Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Eye of the World, chapters five, six, and seven, in which the plot begins

I started reading The Fault in our Stars this weekend, and while I don't think I could or would want to do a full series on it (most of all because I've never been directly impacted by someone's terminal disease before), I might toss a bonus post or two up about it sometime soon, because when it's good it's pretty dang good, and when it's bad it's all OH JOHN GREEN NO.  We'll see how the rest of the book goes first.

The Eye of the World: p. 62--103
Chapter Five: Winternight

Starting us off on a light but confusing note, the first page, describing the al'Thor house, looks like it's supposed to be full of double entendres:
Tam and Rang were considered out of the ordinary as much for being two men living alone as for farming in the Westwood.
'Alone' except for all the other bachelor merchants and farmboys who stop by to keep them company, of course.  Quite out of the ordinary, yes, quite strange, quite, quite queer.
The house was still in a tidy state of repair, the thatch tightly mended and the doors and shutters well-hung and snug-fitting.
Well, I mean, who doesn't like well-hung shutters snugly fitting into their tight thatch?

Apologies; I'm twelve.  Moving on.

They scope out the unspooked animals and the untainted well and decide the Black Rider wasn't here, set about doing various chores, keeping their bow and spear close at hand, making Traditional Fantasy Stew for dinner, et cetera, et cetera, pages of this.  When they finally head inside, it is extremely cozy and all the wars and magic feel very far away.  Dad al'Thor nevertheless locks the doors, for the first time in Rand's memory, because no one ever locks their doors, which causes me to wonder why they have locks at all.  Dad also busts out the secret family sword, which, by its slight curve (stop snickering), single sharp side, and heron designs, I'm guessing is a katana or wakizashi.  Robert Jordan is giving his Quaint English Whitebread farmboy hero a katana.

How exactly did all of these tropes get associated with fanfiction when best-selling authors with endless heaps of praise to their name have been doing it for years?  (Gatekeeping and sexism, the answers are gatekeeping and sexism.)

Dad al'Thor bought it a long time ago, although Mom disapproved, and he comments grimly about how impractical it is to a farmer's life and he should have given it away.  Obviously that means he's never practised all these years and so won't know what he's doing, right?  Nope.  A minotaur bursts through the locked door, Rand throws the kettle at it, and Dad kills it in a single thrust, and then the next one that comes in after it, instant-death blows that in the real world are generally reserved for decapitation.  Dad shouts for Rand to run and hide in the cold dark woods full of monsters.  Dad has made a series of bad decisions today and this might be a winner.  Rand scrambles out a window as monsters burst in the back door, there is much scurrying and echoes of steel hitting steel (so much for that beautiful unmangled sword), and Dad busts out the front window (inexplicably immune to glass shards) and leads the monsters off on a chase as Rand stumbles fearfully through the woods.  They reunite and Dad explains that the minotaurish things are Trollocs, our signature Always Chaotic Evil race.  (I have an asexual friend who remains delighted that this forms the acronym ACE.)

Dad's weak and bleeding, so Rand takes the sword and goes back to the farmhouse (sheep all slaughtered, house all wrecked) to get geared up.  One Trolloc turns out to have faked its death to lie in wait, and haltingly tells Rand to wait and talk to the Myrdraal that's coming, which is also called a Fade, so now we have two new Capitalised Names for one being without the slightest clue what it is.  (It is apparently a very tall monster.)  It then helps Rand perform the Traditional First Farmboy Hero Kill by leaping at him, and he gets his sword up just in time for it to impale itself as it tackles him to the floor.  He loots what he can from the ruin of their home, chops up a broken cart axle with the sword (even Rand realises this is improbable) and runs with it all back to Dad al'Thor, who is feverish and having nightmares and must be taken to Rivendell Emond's Field as soon as possible.

So, quaint rural homeland, Black Rider, slightly magic sword received from father figure, Morgul wound, orcs speaking the Black Tongue, need for a druid healer to cure a cursed wound... I mean, wow.  I honest to Eru Iluvatar did not expect Wheel of Time to be this severe a knockoff of Lord of the Rings.

Chapter Six: The Westwood

Rand binds his dad's wounds, al'Guyvers a stretcher out of the axles and blankets, and starts dragging him through the woods, with much narrative emphasis on how scary this is and he's only alive by luck and his sword-and-sorcery-adventure daydreams never involved anything this grim.  How old is Rand?  Sixteen?  I like him more the younger I picture him, because this all becomes more impressive and I have less desire to tell him to just shut up and do the job already.  He drags his dad through the woods (with constant yelps of pain when they go over rocks and roots).  From Dad al'Thor's epic babbling, he's either reciting legends or he had a much more heroic unmarried life than we were led to believe.  The Black Rider shows up on the road, leading the trollocs, but they go unnoticed.  Is the town screwed?  I think the town is screwed.  Especially once Rand starts extended descriptions of what the party will be like when everything settles down and they can finally take their new yacht for a spin after that police detective finishes his last day on the job.

Dad al'Thor is muttering more 'nonsense' about cuttings from the Tree of Life, Avendesora, which Rand al'Expositions to us belongs to the Green Man, who is also just legend (like trollocs, Rand admits).  He then fever-talks his way through a story of finding a baby in the snow after a battle and how he knew Kari wanted children and Rand is a good name, and Rand is genre-savvy enough to realise on the spot that this means he was adopted, which is on the one hand implausible and on the other hand oh thank god we're not having that drawn out too much.  I mean, if you must be that blatant, let the hero clue in as soon as the reader.

Chapter Seven: Out of the Woods

Is that a pun, because they're literally and figuratively out of the woods, or ironic, because things aren't going to get any better?  I appreciate good wordplay.  Good wordplay.

As day breaks and Rand is a hungry aching golem trudging through the woods, he finally reaches Emond's Field, which is indeed half burnt-down.  However, there are plenty of survivors picking through the wreckage, and Egwene leads them to Nynaeve, who takes a look at Dad al'Thor and reports that he's beyond any help she can give.  Tough luck, Tam.  At best you were going to be Obi-Wan, but it looks like you're Uncle Owen.  (Still a better role than Mother Organa.)  There is much milling and description and encounters with sympathetic villagers.  The mayor explains that the mysterious visitors are indeed and Aes Sedai and a Warder, and they saved what's left of the village via lightning magic and deadly swordplay, and finally someone remembers that Aes Sedai have healing magic as well.  But, despite the way Everyone Knows that women are the only ones who can safely use magic, Everyone Also Knows that you never want to get mixed up with their help, either, and Rand's first instinct is intense repulsion at the thought.  Even in a world where women are the preferred mages and they charge into battle to protect random villages from monsters, the menfolk might rather watch their father die from a Not-Morgul Blade wound than ask one for help.
Light, is there a story with an Aes Sedai where she isn't a villain?
I ask you.  If literally every story about Aes Sedai casts them as villains, they should be many times more terrifying than trollocs in the common consciousness, and yet still people talk about them fighting the evil False Dragons and such.  Moiraine just saved everyone's lives, so thinking she might help makes sense, but their response to her rescue wasn't 'Holy wonderballs, there's an Aes Sedai and she's helping us, oh my god, oh my god, what is this life', it was to get back to sifting the wreckage and leave her to burn the trolloc corpses with her buddy Lan.  They should be acting like Darth Vader showed up to save them all.  And then they start talking about how she's got healing magic, which--if Aes Sedai are in the habit of healing people in extreme circumstances, how do they have such a bad rep?  Are they all satanically going around demanding people's first-born children in exchange for curing a severe case of Legs Chopped Off?  Who invented this prejudice?

Rand finds them (Lan is busy with the trolloc bodies, having found sigils from seven separate clans now) and manages to ask for help from Moiraine, regardless of the cost.  She is of course happy to help (everyone else keeps refusing her), although she moves slowly, tired from all that magicking.  Lan remarks that "Even with an angreal, what she did last night was like running around the village with a sack of stones on her back", and for those of you who spend your time doing productive things unlike myself, I'll note that 'sangreal' is an old term for the Holy Grail, so we're still flush with random Arthurian references.

This is a bit of a short post, but that tends to be how it goes when chapters are 90% descriptions of settings and the way people are running around in them.  One of the explanations I heard for WOT's length, long ago, was that Robert Jordan only planned for it to be four books, but when they started selling so well he was asked to extend the series, and did so with gusto.  But we're more than a hundred pages in now and we're at the point I would probably have called the end of chapter two if I were writing this book, so I'm skeptical of this claim.  A lot of the material isn't bad, it's just filler, and not especially brilliant filler either.  There's some poetry, there's some realism, but it's also just very forgettable text.  I feel like this is the cheese sandwich of fantasy: popular, tasty enough, but just not that much going on except that afterwards you have food inside you.  The problem so far is that the worldbuilding doesn't really make sense yet and I don't care much about what happens to the sandwich, let alone whether the sandwich's father lives or dies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Eye of the World, chapters 3 and 4, in which people talk more

Sorry about the delayed post.  This was a tiring weekend, and Sunday evening I finally cracked EOTW open again and the awareness that I was 35 pages in and nothing has actually happened washed over me like a pile of sodden blankets.  Okay.  Let's do this thing.

(Content: ableism, misogyny. Fun content: more Mallory Ortberg and a secret game of Trivial Pursuit.)

The Eye of the World: p. 32--61
Chapter Three: The Peddler

I really thought this book would take forever to dissect, but it saves a lot of time when I can summarise four dense pages with 'the peddler is a source of outside news and Rand has an emergency backup friend named Perrin, who is stocky'.  The peddler is all theatrical and tells the villagers that just getting eaten by wolves is tame compared to the bad stuff happening elsewhere in the world, like war in Ghealdan.  Apparently someone's popped up claiming to be the Dragon and everyone wants to murder him or murder for him.
"Just as bad as the Dark One!" 
"The Dragon broke the world, didn't he?" 
"He started it! He caused the Time of Madness!" 
"You know the prophecies! When the Dragon is reborn, your worst nightmares will seem like your fondest dreams!"
No one particularly likes hanging out with the al'Exposition family, but no one can deny they're very efficient.  (Is the Time of Madness over, or is it still supposed to be ongoing?  It seems weird to name an era with the expectation that it's going to end.  If it's indefinite, then 'the Madness' seems better, but if you're naming it in order to convince people that it will end, maybe don't call it 'the Time of Madness'?)  Apparently the peddlers and merchants are the only source of this news, since no one in the village goes travelling far, which further raises the question if there isn't just a cartel agreement that everyone will tell the bumpkins about distant atrocities in order to justify higher prices.

The peddler further reports that this one who claims to be the Dragon is the first one who can wield the One Power, opening chasms and crushing walls with words and beckoning lightning at will, though this is all third- or fourth-hand information.  Ewin starts shouting about how men who channel the Power always go mad and die, because it's only safe for women, everyone should know that.  You know what?  I take back my previous compliment about efficient exposition, because this is page flipping thirty-seven and we're still just getting people shouting world-building at each other in a panic.  Women who wield the Power are apparently called Aes Sedai, and bringing them up is Not Appropriate for unclear reasons, but they're the only ones capable of fighting Dragon Dude.  The Dudely Council decide they need to interrogate the peddler directly, over booze, and patronisingly tell everyone else to go home and be patient about buying stuff.

Once again, nothing happens for a couple of pages, so let's talk about this whole 'Time of Madness' and 'the One Power makes men go mad' thing.  I mean, the superficial ableism is obvious--generic 'madness' as a violent affliction that inevitably results in murder and destruction--although I note that they talked about male magicians 'withering away' as well, so I hold out some vague hope that this 'madness' could actually have some nuance to it, and that depression and other such conditions (eating disorders?) might also be considered worthy of note, rather than just the Cackling Maniac style.  Yes, that is how far the bar has fallen here; I'm hoping that the Fantasy Madness might be more inclusive.  Because from here to Lovecraft and beyond fantasy is full of things that are so powerful that they make people 'go mad', and while that has all sorts of problems on a conceptual level, the fact that this madness always takes exactly the same stereotypical form of vaguely making a person hallucinate and talk to themselves and 'become a danger to themselves' is a whole additional level of ableism.  At this point I would actually be pleased to see a case where someone says "No, Rand, don't use the One Power, you will get clinical depression and lose all energy and motivation and feeling and stop eating and die and we don't have comprehensive pharmaceuticals yet" instead of "You'll murder us all because you'll go CaRAYzy".

Obviously Rand will end up wielding the One Power and being the Dragon Reborn--I mean, I know this for a fact, spoilers, but even otherwise I would know it because on the next page we learn two more things:
"The Dragon may have started it, but it was Aes Sedai who actually broke the world."
Women fucked up and obviously that means it's going to take a man to fix it.  (What do they mean, 'broke the world'?  I haven't seen any big cracks yet.)  And:
 "I heard a story once," Mat said slowly, "from a wool-buyer's guard. He said the Dragon would be reborn in mankind's greatest hour of need, and save us all."
Apparently lots of people believe this, but they don't say so because it makes the Aes Sedai angry.  So, obvs, the end of this book will concern the ascension of Rand to his true mantle as the Dragon and the hero who will save everyone.  At least I figure it'll be the end, because this fake Dragon will be the Book One villain.  Place your bets.  Apparently 'the stories' vary on whether the Aes Sedai are actually villains, which just confuses me more.  They're the established trustworthy magic users of the world, but some villagers don't believe they exist and some say they're 'Darkfriends' and oh my various deities could we maybe do something before we get introduced to yet another Unexplained Capitalised Title?

Nnnnope.  As they're all talking about the bad luck that befell a neighbour who had the audacity to "name the Dark One", Nynaeve the Wisdom finally makes her appearance.  She is a Strong Female Character, and therefore angry and weirdly violent--she carries a wooden switch for lashing people who displease her, despite her age and her tininess (she's barely shoulder-height to them, of course).  Nynaeve tells them all off, and then Rand notices she's accompanied by Egwene.
Of a height with Nynaeve, and with the same dark coloring, she could at that moment have been a reflection of Nynaeve's mood, arms crossed beneath her breasts, mouth tight with disapproval. [...] Her big brown eyes held no laughter now.
This is more description than any other person has received so far and it includes a completely unnecessary reference to the existence of her breasts, in case we weren't sure she was the love interest.  (Join me in assuming/insisting that "same dark coloring" means both these women have deep brown skin, regardless of whether this lines up with cover art or future adjectives.)  Egwene is two years younger than Rand (+5 to Love Interest) and he fumbles over trying to speak to her.  Nynaeve demands to know what's been going on, and concludes that she will have to take charge:
"The Council is questioning the peddler about what's happening in Gealdan, are they? If I know them, they're asking all the wrong questions and none of the right ones. It will take the Women's Circle to find out anything useful."
So, first: confirmation that the two ruling bodies of the village are the Normal People's Council and the Lady Council.  Second: Mallory Ortberg is a gift that humanity has not earned.

Egwene and Rand don't exactly flirt once she's gone, because they were issued Belligerent Sexual Tension in which Rand asks to dance with her and she agrees and then they spend the rest of the conversation disdaining each other--Rand realises for the first time ever that they're both going to reach 'marriageable age' at the same time, and says vaguely they it's no good rushing things, and Egwene says she might never marry because she's going to become Wisdom at some other village, and anyway she thinks it's not as if Rand would care if he never saw her again.
He rubbed his head in frustration. How to explain? This was not the first time she had squeezed meanings from his words that he never knew were in them. In he present mood, a misstep would only make matters worse, and he was fairly sure that nearly anything he said would be a misstep.
In conclusion: ugh, women, right?  Bro.  Bro.  Level with me.  Bro.  Women.  There's just no reasoning with them and they're so angry all the time for no reason.

It turns out Perrin also saw the Ringwraith black rider and Moiraine also gave him a coin to serve her, though of course Egwene thinks they're all jumping at shadows.

Chapter Four: The Gleeman

The gleeman that everyone's been tripping themselves over finally appears, bursting out of the inn, and Rand mostly notices that he has grey eyes (like Rand, and unlike everyone else in town).  He complains for half a page about how badly he's been treated in town, and was just menaced by Nynaeve, whom he of course insists should be off chasing boys.  He proceeds to describe all of the protagonists for us,Rand's height and grey eyes, Perrin's stockiness,comparing them to fantastical beasts.  Literally nothing is happening for pages except pointless banter and the seasoned traveller mocking the rural hicks.  I'm on page 50 of this book and I feel like I'm reading someone's warmup dialogue exercise.  He does a backflip, and juggles as he lists the stories he'll tell, including:
"Tales of great wars and great heroes, for the men and boys. For the woman and girls, the entire Aptarigine Cycle. Tales of Artur Paendrag Tanreall [...]"
First, why is the entire Aptarigine Cycle only suitable for women?  Does it have feelings in it?  Kissing?  Second: Artur Paendrag are you fucking with me Robert Jordan.  Okay.  Deep breaths, Wildman.  Hold it together.  This can--oh.  Egwene asks for stories about Lenn and Salya who travelled to the moon and stars in eagles made of fire, and I suddenly realise that we're going to get cute with the fourth wall.
"But I have all stories, mind you now, of Ages that were and will be. [....] I have all stories, and I will tell all stories. Tales of Mosk the Giant, with his Lance of fire that could reach around the world, and his wars with Elsbet, the Queen of All. Tales of Materese the Healer, Mother of the Wondrous Ind."
Okay.  So.   The whole 'eventually everything becomes legend' thing is getting hammered home and this is apparently happening in our distant future but maybe also the past because time is a Wheel.  I get that, and I'm potentially on board, but I'm deeply, deeply skeptical that this serves any particular purpose to the story, and it's yet again more spewing wink-nudge worldbuilding notions at me instead of having anything actually happen.  This is the difference between having a clever idea and having a story.

Fancy Lady Moiraine and the gleeman spot each other, polite but obviously not pleased to see each other, and then people start pouring out of the bar again and the gleeman runs off for booze.  The Dudely Council has decided to set up patrols around the area in conjunction with the other local villages, and all the boys want to sign up, but Rand's dad says they need to head back to the farm immediately.  On the way home, dad al'Thor explains the intricate village politics and crowd-managing that made it actually a good idea to scare everyone with the prospect of war and roaming mages and then rush off to secret council before eventually announcing their patrol plan.  I remain skeptical.  Also, it turns out that lots of teenage boys have been spotting the Ringwraith black rider (creeper), and so the patrols will be watching for him now too.  The chapter ends with Rand feeling better, knowing that together the villagers have nothing to fear from the rider.  I'm deeply disappointed he hasn't blown the whole place up yet.  Robert Jordan needed to embrace in medias res a little harder.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Eye of the World, chapters 1 and 2, in which nothing happens

Sorry about missing last week's post; hope you all enjoyed seeing the blogqueen back in action.  I was in the American South, where it's apparently reasonable for train stations to have signs that expressly forbid all weapons "except firearms (with a permit)", which says all that is necessary about that.  On the plus side, I spent some more time with my American friends, makers of the excellent YouStar web series.  (I play EruditeConnoisseur64 and try to keep a straight face.)   So the risk was acceptable.  Everyone was very nice and I met very few huge racists.

Now, back to the Wheel of Time.

(Content: gender essentialism. Fun content: how excited are you about blatant theft from random cultures, languages, and mythologies?  No?  What about Mallory Ortberg?)

The Eye of the World: p. 1--31
Chapter 1: An Empty Road

There's a lot of advice out there about how to start your book: with action, with things happening, with decisions being made, with whatever the real inciting event is.  Famously, fantasy novels are bad at this, spending endless quantities of time meandering about with farm chores and pub crawls to be more like Lord of the Rings before they get around to the plot.  I am unsurprised that EOTW is a great example of the latter.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Nice for them as likes it, I guess.

Our Hero, Rand al'Thor (and his dad) are walking down the Quarry Road that I thought was a river but in fact just ends at the start of a river, feeling uncomfortable in his wet cloak on a blustery day, other hand on his bow in case of wolves.  Summarising the first three pages: wind, trees, foresty, cold, Dad al'Thor is a tough salt-of-the-earth man, Mom al'Thor is long dead (although it's preemptive, I'm still going to call that Fridged Women Tally: 2).  Four pages in, Rand sees a mysterious black rider on a black horse on the road behind them, who has disappeared by the time Rand points him out to dad.  They agree they need to go smoke and booze in a warm house, and dad suggests Rand wants to see Egwene, the mayor's daughter, though Rand silently disagrees because she makes him feel funny in his bathing suit area without even meaning to.
He we hoping his father had not noticed he was afraid when Tam said, "Remember the flame, lad, and the void." 
It was an odd thing Tam had taught him. Concentrate on a single flame and feed all your passions into it--fear, hate, anger--until your mind became empty. Become one with the void, Tam said, and you could do anything. Nobody else in Emond's Field talked that way. But Tam had won the archery competition at Bel Tine every year with his flame and his void.
Now we've got this randomly introduced pseudo-zen thing from Tam, but also an obvious reference to Beltane, so evidence continues to lean towards this story randomly hodgepodging cool things from various cultures however Robert Jordan whims.  Is there an actual reason this farmer dude is a zen archer?  I'm hoping so, but I'm also worried it's going to be terrible.

They arrive in Emond's Field, where the heads of houses are called "goodmen" and "goodwives" and gender roles are enforced by cosmic law.
Whether or not leaves had appeared on the trees, no woman would let Bel Tine come before her spring cleaning was done. [....] On roof after roof the goodman of the house clamebered about, checking the thatch to see if the winter's damage meant calling on old Cenn Buie, the thatcher.
I feel like I'm in the medieval fantasy version of Pepperidge Farm, except that would probably be more like Mallory Ortberg's Letters from Chris Kimball, which are masterpieces of sothothic horror.  Someone named Wit Congar stops the al'Thors to complain about the Wisdom of Emond's Field, Nynaeve, who is apparently a person and chosen by women.  She apparently badly mispredicted the severity of the last winter, and Wit wants the Village Council to overrule the Women's Circle, but he gets called out by his wife Daise, "twice as wide as Wit, a hard-faced woman without an ounce of fat on her", so as we can see when people don't conform to their expected gender positions they are whiners and nags.  The al'Thors book it before Daise notices them, because they are both single men and therefore the women of Emond's Field would like nothing more than to set Tam (and now Rand) with a widowed friend or someone's daughter.  Rand is much too stubborn to allow himself to be set up with any farmgirl he likes, or something.

I'm skipping a lot of description of the layout of the grounds and of Pepperidge-Farm-remembers type narrative, like the Pole (obviously a maypole): "No one knew when the custom began or why--it was another thing that was the way it had always been--but it was an excuse to sing and dance, and nobody in the Two Rivers needed much excuse but that."  ITS FOLKSY, GOT IT?  DO YOU GET IT?

They're also very excited about the prospect of fireworks for the first time in a decade.

The al'Thors arrive at the al'Veres' place, home of the mayor/innkeeper, and they all talk grumpily about the weather and the prospect of next winter never ending and everyone freezing to death, et cetera.  Rand instead talks with his buddy Mat, who plans to set an old badger loose in town to scare the girls, but by sheer coincidence he also immediately brings up that he recently saw "a man in a black cloak, on a black horse [...] and his cloak doesn't move in the wind" , just as Rand did, and then he vanished as soon as Mat looked away.
"I actually thought--just for a minute, mind--it might be the Dark One." He tried another laugh, but no sound at all came out this time. 
Rand took a deep breath. As much to remind himself as for any other reason, he said by rote, "The Dark One and all of the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul,beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time. The hand of the Creator shelters the world, and the Light shines on us all."
Well, that's one way of getting exposition out of the way.  Just so we're clear on this, that's Shayol as in the Hebrew Sheol, and Ghul as in demon.  Jordan must have spent at least half an hour creating his mythology.

Mat gets roped into helping unload the booze from the cart, with the promise of then getting to go see the visiting gleeman, who is apparently made of awesome.
To have one there actually during Bel Tine, with his harp and his flute and his stories and all... Emond's Field would still be talking about this Festival ten years off, even if there were not any fireworks.
I'm going to assume that 'gleeman' is a euphemism for 'marijuana dealer'.  Nothing much else happens for the rest of the chapter as far as I can tell, beyond talking about how much people will be excited and how much the fireworks cost.

Chapter Two: Strangers

The Village Council (which appears to be all men--please tell me that the neutrally-named council isn't the male counterpart to the Women's Circle, please please please) are gathering in the mayor's home, looking grim and smoking and suchlike.  The mayor's wife arrives with food, of course, and Rand likes her because she doesn't try to set his dad up with anyone.
Toward Rand her motherliness extended to warm smiles and a quick snack whenever he came by the inn, but she did as much for every young man in the area. If she occasionally looked at him as if she wanted to do more, at least she took it no further than looks, for which he was deeply grateful.
The mayor's wife wants to jump our teenage hero, but she only gawks, so he's grateful for the relative lack of inappropriate actions.  Le sigh.  That is not how gratitude is supposed to work.  I suppose/hope Jordan just means grateful in the sense of glad, but the connotation is not the same.  Rand and Mat finish hauling in the booze kegs and meet a younger boy, Ewin, who tells them all about the strangers in town.  Not the black rider:
"And his cloak is green. Or maybe gray. It changes. It seems to fade into wherever he's standing. Sometimes you don't see him even when you look right at him, not unless he moves. And hers is blue, like the sky, and ten times fancier than any feastday clothes I ever saw. She's ten times prettier than anybody I ever saw, too."
I'm kind of charmed by the way everyone in this book at the same time has no familiarity with magic but are constantly like 'Did you see someone teleporting on the road today?' 'Yeah, and the dude in the inn can turn invisible!'  It's almost like magic realism, minus the realism.  Also, while the dudes thus far have been characterised with their skills, their philosophies, their senses of humour, their jobs, all that jazz, all of the women have been characterised based on their interactions with men and/or their physical attractiveness.  That's a lot less charming.

Oh, wait, no, we play Six Degrees of Bechdel Separation, because Rand hears from Ewin who overheard the visiting lady Moiraine talking to the village Wisdom, Nynaeve, who got all huffy because Moiraine called her "child" while asking for directions.  She apologised upon realising she was talking to the Wisdom, and asked a bunch more respectful questions.  So our two plot-relevant living women have now been characterised by their failure to get along and Nynaeve's uncontrolled temper.

Outside, Rand gets another unpleasant feeling of being watched, which apparently comes from a raven on the roof of the inn.  He and Mat both whip stones at it, but it sidesteps them, and then takes off when Moiraine appears and calls it "A vile bird [...] to be mistrusted in the best of times."  Harsh, gal.  #notallravens

Moiraine is indeed the tiny woman from the cover, only as tall as Rand's chest, young but "there was a maturity about her large, dark eyes, a hint of knowing that no one could have gotten young".  Her clothes and jewelry get a half-page of dedicated description.  They all trip over their tongues introducing themselves, and Moiraine explains that she's a historian, come to Two Rivers as "a collector of old stories".  There's some rambling chatter about the Wheel of Time and the Great Pattern and how the names for things and people change over time,and then she leaves,"appearing to glide over the ground rather than walk, her cloak spreading on either side of her like wings."

So far I have no reason to believe Rand is a more interesting protagonist than Moiraine would be.

They finally spot her bodyguard, Lan, standing by the inn, stealthy and hard-faced with a hand on his sword.  Ewin guesses he's a Warder, but Mat shoots this down because Warders are 1) fictional and 2) covered in gold and jewels and spend all their time slaying monsters in the Great Blight up north, which... look, are they real or not?  If your case is 'that's not real', maybe just stick with that, rather than adding the details of the not-real thing you're saying doesn't exist?

Moiraine hired them all as assistants while in town, and pressed a silver coin on each of them that Rand estimates is worth a good horse.  They each agree that it seems like it would be wrong to spend it, and will keep it as their bond with Moiraine, and then they see a huge eight-horse wagon rolling into town, the peddler.
It was going to be the best Bel Tine ever.
Christmas is going to be ruined and I'm legitimately looking forward to it.

So, apart from the rubbish representation of women so far, what I'm noticing is mostly that if I had actual affection for this story, instead of the cold stony husk that is my unbeating heart, I could imagine finding this crawlingly slow opening rather relaxing, the kind of thing that I would look forward to rereading on days when I just wanted something soothing and familiar to dwell in, the literary equivalent of petting a cat.  However, it should probably be noted that I recently started some really great antidepressants and I find damn near everything soothing compared to how I felt a month ago, so maybe I'm not the most unbiased opinion on such matters.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

50 Shades Freed Chapter 1, in which, wait--we're skipping the wedding?

Will has been banished from the country, so today we have a 50 Shades post! Wait, 50 Shades and an Erika post? On a Sunday? The world has ceased to make sense, I know. Yes, I'm still around, but shortly after the last post I did my Grandfather had been given a few weeks to live, and being one of the few local relatives in town I've been pretty busy dealing with his death and taking care of my Grandmother. I'm hoping to get back into the saddle on 50 Shades soon, but my plate is loaded, so I'm just going to throw them up when I can and not try and claim a schedule until I build up a buffer.

Now, what you're here for. I got married almost a year ago (eep) and as such I expected this book to be all wedding planning and anticipation and excitement over THE BIG DAY. I was accused of being too easygoing and relaxed as a bride, and even I got swept up in it all. My own wedding planning experience was atypical, it was pretty smooth and low stress. I only got pushback on a few little things, there were no big fights or family drama*, and because I picked the off-season had vendors competing for my business. The day itself had no real snags. Despite that, I can off the top of my head think of a lot of opportunities for tension and drama and over the top fights with intense make up scenes because weddings and wedding planning brings out weird stuff in people. You know, what EL James thrives on. So, I'm confused. The wedding is skipped over almost entirely, and we get only a few little blips of wedding planning. EL James instead skips straight to THE HONEYMOON! Sort of. I will give her credit, she's learned at least one new trick between the second and third book, and that is how to write in non-linear time. We see the Greys on their honeymoon, but it's spliced with flashbacks to montage us from the engagement to the present.

“How would you feel if I went topless, like the other women on the beach?” I ask.“Displeased,” he says without hesitation. “I’m not very happy about you wearing so little right now.” He leans down and whispers in my ear. “Don’t push your luck.”“Is that a challenge, Mr. Grey?”“No. It’s a statement of fact, Mrs. Grey.”I sigh and shake my head. Oh, Christian . . . my possessive, jealous, control
freak Christian.

Yeah Ana, don't push your luck on doing what you want with your own body! And think it's cute when you're treated like you belong to another person, not yourself. I get it, referring to someone as "Mine" or being someone's is all so terribly romantic. It's not supposed to be about ownership, it's about love and passion etc etc etc. But it isn't here. Time and time again, we see Grey treating Ana as his property. He dictates how she dresses, how she eats, he gets angry when she goes out with other people and wants her to stop working. He especially dislikes Kate, who called him out on being so controlling and being concerned with how he was treating his property Ana. He also reminds her that she belongs to him a lot. Multiple times a chapter. She will sometimes smugly think "Well, he's mine" when other women gawk at Grey (so, every random woman extra they encounter) but the frequency doesn't line up, and Ana never tries to control who he sees.

The above bolded text isn't a cute challenge like the book will try to treat it, this is a command. And when Ana disobeys (she starts laying on her stomach but in her sleep rolls onto her back) he gets mad. HOW DARE OTHER PEOPLE SEE HIS WIFE'S BOOBZ! You know, ignoring the fact that they were making out in the water in plain sight so intensely people thought they were about to bone right then and there like ten minutes ago.

Now for the wedding. It takes place six months after the end of the last book, is held at Grey's parents place, and everything is white pink and silver, which is surprising to me because neither Ana nor Grey strike me as the pink type. I guess it was his Mom? The wedding is rushed through (K, you may now kiss the bride. Cool lets party. Kate says some vague snarky but supportive stuff, Jose basically reminds us he exists by telling Ana if Grey pulls anything he's here for her, silently implying he means with his junk, just, you know, a friendly open offer).  As Grey drags Ana off before she wants to leave, insisting she stay in her wedding dress (her's at least sounds moderately comfortable? Like, no mention of bodices and corset boning jabbing into her ribs) we get a quick exchange between Ana and her Mother (with Kate hovering around for reasons?).
“You didn’t promise to obey,” she reminds me tactfully. Kate tries to disguise her snort as a cough. I narrow my eyes at her. Neither she nor my mother have any idea of the fight Christian and I had about that. I don’t want to rehash that argument. Jeez, can my Fifty Shades sulk . . . and have nightmares. The memory is sobering.
This is going to be A Thing. Ana didn't promise to obey in her vows. Grey's response was to, like a mature adult, sulk.
“I can’t believe how grown-up you look right now. Beginning a new life . . .Just remember that men are from a different planet, and you’ll be fine.”I giggle. Christian is from a different universe, if only she knew.
TEE HEE BECAUSE ONLY ONE GENDER ARE REAL PEOPLE! Men are bad at feelings and women are irrational! Wimen maek babies and menz kill bear! Have I gotten regressive enough to keep up with this book yet?

So they bail on their own wedding party to go onto Grey's private jet (uggghhh) because they're on their way to Europe! All of it! Apparently there's a private room there where they bone. The sex scenes are somewhere between funny and boring to me now.

Leaving my breasts bereft he runs his hands down my stomach, over my belly, and down to my thighs, his thumbs skimming my sex.

Ana, you're a married woman now. You can say vagina. You could before, too. Here, try it with me: v-a-g-i-n-a. Vagina! PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STOP CALLING IT YOUR SEX.
“This is like unwrapping my Christmas presents.” He smiles up at me through his long dark lashes.“A present you’ve had already . . .”He frowns in admonishment. “Oh no, baby. This time it’s really mine.”
He says to the girl whose Mother has been married three or four times. I don't even know what to do with this scene. If I were her editor I think I'd just send it back with a bunch of question marks scribbled on it. It's a lot of tongues invading and U MAEK ME THE HAPPIEST 5EVAR type thing and it's just--why is all of their sex like this? Even when they're being kinky and weird it comes back to ILY type things like all of their conversations and fights do. They just spend a lot of time saying how much they LURVE each other and I just--what else? You say you love each other and make each other happy, but short of sexy flirting they don't really talk unless they're fighting. This may be EL James' worst case of telling-not-showing.
His lips find mine, his hands curling around my head, holding me, stilling me as our tongues glory in each other.
Do you think she has a thesaurus collection? I bet she has a thesaurus collection.
He stands swiftly and in one efficient move dispenses with his pants and boxer briefs so that he’s gloriously naked and looming large and ready over me.
 It's even funnier if you imagine the music from 2001 Space Odyssey playing here.

It turns out we were getting this flashback via Ana napping on the beach, rather than EL James embracing that not all story telling needs to be perfectly linear (still an improvement!) and she's woken up riiight before she gets the D by Grey coming back to find her topless and on her back and he is PISSED, and that's the end of chapter 1! Tune in next time to find out what punishment Grey dishes up for Ana not listening to his orders which are totes only for her own good!

Oh, right, they've been calling each other Mr and Mrs. Grey or "wife" and "husband" non-stop. It's awful.

---

*Ok, my Grandmother straight up CAMPAIGNED against me on the "no kids" thing over one cousin, but she has yet to figure out that the second I realize someone is trying to guilt trip me I stop caring, so, eh. NBD.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Eye of the World, ix to xviii, in which Will fails to keep a straight face

The first character we meet in The Wheel of Time has something in common with me, in that we both brought this suffering on ourselves.

Most of you are probably at least aware of WOT, even if you've never read it--the first book came out in 1990, which is notable for me as the first year that I was aware what year it was.  These books are old, given that the series only finally ground to its conclusion quite recently.  This brick of a book I'm staring at warily is 814 pages long and has a cover with one guy wearing vaguely samurai-ish armor on horseback (with a pair of vaguely Celtic swords strapped to his back in a questionable manner) next to a woman on a much smaller horse, carrying a staff and looking like she is small enough to curl up inside his ribcage.  If I hadn't already guessed, it became apparent to me on the first page that this book is sort of a fantasy Poe: if I were to make up a random phrase that was meant to sound like an absurd parody of sword-and-sorcery mythos, it would be indistinguishable from actual text in this book.

I am not necessarily opposed to this.

If I wanted to try to come up with objective criteria on the quality of storytelling, I guess I'd have two questions: 1) How well does the story achieve what it set out to do and be, and 2) What are the real-world implications of the story?  The works of Orson Scott Card do questionably on both these counts, because people act like they got something completely different out of the book than what is in there.  What little I know of Robert Jordan's works, and his immense, Card-eclipsing popularity, suggests to me that they succeed immensely on Criterion the First: if you want this kind of unabashed over-the-top megalomagical Epic Fantasy, they will fulfill your needs.

This blog, of course, is much more focused on Criterion the Second: who gets walked all over in the service of the story's ends?  Women?  People who are disabled?  People who aren't straight?  People who aren't cis?  People who aren't white?  Some beautiful and terrible Voltron of more than one of these demographics?

What I know in advance about WOT suggests that it's going to be heavy on the gender-essentialism and the heteronormativity.  Dunno yet about the racism, ableism, or anything else.  Dunno what kind of politics it pushes or values it assumes.  I am leaping into the unknown here.  Your fates are now bound to mine.  Let's bounce.

(Content: death, ableism, binarism. Fun content: the phrase 'Nine Rods of Dominion' is used unironically.)

Eye of the World: p. ix--xviii
Prologue: Dragonmount

The first thing that leaps out at me is that this prose is hard to read.  In my own fiction, I've been debilitatingly bare-bones about description in the past, and I think these days I still tend towards sparse narrative.  Jordan does not.  Jordan's prose is the purple of a twilight sky in the eyeblink past sunset when the reds have faded but the black of night is not yet swept over the world.  It gets distracting.  We're inside a ruined palace and I'm piecing together what's going on with the help of phrases like:
Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air.
Did you parse that sentence on the first read?  I did not.  I'm also a little fuzzy on the nature of the devastation in the palace,since "scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals", but also "colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed".  What kind of fire hits every surface of the room but misses all the art?  Is that supposed to be indicative of something?

Also there are corpses everywhere, all sorts, all kinds, and through it all a dude cheerfully skipping along looking for his wife.  (She's dead on the floor among all the others, naturally.  Fridged Women Tally: 1.)  He spots himself in a mirror, looking mussed, and cracks up.  There's more tons of description, including a blatant taijitu (yin-yang symbol) on his cloak, although his name is Lews Therin Telamon and his dead wife is Ilyena.  Samurai armor on the cover, taijitu on the white dude; is this a secret weaboo fantasy and no one told me?

A dude pops into existence behind Lews, wearing all black and thigh-highs, so it's safe to assume he's evil, I guess.  (Thigh-high boots, that is, but I wanted y'all to consider a different mental image first.)  He's described as "fastidious" about not wanting to touch the bodies, and I begin to wonder if this is going to be a series that requires frequent consideration of queer-coding.  He calls Lews "Lord of the Morning", and we are into Poe territory immediately, because Lews asks if the stranger has "the Voice", because it's almost time for "the Singing".

All-Black Dude immediately determines that "the taint" has taken Lews (no Significant Capitalisation?) and I'm fuzzy on whether he's the devil's lieutenant or not, because he says "Shai'tan take you" in a snappish way, but also calls Lews "Light-blinded idiot".  Shaitan is straightforwardly the Islamic take on 'Satan', though sometimes a whole class of spirits rather than one single adversary.  Guessing Shai'tan is going to just be the embodiment of evil for this world; easier to stab that way.

All-Black introduces himself as "Elan Morin Tedronai", now called "Betrayer of Hope", and I wonder why we don't get titles like that more often in real life.  We never get to say stuff like 'This is my friend Eileen, the Jailor of Infinity'.  We should start doing that.  Elan says that he's embraced his title, and it's no different from people calling Lews "Dragon", though he suspects that Lews will have some public relations problems once word gets out about the massacre--apparently Lews is the one who murdered everybody, including the wife he keeps calling for.

Let me again make the nature of this text clear:
"Once you stood first among the Servants. Once you wore the Ring of Tamyrlin, and sat in the High Seat. Once you summoned the Nine Rods of Dominion. Now look at you! A pitiful, shattered wretch. But it is not enough. You humbled me in the Hall of Servants. You defeated me at the Gates of Paaran Disen. But I am the greater, now. I will not let you die without knowing that."
I was so unprepared for this I cracked up.  THE NINE RODS OF DOMINION.  This book is amazing and I regret nothing and everything.

Elan blasts Lews with "Shai'tan's healing" which wracks him with fiery agony but finally leaves him lucid, and he notices his murdered Ilyena.  (Blonde, obvs.)
"You can have her back, Kinslayer. The Great Lord of the Dark can make her live again, if you will serve him.  If you will serve me."
There go my hopes that Elan was a third party or something.  He's just our evil god's field agent.  Oh well.  Lews says the big bad has terrorised the world for ten years, Elan snaps back that it's happened since the beginning of time, and it sounds like there's a reincarnation cycle or something, "You and I have fought a thousand battles with the turning of the Wheel, a thousand times a thousand, and we will fight until time dies and the Shadow is triumphant", so I'm vaguely intrigued by this.

Elan finally makes it clear to Lews that the big bad mind-whammied him into murdering his entire family, in revenge for Lews' last attack.  Killed his wife (Ilyena Sunhair, she's even named for being blonde), his kids, his friends, his servants.
Desperately he reached out to the True Source, to tainted saidin, and he Traveled.
One of the things about these kinds of fantasy novels (Jack Vance also reads like this) is that it can be very hard to guess when a mythical thing is plot-relevant and when it's just magibabble, since references to big arcane things are getting tossed around all over the place.  Are there a lot of False Sources?  This is that same sort of 'tell the reader nothing and let them figure it out by deduction' style of worldbuilding, which I generally like, but I'm still back wondering what the Rods of Dominion are used to Dominate and why there are Nine of them, and in fact why it's so important that there are Nine of them that the word Nine is in their name, and why they have to be summoned rather than kept in a secure closet or something.

But Lews has Traveled to a huge broad plain, where "he could sense there were no people within a hundred leagues", and begs the Light to forgive him, though he doesn't believe it can.
He was still touching saidin, the male half of the power that drove the universe, that turned the Wheel of Time, and he could feel the oily taint fouling its surface [...]
Oh.  Joy.  Our magical Source is split into male and female, in turn making those universal concepts.  Betting there's no room in there for non-binary genders (and probably not intersex people either, regardless of their gender)?  If they've determined that the Source has male and female sides, would they even be looking for one?  I predict that I will spend much of this book suggesting that each plot point would be a good time for an androgyne person to bust in with new magic and save the day.

Lews blames himself and his pride for making whatever attack provoked the big bad's revenge, trying to "mend what the Creator had made and they had broken", and he overclocks himself on magic until he turns into a colossal pillar of incandescence that raises up a huge volcano in the middle of the plain, shoving the river aside and splitting it around a new island.  Elan finally catches up and mutters about how the Dragon can't escape him so easily, et cetera.

Then we get a couple of excerpts from historical texts, talking about the end of the world, when "the living envied the dead" and the only enduring memory is of "him who brought the Shadow and the Breaking of the World. And they named him Dragon", while the second excerpt calls for "the Prince of the Morning" and the "Lord of the Dawn", and then we get what I know is this series' catchphrase: "Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time."

To sum up: big bad, eternal war, hero tried to seal big bad, fucked up, slaughtered everyone, world kind of ended but probably not really because there are fourteen books to go, and everyone is waiting for said hero's return.

Ooh, then we get a huge convenient map:


Will you look at the 90-degree angle those mountains take?  I would normally bet massive quantities of cash that nothing plot-relevant will ever happen more than an inch beyond the borders of this map, but surely with the millions of words that make up this series I'd be wrong about that?  Please?

I also have some huge questions about the borders as defined above.  Why are they where they are?  We have a lot of weirdly-bounded territories in the world, just look at the eastern US or Europe, but there's a reason for that--they're following rivers, or mountains, or some other significant geological feature.  When we don't need to do that, we end up with things like Wyoming and Saskatchewan, boxes imposed on the boredom of the ground.  Why in the world is Tear's curvy border swooping through that field?  Who owns the ground between Tear and Illian?  There are actually an impressive number of unlabelled swathes in there--is the lack of claim there going to be explained, or are they just international territory for some reason?  These are the questions that will trouble me for months to come.

That's followed by this magnificent creation:


Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but this appears to show three rivers coming out of the mountains, and somehow the middle one shatters like a river delta in the middle of a field and branches out in dozens of different directions without ever meeting up with the other two rivers that are arcing together.  And eventually all those little streams just die out, in a presumably-damp region called 'the Mire', which I could sort of accept if not for the way there are still two massive distinct rivers bordering the Mire and cutting cleanly through the land.

I realise most fantasy authors aren't hydrologists, and if an actual hydrologist wants to correct me on this, please do because I love new knowledge, but I'm like 35% sure that is not how rivers work.

This is a bit of a short post, but that's all I can handle for now.  Come back next week for chapter one, in which we meet Our Hero, who at first glance looks to me like he's going to be a humble farmboy.  I should make so many bingo sheets.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters twenty-three and twenty-four, in which Bean steps aside

I almost put 'the last Card post ever' under the below 'fun content' tag, but of course then I remembered that, sooner or later, I'm going to have to do one more post on the Ender's Game movie.  So there's that, though I'm not sure when, exactly.

As I have vowed many times, I'm not doing any more Orson Scott Card books on this blog.  I'm quite done; this one is the best and I am not willing to spend any more of my life on his time.  So, enjoy the below, but next week be sure to come back for the very first post on: The Eye of the World, Book One of The Wheel of Time.

I'm going to regret this, I just know it.

But first, we've got to finish up with Card's books at least, so read on, you tenacious followers.  Y'all make this endurable.

(Content: ableism, genocide, child abuse. Fun content: asteroid dodgeball, male novelists, terrifying Space Humans, tons of fanfiction, Adam Savage, and yet more goddamn Bible references.)

Ender's Shadow: p. 352--379
Chapter Twenty-Three: Ender's Game

The opening exchange between Graff and Admiral Placeholder-Designed-To-Make-Others-Look-Better is predictable, as Graff tries to convince him to arrest "the Polemarch and his conspirators", although as I understand this world that means 'all Russians', so... that seems hard.  Admiral Placeholder of course refuses to "fire the first shot", because then he'll be blamed for the ensuing war, etc etc politics cowards whatever.  I hate Graff and I don't know who this guy is, so I can't imagine why I'm supposed to be invested in this subplot.  Anyway, it's xenocide time again and Bean is in prophet mode for Our MurderSaviour:
With Ender there,Bean immediately stepped back into his place among the toon leaders. No one mentioned it to him. He had been the leading commander, he had trained them well, but Ender had always been the natural commander of this group [....] They felt known by the one whose honor they needed. Bean simply did not know how to do that. His encouragement was always more obvious, a bit heavy-handed. [....] Ender was just... himself. Authority came from him like breath.
Card continues to subscribe to the notion that narrative 'showing' is only used for minor matters, like spending several pages detailing the logistics of crawling around inside an air duct, whereas the powerful art of 'telling' is saved for those grand moments when you need to contrast the essential natures of your dual protagonists to drive home your thesis on intelligence distinct from leadership.

Bean also informs us that Ender doesn't call on him nearly as much as he wishes, focusing instead on his besties: Petra, Alai, Dink, and Shen.  The previous book informed us that Ender analysed Bean's skills and found he floundered with large fleets but used small squadrons to devastating effect; here we're told that this was actually Mazer Rackham downplaying Bean's skills so that Bean can always be standing by to hit the button and take over Ender's leadership if Ender freezes or passes out in the middle of battle.

They hear about Mazer Rackham's 'testing' plan, which Bean pegs as suspicious, but the best part is this logical leap, when he sees the globe formation of the enemy ships that Rackham supposedly programmed, surrounding a single decoy queen:
So why would Rackham expect the Buggers to expect humans to strike for a single ship? 
Bean thought back to those vids that Ender had watched over and over in Battle School--all the propaganda film of the Second Invasion. 
They never showed the battle because there wasn't one. Nor did Mazer Rackham command a strike force with a brilliant strategy. Mazer Rackham hit a single ship and the war was over.
Just so we're clear here, I didn't snip out any text.  Bean makes a flying leap from 'Mazer, pretending to be the formics, is decoying with a lone ship, which he thinks the real formics will do, therefore there was no battle whatsoever in the Second Invasion'.  Now, okay, the leap to 'they're faking a queen therefore the queen is their weak point' is a legitimate move, cool, but the additional decision that there was no actual battle around Saturn is pure magical intuition.  Bean has no reason to believe that Mazer didn't kill the queen after a long and devastating battle of brilliant tactics.  If he won with one shot and not military skill, what's supposed to qualify him to program anything else the formics are doing in battle?  Why does one skill (laser tag, or alien empathy) keep translating into total mastery of war?

Bean similarly hears that the testing pattern is going to mimic a campaign, and he instantly concludes that all of his guesses are right, the formics have many worlds and the humans are invading all of them and the formics will learn from battle to battle because they have instant communications etc etc I am literally recapping Card recapping himself.  Also, Bean has apparently given up on his 'I must not believe my own wild theory' plan, continuing his signature move of completely changing his mind between scenes for no given reason.

Ender starts relying most of all on Petra (what happened to Alai running whole fleets himself?), and fails to notice as Bean does that she's a perfectionist and her mistakes are grinding her down.
He was so good with people, and yet he seemed to think she was really tough, instead of realizing that toughness was an act she put on to hide her intense anxiety.
Silly Ender, thinking that a girl is actually tough rather than just having an abrasive veneer covering her deeply vulnerable femininity.  Bean can't be bothered with her right now, of course, he's busy toughly weathering the total lack of recognition he gets (the others don't come to him for tactical support, except for Tom and Han) as he keeps an eye on everything and tries to coordinate behind the scenes as the battles get rougher.  Man Tough.  Man Tough Strong Do My Job Grr Whiskey.

Petra passes out in the middle of battle, Bean has to catch Ender's attention to get him to react, and they pull it together with heavy losses while Petra breaks down sobbing, blaming herself, until she's taken away to, presumably, the infirmary.  She comes back, "but her ebullience was gone", because if ever there was a word to summarise Petra's tactical brilliance, 'cheerful' is definitely it.  Not courage or determination or sharp calculation, but always having a smile on her face.  I'm so done with Card.

Petra's not the only one down this time; Vlad goes catatonic and Fly Molo breaks down laughing in the middle of battle.  As Ender keeps slowing down as well, Bean steps in more to clarify and support his orders, and he starts getting some acknowledgement and back-pats from his friends, and his heart grows three sizes, and then it's the final battle.

Graff comes to beg Bean to come up with some miracle to save the day.  (Bean is finally the only person to point out that Mazer is probably psychologically torn up and taking it out on Ender because all these pilots dying in battle are Mazer's friends from decades ago.  There's an underused concept there.)  Bean's got nothing, especially once he sees the formic homeworld and its ten-thousand-ship fleet in orbit.

I'm going to be a jackass about math one last time.  Let's assume for no good reason that the formic homeworld is about the same size as Earth.  Earth has a surface area of 510 million square kilometres.  Ten thousand ships in flight means each ship needs to cover about 51,000 square klicks  from a human ship reaching the surface.  Half that if they knew what direction the humans would come from and they've only covered that hemisphere of the planet, of course.  So, assuming a hex grid, each formic ship is, what, 120 klicks apart by land?  (I'm not adjusting distance for altitude of flight, but if they're flying above the atmosphere, it's obviously a much greater distance between ships.)  That's not going to give us the kind of incredibly tight swarm Card describes, so do we assume that means the formic homeworld is tiny?  If it isn't, then I'm less convinced that this is as hard a shot to pull off as they imply.  They have eighty ships; the formics need to prevent every single one of them from entering the atmosphere.  If we're looking at the planet from a distance like this but it's minutes away rather than days, all of the ships involved are obviously moving at ridiculous speeds, far beyond anything we 21st century humans have ever achieved, so if our only goal is to reach the planet (and both Bean and the formics see that it must be so), I feel like the formics are at a bigger disadvantage here than we think.  It's exactly the problem Bean described before: if they spread their fleet away from the surface (to keep humans from getting anywhere near firing range) they need exponentially more ships to create a thick enough field to ensure no one slips through.  How quickly can their ships change direction in space?  Can they get from the north pole to the southern hemisphere as quickly as humans can get from hovering out in space to the south pole?  What are our acceleration/deceleration parameters here?

A kindlier blogger would just say that, since Bean sees this as a hopeless fight, obviously the parameters are such that the formic defence swarm is indeed an impassable blockade, but you and I both know I ran out of kindliness long ago.

I'm mostly thinking that this whole fight could be adequately side-stepped if the human fleet contained 79 normal fighters and a single fighter with good cloaking technology to slip down to the south pole and shiv the planet.  Why don't we have that?  Why don't we have ten thousand drones whose sole purpose is to project a small Ecstatic Field and make it look like we have a fleet just as big as theirs, since it's canon that you can't see through shields?  Do they have a moon?  Have we considered busting that and just letting tidal forces obliterate their civilisation?  Have we considered using our sweet stolen gravity technology to give them a moon?  Is no one worried that they might have split off, you know, five hundred of their endless swarm of ships on a mission of vengeance against Earth weeks ago when they found out we had a planet-buster weapon and we were coming for them?

Where we were?

Ender stares in silence at all of this for a full minute before a blinking button lights up on Bean's console, which he knows will put him in command if he touches it.  Bean determines the teachers think that Ender has frozen up, while Bean knows Ender has just reached the same hopeless conclusion Bean has, and because he thinks it's a game, he's going to quit.  Bean agrees, and has nothing in mind except bitter irony when he says "Remember [...] the enemy's gate is down".

I'm fuzzy on why it's necessary that they "dodge here and there through the ever-shifting formations of the enemy swarms" and "every third or fourth move takes us closer and closer to the planet".  It's a straight line, the distances involved make the idea of a 'thick' swarm ridiculous, like flying through an asteroid belt and worrying about collisions.  If you can reach the edge of their swarm and not die, you can probably get to the far side before they can so much as track you.

But the formics don't strike (I'm not even sure if they're shooting), and Bean comes up with a series of hypotheses to explain this: they fear clustering and getting Doctored, they just have too many ships in flight for too few queen minds to effectively coordinate, and they're focused (inexplicably) on blocking the human retreat, because they "have finally, finally learned that we humans value each and every individual human life [....] but they've learned this lesson just in time for it to be hopelessly wrong".  There is much heroic talk about leaping on grenades to save your foxhole comrades, and suicide bombing, collectively and charming summarised as "insane".  Sigh.

Bean concludes that the formics aren't afraid of Dr Device right now because all the human fighters would die with the planet, and wonders whether Ender has somehow learned to empathise with them enough to predict this, but decides it doesn't matter even if it's all luck now, because either way Ender is the one who chose the tactics in this battle and all the others:
It was Ender whose previous victories taught the enemy to think of us as one kind of creature when we are really something quite different. He pretended all this time that humans were rational beings, when we are really the most terrible monsters these poor aliens could ever have conceived of in their nightmares.
For a refreshing break to a realm of more interesting science fiction ideas, allow me to recommend this tumblr compilation of notes on humans from the perspective of aliens.

Anyway, Bean gets around to feeling sorry for the pilots currently on their way to die committing xenocide at Ender's command, and he remembers Sister Carlotta's favourite scriptureAbsalom and David, and presses the fleet override button just long enough to speak to all of the pilot simultaneously (and no one else, and apparently no one notices that Bean just took control from Ender for several seconds, and how does he give control back afterwards anyway?)--
...knowing for the first time the kind of anguish that could tear such words from a man's mouth. "My son, my son Absalom. Would God I could die for thee, O Absalom, my son. My sons!"
(Bean is tragically unaware that all of the pilots are women.  Graff's obsession with filling Battle School with more boys than pants wasn't in effect eighty years ago.)

They make their final dive, they all fire (except Petra's squadron, given rear guard duty against the actual swarm), and "the ships that launched too early watched their Dr. Device burn up in the atmosphere before it could go off", because apparently it's a missile in this continuity.  Does the Device not work on gas and vapour for some reason?  But Bean gives the last ship an order to detonate their Doctor onboard, without launching, and somehow that is close enough to hit the planet.
But long before the last ship was swallowed up, all the maneuvering had stopped. They drifted, dead. Like the dead Bugger ships in the vids of the Second Invasion.
BEAN YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN THOSE VIDS OH MY GOD CARD.

Out in the hall, Bean tells the others that, yes, those cool special effects really could happen because they did happen, they just won, and Graff appears to confirm this (I guess after Ender has already passed out or whatever) and inform them that the species is dead.  Petra, of course, immediately breaks down in tears, making her, by the way, the first person to mourn for the formics, so let's keep that in mind the next time anyone talks about how magical the Speaker for the Dead was.  Dink comforts Petra, everyone leaves except Bean and Graff, who are still chatting when gunfire sounds off from the Polemarch's rebellion.  Friendly marines secure the barracks, and Graff takes Bean to the ansible room to hear the news.  The last several lines are actually pretty funny banter and all, but whatever.  People joking around corpses is standard for this book.

Ender's Game is, quite clearly, a massive exercise in putting a child in the position of committing genocide without bearing any actual responsibility for it, because he's kept unaware.  Bean, conversely, is fully aware, totally onboard, and gives the last commands that guarantee victory.  On the other hand, Ender said in Speaker for the Dead that he retrospectively would have been onboard with it if he'd known, and therefore bears equal guilt.

There's nothing much to be said about Bean's lack of thought towards the formics that I haven't said about Ender, except for this: Bean came up with his plan (the Third Invasion) because he thought there was no ansible, so the invasion fleet would hit the formics just when they found out they had lost the Second Invasion.  When he found out there was an ansible, if he'd had the slightest sense in his head, he should have realised that the formics therefore knew they lost the moment it happened, seventy years ago, and thus could have launched their own fleet just as long ago.  We don't know how humanity found the formic homeworlds, so we don't know what kind of scanning and astrometric surveying technology we've all got, but surely we might have noticed if, the first time we Doctored one of their fleets, they decided to launch a full re-invasion fleet toward Earth, or drew their forces back to defend themselves.  Nada.  The formics haven't apparently responded to anything at all.

Bean can catch the hesitation in someone's voice and from it reason his way into understanding the entire secret strategy and technology behind the whole of the Third Invasion, but the marauding monsters (with thousands of times the ships humanity can field) spend seventy years very specifically not attacking Earth again and it doesn't pique his curiosity at all?


Bean has realised that the formics are hive-minds, Bean has thought far enough ahead to realise that the formics might not have realised that humans weren't hive-minds to start with, and all the consequences that spill out of that, and he could have done so in a matter of seconds.  The screen comes up, Ender stares flatly at the impossibility of the final battle, Bean sees the thousands of formic ships that have been built and never sent to kill anyone, and when Ender finally starts giving commands, Bean shouts: Stop.  Because instead of his hopeless "the enemy's gate is down", the lesson he remembers is 'The real enemy isn't the other army; the real enemy is the teacher'.

And that's the real strength of fanfiction that Card doesn't have, here: fanfiction is created by those who adore and immerse themselves in the story, but it is also, most importantly, created by those who didn't feel like the original story was enough.

Let's take Harry Potter here, because while I've been out of fanfic for years, some of the best I still see around the web is in that world.  Harry Potter fanfiction isn't just fun for people who like the idea of wizard school, it's also vitally important for people who want to know that they exist and are good and strong and worthy magicians despite not being cis or straight or (frankly) white, and people who need more than 'all was well' and to talk about the story of recovering and not just winning.  Harry Potter fanfiction is important for people for whom it is not adequate or acceptable that Harry grows up in an abusive environment and no one ever calls Dumbledore on it, or that the youngest survivors of the war are at risk of the same treatment again, or the idea that you can tell who's good and who's bad by the colour of their school uniform.

And Card doesn't have that, here, because he mashed several stories together, he wrote Ender's Game so he'd have his divine white saviour hero for Speaker for the Dead, and it did that job and it can't be done any other way without uprooting his whole original plan, so Bean can't say any of those things, he can't be that smart, despite day after chapter after day of doing exactly that thing, again and again.  Ender's Game, for him, is already good enough.  Ender's Shadow doesn't really exist to comment on that, or to change anything except a handful of details, and then not much--we met Petra, Corn Moon, and Wu, but Bean still says there were only a dozen girls in Battle School (estimated minimum student body of 1000).  The retcons (like everyone knowing about the formic hive-mind) are obviously unintentional.

So, in the end, I have a hard time thinking worse of Bean for going along with xenocide, because even though it could have been completely in his character to understand the situation, his writer couldn't allow him to do that, because the first story was already good enough for him.

Chapter Twenty-Four: Homecoming

Graff informs Carlotta that, before they were defeated, Russia grabbed Achilles out of whatever prison they were keeping him in, being the only Battle School child not currently under I.F. guard.  Dun dun DUNNNN.  Carlotta, of course, is a protagonist and therefore has to be shocked that Graff is up for court-martial, "a scapegoat for victory".  Sigh.

When Eros has been safely reclaimed from Russian rebels, the dream team gather at last to go see Ender, who's been unconscious the whole time.  Bean recognises that Ender has been torturing himself emotionally, grieving for the formics while Bean cares less about their whole species than he does about Poke.

Then it's mostly recapping and Bean narratively informing us how true everything is: "Bean believed him""Bean felt the truth of that", et cetera.  There's also a line I never paid attention to before,"If the universe had any kindness in it, or even simple justice, Ender would never have to take another life", which I assume is an ironic nod to Speaker for the Dead and the transition of Human to his tree stage.  Meh.

Bean is the only one who already knows that Ender is the only one not going back to Earth, as part of the peace treaty that Locke put together.  Bean thinks of many reasons Ender's own brother would ban him from returning to Earth, but can't decide.  He vows to meet him one day and find out, and destroy Peter if Bean decides this was in fact a betrayal.  Which strikes me as deeply out of character for Bean, who has (until last chapter, when he signed off on the formics' death) never cared about revenge at all.  They're sent home, one by one, and that's the last mention of Ender in this book.

The last page and a half is, in a rare case, one of the best parts of the book.  The Delphiki parents gleefully await the arrival of their son Nikolai (but why now, when Bean started the ball rolling weeks or months ago and it takes so much longer to get back from Eros than Battle School?), and prepare a small feast, and they see the car coming, and it's only when Nikolai gets out with another tiny boy that dad finally tells Elena that Bean survived.  I'll include it here, for completeness, because Card is a terrible person who does terrible things, and it's important to also recognise that a person can be that and write this:
"He's been told that he's coming just for a visit. That legally he is not our child, but rather a ward of the state. We don't have to take him in, if you don't want to, Elena." 
"Hush, you foolish man," she said. 
[....] Her husband spoke. Elena recognized his words at once, from the gospel of St. Luke. But because he had only memorized the passage in Greek, the little on did not understand him. No matter. Nikolai began to translate into Common, the language of the fleet, and almost at once the little one recognized the words, and spoke them correctly, from memory, as Sister Carlotta had once read it to him years before. 
"Let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." Then the little one burst into tears and clung to his mother, and kissed his father's hand. 
"Welcome home, little brother," said Nikolai. "I told you they were nice."
This isn't a book about how hard it is to be the only special person in the room, or how morally justified murder is if we think we're threatened, or how super sad we are about the terrible things we've done for no good reason.  This is a story about what it's like to be this scrawny little genius jackass named Bean, and that is why it's better than Ender's Game.

Next week: hey, my copy of Eye of the World has a back-cover blurb from Card himself, who spoke of Robert Jordan's "powerful vision of good and evil" and "fascinating people moving through a rich and interesting world".  We're so screwed.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ender's Shadow, chapters twenty-one and twenty-two, in which Bean is not the smartest person

(Content: misogyny, emotional manipulation. Fun content: Petra Arkanian and Ace McShane are the best crossover ship.)

Ender's Shadow: pp. 319--351
Chapter Twenty-One: Guesswork

Unnamed Important Military figures (I'm guessing Anderson and... I'm going to pretend Levi as well) open by discussing the logistics of getting Ender's dream-team through all their pre-war training before they're ready for xenocide.  It really drives home just how amazingly inefficient all of their spread-out Secret Schools are:
"ISL is two months away from you,and by the time they're done with Tactical, the voyage from there to FleetCom will be four months. That gives them only three months in Tactical before we have to bring them to Command School. Three months in which to compress three years of training."
The whole 'you have eleven seconds to master this secret technique that most people have to reincarnate to spend a second lifetime to learn' is standard enough child hero fare, but our first question is why again all these various schools need to be so incredibly far apart.  I mean, Eros is only around the orbit of Mars, so we're apparently not using the Park Shift engine for cheap fast easy relativistic flight for some reason, but why are they moving around at all?  This fleet is operating on the basis that there's no difference between having your general aboard the flagship versus sitting at a desk seventy light-years away, but you need to waste half your remaining training time shipping your miracle students on a whirlwind tour of the solar system rather than just using your instant communications tech to access whatever software or skype tutoring they need in one place.  (Sure, they would need to lie properly to cover up the instant communications being used, but as we're about to see, they're already doing that, and not well.)

Also:
"I'm not faulting Colonel Graff, you understand, he had no way of knowing." 
"Knowing what?" 
"That Achilles is a serial killer." 
"That should make Graff happy. Ender's count is up to two."

They talk about how amazing it is that Ender, the team-builder, got cornered and went for a solo fight, while Bean the Lonely Loner brought together a squad for a nonviolent solution, and how that's so far against their predilections, apparently forgetting that Ender's establishing moment is killing a bully in a one-on-one fight and Bean's first moment is transforming a street gang into a sort of microfeudalistic patronage.  Also, remember how I talked about the general who picked Ender's friends for his campaign team feeling foolish once Ender decides to go the Distant Unapproachable Genius route for his leading role?  I was clearly wrong, because they didn't actually put that much thought into it.
"So send ten." 
"Which ten?" 
"How the hell should I know?  Well... Bean, him for sure. And the nine others that you think would work best with either Bean or Ender in command, whichever one it turns out to be."
So from three dozen our dream team roster has been retconned down to 'whichever ten you like, plus Carn Carby since we've already got him here'.  The world-saving world-ending assault force command group has been assembled with all the careful consideration and approval processes of a company softball team.

Bean gets his transfer orders, has a final chat with the Rabbit toon leaders about how they lost all five of their games and that's okay because they were learning improvisation and teamwork from each other, which are more important now than the ability to follow one smart guy's completely battle plan, ending with "losing is a much more powerful teacher than winning", which I feel raises some serious questions about Ender's endless winning streak in this narrative.

He then goes to have a last chat with Nikolai, who has been promoted yet again to be the new Rabbit Commander (that's just a fun phrase), and they speculate on whether it's End of the World time.  Bean says the signals are mixed; the teachers are acting like it's the final countdown, but nothing seems to be happening in the solar system to suggest they're bunkering down for an incoming invasion.  Bean says if they were going to launch their own invasion fleet, the time to do that was right after the Second Invasion.  Nikolai points out that humanity might not know where the formic homeworld is (Bean didn't think of that, especially if they don't communicate via light the way we do; Bean insists light is "still faster than anything else."
"Anything else that we know about," said Nikolai. 
Bean just looked at him. 
"Oh, I know, that's stupid. The laws of physics and all that. I just--you know, I keep thinking, that's all. I don't like to rule things out just because they're impossible."
Once again, a thing I actually really like in this book: Nikolai might not be a miracle child, but he's thoughtful and open-minded, and sometimes that means he's smarter than Bean.

Also, Nikolai was one of those who went to trap Achilles, of course, and Bean is very grateful.
"Someday," said Bean, "you're going to need me the way I needed you. And I'll be there."
Flat-out untrue; Nikolai disappears a few chapters into the next book and we will never speak of him again.  Sigh.

So they get loaded onto a destroyer for the four-month journey, and we get a full roster at last: Dink, Petra, Alai, Shen, Vlad, "Dumper", Tom, Fly Molo, Han Tzu, and Bean (Bustopher Kobayashi is of course already there, with Carn Carby).  Bean remains suspicious of Petra's reliability, obvs, but rather than resolve that sidequest just yet, he spends four months in the library reading recent Earth history, learning about how Russia threatens to conquer the world at any moment so easily.  No, for reals.
Where the Chinese simply took it for granted that they were and should be the center of the universe, the Russians, led by a series of ambitious demagogues and authoritarian generals, felt that history had cheated them out of their rightful place, century after century, and it was time for that to end. [....] Everything was in place for a vast power play the moment the Buggers were defeated--or before, if they thought it was to their advantage. Oddly, the Russians were rather open about their intentions--they always had been. They had no talent for subtlety, but they made up for it with amazing stubbornness. [....] Along with their national vigor, the Russians had also nurtured their astonishing talent for misgovernment, that sense of personal entitlement that made corruption a way of life.
It just goes on like this, vast heaving tracts of telling-not-showing about the nature of Earth back home, making up bad future Russians so Card can tell us how they extrapolate from our own contemporary Russians, generalising the millions of inhabitants of a country with "effective borders back to the peak of Soviet power--and beyond" according to some vague traits found among the ruling class of the 20th century.  I mean to say: why is this here?

(Lest we think Card is just an anti-Russian zealot, he also criticises Chinese national narcissism ("To the Chinese, once something was known in China, it was known everywhere that mattered") and the apathy of "the Euro-American nations", which is a phrase almost as hilarious as 'Judeo-Christian' is in glossing and blurring of radically different histories and traditions and mindsets into a vague 'obviously we all get along in our community of whiteness' melange.)

The actual reason it's here is so Bean can bring up Locke and Demosthenes, consider whether they might really be the same person, decide they think and write too differently despite their similar factual premises, and so write an anonymous essay to mail to both of them.  Bean, with his total lack of access to reconnaissance data, accurately draws up the Russian threat, their Obvious Strategy, and how to pre-empt it.  He is also the one to call for the Battle/Tactical/Command School kids to be sent home immediately after victory, so they won't be captured by the Russians "or kept in ineffectual isolation by the I.F."  Within days, Demosthenes and Locke both demand the kids come home (which, of course, is meant to set up the Shadow sequels, but kind of undercuts the point in Ender's Game that Locke and Demosthenes were never supposed to both throw their support behind something until it was the Big Score, saving the world from itself after Ender wins the war).

Three days later, they ship out with Carn.  We'll find out next chapter that this is because the Battle School kids are already being shipped home, but, despite Bean specifically listing, Battle, Tactical, and Command in his essay, apparently everyone back on Earth has rapidly forgotten that Tactical and Command exist.  Slapdash, which is especially weird given that this is Bean collaborating with the Wiggins, all of whom are supposed to be perfect.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Reunion

Graff and Admiral Whomeverthefuck continue to discuss the arrangements for the students at Command School, and top of Graff's mind is the insistence that "Ender can't do his job unless he knows about the ansible" whereas if Bean finds out "he'll leap straight to the core situation", and I know I complained about this last time, but once again, why does Ender need to know about the ansible in order to play his campaign?  Anything.  I will accept literally any practical reason that Ender's video game proficiency would be reduced if he didn't know about our instant communications technology.  I can't find one.  But this, we are told, is basically the whole reason that Ender and his friends never get to spend any time together apart from their voicechat during games.
"But if this is so, then Bean, is not capable of being Ender's backup, because then he would have to be told about the ansible." 
"It won't matter then." 
"But you yourself were the author of the proposition that only a child--" 
"Sir, none of that applies to Bean." 
Okay, wow, this is now also the first canonical indication that Graff is actually the one who came up with the idea that a twelve-year-old is the ideal commander for their xenocidal campaign.  Now, that's not surprising, since Graff's favourite kind of soldier is one whom he can easily manipulate into anything at a whim, but it re-re-re-emphasises the question from the dawn of time: who the fuck is Hyrum Graff?  How did he, a colonel/schoolteacher, convince the whole Fleet Command and Triumvirate to put their entire desperate suicide-mission plan on the shoulders of a child?

Of course, we know Mazer Rackham said the same thing, and Rackham's existence is secret, so maybe Graff is just the 'public' author of Rackham's plan, except this guy knows the whole plan so he must also know Rackham is still alive, so we're back to Graff being inexplicably influential even though everyone hates him and his ridiculous theories.  Graff and Rackham desperately needed to be the same character.

Now it's time for Bean to resolve the Petra plot thread, when people start for the first time talking about their pre-Battle-School lives.  Bean isn't bashful about spewing his whole street kid deal, including Poke, Achilles, and her eventual murder, which of course moves Petra to tears and she flees the room--Bean follows.  He makes an extended plea for her to tell him what she was doing when she baited Ender, how they need to trust each other, how he has "opened his soul" to them (such a natural line, innit), and Petra neatly shuts him down.
"You told me about your feelings. [...] So good, it's a relief to know you have them, or at least to know that you think it's worth pretending to have them, nobody's quite sure about that. But what you don't ever tell us is what the hell is actually going on here. [....] The teachers told you things back in Battle School that none of the rest of us knew."
Petra's wrath makes me all warm and fuzzy sometimes.

Bean is of course shocked to realise that other people are actually paying attention, and he admits that he hacked the student records and the teachers asked him to assemble Dragon Army, which similarly shocks Petra immensely, though, again, the public facts about Dragon Army (rejects and newbies) are still true, so I don't know why everyone thinks this is such a big deal.

Anyway, Petra admits that she did bait Ender in the hallway That One Time, and elaborates her plan: get into a brawl (with herself protecting Ender, and Dragons and other armies sure to join in), Ender gets punched a little but everything cools off, and all of the bullies (who hated Bonzo only a bit less than they did Ender) get bored and Bonzo loses his power to rabble-rouse.  She adds that she thinks the only reason Ender didn't go along with her plan was that Bean was in the middle of it and guaranteed to get mangled like a soft-centred truffle in a snowblower, and thus it's Bean's indirect fault that Ender had his deathmatch in the showers.  Which--I mean, Petra's not wrong about a lot of this.

(I am left wondering where Petra was the next day, when she looked around the commanders' mess that apparently only had a couple dozen kids in it and noticed that neither Ender nor Bonzo were present.  Was she just forbidden to enter the boys' showers?  There's been no mention of gendered facilities and everyone is naked all the time anyway.  Petra wouldn't have been held back like Dink was; Petra would have been this guy:


Bean admits his plan kinda sucked too, even if he doesn't like hers, and responds to mockery by telling Petra he's the best friend she's got there.  (He's apparently not paying attention to the amount of time Petra spends with Dink Meeker, Professional Decent Supportive Person.)  His evidence goes thusly:
"Because I'm the only one of these boys who ever chose to have a girl as his commander."
Bean, you colossal jackass.  You chose Poke as your 'commander' because you thought she was foolishly compassionate, and spent every moment with her meditating on how much smarter you were than her, based on no evidence except your own self-satisfaction.  No one else in your class has ever had the chance to pick their commander anyway.  What kind of self-aggrandising entitlement is this now?

Because he's such a supportive friend, Bean goes on to explain that "you're not really one of the guys" and of the estimated dozen (?!) girls in Battle School, Petra was the only really good soldier.  Bean explains that the only reason none of them have ever asked her why she 'betrayed' Ender is that they don't have enough respect for her to believe she didn't just screw up.  Because what good friends do is tell you all your other friends don't like you as much as you think they do and that you can only trust them, because they once did a Thing that objectively proves they respect women.  Oh my god.  This is, like, their first major interaction that will seed all their future trust and friendship and eventual coupling, and it reads like he's grooming her for abuse.  GET IT OFF OF ME.

They arrive at Eros, which Bean quickly realises was originally carved into a base by the formics, and thus was the goldmine of new technology like the gravity manipulators.  He concludes instantly that the I.F. never announced this because it would have scared people to learn how technologically advanced the formics were.  I think that's a really bad conclusion, because 1) a single formic ship killed a hundred million people in the First Invasion and 2) humanity has now survived two full invasions in spite of advanced technology.  We're used to overcoming enemies with advanced technology, we've been used to that forever, since long before Ace McShane beat a dalek down with a baseball bat.  I'm not sure how finding out their gravity-controlling powers were inadequate to resist the might of the human spirit would scare people more.

Because Card has reached his comfort level with gender equality, Petra gets separate quarters and the dozen boys share two rooms.  The environment creeps Bean out, but when he wakes up from nightmares, he instead realises something else is bothering him: he was talking to a technician today, someone fixing a simulator game, and commented that the thing was completely accurate except there was no time-delay for lightspeed communications, and the technician took a minute to even realise what he meant before brushing it off.  The only possible conclusion: humanity got the ansible from the formics as well.  The only possible consequent: they will wage the war from here, never knowing when it stops being simulator games and starts being an invasion campaign.

Now, within the confines that this book has given us, I do think this is at least relatively clever writing: a tiny slip-up by a technician that Bean extrapolates into all of its possible consequences, seeing how it fits with the other oddities (like how they get trained on older-model ships instead of the newest).  It's not easy to write characters who are supposed to be incredibly smart, and this kind of logical leap makes some sense.  Of course, he still hasn't resolved the question of how we found the formic homeworld (and all of their other bases, which, what?), but that doesn't come up in Bean's self counter-argument, as he tries to convince himself that this can't possibly be true because he doesn't want to get distracted thinking about people dying in space while he's leading them.

They start training with the voice command interface, and everyone takes turns being leader, but Bean declares it's obvious that they're getting set up to play under Ender, and he gets dragged before Graff to explain where he's getting all his secret knowledge.  Their real concern, of course, is that Bean has figured out The Terrible Truth, but Bean insists that if he knows anything, it's obviously not affecting his performance.  Graff laughs, turns off the recorder, and tells Bean about the Battle School kids going home, who Locke and Demosthenes are, and that they found Bean's biological family and he's Julian Delphiki, brother of Nikolai.  He grapples with this unprovoked infodump and decides he's being manipulated with sweet, sweet lies, thinks that he won't give up the name Poke gave him so easily as that, and this is reinforced when they are reunited with Ender, who quickly identifies his besties over the headset: Alai, and Bean.  It's not bad.

Next week: the finale grande, in which Bean is a willing accessory to xenocide.