lucius Fox. Jon remarked that Bruce Wayne told Harvey "One fundraiser with my pals, you’ll never need another cent," and apparently that meant "no matter what office you run for." The film features North Korean commandos taking over the White House, in order to get the codes for the failsafe system that can detonate any American nuclear weapon, with hopes of destroying all of them in their silos and exploding the country. Only ex-Special Forces, ex-Secret Service agent Gerard Butler can rescue the President's son and also, if there's time, the President.

Of the two Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies from this past year, "Olympus Has Fallen" is the less Die-Hard-y of the two, which I think is a lot of why it was so boring. There are a couple of big things that I think most of the imitations miss about what makes "Die Hard" compelling, and "Olympus Has Fallen" misses them more than most.

First, there's the character of John McClane. During their first walkie-talkie conversation, Hans Gruber asks if John is "Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?" It's an important contrast, Dillon and Wayne being symbols of the classic cowboy adventurer, moral to a fault, paragons of virtue, and champions of the rule of law. John McClane is a good cop, but he's more shrewd and pragmatic than lawfully virtuous. But the more important contrast, and the one that most of the "Die Hard" wannabes miss, is the comparison to Rambo. "First Blood" was only six years old when "Die Hard" came out, which was the same year that "Rambo III" hit theaters. And while John Rambo was a mostly stoic, super-capable one-man army ex-special forces agent, John McClane most certainly wasn't. One of the things I most appreciate about "Die Hard"--and most dislike about more recent films in the franchise, like "A Good Day to Die Hard"--is that John becomes progressively more injured and weary throughout the film. When he finally takes a bullet from Karl's gun, it's a big deal. When he's pulling shards of glass out of his feet, it feels like an actual injury, and he's limping and trailing blood for the rest of the movie. By the time we get to that final confrontation, John is exhausted and bloody; his voice is ragged. It actively shocks Holly to see him like that. He's not the "Last Action Hero" only-a-flesh-wound action movie protagonist. He's not a one-man army who can ramp a car into a helicopter. He's just a resourceful cop with an attitude. His conversations with himself show that he's not super-confident, and his dialogue in the actual heat of battle is the kind of nonsensical angry stuff that any of us would say if grappling with a giant German on a staircase ("You motherf***er, I'm gonna kill you! I'm gonna f***in' cook you, and I'm gonna f***ing eat you!"). John's at his most clever when he's talking with Hans on the walkie-talkie, and a lot of that is bravado. He doesn't get the James Bond post-killing quips that have become standard action hero fare.

Gerard Butler's Agent Mike Banning is not John McClane. He is that hyper-capable, ex-special forces agent who knows all the ins and outs of the White House. He doesn't have to take notes or look at maps the way John McClane does. He's actually at his least clever when talking with the North Korean villains, though a lot of that is because this movie was apparently scripted by pulling lines from the Big Book of Action Movie clichés. "Die Hard" is thoroughly quotable; "Olympus Has Fallen" is littered with "but it's against protocol!" and "the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists" and "where's my son?!" Mike Banning doesn't talk to himself, doesn't question himself, doesn't feel any ill effects from his injuries, and as a result is a much less interesting character.

There's also the issue of the villains. "Die Hard" makes itself a little more timeless, I think, by making its villains a multicultural cadre looking for money rather than achieving a political goal. Aside from the references to "West Germany," Hans Gruber could be upper-class Eurotrash from any era. Political motivations come and go, and while it'll likely be some time before North Korea and the U.S. have a friendly relationship, there's every chance that this plot will eventually seem as much a relic as all those films about Soviet terrorists, or about Rambo teaming up with the mujahideen. The multicolored group under Gruber also largely sidesteps the issue of racism, which is a very real problem any time you're casting one particular ethnicity as "the enemy."

One of the other things "Die Hard" does well is characterization. Every major character gets a story arc, from John to Holly to Ellis to Argyle, and even the minor characters have memorable moments, like the one terrorist who just wants a candy bar. In contrast, there's only one villain who gets even a little characterization in "Olympus Has Fallen," and even most of the heroic characters only exist as platitude-spouters. Everyone is a stereotype, and while that's a technique that can work well (see "Pacific Rim") it just comes off as lazy here.

"White House Down" provides a pretty stark contrast. It's a much more entertaining film, in part because it's not nearly so deadly serious as "Olympus Has Fallen," and in part because the screenwriter appears to have spent about fifteen minutes outlining his own story, then said "screw it" and did a find-and-replace on the "Die Hard" script. It's so slavishly devoted to aping "Die Hard" that the villains have a secret second plan, there's a scene with our hero on top of a speeding elevator, and there's even a "Mrs. McClane" moment. There are times where I honestly wished that it would ape "Die Hard" a little more--Channing Tatum is a hell of a lot more charming and compelling than Gerard Butler, with more humble origins as a secret service applicant who doesn't meet Maggie Gyllenhaal's (another "The Dark Knight" connection!) exacting standards, but he could still stand to be less sure of himself. We get a couple of bits of John McClane-esque "this is a bad idea" moments, but not really enough of them.

Otherwise, though, the places where "White House Down" distinguishes itself from "Die Hard" tend to be done well. Channing Tatum's politics-obsessed daughter is the Holly Gennero analogue, trapped in the occupied White House, and using her keen vlogging skills to leak information to the outside world. In most action and horror movies, cell phones are so inconvenient to plot contrivance that they have to be disposed of quickly, but this is one of the few things I've seen where a smartphone is not just used well, but made integral to the story. For much of the movie, Tatum is accompanied by Jamie Foxx's not-Barack-Obama President character, and the dynamic between the two is pretty entertaining--it takes a page from "Die Hard with a Vengeance," which is my second-favorite "Die Hard" flick, so that's a bonus for me.

"White House Down" follows the "Die Hard" formula with the minor characters, though it's not quite as skilled in giving them all good moments (the Glenn Beck stand-in is a fun idea but doesn't really get much to do). It does manage "Die Hard"'s trick of making seemingly innocuous lines and details, like a throwaway note about the tunnels that JFK used to sneak Marilyn Monroe into the White House or Tatum's daughter's flag-twirling, into more significant story elements down the line. It gives the movie a sense of cohesion that, again, too many of the pretenders miss. "Die Hard" is full of those moments, and it's really pretty shocking how much of the dialogue is foreshadowing.

I think the worst part of "White House Down" ended up being its politics, which are straight-up bonkers. The President has made a treaty with a bunch of nations that requires removing all the American troops from the Middle East, and in a world where even talking to Iran or withdrawing some troops is cause for major bipartisan pants-soiling in Congress, that broke my suspension of disbelief more than any other aspect of the film. Until, of course, it turns out bad guy James Woods's plan was to nuke the entire Middle East. I think the idea was to prevent the film from being too real-world political by inventing scenarios that were so over-the-top that they couldn't be owned by either major party, but it might have been better to go a little more subtle.

It seems I've come to the end of this rambling without an overall point. To sum up: "Die Hard" is an excellent movie, and is smarter than most give it credit for. Too many of its imitators (and sequels) are dazzled by memorable lines and explosions, and miss what made the movie clever and unique enough to stand the test of time. But if you're in the mood for a "Die Hard"-style flick that has a sense of humor about itself and also has an action President, you could do worse than "White House Down." Specifically, you could rent "Olympus Has Fallen." That would be worse.

Apropos of nothing, there's a line in "White House Down" (I think) which we misheard, and it sounded like something about Harrison Ford, which brought up the notion that to deal with the threat of White House-occupying terrorists, they needed to bring in the Battle President, and that would be amazing.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ender Bender 11: Chapter 8, "Rat" (Part 2)

Sorry about the delay, folks. Jumping right into things:

Ender notices Dink's late to things sometimes, so he decides to stalk him.

Remember how I said things were going to get weird? Yeah:

But Dink didn't practics. He stood near the door, watching Ender.
Ender stood across the room, watching Dink.
Neither spoke. It was plain Dink expected Ender to leave. It was just as plain that Ender was saying no.
Dink turned his back on Ender, methodically took off his flash suit, and gently pushed off from the floor. He drifted slowly toward the center of the room, very slowly, his body relaxing almost completely, so that his hands and arms seemed to be caught by almost nonexistent air currents in the room.
Yeah. Reading that scene, I couldn't stop thinking of the bathing scene from "Witness." I don't know how to interpret Card's fascination with underage nudity throughout this book. I mean, maybe it's trying to be like a camp thing? I never went to summer camp, so I really don't know. Do boys (and a single girl) just spend all their time naked at summer camp? Is this the equivalent of Dink skinny-dipping? If so, what does that mean for Ender just watching from the 'shore'?

This book is flipping weird.

Dink gets dressed again and takes Ender back to the empty barracks, where they talk about why Dink's never been promoted. Or, more accurately, why he's refused the promotions he's been given. It's all because of The Man, man.
["]I can't believe you haven't seen through all this crap yet, Ender. But I guess you're young. These other armies, they aren't the enemy. It's the teachers, they're the enemy. They get us to fight each other, to hate each other. The game is everything. Win win win. It amounts to nothing.
Take the red pill! You can't trust the system! In case you didn't remember when Ender explicitly statd this lesson before, the adults are the real enemy. You know it's a theme because they keep saying it. Like that bit of "Hamlet" where he says "lo, indecision is bad" a few times.

Despite doing his level best to make any and all subtext into just plain text, there's a decent amount to unpack here. For the most part, I've been looking at Battleschool as symbolizing military training--both the aspects that Card thinks are stupid and the things he thinks would make it better and more effective--but this chapter connects it further to the whole notion of sports in school. It clicks with a lot of things, actually, and I'm a little shocked that I didn't notice that in Salamander Army, Ender was essentially picked last and forced to play right field.

Dink is saying stuff that wouldn't have been out of place coming out of my mouth during a pep assembly in high school. The game is a waste of time and money, a barbaric, brainless distraction from the real issues. Of course, in this case, the people best able to espouse this view are the ones who are best at the game, and not the ones who (like me in high school) couldn't catch a pass to save their lives.

And this is where I see all the people saying that Ender's Game talks to kids without talking down to them (which I think includes Card himself in that introduction) and wonder if they're reading the same book. Maybe it's just me, but this kind of over-the-top pandering feels like condescension. "Sports are stupid, and you'd be better than anyone at them if you wanted to be. The only reason you're not popular is because they're all jealous of you, because you're clearly better than all of them anyway. They don't see the real truth, that they're just pawns in someone else's game and you're one of the enlightened few who can see the strings and how pointless it all is. What really matters is video games, which you are awesomer than anyone at." It speaks to that particular kind of disaffected, self-aggrandized, oversimplified conspiratorial mindset that I know was common among my teenage peers. And it speaks to that mindset in a way that says, "yes, you're absolutely right," with a little pat on the head. It'd be great if this book eventually took a turn toward showing that, in fact, this view of reality is not much more sophisticated than the one held by the so-called pawns, but based on the tone here, I don't particularly expect that to be the case.

Dink says he doesn't leave because, despite everything, he's as addicted to the game as anyone else. He's the pro-wrestling fan who knows it's all staged but loves it anyway, the video game addict who knows next year's Call of Duty sequel won't be appreciably different from this year's, but drops the $60 nonetheless. If nothing else, this contradiction in Dink's character feels realistic.

He further explains why he's not a commander, pointing to Rosen's neuroses (because of course the Jewish character is neurotic. Did Card learn everything he knows about Judaism from Woody Allen?), that he's afraid of the dark and doesn't understand why his team actually wins battles.
Any minute somebody could find out that Rosen isn't some magic Israeli general who can win no matter what. He doesn't know why anybody wins or loses. Nobody does.
Nobody, except strategy genius Ender Wiggin, that is!

See, this whole system has replaced real childhood, which Dink knows about because books.
"Children can lose sometimes, and nobody cares. Children aren't in armies, they aren't commanders, they don't rule over forty other kids, it's more than anybody can take and not get crazy."
This reads like it's meant to be cutting social commentary, but about what? Little league?

Dink continues on, and Ender starts crying because he thinks about home and Valentine, which causes Dink to continue more about how they're all supposed to be adults and nobody cries. He talks about how crazy Bonzo is, that everyone at Battle school is a little crazy, and how getting naked and floating in zero-g is how he deals with the craziness.

And eventually we get to the crux of the conversation:
"I can't believe you still believe it."
"Believe what?"
"The bugger menace. Save the world. Listen, Ender, if the buggers were coming back to get us, they'd be here. They aren't invading again. We beat them and they're gone."
"But the videos--"
"All from the First and Second Invasions. Your grandparents weren't born yet when Mazer Rackham wiped them out. You watch. It's all a fake. There is no war, and they're just screwing around with us."
It's all a conspiracy, man, so the government can stay in power over the sheeple, man! And it's all gonna lead to a civil war where it'll be Americans against everyone else and by the way Dink's not American, which is info we're getting right now because it's relevant now and wasn't before so there's no need to go back and edit it in at a less awkward moment.

Ender doesn't believe Dink's conspiracy theory, and chalks it up to a different conspiracy, that the Russian hegemony that controls the Netherlands, where Dink is from, tightly controls the local media, but "lies could not last long in America," and I just chuckle. And of course, as with every conversation, Ender learns an important lesson. And as with every important lesson that Ender learns, Card feels the need to spell it out for the reader, as if this were the end of a "G.I. Joe" episode.
It [the seed of doubt planted by Dink's words] made Ender listen more carefully to what people meant, instead of what they said. It made him wise.

Next time, Ender fights the system, man!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ender Bender 10: Chapter 8, "Rat" (Part 1)

Colonel Graff and Major Anderson, those are our adult conversation partners. I know they've both had their names said earlier in the book, but I'm writing them here so I can look it up easily and stop forgetting. Colonel Statler and Major Waldorf. Got it.

Graff's trying to pressure Anderson into rigging the games, messing with the students to put more pressure on. There's a lot of back and forth about the battleroom games, what their purpose is and what they mean, and I had to keep going back and counting paragraphs so I could figure out which side each talking head was supposed to be on. Anderson wants to preserve the games as the status symbol that they've come to represent for the kids, Graff wants to put Ender through the ringer. It's hard to find any sympathy for Graff when he's so myopically, obsessively focused on one kid and trying to structure the entire system around that one kid, while Anderson understandably has an entire school full of future soldiers to consider.

There's some "well I'll go over your head" back and forth, which brings us to this:
This is something to be decided by people who know what they're doing, not these frightened politicians who got their office because they happen to be politically potent in the country they came from.
Haha, yeah, that civilian oversight of the military is so lame, amirite?

There's also "Ender Wiggin is ten times smarter and stronger than I am," which I can't help but read as "Ooh, Poochie is one outrageous dude." Graff goes on a bit about how he could never withstand what he's putting Ender through. Why he thinks it'll an unanswered question.

And then we start the chapter proper in a not unexpected fashion:
"Ender Wiggin, the little farthead who leads the standings, what a pleasure to have you with us." The commander of Rat Army lay sprawled on a lower bunk wearing only his desk.
Flatulence? Check. Characters talking about how great Ender is? Check. Young boys unnecessarily naked? Check and then some. Meet Ender's new commander, Rosen. And if you thought there might be some issues with characters like Alai and Petra and Bonzo, then let me reassure you: Card was just warming up.

"We doing OK, Ender Bender.
Oh hey, it's the title of this series!

I Rose de Nose, Jewboy extraordinaire, and you ain’t nothin but a pinheaded pinprick of a goy. Don’t you forget it."

Since the I.F. was formed, the Strategos of the military forces had always been a Jew. There was a myth that Jewish generals didn’t lose wars. And so far it was still true. It made any Jew in the Battle School dream of being Strategos, and conferred prestige on him from the start.
Okay, that is some serious Protocols of the Elders of Zion stuff--and the irony that I very nearly typed "Enders" there is not lost on me. So, everyone's forced to give up their religion, except the Jews? Or is Jewish being treated more as an ethnicity here? And either way, Jewish generals never lose wars? I don't even know where to begin, except to say that reading this reminded me of those "none of the Jews came to work on 9/11" conspiracy theorists.

It also caused resentment. Rat Army was often called the K*** Force, half in praise, half in parody of Mazer Rackham’s Strike Force.
You have got to be flipping kidding me.

I wonder how many kids learned the k-word from this book. I suspect it's a good deal more than learned the n-word from a few chapters ago. I distinctly remember that my first exposure to that particular anti-Semitic slur was in a Wizard Magazine article, which discussed that the word had appeared in an issue of X-Men, as a typo that was meant to say "killer." I don't know why Card thought it important to dredge up for this tasteless throwaway line in service of describing a tasteless stereotype character who might as well be voiced by Jackie Mason and drawn like a character from a Chick tract. Maybe the word was more common in the mid-'80s, or maybe anti-Semitism is more widespread in the places Card frequented in younger years than they appeared to be throughout my development.

Either way, what the actual hell? And it goes on.

There were many who liked to remember that during the Second Invasion, even though an American Jew, as President, was Hegemon of the alliance, an Israeli Jew was Strategos in overall command of I.F. defense, and a Russian Jew was Polemarch of the fleet, it was Mazer Rackham, a little-known, twice-court-martialled, half-Maori New Zealander whose Strike Force broke up and finally destroyed the bugger fleet in the action around Saturn.
Those Jews notably don't get the credit because they're politicians, even though Card's stance that the leadership of the military and not the individual soldiers deserves credit for successful battles. Leadership only counts if it's not civilian leadership.

If Mazer Rackham could save the world, then it didn’t matter a bit whether you were a Jew or not, people said.
But it did matter, and Rose the Nose knew it. He mocked himself to forestall the mocking comments of anti-semites—almost everyone he defeated in battle became, at least for a time, a Jew-hater—but he also made sure everyone knew what he was. His army was in second place, bucking for first.
"Almost everyone he defeated in battle became, at least for a time, a Jew-hater."

You guys, I don't even know at this point. It seems like the only consistent thing in this effed-up future is the hate. Prejudices never go away, it's just that minorities learn to laugh at them (like Alai), use them (like Rosen), or accept them as the natural products of biology (like all the women).

And six-year-olds sling around ethnic slurs as meaningless jokes. Including our hero, everyone.

This scene keeps going, despite all sense of tact and dignity, and it just becomes more and more baffling.
"We only got three rules here. Do what I tell you and don't piss in the bed."
Ender nodded. He knew that Rose wanted him to ask what the third rule was. So he did.
"That was three rules. We don't do too good in math, here."
The message was clear. Winning is more important than anything.
I'm glad Card spelled out that clear message, because I certainly wouldn't have gotten "winning is everything" from "we're bad at math." Somewhere along the way in my English education, I was told that you shouldn't write things like "it is obvious" or "it is clear" because if it really were those things, you wouldn't have to say them. It's nice that Card has decided to ignore those rules, just as surely as he ignores that "show, don't tell" one, and the "revise your rough draft" one.

Though I'm sure that Card probably thought that having a Jewish character be bad at math was as subversive as having the black character (mostly) not talk in the AAVE-style slang.

Rosen is placing Ender in Dink Meeker's [pla]toon, and tells him not to use his desk, because he doesn't want genius programmer Ender messing with his program.

That program?
Everybody erupred in laughter. It took Ender a moment to understand why. Rose had programmed his desk to display and animate a bigger-than-lifesize picture of male genitals, which waggled back and forth as Rose held the desk on his naked lap.
Well, there's some verisimilitude for you. If the years of being in schools have taught me anything, it's that no matter how advanced a technology is, some guy is going to draw a dick with it.

Ender finds out that Dink specifically requested him, and begins a habit of offering sage cynicism that continues throughout the chapter.
"Listen, Ender, commanders have just as much authority as you let them have. The more you obey them, the more power they have over you.
That's so deep, man. Dink is our resident James Dean.

Ender gets to have a more active role in the battles this time around, but while Dink enthusiastically trusts Ender's zero-g instincts, he doesn't entirely understand them. Because that's not something you'd eventually get used to or figure out the more you did it over several years or anything. It's certainly not the kind of thing that adult astronauts who spend just a few months in space adjust to so fully that they have a hard time readjusting when they return to Earth. But I guess a few hours each week in battles is different from full-time zero-g.

So if zero-g combat and coordination is so important, why have gravity in the rest of the station?

Ender's tactics catch on, despite the other soldiers' reluctance and inability to totally intuitively comprehend the relevant physics. I know, how gauche. Being part of a real army makes Ender even more popular among his launch group.

Back in the barracks, Rosen reminds Ender that he was ordered not to use his desk. And the Ender who was smugly polite to Bonzo is nowhere to be found in this exchange. He's been emboldened by Dink's cynicism, clearly:
Ender set the desk on his bunk and stood up. "I need trigonometry more than I need you."
Rose was taller than Ender by at least forty centimeters. But Ender was not particularly worried. It would not come to physical violence, and if it did, Ender thought he could hold his own. Rose was lazy and didn't know personal combat.
Yes, our Jewish character is lazy, lewd, unserious, and only interested in moneywinning. Keep subverting those tropes, Orson!

There's some back-and-forth about how Ender disobeyed commands in his last army too, but of course it's a good thing because Ender did it. Naturally, this leads to retaliation, as Rosen decides to throw Ender out into their next battle all on his own.

And, naturally, Ender turns it into a victory:
It was Centipede Army, and they only began to emerge from their door when Ender was halfway across the battleroom. Many of them were able to get under cover of stars quickly, but Ender had doubled up his legs under him and, holding his pistol at his crotch, he was firing between his legs and freezing many of them as they emerged.
No subtext there, no siree. So Rat Army wins, in no small part due to Ender's efforts, and this kind of ambush attack becomes a trend. And Ender stops being the first in the standings but then he gets better and becomes the best fighter ever always forever.

We'll leave it there for today. Next time, things get weird.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ender Bender 9: Chapter 7, "Salamander" (Part 2)

When last we left off, Card was ticking "misogyny" off the list of offenses he's happy to commit in this novel. Ender and Petra have agreed to train together in their off hours, and that's where we pick up now. They have a positively riveting conversation about gravity manipulation, which appears to be borne--like so much of the last few chapters--out of Card's sudden realization that there are some inconsistencies in the world he's created, and his unwillingness to go back and edit things to smooth them out.

And so we consider why the space station which achieves simulated gravity via rotation still has gravity just outside of the zero-g battlerooms, and come to the conclusion that technology has advanced since the last war, and adults have lied about it.

Petra realizes, quite accurately, that gravity manipulation would make for some devastating weapons--something I recall being a plot point in the Mass Effect universe--and Ender concludes that the adults have been actively deceiving them.

But...why? What reason would there be to hide gravity manipulation technology? Are there Bugger spies about, collecting intel on enemy technology? Wouldn't the existence of this technology be something to train with? The zero-g battleroom simulations might give a part of the process--no longer functioning with the assumption of a single gravitational well--but wouldn't do anything to train people in how to function in a variable gravitational field. Fighting when weightless won't do much good if you don't know how to fight when you weigh ten times as much as normal, or when gravity suddenly changes directions.

But then, I'm not entirely sure that I understand the battleroom's purpose anyway. Up to this point, we've heard about the war in terms of "fleets," which implies epic space opera battles between fighters and ships in space, not single soldiers fighting other single soldiers as they careen through a weightless environment. That seems like a terribly inefficient method, honestly, and one that would be easily countered by, you know, using a spaceship.

At the end of all this, Ender makes another theme explicit for the subtext-deficient:
[T]he most important message was this: the adults are the enemy, not the other armies. They do not tell us the truth.

Ender and Petra do some target shooting, learning a bit about how the weapons work. Petra talks about some of the quirks of their light guns, and how lots of people make mistakes because they don't know how it functions--again, something it seems like it'd be worthwhile to teach the recruits. I get that there's a sink-or-swim philosophy going on, but it's not like everyone just learns these things through experience. Ender didn't; he had it told to him, by someone who had figured it out on their own. Meanwhile, others are developing bad habits that might hinder their performance in battle. It's a great method of education, if your goal is to produce a small number of people who function at a high level on any particular skill, and a large number of people who barely get by or worse, but it doesn't seem like it would produce a very effective army.

Afterward, Ender joins the Salamander group on an army drill, during which he's instructed to sit aside and do his schoolwork. Much to my surprise, he recognizes that there's something he's not good at--specifically that Bonzo was right about his combat readiness, since all the other members of Salamander Army, by virtue of a rigid training regimen, are way better than he is.

Not surprisingly, he realizes this because he decides to sit and silently judge Bonzo's tactics, because Ender is obviously the better tactician. Ah well, baby steps toward humility. Not that he needs it, because this isn't Bonzo's Game (which I'm pretty sure involved tossing ping-pong balls into buckets). Ender's the one with his name in the book's title, so he gets to be right about everything, including his realization that the well-rehearsed formations are too predictable, a point which will come into play in like three pages. Card doesn't engage in foreshadowing so much as rightbeforeshadowing.

After the drill, Ender decides to use his free-play time to do actual practice, but the only people he can think of to join him are the kids in his launch group:
"Hey, the great soldier returns!" said Bernard. Ender stood in the doorway of his old barracks. He'd only been away for a day, but already it seemed like an alien place, and the others of his launch group were strangers. Almost he turned around and left. But there was Alai, who had made their friendship sacred. Alai was not a stranger.
Beautiful, perfect Alai with his perfect hair and perfect teeth, and their sacred relationship. And friendly Bernard, of course. No mention whatsoever of Shen, because the people who matter to Ender are not the ones who show him compassion and respect, but the ones whose friendship would be useful or beneficial in some other way.

Naturally, Ender talks them into joining him in some training exercises, but when he gets back to the Salamander barracks, he gets a dressing down from Bonzo. And considering how they already dress down in Salamander...(rimshot).

Bonzo orders him to stop practicing with his launch group, and if you thought Ender was insufferably smug before, just you wait.
“No more practicing with those little farts.”
“May I speak to you privately?” asked Ender.
It was a request that commanders were required to allow. Bonzo’s face went angry, and he led Ender out into the corridor. “Listen, Wiggin, I don’t want you, I’m trying to get rid of you, but don’t give me any problems or I’ll paste you to the wall.”
A good commander, thought Ender, doesn’t have to make stupid threats.
Right, if Bonzo were a good commander, he would have beaten Ender to a pulp to ensure Ender didn't fight back again, and to send a message to anyone else who stepped out of line. Right?

Bonzo grew annoyed at Ender’s silence. “Look, you asked me to come out here, now talk.”
“Sir, you were correct not to place me in a toon. I don’t know how to do anything.”
“I don’t need you to tell me when I’m correct.”
“But I’m going to become a good soldier. I won’t screw up your regular drill, but I’m going to practice, and I’m going to practice with the only people who will practice with me, and that’s my Launchies.”
“You’ll do what I tell you, you little bastard.”
“That’s right, sir. I’ll follow all the orders that you’re authorized to give. But free play is free. No assignments can be given. None. By anyone.”
He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.
It's clear that Bonzo is in the wrong here, and overreaching, but Ender's condescending explanation isn't exactly going to help things. What happened to the kid who allegedly knew how to bring people together? Instead he's going to condescend to his superior, and when that doesn't work, he issues an empty threat.

No, really:
"If you try to control my free play, I can get you iced."
It probably wasn't true, but it was possible.
So a good leader doesn't have to make stupid threats. Except when they do. Add that to "bullying is bad, except when good guys do it" on the list of mixed messages this book is sending. And then, to rub some extra smarm in the wound:
"It isn't my fault you gave me that order in front of everybody," Ender said. "But if you want, I'll pretend you won this argument. Then tomorrow you can tell me you changed your mind."
Spoiler alert: at the end of this chapter, Bonzo punches Ender around a bit. After this bit, I'm inclined to think it was justified. "I'll pretend you won this argument"? Wow.

But Ender's the name in the title, so obviously that's exactly what happens the next morning.

There's a battle between the Salamander and Condor Armies a few days later, and we see that the battleroom setup is a little different in the actual fights. There are big floating boxes designed to be obstacles, called "stars." And they lead to this wonderfully economical couplet:
Apparently the soldiers already knew how to handle the stars.
But it soon became clear to Ender, as he sat and watched the battle from the corridor, that they did not know how to handle the stars.
I...I just...I mean...I don't even. That's exactly how it is in the book, two sentences, one right above the other, with a contradiction that completely invalidates the need for the first one, and which could have been fixed with about thirty seconds of revision. "Ender assumed Bonzo's formations already accounted for the stars, but it became clear as he watched that Bonzo just didn't know how to handle them."

Ender watches quietly, and spends more time on his fascinating notions of how to orient himself in a zero-g environment. He gets shot at one point, which freezes his legs, but in such a way that he can use them as a shield. Not that it does much good, since he's been ordered not to do anything. And he doesn't. As a result, Condor is able to get five soldiers over to open Salamander's gate, ending the game.

I'll note that a paragraph is spent on how good Petra is, calling her "especially deadly," and noting that she became the focus of Condor's fire. Petra is singled out for being the best shot in the group, and while we don't get a lot of indication of her skill relative to the other soldiers, it's pretty clear that she's something special. Which is part of what makes the treatment of women in this book so frustrating. This is "backwards and in high heels," the rare girl who can only be considered a near-equal because she's significantly better than all the boys around her. It's not what we'd expect to see if this were an equal society, nor is it what we'd see if there really were those evolutionary reasons for girls to tend not to make it to battle school. Wouldn't she just be equal, then? Not significantly different than anyone else?

No, instead we see things the way they are in our real world, where women have to work harder and better to achieve less than their male peers. Where women are teachers and nurses and mothers but not soldiers. It's the world we expect to see when there are systematic institutional and social barriers preventing women from achieving equality. It is, yet again, a very straight white male utopia, with a straight white male chosen-one hero destined to save it.

And I don't understand why, honestly, beyond Card's own prejudices. The only thing that would be different so far if half the battle school students were girls is the whole "Bonzo doesn't want you walking around naked in front of Petra" business, which was creepy and weird anyway, and even that wouldn't require much change to stay intact.

Well, there would be one other difference: it would allow us to know, at least on the fringes of the story, that this is a universe where women can be more than just stereotypes and stock characters. Where it's not just the one token girl who's good enough to be one of the boys--and the other token girl who's placed on a pedestal, but still couldn't hack it because she's just too darn compassionate and nice. Madonna and Whedonesque.

Moving right along, Ender realizes he could easily have prevented the loss, but he's a good soldier who follows orders as given. He gets to take smug satisfaction in having the best score of the match, since he never missed a shot and wasn't completely disabled. As a wise man once said, "the two sweetest words in the English language: de-fault!" Ender expects Bonzo to change his mind in light of this, but Bonzo holds fast. And Ender starts talking like a supervillain.

After breakfast, Bonzo looked for him. "The order still stands," he said, "and don't you forget it."
It will cost you, you fool. I may not be a good soldier, but I can still help and there's no reason you shouldn't let me.
You fool, you'll pay for this! RICHARRRDS!

Actually, if this book suddenly turned toward Ender becoming history's greatest villain, it'd be a ton more enjoyable.

Wheels spin for a few pages. Ender trains with Petra and the launchies. Salamander climbs the rankings despite how bad Ender thinks Bonzo's strategic skills are. Ender has a birthday and no one celebrates, but he and Alai kiss over a cake.

Maybe not that last part.

Incidentally he thinks about talking to Petra about home, and it reminds him of Valentine. Crazy how the one female character in the book reminds him of the only other female character in the book. Just crazy how that works. Isn't that crazy? And the only reason Ender's even here in the first place is because he wants so badly to protect Valentine. Because the person who defended him from his murderous brother is the one who needs saving.

Ender begins his fourth game the next day. I don't have the patience to figure out how they're defining "game" or "fourth" at this point, but there definitely haven't been four actual intramural battles in the book so far. It's just a throwaway sentence that allows Card to work the title into the text. Salamander goes up against Leopard Army, which has a much more free-form way of fighting. They lose lots of people, but win the psychological victory, making Salamander panicked and fearful.

Ender, meanwhile, freezes his legs as in the previous battle, so he can use them as a shield. When the last of Salamander's soldiers were defeated, Ender drew his gun and picked off enough enemy soldiers to make the game a draw.

Everyone assumes that this was Bonzo's plan all along, but of course Bonzo is pissed. And rightfully so--stupid or not, orders are orders, and there's a hierarchy for a reason. How is Ender going to look at the soldiers under his eventual command who think they know better than him?

Which is not to say that Bonzo is a great commander or anything, he's clearly a caricature of a terrible, overly-rigid commander, who prizes strict adherence to inflexible dictates rather than training a force that can respond effectively to enemy tactics. He's also, like, ten years old.

Ender's sure that he's outgrown Salamander Army:
I've learned all I'm ever going to learn from you. How to fail with style, that's all you know, Bonzo.
Yeah, because one week with a commander is really all you need to have to learn everything. But no, of course, Ender is right. His name's in the title. He recaps what he's learned:
The enemy's gate is down. Use my legs as a shield in battle. A small reserve, held back until the end of the game, can be decisive. And soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they've been given.
Huh. I wonder if any such soldiers were fighting in Gettysburg or Grant's long campaign. Based on what we've seen from Card so far, I expect these lessons to either come up immediately in the next chapter, or to never become relevant again.

Ender's about to get into bed (naked, Card is compelled to tell us, for some reason) when Bonzo comes to tell him he's been traded to Rat Army. Then Bonzo slaps him hard, and punches him in the stomach, bringing him to his knees.
"You disobeyed me," Bonzo said. Loudly, for all to hear. "No good soldier ever disobeys."
But of course, this begins turning the other Salamanders against Bonzo, because they know Ender's the only reason they didn't lose that battle. Ender Wiggin knows how to bring people together: give them a common enemy.

He and Petra talk the next day about having to cancel their training sessions, rather than anger Bonzo further. Then he heads off for Rat Army--but first signs up for combat training so the next time he gets in a fight with someone like Bonzo, he won't get so badly hurt.

I guess Card forgot that Ender was doing crazy kickflip action in the first chapter.

Let's recap what we've learned: Bullying is bad, except when good guys do it. Friends exist only for your benefit and should be cultivated carefully and discarded quickly on that basis. Good leaders don't need to make stupid threats, the threats a good leader makes are anything but stupid. Soldiers should follow orders except when they think they know better than their commanders.

Such heroism.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Not the Ender

I promise I'll keep writing about this awful book, but it's obviously going to be a little late.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ender Bender 8: Chapter 7, "Salamander" (Part 1)

So far we've had the misogyny of female irrelevance, outright homophobia, and shockingly deep-seated racism. What fresh bigotry will Card reveal in this chapter?

I want to pause a moment here. I wrote that intro last week, before I actually started reading the chapter. I was mostly being facetious. I had no idea what I was getting into. This chapter. Holy crap, this chapter.

The chapters keep getting longer, something that feeds into some thoughts I've had about Card's writing that I'll elaborate on later in this post.

We begin, as always, with the adult conversation, this time remarking on Ender's slaying of the giant last chapter. One says "he won the game that couldn't be won," which further marks out the Giant's Drink section as Card's attempt at a Kobayashi Maru scenario. "Wrath of Khan" came out three years before this full novel was released, and I have a hard time believing that Card wasn't influenced. It's a shame that he couldn't learn the key lesson from it, which was that Kirk beat the impossible situation through intellect, not brute force.

There's a telling bit of dialogue here, which I absolutely love:
"Does it ever seem to you that these boys aren't children? I look at what they do, the way they talk, and they don't seem like little kids."
"They're the most brilliant children in the world, each in his own way."
"But shouldn't they still act like children? They aren't normal. They act like--history. Napoleon and Wellington. Caesar and Brutus."
"Hey, have you noticed that our cast of six-year-olds doesn't act or sound like any six-year-olds that have ever existed? Gosh, that's weird. Not weird enough to go back and revise anything that's already written, just weird enough to hang a lampshade on it so it looks intentional and not like terrible writing."

The chapter proper opens with Alai and Ender talking about how Ender accomplished that prank some time ago where he used the electronic desk system to humiliate Bernard. Alai needs Ender's technological expertise.
"Can I finish eating?"
"You never finish eating."
It was true. Ender's tray always had food on it after a meal. Ender looked at the plate and decided he was through. "Let's go then."
First, if a normal human being were to say that someone "never finish[es] eating," that would indicate a character who is constantly eating, who is never done. Not someone who never cleans their tray completely of food. "Finish my plate" might make more sense, but lots of things would make more sense. Like introducing this apparently relevant character detail in one of the several other meal scenes we've had in this book so far (at least two, right?). Not, you know, in chapter seven.

They get back to the barracks, but Ender can't open his locker. Hey, remember when I noted last chapter how "progressive" it was that Card didn't write Alai's dialogue in that faux-ebonics slang that he used a few chapters ago?
"What up?" asked Alai.
In answer, Ender palmed his locker. "Unauthorized Access Attempt," it said. It didn't open.
"Somebody done a dance on your head, mama," Alai said. "Somebody eated your face."

Ender's been reassigned from the launch group to Salamander Army. It's unconventional, since Ender's so young and not even that great at the battleroom, and it sucks because things are finally going right for Ender, for once. Being so much better than everyone is so hard you guys. Ender gets upset but tries to force himself not to cry.
Alai saw the tears but had the grace not to say so. "They're fartheads, Ender, they won't even let you take anything you own."
"Fartheads." I should have kept count of how many flatulence references Card makes. It's getting ridiculous.

I should also have a running subtext count:
On impulse, Ender hugged him, tight, almost as if he were Valentine. He even thought of Valentine then and wanted to go home. "I don't want to go," he said.
Alai hugged him back. "I understand them, Ender. You are the best of us. Maybe they in a hurry to teach you everything."
Gag me. It's the first rule of writing, isn't it? "Show, don't tell"? We haven't seen that Ender is "the best of" anyone at anything, except maybe playing with computers. But as long as we keep having characters (and Ender himself) talking about how great and awesome and better than everyone else he is, then it doesn't matter what his actions show, right? "Words speak louder than actions," that's how that phrase goes, isn't it?

There's a part of this that does speak to me. I moved around a lot as a kid, so I get that feeling of being ripped away from things just when they were starting to go right--and even escaping bad situations and getting to make a fresh start, like he did when going to the school. It's really the only bit of Ender's character that feels genuine, and I wish we saw more of it.

Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, "Salaam." Then, red-faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks. Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden. A suppressed religion, perhaps.
I suppose it's, again, "progressive" to have a Muslim character in a book like this, showing that Catholics and Mormons aren't the only ones continuing to practice their religion in secret. But then, having the only black character also being the only Muslim character (at least so far) feels like ticking boxes on the stereotype chart.

Ender leaves--without so much as a word about Shen, the first friend he had in the launch group. But Shen wasn't talented at the battleroom or at leadership, so he doesn't really matter, I guess. Instead of heading to his newly-assigned barracks, he goes to play video games instead. He's angry, so he wants to do something violent, and I imagine that rings true for most of us who play violent video games. Instead, he ends up in a playground with a bunch of children, and his own avatar has become a child as well--and the smallest one, at that.

He keeps trying to join the children in their games, but the playground equipment is rigged so he keeps falling through things and being humiliated. The children point and laugh at him each time. Ender's response is completely healthy: "Ender wanted to hit them, to throw them in the brook. Instead he walked into the forest."

But when he gets to a well in the forest, he's surrounded by wolves--who used to be the children at the playground, and they eat him! SYMBOLISM.

Eventually he lures all the wolf-children into traps using the rigged playground equipment, and kills each one in turn. He makes his way back to the well, and ends up at the bottom, where he finds a door marked "THE END OF THE WORLD" in glowing emeralds. He steps through, falls from a cliff, and gets carried by a cloud to a castle where a rug turns into a snake that says "Death is your only escape."

The video game sequences strike this bizarre balance between game mechanics, psychedelic surrealism, and plot-relevant symbolism that somehow manages to be both obtuse and heavy-handed. I just find them terminally boring.

Anyway, Ender's desk flashes with a notice that he's spent too much time playing video games and now he's late and it's almost like how I'm writing this post late after forgetting about it and playing a bunch of FTL.

But he can't get the game out of his head:
Perhaps it's called the end of the world because it's the end of the games, because I can go to one of the villages and become one of the little boys working and playing there, with nothing to kill and nothing to kill me, just living there.
As he thought of it, though, he could not imagine what "just living" might actually be. He had never done it in his life. But he wanted to do it anyway.
Ender just wants to be a normal kid! It's so hard to have everyone telling you how awesome you are!

He follows the green-green-brown color coding to get to his new barracks, where no one really even notices him. They're all bigger and older than he is.
He tried to see which of the boys was the commander, but most were somewhere between battle dress and what the soldiers called their sleep uniform--skin from head to toe. Many of them had desks out, but few were studying.
It starts softly & subtly, but the stuff about children walking around naked gets really weird, really quickly.

Ender's looking for his new commander, Bonzo Madrid. And we get this truly confusing exchange.
Now another boy joined the conversation, a smaller boy, but still larger than Ender. "Not bahn-zoe, pisshead. Bone-So. The name's Spanish. Bonzo Madrid. Aqui nosotros hablamos español, Señor Gran Fedor."
"You must be Bonzo, then?" Ender asked, pronouncing the name correctly.
"No, just a brilliant and talented polyglot. Petra Arkanian. The only girl in Salamander Army. With more balls than anybody else in the room."
First, the Spanish: I know enough to have recognized the meaning off the bat: "here we speak Spanish, Mr. Great/Big," but "fedor" appears to either be slang or Portuguese, and might mean "stink." It makes the most sense, since it sounds like it ought to be a diminutive insult, but it's weird that such middle-school-level Spanish would suddenly shift like that. Either way, I think we can safely count it as a fart joke and add it to the tally.

It doesn't really matter. Whether Petra is just lying or whatever, Salamander Army never speaks Spanish again. Which, I suppose, makes sense in a world where we've established that everyone speaks "Common" (read: English), except the rebellious French. Are the Spaniards also rebels? Is Petra a student of dead languages? Should we expect consistency and continuity within a single novel? Questions we'll no doubt never know the answers to.

I read that section over several times, to make sure I had it right. It's not just me, is it? That Petra is described as "another boy...smaller...but still larger than Ender"? I guess Card's trying to get across that Petra is so boyish that she looks like just another one of the guys, but it's still a really weird way to introduce her.

But don't worry, it gets weirder.
"Mother Petra she talking," said one of the boys, "she talking, she talking."
Another one chimed in. "Shit talking, shit talking, shit talking!"
Quite a few laughed.
"Just between you and me," Petra said, "if they gave the Battle School an enema, they'd stick it in at green green brown."
Good to see the casual sexism and lazy scatological humor continuing, though Petra's retort is actually pretty good. Ender doesn't think so, though. Continuing to prove what a wonderful human being he is, he gets all morose over his circumstances, and is angry because "he had made exactly the wrong friend." See, it doesn't matter that Petra's one of few girls with enough skill for this thoroughly sexist system to treat her as moderately equal with all these boys, it doesn't matter that Petra's clearly the smartest person in the room, it doesn't matter that she's the only one who talks to him like a human being. Being friends with her is politically inconvenient, because she's clearly unpopular.

It's becoming a theme, isn't it? Ender doesn't want to be like the loser older kid that he meets when he first gets to Battle School. Shen gets shoved to the sidelines when Ender makes friends with Alai, because Alai is talented and popular. Now, just after lamenting how he was losing everything and being thrust into an unfamiliar place, he's going to begrudge a friend because it might not improve his standing? Beggars, apparently, can be choosers. And Ender continues to be the most terrible character in the book.

I'd love to summarize and skip forward, but this paragraph just keeps getting worse.
For a moment, as Ender looked around at the laughing, jeering faces, he imagined their bodies covered with hair, their teeth pointed for tearing. Am I the only human being in this place? Are all the others animals, waiting only to devour?
Then he remembered Alai. In every army, surely, there was at least one worth knowing.
There's at least one worth knowing, unless it's a chick, amirite fellas? And let's not ignore the oh-so-subtle racism of "these people act like animals oh hey that reminds me of my black friend."

But then it all stops. All but the subtext:
A boy stood there, tall and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender lips that hinted at refinement. I would follow such beauty, said something inside Ender. I would see as those eyes see.
Just...moving on. This, of course, is Bonzo Madrid, with his perfect hair. He grills Ender, which turns into a ritualistic pep talk designed to bring the army together in the face of adversity. But Ender's a liability that Bonzo wants to trade away as soon as possible. He's clearly not part of the group...and he's not the only one:
"Nothing personal, Wiggin, but I'm sure you can get your training at someone else's expense."
"He's all heart," Petra said.
Madrid stepped closer to the girl and slapped her across the face with the back of his hand. It made little sound, for only his fingernails had hit her. But there were bright red marks, four of them, on her cheek, and little pricks of blood marked where the tips of his fingernails had struck.
Holy crap. I mean, after the racism surrounding our first black character last chapter, I should have been expecting some hardcore misogyny, but actually backhanding the first female character not related to the protagonist, and then going right on as if nothing happened, that was well beyond anything I expected.

Bonzo orders Ender to sit on the sidelines during battles and do nothing. Petra remains silent--because of course she does--and Ender decides that he might as well make friends with her because he's obviously got nothing to lose by doing so. Ender's "all heart," too. The heart of a sociopath.

Ender finds his bunk, notices that the lockers don't lock and his desk is unsecured, and realized his days of having privacy are over. Why, it's like he's naked--SYMBOLISM.

Petra comes and talks to him, outlining her position in the group and how much disdain she has for the losers Bonzo stuck her with. Ender's careful to distance himself from her remarks--just because he wants to be her friend doesn't mean he wants the other people to think he agrees with her or anything. But they hit it off anyway because Ender can make friends even when he's a standoffish jackass, because he's so great. And then there's this:
"Bonzo isn't going to let you practice. He's going to make you take your desk to the battleroom and study. He's right, in a way--he don't want a totally untrained little kid to screw up his precision maneuvers." She lapsed into giria, the slangy talk that imitated the pidgin English of uneducated people. "Bonzo, he pre-cise. He so careful, he piss on a plate and never splash."
Oh hey, that slang which just happens to be obviously patterned after African-American Vernacular English, that's the "pidgin English" of "uneducated people." Good lord.

Petra offers to train Ender one-on-one, and there's some description of the mechanics of the battlerooms, which comes up again later and is super interesting both times. And then there's bedtime:
Getting toward bedtime. Ender didn't know which bathroom to use.
"Go left out of the door," said the boy on the next bunk. "We share it with Rat, Condor, and Squirrel."
Ender thanked him and started to walk on past.
"Hey," said the boy. "You can't go like that. Uniforms at all times out of this room."
"Even going to the toilet?"
"Especially. And you're forbidden to speak to anyone from any other army. At meals or in the toilet. You can get away with it sometimes in the game room, and of course whenever a teacher tells you to. But if Bonzo catch you, you dead, eh?"
"And, uh, Bonzo get mad if you skin by Petra."
"She was naked when I came in, wasn't she?", she wasn't. At least, there was no indication that she was. And it would suggest that she was naked during their whole conversation later on, because it happened right after. Which makes the image of her standing there with blood trickling down her face that much more disturbing and misogynist.

But it also makes the scene where she's described as a boy make a lot less sense, unless Ender's pre-Battle School education didn't include, you know, anatomy. Yes, there's a difference between sex and gender, but I'm pretty sure the guy who was on the board of the National Organization for Marriage wasn't trying to make progressive sci-fi with a prominent transgendered character.

In fact, what I think is going on is a complete lack of revision. I highly doubt that Card so much as looked at a page once he was done writing it. I don't imagine there was much editing done in general--and given Card's ego, given his introduction where he talked about editing other people's work to punch up the dialogue--I don't imagine he would have taken suggestions for change well. But it's the only way I can make sense of these weird out-of-order details--retroactive nudity here, the detail about Ender's eating habits introduced this chapter, the lampshade-hanging on the children who don't act like children, the continuity errors with the language, even the lack of uniformity in the chapter page lengths, all speaks to a book that's still an early--if not a first--draft. Card thanks two editors in the acknowledgements, and I can only imagine what they did to release a manuscript that's still so rough.

Ender thinks about what a stupid rule that is, since "Petra still looked like a boy," and how it just served to set her apart and split the army. Ender, of course, knows better. He's an expert at bringing armies together, like he did with the launch group, or more accurately, like Alai did. Ender's ability to bring people together was well-honed by his pre-Battle School experience bringing together his peers at school and bringing together his siblings.

He does think that Alai makes a better commander than Bonzo, but that's about the closest to real that his delusional reverie gets on the way to the bathroom.

Someone talks to him in the bathroom, breaking a cardinal rule of the man code:
"Hey, look! Salamander's getting babies now! Look at this! He could walk between my legs without touching my balls!"
"Cause you got none, Dink, that's why," somebody answered.
Add "balls" to the list of things Card's fascinated with.

On the way out, someone mentions Ender's name, remembering it from his time in the game room. They also call him a "smartass," making that person the most relatable character in the book so far. Ender gets a smug sense of self-satisfaction at being recognized, and vows that "they'd all know his name soon enough."

Maybe Ender's on his way to becoming a supervillain? That would actually be kind of interesting. In any case, we'll pick it up again next week, because this chapter is too terrible for just one post.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ender Bender 7: Chapter 6, "The Giant's Drink"

Hey, remember how last chapter spent more time comparing Ender to a bugger, and ended with Ender thoroughly humiliating one launchmate for noticing how another moved his butt, even though Ender noticed it enough to diagnose the problem?

"I don't care. His [Ender's] fault or not, he's poisoning that group. They're supposed to bond, and right where he stands there's a chasm a mile wide."
"I don't plan to leave him there very long, anyway."
"Then you'd better plan again. That launch is sick, and he's the source of the disease. He stays till it's cured."
Subtext, everybody!

It's another conversation between Graff and the fleet commander whose name I can't remember and don't care enough about to look up. This one's pricklier than usual, as the fleet guy makes the good point that Ender's supposed to be a great commander but can't even socialize with his launch group, while Graff thinks that's totally cool as a leadership trait. It's played, however, as Graff bristling under the military command's unnecessary meddling and micromanagement, because Graff obviously knows best.

We finally make our way into the much-ballyhooed battleroom, which is like the Danger Room minus gravity and anything interesting. Ender notices a bunch of things about his suit--it's restrictive but also amplifies his movements--and takes the plunge into the zero-g area, bouncing around with little control. But because he's Ender, we get a painstaking description of how observant he is, learning from every bit of it, until he's got the hang of it.

I could mostly be done there, since that's repeated for about 80% of this chapter.

Ender tries to get Shen to join in, but he's too scared. Bernard isn't though, and his best friend Alai shoots off right behind. Bernard is understandably tense and hesitant in the zero-g environment, and Ender decides to file that information away for future reference. Because I guess it's important for a leader to know how to exploit all his subordinates' weaknesses, I guess.

Alai, on the other hand, takes to the air like a pro, and makes the other kids look like idiots in the process:
Alai shouted and whooped, and so did the boys watching him. Some of them forgot they were weightless and let go of the wall to clap their hands. Now they drifted lazily in many directions, waving their arms, trying to swim.
The part of me that watches lots of videos from the International Space Station is trying to picture how that works. Like, things in microgravity mostly stay where they are unless a force is involved, so unless they're pushing off the wall when clapping their hands, it's not entirely clear why they'd end up helplessly drifting. But I don't really have a feel for the layout here either. It was important to describe the layout of the rocket they took to the space station, not so important to describe the basic features of the room that so much of the book has been leading up to.

Also notice that despite the lip-service paid to there being some girls at the academy, none have so far appeared. "Boys" is the collective noun for academy students. I guess having girls around would complicate things with cooties and an expanded readership.

Ender spends a good deal of time trying to figure out how you would deal with being set adrift in zero-gravity. He has the clever idea to see if his lazer tag gun could be used for propulsion. He even remembers (it's not explained how or from where) that marines use repulsor beams "hand rockets" when boarding enemy ships. But after fiddling with all the buttons on his gun, he finds that one shoots the beam of light we heard of earlier, one is a flashlight, and one apparently does nothing.

Look, I get that Card is trying to suggest here that the best way to train soldiers/educate children is the sink-or-swim method, where they're given minimal information and expected to work everything out for themselves. There are certain benefits to that method in some circumstances. But, I don't know, how hard is it to label the buttons on your ray-gun weapons? Is that really going to be such a crutch? Why would you have a button that apparently does nothing? Why not have a propulsion setting? Maybe this military really is run by incompetent nincompoops.

After a page of Ender learning in grand detail what his gun does (not much) and how it would help him if he were set adrift (it wouldn't), Ender realizes how important it is to launch yourself properly at the start. He makes his way to Alai, the only other kid who seems to have the hang of things, and decide to practice together. It's actually a decent moment of people who don't particularly like each other being forced to work together and build a mutual respect. It's also a decent moment of kids acting like kids, since they turn it into a race.
"Last one there saves farts in a milk bottle," Alai said.
It's also a nice example of Card's obsession with flatulence. Milk bottles apparently make a resurgence somewhere between now and the distant future.

Oh, and I almost forgot the subtext:
Then, slowly, steadily, they maneuvered until they faced each other, spread-eagled, hand to hand, knee to knee.
"And then we just scrunch?" asked Alai.
"I've never done this before either," said Ender.

Alai wins the race, and there's a decent exchange where Ender actually acts like a good sport about losing. With the success of that practice, they decide to test out the guns. Of course, Ender assumes that Alai is as sadistic as he is, and wants to just start shooting at the other kids. Alai, being infinitely more sensible, thinks they should just shoot each other in the foot so they can see what happens. Hey, isn't it weird how a guy who apparently hates the military and has never served is playing out a stereotypical draft-dodging tactic in his book about the future military? Crazy.

They find out that the guns basically just freeze up the suits, which makes this not just zero-g Lazer Tag, but zero-g Lazer FREEZE Tag, which is obviously much better for training soldiers.

And then they decide to just start shooting at the other kids. But first, Ender has a shocking suggestion!
They grinned. Then Ender said, "Better invite Bernard."
Alai cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"And Shen."
And then it just gets shocking.
"That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?"
Ender decided that Alai was joking. "Hey, we can't all be n*****s."
Alai grinned. "My grandpa would've killed you for that."
"My great great grandpa would have sold him first."
Hoooo boy.

I don't know where to start, but I guess I'll start with the good: at least Alai isn't the jive-talking older kid from the last chapter. Why, until this moment, we had no indication of his race. I'm sure Card would point to that as being progressive.

But that's about it. Racism is alive enough in the future that a six-year-old knows the n-word (it's not redacted in the text, by the way) and uses it casually in a joke. But it's okay, see, because the black kid threw out the first racial slur. Besides, minorities have mellowed out in the future. They've learned to just laugh it off when white people use racial slurs in a joking manner, because it's just joking. They're not oversensitive like today's black people who get all upset over harmless racist jokes. In the future, racism won't be a problem, and white people will be able to tell racist jokes and use racial slurs with impunity.

It's a very white heterosexual male privilege utopia, the world of Ender's Game. Everyone just accepts that women don't belong in positions of power or the military, because biology. Everyone just speaks the same language in the same way, except the French, and it's not imperialism but sensibility--obviously everyone just adopts the most superior language, English, probably with a homogenized midwestern accent. But while the French are nasty rebels for clinging to their accents, Ender's parents are heroic rebels for clinging to their religious beliefs, because the only artifacts of culture that matter are things like religious traditions that white culture values. Homosexuality only exists as an insult, a sinister taint that people can be accused of (especially those effete French, attracting people with their exotic accents), because deviation from a masculine ideal is unconscionable. Racial divisions no longer matter, because we've gotten rid of the political correctness that makes people feel guilty when they say racist things, and minorities finally just learned to be cool with racial slurs.

But let's also take a look at the timeline of this utopia. Card has said recently that it's "set more than a century in the future," but let's be charitable and suspect that he means the more than a century after 1984, when the book was written. So we'll imagine that the story is taking place in 2085. Ender and Alai are, presumably, six years old, born in 2079. We'll assume that they have older parents, let's say 40 each when they were born. That means their parents would have been born in 2039. Let's say that their grandparents were similarly old, which puts their birth in 1999. So Alai's grandfather, born in 1999, would have killed Ender for saying the n-word. But Ender's great great grandfather would have sold him first. So let's go with the same assumption of 40-year-old parents. That would have put his great-grandfather's birth in 1959, and his great-great-grandfather would have been born in 1919.

Sixty-four years after the end of the American Civil War.

I know, I know, they're kids. They don't know things like dates or ages or the fact that in all likelihood, neither of their great-great-grandparents were involved in the slave trade. That can be explained away. What can't be handwaved, though, is that a lily-white author thought that this was an appropriate exchange to put into his book for and about children. And that's where any of the "but the black kid is racist too, and he doesn't mind" defense falls apart: there is no black kid. There's a thirtysomething white author from the southwest who's active in a church that didn't allow black people into the priesthood until he was in his late 20s, who was educated at a school that spent at least part of the '60s and '70s as the target of protests over racist treatment and policies. He's not writing "The Wire" or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn here. He's not trying to accurately represent the real racism of the present. There's no verisimilitude achieved by having two six-year-olds trade racist comments with each other in the distant future. The only point is to allow a privileged writer to imagine a future world where the only relevance race has is to slurs and jokes and insults, because all cultural differences have been flattened out by imperialism.

Orson Scott Card is a disgusting human being, is mostly what I'm getting at.

And there's still more. Naturally, the four kids who decide to surprise-attack all their other classmates who are drifting helplessly around the room, win easily. Presumably their next battleroom test will involve fish and barrels.

Dap arrives and unfreezes the losers, berating them for being unready for an ambush on their first trip into the battleroom with weapons, suits, and zero-gravity physics that they have no information about.
"Why weren't you ready?" asked Dap. "You had your suits just as long as they did. You had just as many minutes flapping around like drunken ducks. Stop moaning and we'll begin."
Another chapter, another instance each of "intent is magic" and "bullying is okay if the good guys are doing the bullying."

The other kids assume that Bernard and Alai led the battle. He lets Alai take the credit, which is totally gracious of him, since Alai was better than him at zero-g maneuvers and had the better idea about testing out their equipment. The black kid is better than the white kid at all the skills relevant to success in the battleroom, but only gets accolades because the white kid is willing to be generous. Yeah, no problematic racial politics here.

The group dynamics change as a result of this little battle:
Bernard still blustered and sent his cronies on errands. But Alai now moved freely through the whole room, and when Bernard was crazy, Alai could joke a little and calm him down. When it came time to choose their launch leader, Alai was the almost unanimous choice. Bernard sulked for a few days and then he was fine, and everyone settled into the new pattern. The launch was no longer divided into Bernard's in-group and Ender's outcasts. Alai was the bridge.
Have you gotten it yet? Do you get it? Alai's name? Alai, the bridge between two otherwise hostile groups? Alai, the one who was willing to be Ender's friend? Maybe say it out loud: "Alai." Get it? GET IT?

Nothing problematic about naming the only explicitly black character in the book so far after the role he serves in the plot, right?

Notice, too, that Alai is the one who unites the launch. Alai also was the one--quite literally--who reached out to Ender initially. Despite Ender breaking his friend's arm on the first day. It sure does seem like Alai is the natural leader of the group, the one who should be destined for a command role, and not the less-talented, less socially competent, less confident, less friendly white kid that the book's named after.

I need to stop thinking about the racial politics of this book, or I'm never going to finish this post.

The remainder of the chapter is more of Ender playing video games, this time on his lap-top "desk." The descriptions are absolutely bizarre, since they waffle between making it seem like this is a more advanced arcade game, and making it full-on virtual reality. It reminds me of "Tron"--not because it actually has any plot elements in common, but because it has the same "we have no idea how computers or video games work, they're just magic" feel to it. To whit:
He had lots of deaths, but that was OK, games were like that, you died a lot until you got the hang of it.
Not inaccurate, just a really weird way of putting it. "He had lots of deaths."

The game seems pretty open, with the character sprite changing in response to the game environment, and the environment changing to match what the player spends more time doing. A lot of it sounds like pretty standard video game stuff--dodging cats as a mouse, avoiding "divebombing mosquitoes" and running up slopes to escape landslides--but then it comes to the giant, which Ender thinks is "a dumb game and I can't ever win." Which, honestly, reminds me a lot of playing video games as a kid. Presumably the academy has outlawed Game Genies.

Much though he hates it, Ender can't stop trying to beat the Giant, which is a straight-up Jack and the Beanstalk riff:
And when he jumped down off the bread, he was standing on a table. Giant loaf of bread behind him; giant stick of butter beside him. And the Giant himself leaning his chin in his hands, looking at him. Ender's figure was about as tall as the Giant's head from chin to brow.
"I think I'll bite your head off," said the Giant, as he always did.
I wasn't going to say anything about the rampant comma splicing in that last quotation, but the misused semicolon here has me twitching. Anyway, the Giant's game, which is always the same, is to set down two glasses filled with liquids, different ones every time.
"One is poison and one is not," said the Giant. "Guess right and I'll take you into Fairyland."
Of course, no matter which one Ender guesses, it's always poison. You would think, this being a riff on standard fairy tale material, that it would be solved in the same way, with the protagonist being clever and out-thinking the Giant. That's what we've been setting up all this time, right? Ender is the smartest kid in the room, always noticing things no one else does, cataloging the flaws and weaknesses even of friends. So he's going to find the way to trick the Giant and outsmart the test. Or maybe, since we saw his skill in reprogramming the desks to display messages, and in making the fake account and hacking Bernard's account and securing his own, he'll be pulling the Captain Kirk maneuver, and reprogramming the game to make the parameters of the test different.

Instead he dies a few more times. Then he gets angry and frustrated.
I hate this game. It isn't fair. It's stupid. It's rotten.
And instead of pushing his face into one of the liquids, he kicked one over, then the other, and dodged the Giant's huge hands as the Giant shouted, "Cheater, cheater!" He jumped at the Giant's face, clambered up his lip and nose, and began to dig in the Giant's eye. The stuff came away like cottage cheese, and as the Giant screamed, Ender's figure burrowed into the eye, climbed right in, burrowed in and in.
And after all that, the Giant falls down dead and Ender ends up in Fairyland, where a bat says "Nobody ever comes here."

So not only is Ender so special that he figured out how to defeat the Giant when no one else does, but the solution to the problem was not intellect and perception, but petulance and violence. Maybe Ender is destined to be a great leader in this universe, because those are the two things he excels at.

But, naturally, instead of reveling in his specialness and skill, he sulks. "I'm a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me." Ugh, this kid.

Can I read Alai's Game instead?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Game Change

Life stuff has worked out differently than I expected the last couple of weeks, so I'm going to move Ender Benders to Saturdays for the foreseeable future.

But there will be one this Saturday! And it will be the worst yet.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ender Bender 6: Chapter 5, "Games"

The fifth chapter--and by every measure, the longest so far--is when I finally figured this book out. But first, there's yet another introduction where adults have a conversation that Orson Scott Card intends to be clever. As it turns out, Orson Scott Card has ideas and opinions about the military (you're shocked, I know). First:
"Call for help? I thought that was what you valued most in him--that he settles his own problems. When he's out there surrounded by an enemy fleet, there ain't gonna be nobody to help him if he calls."
So...he's going to take on the enemy fleet alone? No fleet of his own? No crew on his ship? All this stuff about him learning to be a leader and commander seems like it's pretty pointless if there's no one for him to lead or command. You know, people who will come to help him if he calls.

You guys, I don't think Orson Scott Card understands how command works.

But that's okay, because he's a writer, and that makes him way better than the dum-dums in the military.
"Just one more example of the stupidity of the military. If you had any brains, you'd be in a real career, like selling life insurance."
"You, too, mastermind."
"We've just got to face the fact that we're second rate. With the fate of humanity in our hands. Gives you a delicious feeling of power, doesn't it? Especially because this time if we lose there won't be any criticism of us at all."
The editor in me screams at those comma placements. But I think this is where I pegged what this book reminds me of, and why it's so terrible: It's Anthem.

To date, Anthem is the only Ayn Rand novel I've read, mostly because it's very short. That size doesn't prevent it from being a treatise on Rand's philosophy and an attempted indictment of society and altruism. The story, if you're not familiar, centers around an oppressive dystopian collectivist society, and the protagonist is a guy who just happens to be an expert genius at everything he tries to do. It's meant to show that he's better than the anti-individualistic Luddites who run his society, but it mostly just shows that he's a preternaturally arrogant jerk who thinks his impossibly lucky breaks are the result of skill, and that his ability to use people to achieve his own ends is a mark of total independence.

The peripheral characters in Anthem, so much as I recall (it's been some years now since I read it), are less characters and more tools. They serve to illustrate points, and to provide a contrast between the altruistic fools and parasites dragging down society, and the self-sufficient hero who rises above and ought to lead them all.

And that's basically what I'm getting out of Ender's Game so far, except I read Anthem in an afternoon. Ender is our preternaturally-skilled hero (we know because everyone keeps telling us so), and everyone else is there to torment him, fawn over him, or provide a contrast to him, or some combination of the three.

In these bits with the adults talking, part of it is obviously and explicitly to set up how important Ender is, and part of that is achieved as it was with his parents and teacher, by showing how ineffectual and incompetent they are by comparison. I get the feeling that Card is trying to go for a whistling-past-the-graveyard tone with the conversations, that our adults are trying to make light of a bad situation. Unfortunately, coupled with Card's commentary in the introduction, it feels more like "ha ha no but really," that this has the plausible deniability of being a joke, but really is what Card thinks. And guys, it looks like Orson Scott Card is not a fan of the way the military does things.

It'd be so much better if they instead trained six-year-olds with video games and laser tag.

The bit ends (yes, all that is just the introduction. This chapter is a doozy) with the explanation that if Ender thinks there's an easy way out of any situation, it'll wreck his effectiveness. How that squares with not being able to call for help doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but whatever.

Ender makes it to the barracks, where the other boys have chosen their bunks, and have left Ender with the crap bunk. So we get this great bit of unreliable narration:
Sure enough, the bottom bunk right by the door was the only empty bed. For a moment it occurred to Ender that by letting the others put him in the worst place, he was inviting later bullying. Yet he couldn't very well oust someone else.
So he smiled broadly. "Hey, thanks," he said. Not sarcastically at all. He said it as sincerely as if they had reserved for him the best position. "I thought I was going to have to ask for low bunk by the door."
So right after the narrator explains that Ender knows this is the crappy bunk that will lead to greater bullying, we're told that he sincerely and without sarcasm thanks them and tells them that it's the bunk he wanted. Which he does not because it's true, but to undercut their attempt at getting to him. Which is kind of the opposite of sincerity.

But--o-ho!--it turns out that that really is the best bunk, where the student-elected leader sleeps. Because of course it is. Now maybe Dap (their den-mother-slash-commander, more or less) is just continuing on the same "isolate Ender through favoritism" tactic that we saw in the previous chapter, but either way it just made me groan. Even when Ender's the target, it works out for his benefit.

There's some description of the technology here, from the not-a-laser ray guns that can "make a three-inch circle of light on a wall a hundred meters off" (ooh. Impressive.) to the simulated gravity via rotating the ship, all of which I'm sure will come back to be gravely important later. Meanwhile, the kid whose arm Ender broke--a French boy named Bernard, with an exotic accent that gives Card the opportunity to hate on the French a bit--is setting up a posse against Ender.

We next get a scene that I'd actually like to see more of, because it's the first time that the central concept of a combat boarding school in space has approached my interests. It's the classic outsider-teen movie image, where Ender's in the cafeteria, noticing how everyone's divided up and he doesn't have a group to sit with. Honestly, if this book were "'Mean Girls' in Space," I would be way more on-board.

Ender doesn't end up eating in the bathroom, though. A kid named Mick sits next to him, and hoo boy:
A bigger boy came to sit by him. Not just a little bigger--he looked to be twelve or thirteen. Getting his man's growth started.
I...I don't even know. A quick Googling for "his man's growth" finds mostly people talking about Ender's Game, and the purplest prose this side of a Strawberry Shortcake erotic fanfic contest. But surely there's no subtext to that line coming from a raging homophobe. Besides, Card hates subtext. Hates it so much that he gets all Geoff Johns in the next section.

"I'm Mick."
"That's a name?"
"Since I was little. It's what my little sister called me."
"Not a bad name here. Ender. Finisher. Hey."

For cryin' out loud in the mud, we couldn't just let that be a bit of obvious symbolism? Had to go and make it explicit? And from a guy who apparently thinks "Ender" is a weird name on a space station run by people named "Graff" and "Dap"? Ugh, let's move on.

Mick explains that every launch has "a bugger," the kid nobody likes at first. He also waxes philosophical...
"Me? I'm nothing. I'm a fart in the air conditioning. I'm always there, but most of the time nobody knows it."
...or something. But just as it starts to look like Ender's making a new friend, Mick gets all depressed, because he's never been a leader, and "only the guys who get to be leaders have a shot at [Tactical School]." He tries giving Ender some advice, but then gets suddenly indignant and calls Ender stupid.

Mick takes on the contrast role here. Ender's not special because everyone hates him; there's someone everybody hates in every group. Ender's special because he's a leader, so he won't end up pathetic and useless and unimportant like Mick. I'm beginning to think that Card doesn't recognize a difference or distinction between "leader" and "boss." Because part of being a leader, I would think, is that you inspire people to follow you. At best, Ender manipulates people, and that off-putting air of superiority certainly wouldn't endear him to would-be followers.

Anyway, Ender makes himself sad and homesick, so he "did what he always did when Peter tormented him. He began to count doubles." Meaning he worked his way through the powers of two until the pain was suppressed. There's some verisimilitude in Ender avoiding painful emotions by finding solace in an intellectual pursuit, and I suspect that speaks to a lot of the kids who spend their time doodling Pascal's Triangle in their notebooks or otherwise using geekery for escapism. But it also reads like some seriously obvious foreshadowing. It's Chekov's times tables.

He finally gives into the tears in bed that night, but it's okay because no one notices, so he's still totes manly and brave. And when Dap comes in to check on the kids, and other ones start crying audibly, Ender notes that his experiences with Peter have given him the uncanny ability to hide his feelings, and that's probably really healthy.

The next section gives us our first description of what school is like for the new recruits. Lip service is paid to the notion of classes, but what's really important are the games.
Some of the games they knew; some they had even played at home. Simple ones and hard ones. Ender walked past the two-dimensional games on video and began to study the games the bigger boys played, the holographic games with objects hovering in the air.
The bit about the "two-dimensional games on video" (which suggests to me that Card doesn't really know what "video" or more specifically, the phrase "video games," actually means) got this scene running through my head:
...and I wished so hard that I wasn't reading Ender's Game.

Ender watches some older kids play a holographic game involving ships and tunnels, and even though he couldn't see the controls, just by watching them play he knows he could beat the computer and most of the players as well.

I talked about this online elsewhere a little, and I guess it's not as universal as I expected, but there are few things in life I've found as boring as watching other people play video games. It's gotten a bit better as games have gotten more complex and cinematic, but I'd still generally rather have a controller than watch someone else with one. That said, reading about someone watching other people play video games reaches grand new depths of metaboredom.

And then Ender asks if he can play the winner.

"Lawsy me, what is this?" asked the boy. "Is it a bug or a bugger?"
Apparently in the future, cool teenage slang emulates Aunt Jemima stereotypes from the early 20th century. And lest you think that this is just Orson Scott Card writing dialogue as though he were an alien who read about human dialogue once in a book, it manages to become even more bizarre and offensive.
“A new flock of dwarfs just came aboard,” said another boy.
“But it talks. Did you know they could talk?”
“I see,” said Ender. “You’re afraid to play me two out of three.”
“Beating you,” said the boy, “would be as easy as pissing in the shower.”
“And not half as fun,” said another.
“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?”
I scarcely know where to begin. "As easy as pissing in the shower"? The utter non sequitur of "I'm Ender Wiggin"? Or maybe the way that the last kid's AAVE-style dialect (in a world where, we're told, having a French accent is a sign of a rebellious separatist nation because everyone else learns "Standard" from an early age) combines with that "lawsy me" to present a pretty racist imagery. I was surprised by that until I was reminded that, earlier this year, Card wrote an essay about how Obama was going to turn America's gangs into his personal army to oppress white people. So, you know, Card is the human equivalent of hot garbage.

Ender picks up the slang as quickly as anything else, using it to taunt the older kids: "If I'm nobody, then how come you scared to play me two out of three?"

It's just so painful to read that I knew you had to join me in it.

The game goes as you might expect. Ender loses the first round, but come the second he "pull[s] off a few maneuvers that the boy had obviously never seen before. His patterns couldn't cope with them." He wins the second game, then the third, sending the older boys off in a puff of sour grapes. See, kids, your parents were wrong: the only skill you need in this world is being good at video games! It'll pay off, I swear! And when your older siblings play the game and "let you watch" so you can "learn how to play," you totally can and you'll be even better as a result (note: yes, I absolutely did this, because I was a terrible older brother).

Ender's pretty impressed with himself, and it's clear that by being a smug showoff, he's quickly establishing his leadership bonafides. He's going to be the best spaceship captain since Zapp Brannigan.

Anyway, it's not all high scores and self-indulgence for Ender. He also has to deal with his bully, Bernard. Now, given Card's prominent personal beliefs, what other trait do you think an exotic European bully might have? The way Bernard decides to go after another student, named Shen, might give you a little clue:
Shen was small, ambitious, and easily needled. Bernard had discovered that quickly, and started calling him Worm. "Because he's so small," Bernard said, "and because he wriggles. Look how he shimmies his butt when he walks."
Shen stormed off, but they only laughed louder. "Look at his butt. See ya, Worm!"
The next sequence is all about how Ender humiliates Bernard and eliminates his control over his posse by finding clever technological ways to insinuate that he's gay. Bullying is okay as long as the good guy is doing the bullying.

Eventually, everyone's calling Bernard "Buttwatcher," and Shen bonds with Ender over the whole thing.
"Do I wiggle my butt when I walk?"
"Naw," Ender said. "Just a little. Just don't take such big long steps, that's all."
Shen nodded.
"The only person who'd ever notice was Bernard."
And Ender. There's that pesky subtext again.