Wednesday, August 28, 2013

50 Shades of live tweeting

I know some of you have been missing the 50 Shades posts, and don't worry, I am reading book 3! There will be more (although different) 50 Shades posts in the future! However as a break from the SRS BUSINESS (and because this week has been rough health wise), here are two storifys of my live-tweeting trying to read 50 Shades Freed. This spans roughly page 100-200 if memory serves. While it is a better written book, it makes me suspect that if there is a god, we have angered them.

Part 1


Part 2

Hopefully health stuff will be less rough next week and I'll be able to write something more substantial for you all. For those of you who follow me on twitter and already saw all those, yeah, sorry, I got nothing. Wait, not true, I have puppies. Have a puppy. 

Also a palate cleanser from 50 Shades.

Tune in Sunday for the next installment of Ender's Game! Till next week readers!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter nine, part two, in which alternative interpretations abound

This chapter is a bit of a swerve.  (And possibly less hilarious than usual; my apologies if that's the case.)  There was a moment as I grappled with a plot twist in which I wondered if I had actually been misjudging the book all along and nearly reversed my position.  Then I remembered that I was blocking out all of the main characters so their vast heaving egos wouldn't obstruct my view of nice things.  But it's still an interesting ride.

(Content: depression, coercion.  Fun content: Ghostbusters, Slownx.)

Ender's Game: p. 138--153

Remember what I said about timeskips last week?
Nothing was different, nothing had changed in a year.
Doin' it wrong.

Well, it's not quite true; some things have changed:
At the age of nine he was a toon leader in Phoenix Army, with Petra Arkanian as his commander. [....] Alai was also a toon leader, in another army, and they were still good friends; Shen was not a leader, but that was no barrier.  Dink Meeker had finally accepted command and succeeded Rose the Nose in Rat Army's command.
I'm not sure I can express my disdain for that last line.  First, really, can no one drop 'the Nose' from Rosen Spaceberg's name?  What happened to Ender's dislike of racial slurs?  But secondly, what happened to Dink's entire characterisation as someone who rejects the philosophy that's pushed on them that they must seek to dominate and take command for the approval of the teachers?  What happened to his refusal to give up the game he loved and his refusal to play the game they wanted him to?  All of that reasoned morality is thrown aside for 'Dink's a commander now, yay!'  Why?  The most plausible theory to me is that it won't be long before Ender gets command, and if Ender became a commander while Dink still maintained that command is a morally dubious position, Ender would look like he might have made the wrong (that is to say, less-than-perfectly-pure) choice.  How do we keep Ender unquestionably untainted?  Total protonic reversal of Dink's worldview.  Whatever, it's not like it made him interesting or provided a desperately-needed dissenting opinion to the story.

Ender is deeply depressed and can't figure out why, given that it seems everything is going so well.  (He just hasn't gotten over Dink's replacement with the Dinktron 4X Victory And Friendship Unit.)  He comes to the conclusion that he receives too much respect.  No one goofs around with him, no one jokes or reminisces, there's just excitement about the games and tactics.  Shen and Alai joked with each other in that night's practice, calling back to the 'go nova' incident from the zero-G fight, and then remembered Ender was standing right there:
And they apologized again.  Back to business.  Back to respect.  And Ender realized that in their laughter, in their friendship, it had not occurred to them that he could have been included. 
How could they think I was part of it?  Did I laugh?  Did I join in?  Just stood there, watching, like a teacher.
 Here's an idea, Ender: maybe the problem isn't that it didn't occur to them, but that it didn't occur to you.  And your best friends noticed that you weren't laughing along with their joke, and they remembered that while they escaped that day unscathed, you dove protectively into a brawl and hurt a lot of other kids defending yourself, and they remember how that bothered you too, and that no one ever talked about it afterwards, and you still weren't talking about it as they laughed.  Maybe it occurred to them that you might hate thinking about that day and they were being insensitive.  Maybe, in short, they apologised because they actually give a damn about your feelings.

Nah, it's probably because he's so intimidatingly brilliant.  I'm trying not to judge Ender too harshly here, because he's suffering from some kind of depression and so he's naturally not going to come to conclusions like 'people care about me'.  However, I really don't think Card intended us to read anything into this other than what he tells us:
That's how they think of me, too.  Teacher.  Legendary soldier.  Not one of them.  Not someone that you embrace and whisper Salaam in his ear.  That only lasted while Ender still seemed a victim.  Still seemed vulnerable.  Now he was the master soldier, and he was completely, utterly alone.
From what I've read, Card believes that the essential core of this story that makes it resonate with so many people is exactly this: the lonely child--a figure that anyone empathetic both identifies with and wants to help.  He kind of meta-comments on this in the Shadow series, making the case that an elemental story will resonate with people even if they realise how contrived and simplistic it is.  Personal mileage may vary on how true that is, but what really leaps out at me about this point is that it comes at a moment that could be easily explained (as above) by people actually trying their hardest to be Ender's friends.  The loneliness might not be Ender's fault (depression is a jackwagon) but it still might just as easily be all in his head as a reflection of his actual circumstances.

He keeps playing the mind game, and apparently it's been the same all year--the rest of the game world doesn't acknowledge him now, no one has puzzles for him to solve, no one fights him, everything is quietly and peacefully simulating life around him, except in the tower at the End of the World, where he always kills the snake and sees Peter's face in the mirror and something kills him.  He does this yet again, and finally comes to the realisation that his place stuck in the game mirrors the way he feels about his life, and he calls it 'despair'.

Aside for a moment: this looks a lot like what we might call depression, as I will tend to do, and generally despair is not recognised as a clinical illness, although it might be a symptom of a broader problem.  I don't think Card refers to it as depression, which is just as well given how rapidly and unrealistically he's going to purge it, but I'm not sure that's a mercy so much as part of the broader problem that our depression narratives in our society are completely useless to actual depressed people.  Depression exists for lots of reasons, and while it can have instigating events, it is not as simple as 'this aspect of my life makes me sad' and it cannot be cured by a hug.  Fortunately for Ender, he doesn't live in the real world.  (Sucks to be us.)

Valentine comes to school to find I.F. guards at the doors, and a message at her desk calling her to the principal's office.  Demosthenes is getting to be a bigger name--discussed extensively on the international nets for having "outraged too many wise men and pleased too many fools", so Valentine is feeling the heat and is sure they have finally tracked her down.  Inside the principal's office, she finds Graff, who has been upgraded to "soft-bellied", and she continues to panic as he explains that he's there to talk about her brother, until she realises that they don't mean Peter. was little Ender, who had disappeared so long ago, who was no part of Peter's plots now.  You were the lucky one, Ender.  You got away before Peter could trap you into his conspiracy.
They just brim with scorn for Peter, eh?  Valentine apparently considers begging equivalent to blackmail, and partnership equivalent to conspiracy.  Without her, the entire plan would utterly fall apart, and she admits that she joined partly because she too hungers to have great influence on the world, but... sure, it's all Evil Peter's diabolical scheme.

There's a brief and amazingly gratuitous bit where Graff says that they should take a walk, away from the listening devices that the assistant principal has bugged Dr Lineberry's office with, and produces one from behind a picture frame with an "I thought you knew" before walking out.  Just in case we forgot how much normal people suck compared to Our Heroes.  (Given that Graff is a supervillain, I half-suspect him of planting it there just for misdirection and discord.  He is a principal himself; he doesn't need others bucking for his position.  It's the Battle School way!)

Graff continues to be terrible at his job:
"Valentine, we need your help for Ender." 
"What kind of help?" 
"We aren't even sure of that.  We need you to help us figure out how you can help us." 
"Well, what's wrong?" 
"That's part of the problem.  We don't know."
I'm sure the point here is to impress upon us how incredibly complicated child psychology is when combined with the process of hammering a person into the perfect murder coordinator, but: seriously.  They can tell Ender is unhappy in spite of how wonderful his life is, they can see that he's been stuck at the tower room for over a year, but they can't guess why at all?  This is exactly what I'm talking about: Ender looks very much like a clinically depressed person, and the conviction that depression has a simple cause that needs to be fixed and then he'll be cured is flatly wrong and counterproductive.  Where the hell are the competent analysts?  Someone get Major Imbu in here.  He's probably busy programming a computer to find Jesus.

Graff fills Valentine in on the nature of the game, and she dismissively says that if Ender solved the unsolvable problem once before (the Giant's Drink) he'll solve this one in time as well, but Graff presses on to ask why Ender would see Peter in the mirror, and Valentine insists that they are complete opposites and it makes no sense, and once again I am disoriented by the vast gulf between the case that the book makes and the one that Card seems to believe it makes.  Graff starts getting pushier, explaining that Ender needs to be made okay and therefore he will get as invasive with the Wiggin family as he must, but he hopes Valentine can help him solve it neatly.
So she told him about the children in every school that Peter attended.  He never hit them, but he tortured them just the same.  Found what they were most ashamed of and told it to the person whose respect they most wanted.  Found what they most feared and made sure they faced it often.
But, Valentine tells us, he never did this to Ender, because "Ender never did anything to be ashamed of".  (I am suddenly very curious what life would have been like if Ender hadn't been taken away the day after he killed Stilson.)  Valentine insists that Ender "never gave in [....] to being like Peter", whereas she did because she wanted to kill Peter to protect Ender.  (See previous parenthetical, redoubled.)  She thinks Graff doesn't understand and believes that Peter and Ender are the same, and quite freaks out on him:
"Well maybe I'm like Peter, but Ender isn't he isn't at all, I used to tell him that when he cried, I told him that lots of times, you're not like Peter, you never like to hurt people, you're kind and good and not like Peter at all!"
Well, I'm convinced.  (It's moments like this that make me wonder if I'm being pranked and Card doesn't honestly believe Ender and Peter are opposites at all.)

Graff wants her to do exactly that again, in a letter rather than in person, admitting that they never let any of her previous letters through.  When Valentine tries to bargain to see Ender (whose first leave will now be at 18 rather than 12 because "we changed the rules"), Graff says they can just fake her letter using the ones she already sent before.  She demands to know why she should help at all, what kinds of terrible things they are doing to him, and I assume thunder rolls and Graff steeples his fingers as he chuckles and says "the terrible things are only about to begin".  Who says that?  WHY WOULD ANYONE SAY THAT AT THIS MOMENT?!  The scene ends right there, but can we just take a second to imagine how it goes as Graff realises that he used his outside voice and Valentine just stares at him and slowly plots how Demosthenes will harness 'his' vast mob to tear the International Fleet apart brick and beam?

Ender gets a letter, and it takes him a moment to realise it's from Valentine.  It's a short thing, only eleven sentences and weirdly badly punctuated considering that Val is such a genius writer--I suppose she's trying to play down her intelligence still, except that Graff already told her he knows she's smarter than most university professors now (because that is clearly a standardised unit).  It is the platonic ideal of awkward, basically leaping segue-free into 'so I bet some people think you're a cruel person now but I know you aren't'.  She of course takes some time to insult Peter before the end, because after being separated from her beloved baby brother for three years, that is her priority.

Ender notes all of Valentine's quirks that make it plausible that she wrote the letter, things like calling Peter "a slumbitch" and spelling psychoanalyse as "sikowanalize", which we are told are old in-jokes between the two of them because Card wants us to know that showing-not-telling is for losers who probably don't even have one Nebula Award.  He's not certain that she sent it, but he's smart enough to realise that even if she did, the only reason this letter got through when all the others didn't is that the teachers want to manipulate him with this one.  The theme of this chapter seems to be 'knowing people are manipulating you and letting them do it because you want to be changed', first with Peter and Valentine, and then with Valentine and Ender.  Interesting, given that Valentine is apparently convinced that helping Peter represents her fall to the Dark Side of the Smart, but she was easily won over to helping manipulate Ender.  Right after Graff did his supervillain act, too?  Questionable.

As ambivalent as I am about the characters' choices here, the writing is once again pretty good:
And the despair filled him again.  Now he knew why.  Now he knew what he hated so much.  He had no control over his own life.  [....]  Only the game was left to him, that was all, everything else was them and their rules and plans and lessons and programs, and all he could do was go this way or that way in battle.  The one real thing, the one precious real thing was his memory of Valentine [...] and they had taken her and put her on their side.  She was one of them now.  [....]  They knew about Peter in the mirror in the castle room, they knew about everything and to them Val was just one more tool to use to control him, just one more trick to play.  Dink was right, they were the enemy, they loved nothing and cared for nothing and he was not going to do what they wanted, he was damn well not going to do anything for them.
(Of course Dink was right, Ender.  His name is Dink Meeker.  Being right about everything is a survival mechanism at that point.)  He goes back to the tower in the game, confronts the serpent in the carpet, catches it, and kisses it (accidentally, because apparently the controls in this game are as graceful as a 6-year-old N64 C-stick) and it transforms into Valentine, who embraces him.  The mirror shows a dragon and a unicorn, and the wall opens onto a hall lined with cheering crowds and Valentine goes with him out into the world.  And every face in the crowd is Peter.

I confess this baffles me deeply.  The serpent who declared that Ender's only escape was death is revealed to actually be Valentine, who will now just follow him around everywhere he goes in the games?  (You know, they added this feature in the latest Pokémon editions.  I choose you, Female Passive Motivational Object!)  The most plausible interpretation I can see here is that Ender has been 'killing' his empathetic side for the last year because he is stuck thinking only in terms of 'how do I fight' instead of 'should I fight'.  So, by making the breakthrough that not all problems are best solved with murder, he is rewarded with a companion to help explore the universe.

It's been building for some time, but this is the point at which I have to conclude--despite having never yet read Speaker For The Dead--that this book is not meant to make sense on its own.  The last revelation and tragedy of this novel is that all of these lessons that Ender learns about empathy and the advantages of not murdering everyone you meet get thrown out the window and the remorseful aliens are obliterated.  It's a vast exercise in futility and rejected character development.  I could maybe be sold on that, the final sudden reversal that is about trying to understand the people you've been thinking aren't people, but more galling, the primary activity of these characters is to tell each other how virtuous and pure they are while they grievously fail all over the place.  If that message of desperate radical empathy were the core of the book, I might look on it much more kindly, but ultimately it is not about that: it's about a troubled child and his torments.  It's about identifying with a wearily-perfect character and feeling sorry for him at the same time.  It is, in point, a narcissistic story masquerading as a lesson in empathy.  I begin to suspect that I will have to read Speaker eventually, just to see if that book has the payoff that this one throws away.

Valentine is secretly awarded the "Star of the Order of the League of Humanity, First Class, which is the highest military award that can be given to a civilian", and judges herself harshly for having helped them, spurring her to write a Demosthenes article denouncing population laws and calling for humanity to spread across the universe, naming 'Third' "the most noble title any child can have".  Peter thinks she's trolling.  At this point, all I can wonder is how 'Third' even became a stigmatised title in broader society if they're often government-requisitioned geniuses.  It's one thing for children to mock the kid who is in any way different and another for society at large to be all "Ugh, I hate those really competent people".

And that's it for chapter nine and now things get cereal, because next week Ender takes command of his own army.  And I fly to Hawaii!  I'll try to make sure that doesn't throw off the schedule, because that is the infinite love that I have for my readers.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


"Augh, I need to get back into my work outs, I look like a friggin' balloon!" said my friend who is, if memory serves, a size 4, as a few of us hung out at my place for drinks one night. I looked her over. Her body was, as far as I could tell, perfectly toned, and the only reason she had gotten "out" of her workouts was because of an injury. The men in the room rolled their eyes. This wasn't an uncommon thing to come out of her mouth, but no one wanted to be the one to fight with her to say that she was gorgeous, and even if she wasn't, it shouldn't matter again. God knows I had tried enough times.

Still, it pained me to listen to someone I love hate on their body like that, and I had an idea, one that took some balls. "Look at me," I ordered, leaning back on the armrest of the couch, facing her so she could get a full view of my figure. "I think we can all agree that I am a motherfucking babe," I said, gesturing to my body with one hand before flipping my hair over my shoulder dramatically.

They laughed, because women are taught at a young age that we will never be pretty enough, and so a woman bluntly declaring herself attractive is always seen as a shocking (as well as vain and arrogant) thing. Still, I was among friends, I figured I was allowed to be a little bit vain and arrogant. Besides, I've never been shy that I am bold enough to actually like my body (mostly), even if I'm not supposed to. "You are," she agreed smiling.

"Now look at you," I said, gesturing to her. Her smile faded a little as she began to compare her slender curves to my dramatic ones, "You're saying you're fat and ugly and flabby, but you're way smaller and more toned than I am," I yanked my shirt up to grab my stomach and wiggle it at her, demonstrating the difference. I waited to see if she was with me. She seemed to be, so I went on. "So when you say you're fat, what the hell does that say about me?"

Her brother, who was on the other side of her cheered me on. I suspect he had tried to talk her into better self-esteem more than I had. She looked horrified. "No! That isn't what I--but you're gorgeous!" she gushed.

"Damn straight," I said without missing a beat, "we just went over this. Motherfucking babe--and you are, too. Besides," I flopped off of the armrest and onto her, "even if you weren't, you're awesome people and your inner beauty would shine through," I flashed a brat grin and she laughed again, but for once I felt like maybe my words had made a little impact.

It is common for women to all get together and bitch about our bodies. Then everyone is supposed to reassure each other that no no, you're beautiful, shut up! This is a normal bonding activity for women. For all I know it may be for men, too, but I've yet to encounter it, so guys feel free to chime in in the comments on that. If I thought it was a matter of sometimes having to remind and reassure people that they're awesome I wouldn't take issue, but I don't think it is.

We encourage ourselves and each other to dwell on what we look like, and not only that, but the parts we like the least. When you spend so much time dwelling on the bad things, they become bigger, and when other people chime in and say "YOU'RE AWESOME!" you've spent so much time dwelling on your big nose and crooked teeth that you're convinced that is all people see when they look at you. That "YOU'RE AWESOME!"? It just sounds like pity. They can't really mean that, who thinks someone who has a big nose and crooked teeth is awesome? And if you try to game the system by skipping over the physical compliments and go straight to "but you're smart and funny!"? That's even worse; that's like saying "You are so ugly I can't think of anything nice to say about your looks", even if what you mean is "I think you are so much more than your looks." Hell, I think that about everyone, and I sometimes want to grab them by the shoulders, shake, and scream that, but that almost never goes over well.

It is yet another situation where no matter what you do, you lose. You play along and you contribute to a society that tries to (and sometimes succeeds) in reducing a woman to her appearance, and holding her to impossible ideals of beauty. If you don't, you run the risk of alienating and hurting people you love.  So, I will make a modest suggestion. When you find yourself about to start bitching about your body, stop and pick something you like about it instead. Yes, I am suggesting that when you want to complain about your weird teeth and big nose, stop and think about how bitching your cleavage is--or whatever fits for you and your relationship with your body. When you catch your friends talking trash about their bodies? Say the negative self talk is really getting you down, and ask them to say something nice about their bodies (and have something ready to offer, as well) instead.

It may seem like such a silly thing, but it's such an insipid, toxic thing which we let run unchecked feeds into so many bigger, more serious ones. These are the seeds that we plant that blossom into eating disorders or self confidence, which would you rather foster?

You can find more Erika on twitter @SnappyErika

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter nine, part one, in which blogs are taken seriously

(Content: animal cruelty, threats, discussion of mental illness. Fun content: Greek and Russian history, Tenacious D, Fred Clark.)

I've been looking forward to this one for months.  Required reading: Randall Munroe on Locke & Demosthenes.  After that, how much is there left to say?  I don't know!  Let's find out.

Ender's Game: p. 120--138
Chapter 9: Locke and Demosthenes

In today's 15 minutes of Ender Time, Graff is demanding that Major Imbu find out which sothothic horror programmed the video game that keeps psychoanalysing Ender better than anyone else does.  (Although given the apparent level of inductive reasoning among the I.F. brass--hmm, this six-year-old murderer might have violent tendencies--that is not hard.)  Last week, of course, it showed Ender his brother's face in a mirror instead of his own, because symbolism.
"I don't like having the computer screw around with Ender's mind that way."
I'll wait for everyone to stop laughing before we continue.  The zone name 'The End of the World' is distressing Graff.  Imbu hypothesises:
"You've been isolating the boy.  Maybe he's wishing for the end of this world, the Battle School.  Or maybe it's about the end of the world he grew up with as a little boy, his home, coming here.  Or maybe it's his way of coping with having broken up so many other kids here.  Ender's a sensitive kid, you know, and he's done some pretty bad things to people's bodies, he might be wishing for the end of that world."
Major Imbu is way better at this than Graff.  Maybe he should start a blog.

Graff is especially confounded by the photo of Peter because it's so new, more recent than anything in Battle School or any other I.F. computer.  The game AI apparently had to go and actually steal a picture from the Guilford County school computers.  As this chapter illustrates maybe more clearly than any other, Card successfully predicted a whole lot of technological advances of the modern day, tablets and blogging and internet communities, but he did not see facebook coming.
"His brother is dangerous, his brother was rejected for this program because he's one of the most ruthless and unreliable human beings we've laid hands on.  Why is he so important to Ender?"
"One of" isn't good enough; Battle School only takes the most ruthless and unreliable human beings.  (I'm repeating myself, but I'm still struggling to grasp how Ender murdering a schoolyard bully for pushing him around can make him appear more reliable and... ruthful.)
"Honestly, sir, I don't know.  And the mind game program is designed so that it can't tell us.  It may not know itself, actually."
Who the hell thought it was a good idea to program a video game to think for itself, intentionally place kids in psychologically destabilising scenarios, freely requisition whatever information it decides it wants from any computer system on Earth, and be completely unaccountable to everyone?  They might as well just let the Joker be the guidance counselor and have HAL run the battleroom.  The fact that Earth isn't a smouldering clod of ash is obviously proof that the aliens aren't actually trying to invade, because it's sure as hell not the brilliant military scaring them off.

Back to Earth!  It's Ender's eighth birthday and Valentine is commemorating it with a small fire in their backyard at the new house in North Carolina.  (This chapter is a huge timeskip.  You may recall that Ender's seventh birthday was during his few weeks in Salamander Army, and we'll get to his ninth before the chapter ends.*)  She thinks about how often they used to write him letters, but they slowed and stopped when he didn't respond, and finally moved to a new city.  She is sure their parents did it for Peter: that living among trees and small animals, so that nature, in as raw a form as Mother and Father could conceive of it, might have a softening influence on their strange and frightening son.  and, in a way, it had.  Peter took to it right away.
I'll spare us all the details of what Valentine has found in the woods, but suffice to say that she knows Peter has been going off on cheerful nature hikes with his desk and a sandwich, and then catching, torturing, and killing squirrels.
At first she was horrified, and nearly threw up at dinner, watching how Peter ate so vigorously, talked so cheerfully.  But later she thought about it and realized that perhaps, for Peter, it was a kind of magic, like her little fires; a sacrifice that somehow stilled the dark gods that hunted for his soul.  Better to torture squirrels than other children.
Valentine might be a genius but she is apparently not familiar with the link between animal cruelty and serial killers.  People occasionally bring this idea up, that if you 'vent' your dangerous/harmful impulses by giving into them in some lesser way, you will somehow make yourself healthier than if you held them in.  As if the whole of the planet isn't proof that emotions can be practiced, that we teach ourselves how to react and how to feel.  Stereotypes. Bigotry.  Abuse, whether mental or physical.  There's a pretty solid link between animal abuse and a history of being abused.  Everything gets easier after the first time.  I really hope we're supposed to think this is the stupidest thing Valentine has ever thought.

I don't know whether to detail the rest of Valentine's terrible psychological assessment or not--it manages to be ablist while trying not to be, as she muses on how Peter "was not insane" because he has impulse control.  That's not a good definition of insanity.  (Strictly and literally speaking, nothing is a good definition of insanity other than 'mental unhealthiness', and I think it's pretty clear Peter does have that.  But sure, let's just tell the twelve-year-old with a militarily-screwed-up home life and a completely inadequate school system that his problems are all his own fault because he's just a bad person.)

She doesn't fear Peter's idle death threats anymore, either:
He would only do it if the advantages outweighed the risks.  And they did not.  In a way, she actually preferred Peter to other people because of this.  He always, always acted out of intelligent self-interest.
Really?  What advantage does he get from torturing animals in a way that can clearly be linked back to him if anyone went looking (say, if Valentine decided to show their parents, which she does not because she thinks they're too stupid to see through Peter's 'whole new boy' façade**)?

Peter moves on from death threats to world politics, and Russian troop movements:
"You know Russia?  Big Empire?  The Second Warsaw Pact?  Rulers of Eurasia from the Netherlands to Pakistan?" 
"They don't publish their troop movements, Peter." 
"Of course not.  But they do publish their passenger and freight train schedules.  I've had my desk analyzing those schedules and figuring out when the secret troop trains are moving over the same tracks.  Done it backward over the past three years.  In the last six months, they've stepped up, they're getting ready for war.  Land war."
Card wrote this during the early 1980s, when the Cold War was still a thing.  Given how many writers back then now look silly for assuming the USSR would hold together indefinitely, I have to give Card some credit for writing world politics such that he could make the USSR the bad guys of the future even if the current situation changed.  (If nothing else, he could say the place fell apart during the first alien invasion.)

Peter and Valentine apparently talk about world politics regularly, and are such geniuses that they see the truth that everyone else misses:
They had become quite deft at sifting accurate information out of the stories of the hopelessly ignorant, gullible new writers.  The news herd, as Peter called them.
Card's predictions about the type of people who would become avid bloggers are scarily accurate.  I bet in the Enderverse Peter Wiggin invented the term 'sheeple'.  Anyway, Peter and Valentine, super-geniuses with apparent access to incredibly comprehensive information on international rail transit, have managed to come to the same conclusion that Dink Meeker did in a cave with a box of scraps sitting in a tin can in space and thinking about human nature.  But sure, the only reasons they didn't go to Battle School were that Peter was too violent and Valentine too empathetic.

We are reminded again about how empathetic Valentine is as she thinks about how good she is at manipulating people by seeing what they like about themselves and flattering them.  (Peter is said to see what they hate about themselves, for use in bullying, but apparently that doesn't count as empathy because Card doesn't know what a sociopath is.)  She can manipulate people at school, and her parents, and even Peter which scares her, because apparently even Valentine is distressed by the idea that people who do terrible things aren't indecipherably inhuman.  First mental illness is scary because it doesn't make sense, and then because it does.  You can't win.

Peter goes on about how he and Valentine may be children but they don't act like them or write like them, and how in times of crisis the right words can change everything.  He cites many people, including Demosthenes, and flatters Valentine by asking:
"Haven't you ever thought of a phrase, Val, a clever thing to say, and said it, and then two weeks or a month later you hear some adult saying it to another adult, both of them strangers?  Or you see it on a video or pick it up on a net?" 
"I always figured I heard it before and only thought I was making it up." 
"You were wrong.  There are maybe two or three thousand people in the world as smart as us, little sister.  Most of them are making a living somewhere.  Teaching, the poor bastards, or doing research.  Precious few of them are actually in positions of power."
I read these things and try to remember if I ever identified with them; if I thought of myself in my teens as one of the few smart people with the potential to think freely and speak meaningfully.  I honestly don't remember.  It sounds like me, and yet on my first read-through I was still totally on Ender's side regarding Peter Wiggin, The Adversary Who Is Called The Devil, so maybe I was too busy being disgusted by his evil.  (This chapter, with the animal torture, is the height of Peter's evil and hereafter will largely be ignored and, I would argue, retconned out of existence by the time of Shadow of the Hegemon, four-ish years later.)

Peter's plan to blog his way to power depends first on getting an adult's internet access--apparently they can use whatever fake names they want on the web but they can't avoid being designated as children on their own accounts.  He wants Valentine to make they case to their father, by telling him how worried she is that Peter is getting unstable and backsliding to his sadistic ways because he can't talk to his real intellectual peers and get the respect he deserves.  If this is supposed to parallel kids who act out in school because the lessons are too easy for them, it's a really creepy parallel.

Valentine brushes Peter off, reminding him that he was making death threats a few minutes ago, and he starts a spiel about how he's wanted to ask her to do this for a long time but he's been afraid--afraid that she wouldn't believe in him, or that she would stop him because she saw him as a nascent evil overlord.
"I was a vicious, nasty brother.  I was cruel to you and crueler to Ender before they took him.  But I didn't hate you.  I loved you both, I just had to be--had to have control, do you understand that?  It's the most important thing to me, it's my greatest gift, I can see where the weak points are, I can see how to get in and use them, I just see those things without even trying. [....] I'm going to rule, Val, I'm going to have control of something.  But I want it to be something worth ruling."
Is this 'I have a gift for seeing the weak points and where to strike' common in other people's experience?  Because I have seen a remarkable number of people describe themselves like that (including myself) and I'm not sure whether it's a thing smart people do or a thing that everyone does but only 'smart' people think it makes them special.

Peter's entitlement here is perfect: the conviction that he will change everything if only he doesn't miss opportunities because he's too young and people don't appreciate that if he is the only one who understands how the world needs to be run.  He is every teenager, especially the (legitimately) intelligent ones who feel that they are staggering geniuses tragically unappreciated by those around them.  There is a foreword to this book, which I have been struggling since the beginning not to quote, because I want to save it for the end, but--this is one of the parts to remember, when we get there.

Also, both siblings Godwin Peter, independently (Valentine in her thoughts, Peter out loud).  Peter goes on, and Valentine believes he is both sincere and manipulative (manipulating her by being sincere for once when he normally lies) by saying that he is also afraid that he's going to become a tyrant, but he believes that with Valentine's constant presence and partnership he can be good.  Valentine thinks that she wants to believe this too, because it means that she can be good while still satisfying the power-hunger that she tries to pretend she doesn't have too.

I do not believe for one instant that Peter or Valentine couldn't do Ender's job.  They are the same person thrice over: 'I'm so smart that I am compelled to dominate no matter what, so I had better angst about whether I am morally pure'.  God, that was like crack and Fruitopia to teenage me.  Not because I believed it was true, but because I loved the fantasy that it could be.

So they get online and basically start trolling:
They needed respect, and that they could earn.  With false names, on the right nets, they could be anybody.  Old men, middle-aged women, anybody, as long as they were careful about the way they wrote. [....] Of course they were not invited to take part in the great national and international political forums [....] in the lesser conferences, where common people commented about the great debates, they began to insert their comments.  At first Peter insisted that they be deliberately inflammatory.  "We can't learn how our style of writing is working unless we get responses--and if we're bland, no one will answer."
Based on my web experience, if they want people to react, their best bets are to be funny or to promote one side of the status quo that a large part of the population already agrees with.  Still, they get responses, and hate mail.  The weird thing is that the hate mail is apparently constructive criticism?  I mean, sure, you can see what people take easy shots at, but I'm less clear on how hate mail is a good way of figuring out what parts of your writing are seen as "childish and immature".

Then they get serious, with Peter taking the west coast and the screenname Locke, and Valentine taking the south under the name Demosthenes.  They go everywhere together, plotting and writing and using sockpuppets to throw in further ideas to the conversation.  Peter is super-intense about keeping their writing styles dissimilar so that (when people start trying to figure out who they are, because of course they will) they won't think there's any chance the two are collaborating.
They began composing debates for their characters.  Valentine would prepare and opening statement, and Peter would invent a throwaway name to answer her.  His answer would be intelligent, and the debate would be lively, lots of clever invective and good political rhetoric.  Valentine had a knack for alliteration that made her phrases memorable.
Alliteration always aggregates into an avalanche of actual attention.  Or maybe it sounds stupidly twee and childish.  But sure.  This is, of course, the GIRAT Conundrum, that when a character is the Best Writer Ever in a written story we eventually need some evidence and it's hard to fake The Best Writing Ever.  (The solution, of course, is the Tenacious D Stratagem: write essays that other people are writing about Locke and Demosthenes and their ideas.  Card will do this later; he does make some good decisions.)
Then they would enter the debate into the network, separated by a reasonable amount of time, as if they were actually making them up on the spot.  Sometimes a few other netters would interpose comments, but Peter and Val would usually ignore them [....] Peter took careful note of all their most memorable phrases and then did searches from time to time to find those phrases cropping up in other places.
Card accurately predicted people googling themselves.  This is pretty comprehensive.

After seven months, Demonsthenes gets an offer for a weekly column in a major California newsnet.  She takes it, of course, and gloats a bit about being more popular than Locke, but a large part of the reason seems to be that Demonsthenes is a paranoid xenophobe who rants about how the Russian Empire needs to be dissolved, and (as throughout time immemorial) bigotry has a huge automatic audience.  Peter's plan is for his own persona, Locke, to be the one who is ultimately given actual power once he's seen as the voice of reason, the Martin Luther King to Demosthenes' Malcolm X.

Their father starts reading from Demosthenes at the dinner table, talking about how once the Formic War is over they can't leave half the world as serfs to 'hegemonist Russians', which I hope is supposed to be hilarious, when we've been told that the literal global Hegemony is run out of North America.  Valentine is sad, because she thought "only fools" would listen to Demosthenes.  Valentine is only now catching on to what we realised back in chapter two, which is that her parents are twits.  (Or faking it, according to the later books.  But I'm pretty sure that's not what Card had in mind at this moment.)

Locke gets picked up by a New England newsnet specifically to counterpoint their super-popular Demosthenes column.
"Not bad for two kids who've only got about eight pubic hairs between them," Peter said. [Excuse me, I have to go throw up forever.]
"It's a long way between writing a newsnet column and ruling the world," Valentine reminded him.  "It's such a long way that no one has ever done it." 
"They have, though.  Or the moral equivalent."
Not that Peter explains who he thinks is a good example of this.  We'll cut off there for this week, but first a tally: Card successfully predicted big-name bloggers, sockpuppets, the end of the USSR, and the continued popularity of vitriolic jingoism.  He completed failed to predict facebook, lolcats, upvotes, or blog deconstructions.  I think we all know which have had a bigger impact on the social role of the internet in the world.

Come back next week to see Ender develop and be cured of depression because clearly Card is a master of how psychology works.


*On the one hand, I understand the relevance of timeskips in fiction, but on the other, they almost always frustrate the hell out of me because they are so badly conveyed.  For an example of the worst: The Walking Dead TV series did an eight-month timeskip between seasons two and three, during which no one died, no one new joined the group, no interpersonal relationships changed, and everyone travelled in circles.  It was just an excuse to skip over a pregnancy.  The one good example I can think of is Battlestar Galactica, where the one-year timeskip covered multiple marriages and births, new friendships forming and dissolving, political shifts, personality changes, and it took half a season before we fully understood everything that had happened.  My point is this: if you're telling a story where huge changes occur every few hours, and you skip ahead two years and tell the audience "Uh, yeah, coincidentally everything slowed way down while you weren't looking", I am unimpressed.

**Blogger and/or Chrome wants me to spell 'façade' as 'facade', because apparently fuck French.  Sigh.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The long fugue down the aisle towards children

Do you know "Here comes the bride" is styled after a funeral march? It's from one of Wagner's operas (and if you know Wagner, you probably know where this is going) and is played as the bride and groom prepare to consummate the marriage (yes, Here Comes The Bride is actually not what Elsa marches down the aisle to) when the antagonist (spoilers!) bursts in and starts killing a bunch of people. It's also meant as foreshadowing of the bride dying horribly because Wagner.

This is a song that 70% of couples choose as the opening credits to their married life, because it's what you do. No wonder it's even odds on divorce.

There is a script that we are all fed for how our lives will pan out. We'll grow up, go to school, start a career, meet someone, get married, have kids,  pressure them to do the same so we can have grandkids, retire, travel a bit, die.

I think at some point in our lives we all buy into this script, but I think it's a toxic one. It encourages us to define ourselves by our roles (wife, mother, teacher) rather than who we are (Monica with a great sense of humor, a passion for model sail boats, and salsa dancing). It tries to force everyone into one mold, and there is so much social pressure that it's hard not to try.

When I was a teenager, I assumed I probably wouldn't get married, and kids were just not on the radar. This was constantly met with people flat out telling me I was wrong and to "just wait". I was open to the idea of marriage, someday, maybe, but kids? Less likely. This went on, but would eventually die down when I didn't relent, or hide my annoyance at people telling me I was wrong and didn't know my own mind and couldn't possibly know my own mind. People would react so strongly to my rejecting the script that they would start fighting with me about it. When I was a 15 year old girl and admitted that maybe in ten years I'd feel differently, but for now?

Ten years later, I'm getting ready to walk down the aisle myself, but I still don't want kids. Those same people who were picking fights with me at 15 are still doing so at 25. Over my not wanting kids, which I've written about before, wanting to buy a condo in the city instead of a house in the suburbs, keeping my last name... People get nervous when you go off script. They get angry, I would assume (and it is just that, an assumption) that because they bought into it, it is the Right Way and by actively not choosing it, you are telling them they (and their friends and family who bought into it, too) are Wrong.

This is where it starts to get toxic. Little girls are not sold the idea of marriage, we sell them the idea of a wedding. We tell them about this magical day where they get to be a princess and everything is about them and everything will be Just. What. They. Want. It will be the happiest day of their lives! I can not count the amount of people who have told me "It's your wedding! Be more of a diva!" which strikes fear I can not readily articulate into me. We're told that this is part of growing up. If you're in a long term, seemingly happy relationship, it doesn't matter that you're 20*, people will start giving you unsolicited advice to just get married already! If you're 25 and in that position people start asking what's wrong, why haven't you done it yet?

It's hard not to be swayed by it. If it were one or two people spouting this it'd be easy enough to brush aside, but it isn't. It seems to be everyone, and it starts so early. It's hard not to internalize it. So we grow up thinking if we're not married by 25-30 we're doing something wrong. It leads to anxiety and panic and maybe getting married because we feel we're supposed to more than because we want to. It leads to having a hard time being happy for your friends when they get married because you're not yet, or because maybe you legally can't get married. It leads to unrealistic expectations of marriage, because half of us are sold a wedding, not a marriage. Which brings me back to my earlier snark about divorce rates.

Marriage is only one step in this process, though. What about kids fresh out of high school who take on staggering debt to get an education when they're not positive that's what they want because they're still kids, and because that's what they're told to do? What about the shame we push on the kids who don't go to school, or can't?

And what about kids? I've written before about how annoyed I get when people ask and insist I have kids. When people tell me I will never understand what love really means until I have kids (again the assumption that I will) and that it is the greatest thing EVAR and really I'm missing out why have I not insisted The Boy put a baby inside me already? They make some pretty horrible assumptions, and not just assuming I'm incapable of knowing what I want. They assume that I CAN have kids. I'm sick, and I don't know what's wrong with me, it's entirely possible that I physically can't. I'm a cook; I'd be skeptical if I financially could either. What about the women who desperately want to have children but for one of many, many reasons can't? What about adoption? There are a lot of reasons that can't work, either, and we talked about making obvious suggestions and how that's bad before, remember? Are we just pretending these people don't exist? That's a painful enough scenario to be in to start with, I'm not okay with adding to their pain by pretending they don't exist, and by pretending that they will never be complete or whole person until they have a child. It's bullshit, and it's toxic, harmful bullshit.

On the other side of the coin there are people who are married, and maybe things aren't going so well and they figure that they'll have a kid and that will help them through this rough patch. Adding kids to the equation doesn't mean making any major changes which will lead to stress and hardships during the time of transition! Babies are magical, after all, and bring nothing but happiness! What if THAT couple faces infertility? Will they feel their struggling (or failing) marriage is due to their inability to check off the next box on the list? Will they not be real adults until they do? What if they conceive and the child is sick and now they're even more angry and bitter at each other because remember what I said above about major life changes stressing people out?

The narrative, and the enthusiasm we push it with, often leads us into shame, embarrassment, insecurity, corners and dead ends because there is no one size fits all life, or path. Yet we push it on others, and ourselves, because that is what we think we're supposed to do. Asexual? Infertile? Disabled? Impoverished? Gay? Doesn't matter! You can** still have all these things! And if you don't then how will you ever be happy?

I feel I often stop and call for us to simply reject a cultural norm on this blog, but I fear I don't fully credit how huge a thing that can be to do. I mean, we can't just will dinosaurs back into existence, as much as I would also like to call for that. I like to think I've rejected the norm, but now that I've taken one of the Approved Steps I understand how easy it can be to get swept up in enforcing and encouraging the narrative. So what, and how, can we do it? Amber and frogs?

Step 1 is recognizing when we're enforcing it. Asking someone why they don't want to get married (or have kids, or go to college or or or) or telling someone they should seems like a good starting point. These are valid choices, or painful circumstances which are really none of our business either way.

Step 2 is having conversations about the narrative with other people. We need to talk about it, and we need to call people out for trying to push this agenda, and we need to support people resisting it.

Step 3 is to invade the media. Wait, what? I know that some of you are artists, in what ever medium you happen to art in, think about breaking that pattern as often as possible. Don't have your hero settle down with their love interest and live happily ever after! Have them find a different kind of happy ending. Seeing other narratives will help us normalize that there's more than one, which will loosen the stranglehold the current one has on us.

I am not saying that these are bad things to want, for the record. If you want to get married and be a stay at home parent? Power to you and I'm jealous you know what you want out of life! What I am condemning is how we push the idea of marriage/kids so fervently that people feel that these are just things you're supposed to do rather than choices that should have a lot of thought going into them.


*No, really. When I was 20 people were pushing me to just marry my high school sweetheart. Co-workers, relatives, random people I'd get chatting with at bus stops...
**I am not, by the way, saying that you can't still get married have kids etc if you ARE these things, simply that they are very real reasons why you may not want them.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter eight, part two, in which things are very briefly not awful

(Content: bullying, violence. Fun content: Canadian linguistic metanyms, Dink Meeker.)

Forging ahead from where we left off last time, when we and Ender and Card were just hangin' out after practice, watching Dink Meeker float naked for like ten minutes.

Ender's Game: p. 107--119

Once Dink gets dressed again, he explains to Ender what the deal is, because Ender is a nosy twit with no respect for his friend/commander/rescuer's* privacy.  Dink breaks the awkward by joking that Ender now knows why Dink's not a commander, despite being promoted twice:
"The second time they took away my old locker and bunk and desk, assigned me to a commander's cabin, and gave me an army.  But I just stayed in the cabin until they gave in and put me back into somebody else's army. [....] These other armies, they aren't the enemy.  It's the teachers, they're the enemy.  They get us to fight each other, to hate each other.  The game is everything.  Win win win.  It amounts to nothing.  We kill ourselves, go crazy trying to beat each other, and all the time the old bastards are watching us, studying us, discovering our weak points, deciding whether we're good enough or not.  Well, good enough for what?  I was six years old when they brought me here.  What the hell did I know?" [....] 
"So why don't you go home?" 
Dink smiled crookedly.  "Because I can't give up the game."
I always liked Dink, but it wasn't until this read-through that I realised he's probably the most comprehensively believable character in the story.   He's legitimately smart--enough so to be the first person to explicitly notice that the teachers are supervillains and the entire Battle School is founded on hideous unproven principles that abuse creates strength--and so his being taken to the school makes sense, but he hates it there, except for the game.  Given how harsh they are about Ender's chances, you'd think Dink would be washed out by now, except that he's still talented and so teaches others--ironically, he is kind of 'a teacher' now if that's the case.

He goes on about how command just breaks people, noting that Rose sleeps in the dorm with the rest of them because he's still afraid of the dark, and "isn't some magic Israeli general who can win no matter what.  He doesn't know why anybody wins or loses.  Nobody does." Dink argues that the children aren't so much trying to be commanders as they are playacting at what they think commanders should look like--which sort of makes sense except that you'd think after a few decades the teachers might have noticed this and realised they're failing tremendously.  Battle School sounds less like a prestigious military academy and more like a trillion-dollar playground.

Once again I feel like Card has forgotten all these kids had normal childhoods until 6ish, because Dink goes on about how by reading old books he has figured out "what children are", and it doesn't involve commanding forty other kids and having adults screaming at you that you must win at any cost.  (Dink comes from a country that doesn't have high school sports, apparently.)

Dink goes on about what it's like back on Earth, their families, his Illustratively Normal Hetero Jock older brother, which causes Ender distress when he thinks first about Peter and then Valentine (in case we have forgotten they exist, since they'll be back next chapter).
"That's right, we never really cry.  I never thought of that. [....] But look at Bonzo, your old commander. He's got an advanced case of Spanish honor.  He can't allow himself to have weaknesses.  To be better than him, that's an insult.  To be stronger, that's like cutting off his balls.  That's why he hates you, because you didn't suffer when he tried to punish you.  He hates you for that, he honestly wants to kill you.  He's crazy.  They're all crazy."
Perhaps the most telling thing about the evil Bonzo, in this straightforward we-don't-need-your-fancy-lit-profs just-folks story, is that people keep on having to tell us what's wrong with him.  I read one of Card's essays recently that explained that Bonzo hated Ender because he was afraid of Ender's obvious leadership ability (which is obviously not true, since he starts with the abuse right out of the gate), and now we've got Dink explaining that Bonzo hates Ender for being better than him (which was not true and Ender had not demonstrated when the abuse started).  It's probably time to accept that Bonzo hates Ender because he was told to by narrative fiat and we needed an author-disapproved antagonist to be unfair to Ender.

Also, to the surprise of basically no one, Card/Dink sees no reason to distinguish 'mental illness' from 'jackasses tormenting people to cope with their personal fears'.  I hate this.  But I do like and occasionally reflect on what Dink says next, which is a better statement about rejecting stigmatisation and accepting that you need to care for yourself and accepting that there are still going to be hard times and relapses ahead:
"And you aren't?" 
"I be crazy too, little buddy, but at least when I be craziest, I be floating all alone in space and the crazy, she float out of me, she soak into the walls, and she don't come out till there be battles and little boys bump into the walls and squish out de crazy."
The last thing Dink has to say is simultaneously wrong and true, as well as being another reminder (BY THE WAY ENDER HAS SIBLINGS) that there is a whole huge situation back on Earth while they're up at school (BY THE WAY POLITICS ARE A THING).
"Listen, Ender, if the buggers were coming back to get us, they'd be here.  They aren't invading again. [....] It's all a fake.  There is no war, and they're just screwing around with us [...] because as long as the I.F. is in power, certain countries can keep their hegemony.  But keep watching the vids, Ender.  People will catch onto this game pretty soon, and there'll be a civil war to end all wars.  That's the menace, Ender, not the buggers.  And in that war, when it comes, you and I won't be on friends.  Because you're American, just like our dear teachers.  And I am not."
(Ender's Classmates Are Like A Million Times Smarter Than Him tally: 1.)  Dink is right about every single part of this save one, which is his theory that the Battle School kids are meant to be hostages/champions in that war.  Every other bit is right.  Dink Meeker: Too Smart To Be The Chosen One.  I love this guy.

Also, since when are all the Battle School teachers American?  Later in the Shadow series, Card will retcon all of this and indicate that the USA isn't actually that important anymore, due to the reunification of Russia and the democratic ascension of China.  But I guess for now the Americans still rule the world?

Ender muses on all that Dink has said, and decides he's wrong, that the aliens are still the invading horde at the gates and must be stopped.  (He also believes that the American media wouldn't lie to him the way the Dutch media might lie to Dink.  Cutting edge commentary on the modern world.)  But the 'seed of doubt' has been planted:
It changed everything, to have that seed growing.  It made Ender listen more carefully to what people meant, instead of what they said.  It made him wise.
SHOW DON'T TELL, CARD.  God.  This book won a Hugo and a Nebula.  Apparently the mark of great writing is just saying "So now character development happens, trust me."

Ender finds that hardly anyone shows up to his free practice that night, because commanders have started declaring that they won't take launchies who have been 'damaged' by Ender's training.  Can you imagine how incredibly effective Battle School might be if the teachers didn't work so hard at trying to make the students hate and mistrust each other?  Worst administration ever.
"But the way I brain it," said the Launchy, "I be the best soldier I can, and any commander worth a damn, he take me.  Neh?" 
"Eh," said Ender, with finality.
This just makes me giggle is all.  As a Canadian.  EH.

Commanders show up during practice to write down names menacingly, and Alai taunts them about misspelling his.  The next day, Ender starts hearing about kids in his practice getting bullied, physically abused or having their computer files hacked, and so tells the last few who show up to put it off, but Alai won't let him:
"If you stop, even one night, they'll figure it works to do this kind of thing.  Just like if you'd ever backed down to Bernard when he was being a swine."
I would go off on a rant here about Alai (Bernard's best friend) not stepping up and now distancing himself from the bully in retrospect, but I have to cut him a little slack since he only sprang into existence a chapter later because Ender needed a Black Best Friend since the most plausible explanation for Alai's behaviour is that he was a victim of bullying and so was trying to protect himself by avoiding confrontations.  Anyway, I kind of agree with Alai but this whole 'Lord of the Flies' deal where the teachers don't intervene ever for any reason really sucks.  "Should we protect these fresh six-year-olds from the torments of the older jackwagons?"  "No, then Ender might feel like he's protected from the consequences of his actions."

But forgetting for a moment that we're supposed to be saving the world IN SPACE, this sequence of scenes is about being bullied and finding ways to endure it, especially if you're the kind of person who copes by reminding yourself that you're better than the people who hate you (which I was and still am, if hopefully to a lesser degree).  First is not backing down and letting bullies tell you what you can and can't do.  Second, after the bullies show up again and start shouting insults and ridicule:
"Listen to them," Ender said to the other boys.  "Remember the words.  If you ever want to make your enemy crazy, shout that kind of stuff at them.  It makes them do dumb things, to be mad.  But we don't get mad." 
Second is: if you can ignore verbal abuse (if if IF, and it's up to each individual to determine whether they can or can't, incident by incident) then it's not the worst move.  If you can tell yourself that the people harassing you have neither the right nor the standing to judge you, that their hatred is invalid and irrelevant, that can help.  It's not the way things should be and it doesn't mean that bullies and harassers shouldn't be confronted and shut down, but--it's first aid for mental wellbeing, if it works.  It helped me.
Shen [he exists again!] took the idea to heart, and after each jibe from the older boys, he had a group of four Launchies recite the words, loudly, five or six times.  When they started singing the taunts like nursery rhymes, some of the older boys launched themselves from the wall and came out for a fight.
Dammit, Shen, I meant confronted by someone who has the authority and power to actually shut them down, not by kindergartners.  Half the kids are currently frozen, which makes them helpless, but Ender has no problem instead treating them as blunt instruments.  (Remember, the helmet clamps down on your jaw to prevent talking, so if any of the kids aren't okay with being used as a weapon to severely injure another kid, they can't prevent it or even protest!)  Ender and Alai nail one of the bullies in the chest with a frozen kid, causing him to howl in pain, and the whole gang charges out to attack.

Ender shouts for them to 'go nova', meaning the kids cluster together and then push off each other to fly in all directions and ricochet around the incoming bullies (who can't change direction mid-flight).  When attacked, run: this is always the best self-defence advice.  It's like dodging, but way bigger!  I trained in five or six kinds of martial arts (some combined, some specific) for over a decade, and the first rule whenever we discussed self-defence was: freaking book it.

Again not being terrible for the moment, Ender makes sure to end up near the kid he and Alai used as a missile so he can toss the kid to safety, but this sends him flying back towards the bullies, alone.  Usually heroic sacrifices of the form "I'll take care of myself; y'all get out of here" work for me, but in this case it's not about the suffering Ender is willing to endure, because, lest we forget, Ender is Dangerously Hardcore.  His suffering takes the form of "Why am I constantly forced to totally kick people's asses when I don't want to?"  After escaping one bully by mangling the kid's ear with his boot:
I'm doing it again, thought Ender.  I'm hurting people again, just to save myself.  Why don't they leave me alone, so I don't have to hurt them?

How fucked is this?  In theory, this is Ender's empathy showing--his wish to be kind and peaceful even to the people he is actively destroying--and people do have the right to defend themselves.  All of that is okay.  What's unsettling to me is that people identify with Ender after seeing him do things like this, because "Why are you making me hurt you" is also, y'know, the rallying cry of the abuser.  And particularly in the broader context of Ender's Game, in which it will ultimately turn out that all of the suffering and violence was a meaningless misunderstanding, the lines between self-defence and unprovoked abuse get blurred to all hell.

More fighting; it is violent and not particularly interesting.  Ender escapes, gets cheered by his friends and insulted by his enemies (we find out Bonzo was among the bullies), and makes it back to his dorm.  That night, he's able to look up medical reports (hacking, I guess) and see that all of the injuries are cited as "accidental collision in null G", to remind us that the teachers are not going to help.

Back to the mind game.  He passes all of the Fairyland obstacles, passes the now-abandoned playground of the wolf-children, returns to the castle tower where the snake waits for him, and crushes it underfoot.  It takes some grinding until it stops moving, but it's dead.  No escape presents itself, so Ender goes searching:
Instead, he found a mirror.  And in the mirror he saw a face that he easily recognized.  It was Peter, with blood dripping down his chin and a snake's tail protruding from a corner of his mouth. 
Ender shouted and thrust his desk from him. [....] Ender threw the snake at it.  The mirror shattered, leaving a hole in the wall behind it.  Out of the hole came dozens of tiny snakes, which quickly bit Ender's figure again and again.
Ender shuts the game off.  The next day, other commanders show up to tell Ender not to stop his practices, and start sending some of their own soldiers to get extra practice as well as acting as bodyguards.  (We have no idea who these people are or who might have organised them.  I would have liked to have found that out, since it seems like they should be a kind of community Ender would join, but Ender must be lonely so these guys are again faceless NPCs.)

As the chapter closes, Ender can't shake the game from his dreams, and he fears that it is telling him the truth: that on the inside, he is the same as Peter and that he was born to kill.  Repeating myself: Peter: not actually a killer--in fact, he is possibly the only person who makes it to the end of his story without killing a person.  He might be a sadist, but as Ender continues to remind us, Ender is not a sadist, and instead brims with self-loathing for hurting people.

I don't understand what all of this is for, to be honest.  I get the symbolism and the schism as Ender sees it, the dissonance between wanting not to hurt anyone and yet devoting yourself to protecting humanity no matter who you have to hurt to do it.  But none of this will matter in the final arc of the story, or really at any time except the interlude when he considers dropping out.  Ender's final campaign won't be affected in any way by his desire not to cause harm.  When his great revelation in the mind game occurs, it won't apparently change anything other than breaking his depression, and we won't get an explanation of that or any meaningful changes in his behaviour to follow-up.  It's all just a bunch of tormenting him so that later the story can tell him that he's wrong, that he's the good guy, not like his brother.  It's a fractionally more literary take on a hurt/comfort fanfic.

The whole purpose of this subplot appears to be to take the guy who tightropes the line between defender and bully and assure him that he hasn't done anything wrong and he's a good person.  Who then goes on to commit genocide but it's not his fault.  I'm creeped out by the thought of people identifying with this and finding comfort in it.

Next week: the long-awaited return of Valentine and Peter!

*'Rescuer' of course refers to Dink having requested Ender be transferred in from Salamander.  Given that apparently no one else was going to help him, and Ender was taking no actions to get himself transferred, we have no idea how long Ender could have been stuck with Bonzo abusing him if not for Dink's intervention.  In a rare bit of what I think is quite clever storytelling, it might seem at first that this makes Dink a sort of 'parent' figure to Ender, except that what we see Dink doing here is isolating the hell out of Ender by solidifying his distrust of the teachers and making him feel that he can't really trust any of the other (oblivious, NPCish) students.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Re-blog "We think he might be a boy"

I am just destroyed this week. It is almost all Sick related, and it is leaving me unable to put together a coherent post this week. Rather than slap something together, I'm instead just going to re-blog something.

So, from Friend's Journal is an awesome peice from a Mother about her trans son.

We think he might be a boy

"He is not yet two and we still think he’s a girl. One day, he refuses every t-shirt in his drawer that has pink anywhere on it, or cap sleeves, or flowers. He puts on jeans and a plain white t-shirt. Later in the day, I’m cleaning out his older brother’s closet, bagging things for Goodwill, and he pounces on a worn-out Spiderman t-shirt that is much too big for him. He wears it all summer. I get it off him every five days or so to wash it, and he puts it back on as soon as it comes out of the dryer. I put his older brother’s outgrown clothes in the basement, and, with a pang, take most of the hand-me-downs from the twin girls down the street to Goodwill instead."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ender's Game, chapter eight, part one, in which Jjjjeeeewwwwwws

Good news, everyone!  You'll be making a delivery to According to my calculations, we have less than twenty weeks between here and the release of the Ender's Game movie (release dates vary a lot by country), and I would like to wrap this up by then.  Since we've got 227 pages to go, I can either start doing double-length posts (which would require a base camp to even attempt to read) or I can go to double speed, and that means Ender's Game posts will now be every Sunday!  Are you excited?  I AM EXCITED.

(Content: antisemitism. Fun content: Mel Brooks, cursed frogurt, Kirk.)

Ender's Game: p. 97--107
Chapter Eight: Rat

The voices in the Featureless Plane of Dialogue (this week, Graff and Anderson) are once again showing that their priorities are absolutely the best ever.  Graff has asked Anderson to start preparing unfair game plans for Ender in the battleroom, intentionally weighting the odds against him.  He recommends unfair star arrangements to start, but also late notifications and unequal forces*.  Anderson doesn't like this.
"You're getting too close to the game, Anderson.  You're forgetting that it is merely a training exercise." 
"It's also status, identity, purpose, name; all that makes these children who they are comes out of this game.  When it becomes known that the game can be manipulated, weighted, cheated, it will undo this whole school.  I'm not exaggerating."
This does not make sense to me.  The smarter students know that the teachers control everything--Petra's already made that point, and Dink will again shortly.  Why would it be a devastating shock to the student body to discover that the people in control of their whole lives are exerting control over an aspect of their lives?  If one high school soccer team in the league were always forced to play in the snow, would every other team suddenly lose all sense of trust and confidence and start sacrificing goats to a golden calf?  I'm just having a really hard time with the idea that the students are basing their whole lives around the conviction that the game is an untouchable, objectively fair representation of everyone's value in the universe and no one can ever have the odds stacked against them.
"I hope you will forgive me, Colonel Graff, but I feel that I must report your orders and my opinion of their consequences to the Strategos and the Hegemon." 
"Why not our dear Polemarch?" 
"Everybody knows you have him in your pocket."
For some reason, the ruling triumvirate of the entire world only uses ancient Greek titles.  'Strategos' is 'army leader', 'Hegemon' is 'ruler', and Polemarch is 'warlord' and it turns out is pronounced 'pol-em-ark', not 'pole-march', which is taking some getting used to after saying it wrong in my head for fifteen years.  These titles seem like they overlap a lot (even in ancient Greece).  Apparently the Polemarch is commander of the International Fleet and the Strategos is in charge of the defence of the solar system, but since there are no humans outside the solar system at the time of Ender's Game... yeah, I dunno either.
"So you won't mind if I notify them?" 
"Of course I mind, you meddlesome ass.  This is something to be decided by people who know what they're doing, not these frightened politicians who got their office because they happen to be politically potent in the country they come from."
In five books I have never understood how politics on Earth work here.  Countries are democracies (mostly?) but the Hegemon is basically President of the World with unlimited power.  Naturally, in a series that's all about how wonderful the special select few people are, democracy is not really anyone's favourite thing--no thank you sir or madam, we will have some nice military meritocracy please.  Those are totally unbiased and have no downsides.**
"Ender Wiggin is ten times smarter and stronger than I am.  What I'm doing to him will bring out his genius.  If I had to go through it myself, it would crush me."
How do you know that it will bring out his genius, Graff?  It's never given you what you needed before.  You've only had near-misses and flameouts.  Is this how Mazer Rackham was trained?  Actually, why isn't Mazer Rackham in charge of this training?  What qualifications do you have that make you so sure your technique is the perfect recipe to make the ultimate military genius?  In short, Hyrum Graff, who the fuck are you?

Ender arrives at his new dorm in Rat Army, which is a disorganised mess that makes him uncomfortable after a few weeks in Salamander's tyrannical order.  The commander of Rat Army is sprawled in his bed naked [drink!] except for his desk in his lap.  The commander is... how can I... look, I'm just going to let Card and Brooks explain it.
"We doing okay, Ender Bender.  I Rose de Nose, Jewboy extraordinaire, and you ain't nothin but a pinheaded pinprick of a goy.  Don't you forget it." 
Since the I.F. was formed, the Strategos of the military forces had always been a Jew.  There was a myth that Jewish generals didn't lose wars.  And so far it was still true.  It made any Jew in the Battle School dream of being Strategos, and conferred prestige on him from the start. [....]
If Mazer Rackham could save the world, then it didn't matter a bit whether you were a Jew or not, people said. 
But it did matter, and Rose the Nose knew it.  He mocked himself to forestall the mocking comments of anti-semites--almost everyone he defeated in battle became, at least for a time, a Jew-hater--but he also made sure everyone knew what he was.  His army was in second place, bucking for first.
Ye gods, this stuff.  It's actually a pretty fair representation of how screwed racism is in the real world.  The Jews are superhuman but they're also not actually special, and the kid who dares to do well in school While Being Jewish has to mock himself with his own marginalising humour in hopes of appearing less threatening and so getting less racism directed his way.  This is much better than the zero-G racism from a couple of chapters ago.  It's also pretty much the only time in the book that we will hear about how super-important Jewishness is in this world.  I've edited out quite a chunk in the middle there; it's basically a solid page of Space Jews out of nowhere and then I'm not sure we'll ever really talk about race (or religion) again for the rest of the book.  The focus makes me vaguely uncomfortable, in the same way it does when Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins write about the super-important and actually-all-wrong Jews.  Especially when we're going to be shown and then told outright that Rose doesn't actually know how to be a good commander, and have it vaguely implied that his victories are actually because of his brilliant subordinate.

Just, like, as a rule, I kind of think conservative Christian SFF writers should not opine on the place of Jews in the world.  It doesn't seem to go well for anyone.
"And you are forbidden to use your desk again until you've frozen two enemy soldiers in the same battle.  This order is out of self-defense.  I hear you're a genius programmer.  I don't want you screwing around with my desk." 
Everybody erupted in laughter.  It took Ender a moment to understand why.  Rose had programmed his desk to display and animate a bigger-than-lifesize picture of male genitals [drink!], which waggled back and forth as Rose held the desk on his naked lap.
Rose explains that Ender has been placed under the command of toon leader Dink Meeker, so Ender goes to find Dink hanging out in the arcade.  Dink is laconic, but bit by bit Ender finds out what's going on--Dink was actually watching Ender's training sessions with his friends and decided he had promise, so he requested that Rose trade for him.  He also tells Ender to ignore Rose's orders about using his desk (and about stopping the launchy practices):
"Listen, Ender, commanders have just as much authority as you let them have.  The more you obey them, the more power they have over you."
This is one the one hand very deep and on the other painfully stupid.  Yes, human systems only work smoothly because people constantly quietly agree to follow the rules set by those more powerful than them, so we don't constantly need enforcers.  Social contract, et cetera, important realisation; fundamental concept behind the works of Gandhi.  On the other hand, people who disobey, who protest, who insist on confronting the people with power (whether their CO or a politician or a schoolyard bully) can also get enforcement right up in their face.  This line of logic can be used to set a person free or just to tell them that it's their own fault if they get oppressed, and it needs more nuance.

Also, as I've mentioned before, Ender never really disobeys, especially when it might prevent tragedy, so I'm not sure why we keep getting this theme popping up.

Ender finally gets to train with his whole army, unlike Salamander, except that... oh sweet Buddha... CAAARRD.
Dink trained his toon independently from the rest of Rat Army, with discipline and vigor; he never consulted with Rose, and only rarely did the whole army maneuver together.  It was as if Rose commanded one army, and Dink commanded a much smaller one that happened to practice in the battleroom at the same time.

MILITARY TACTICS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY.  I just--I don't even know where to start on how stupid this is.  Coordination is victory--knowing who will be where and when and what they're doing, being able to move together with a single purpose.  And now Rat Army, second-highest-ranked team in the school, commanded by a Magical Jew, is apparently winning even though/because it intentionally abandons 25% of its ability to coordinate.  This lines up perfectly with the prior bit about lower officers sometimes being able to make better decisions than their commander, and lines up atrociously with reality.

Dink is of course brilliant, and immediately wants his soldiers to start practicing Ender's kneeling attack, but neither they nor he realise that it goes along with Ender's 'the enemy's gate is down' perspective.  Which makes sense, given that everyone sticks with the corridor-gravity perspective and it's not possible to see just by watching how a person is envisioning zero gravity.  What doesn't make sense is that Ender doesn't correct them either.  He keeps his mouth shut and lets them continue talking about 'attacking lying on our backs'.

Ender, you jackwagon.

He's part of this army, Dink got him out of an abusive situation and gave him a real learning environment, and Ender is still holding out on his ultimate techniques--the only possible reason I can think of is that he knows he'll be in charge of his own army someday and wants to still have some advantage over this lot.  He practices with them, not speaking up at all as they suffer from gravity vertigo when Dink makes them repeat maneuvers in multiple orientations.  What a tool.

This is getting long, so let's skim a bit--Ender insists on practicing with his friends, and using his desk to do his trigonometry homework, which makes Rose angry.  Ender slams Bonzo's strategies as well (which Rose had thought were intentional and brilliant) and takes credit for 'turning defeat into stalemate, all by himself', so Rose decides that in their next game, Ender should once again see what he can do all by himself.  Two days later:
"We'll see how well you do now, Ender.  As soon as that door opens, you jump through, go straight ahead toward the enemy's door." 
Suicide.  Pointless, meaningless self-destruction.  But he had to follow orders now, this was battle, not school.  For a moment Ender raged silently; then he calmed himself.  "Excellent, sir," he said.  "The direction I fire my gun is the direction of their main contingent."
Ender launches and is halfway across the battleroom by the time Centipede Army has begun to deploy, firing furiously between his protective legs, and substantially carves up their forces in the few seconds he has before they get their bearings and freeze him.  Rat Army is now at a considerable advantage, and wins the rest of the fight easily.  Word gets around fast and every team in the school starts practicing rapid deployment, because Ender has once again Done A Thing and so The Game Is Changed.  Several decades in operation with the smartest kids in the world and no one in the whole school has ever thought 'hey, what if we shot the other guys first?'

Some days later, Ender sticks around after Rat's practice session, because he's noticed Dink always stays behind and Ender wants to find out what's up with that.  The answer, obviously, involves nakedness.
It was plain Dink expected Ender to leave.  It was just as plain that Ender was saying no. 
Dink turned his back on Ender, methodically took off his flash suit [drink!], and gently pushed off from the floor.  He drifted slowly toward the center of the room, very slowly, his body relaxing almost completely, so that his hands and arms seemed to be caught by almost nonexistent air currents in the room. 
After the speed and tension of practice, the exhaustion, the alertness, it was restful just to watch him drift.  He did it for ten minutes or so before he reached another wall.  Then he pushed off rather sharply, returned to his flash suit, and pulled it on.
I was going to finish this scene, but we're about halfway through the chapter, so let's just leave it here, with our intensely homophobic author musing on how relaxing it is to watch a naked boy float on the breeze.

Remember, we're shifting to a weekly schedule now, so there'll be more whatnapple for you next Sunday!  Tell your friends!  (You know, in case you wanted to get back at them for wronging you.)

*I'm not sure if this is a fair criticism or not, but there are basically four or five ways that we hear about the battles getting weighted against Ender, and we've just been told three of them.  If Anderson has a couple of years to sort everything out, I'm a little disappointed that he apparently only has one more good idea after this meeting. Which, in turn, is a criticism of Card and show-don't-tell, I suppose.  Telling us that this training program will take years to develop sounds really impressive, but the payoff kind of needs to be equally impressive, and 'my boss's offhand ideas plus one other thing' is... not.

**The thing about Ender's Game is that the final chapter changes everything that came before it, which makes me wonder whether it's ultimately meant to criticise the things that it apparently valorises.  Ender is the best and he wins because Graff takes risks without worrying about whether they're politically popular, go not-team!  Except all of these things lead to unspeakable tragedy.  But then in Card's morality, consequences don't actually matter.  MY BRAIN.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Helplessness under the Male Gaze

The joys of public transit. As I walk up to the stop in a million degree weather, headphones in and wearing shorts and a t-shirt, both best described as "comfortable and fun" there is a man, old enough to be my father, sitting directly beside the posted bus times. I instantly dislike people who do this when none of the other seats on the bench are taken, but it's one of the few spots in the shade so I don't think anything of it. He smiles and waves, I smile and nod back and he... keeps waving. Since to check the bus times I need to walk and stand right beside him, I assume he simply didn't see my previous gesture. I force the smile a little larger and nod again and he... keeps waving. Sighing inwardly, my smile slips, but I give a very awkward wave back. We exchanged about two sentences before I managed to disengage.

I've played this game so many times, I know it well. Once men hit a certain age, they assume they're no longer a threat to younger women (and there is a certain level of truth to that) and therefore they can flirt and chat them up under the guise of being harmless. Often enough they simply are harmless, but they're not always. Some of these men feel entitled to the attention of younger women like they feel entitled to a pension. They feel it's a right of age, something they've earned. The harmless old men are all smiles and are happy to leave it at a smile and nod if that's all you offer. This man kept going until I returned the gesture he was giving, and once I sat down on the other end of the stop (a small one, two benches) he kept staring at me. Which meant that as I looked around at what a beautiful, bright sunny day it was, I had to be very careful not to look to my right. I knew if I made eye contact that was it, he'd be talking to me.

It is times like these I am thankful for cellphones. It is at the point where I just start texting friends to avoid looking at this man that another man, younger, walks out, and just grins at me. Not a "Hi lovely day I'm in a good mood" sort of grin, but a "I am picturing you naked right now" sort of grin. I look back down to my phone and wonder if I am extra cute that day or what. As I wonder that, I get more and more annoyed.

I have done nothing to invite this attention, I'm not dressed "sexily" and I am reminded that short of wearing a burka, there is nothing I can do to discourage this sort of attention- and even then I'm sure some people see burkas as a "challenge". When strange men look at me, they don't see me as a person with thoughts and feelings as complex as their own who maybe doesn't want to be gawked at like a hunk of fucking meat, they see a decoration. They see one of God's works of art, put on this Earth just for them! If I were to protest their stares, they would be denied. If they weren't denied, I would be told to lighten up, it was a compliment! Or I would be told they weren't staring because they were attracted, they were staring because I was just so fat and ugly like, whoa, how arrogant am I? I should know better, being a lowly woman.

The fact is that being leered at by strangers, no matter what I wear, is normal. It's so normal that I am left with no recourse, no defense. So I sit there with my head down, paying as much attention as I can muster to my book, or my phone, or my mp3 player, even though the little voice in my head is screaming that these men are potential threats--because, growing up, girls are told any stranger is a dangerous stranger, and doubly so for men. But what can I do? Tell them to stop staring? Tell them off? That just invites aggression, and maybe even violence. It's easier to just keep my head down while I feel guilty for not standing up for myself, and angry that I should have to.