(Content: sexism, self-harm, genocide apologetics. Fun content: trailers that lie, Bustopher Kobayashi.)
Ender's Game: p. 273--304
Ender gets to the game room and the controls are gone, replaced with a switchboard. He'll be playing as commander from now on, with a team of lieutenants, who speak as soon as he puts on the headphones:
"Salaam," said a whisper in his ears.
"Alai," said Ender.
"And me, the dwarf."
And Petra, and Dink; Crazy Tom, Shen, Hot Soup, Fly Molo, Carn Carby, all the best students Ender had fought with or fought against, everyone that Ender had trusted in Battle School.And the scarecrow and the tin man and so forth. We're told there are three dozen of them in total, despite Card having run out of recognisable names after nine of them. A couple more names will come up over the course of the chapter, and Ender's Shadow. Vlad. Who was Vlad? I feel like I would have remembered a Vlad. Still, twenty-six more unnamed heroes helping save the world! I'm just going to assume at least one of them is named Bustopher Kobayashi. If Card didn't want this to happen, he should have said there was only a team of a dozen. Was he afraid Ender wouldn't seem special enough if his elite team was too elite? Also, they made a huge deal about bringing Ender to Eros, but nine months later they ship in thirty-six more kids like it's no big thing? And it's not like they're all the ultimate geniuses--Shen's biggest on-page achievement so far is refusing to let catcalls get to him a few years ago. Is it just narrative convenience that Battle School's greatest students are all Ender's best friends, or are they giving him his friends regardless of their skill level? The latter is sort of plausible, but it will fail utterly in short order.
They start having a great time with the games now that they are reunited, and over the next three weeks of practices Ender gets to know everyone's skillset: Dink is great with orders but terrible at improvisation (despite having had years more command experience than Ender--remember, he was a commander even in Rat when he had his independent toon), Bean gets overwhelmed with large groups but shreds up with a small strike force (that will get retconned to bits in Shadow), and Alai is a master strategist almost equal to Ender (not that we've ever seen or ever will see proof of this, nor will it affect the plot at all; Ender suggests replacing himself with Alai at one point but Mazer shoots it down instantly by telling Ender to "be honest").
Ender and Mazer analyse the latest practice and observe that his team basically moves like a formic fleet now, their coordination is so perfect, but they still have independent thought and innovation. Go humanity. So now it's time for the next course of testing, in which they'll simulate an entire invasion campaign just like the one that's going to really happen when the fleet arrives. Mazer also takes a moment to tell Ender not to complain about how hard it is going to get, because he lost his wife to time-travel, which is a pretty good trump card. (Did she not want to come along? Did they think it was too expensive to send her too, ignoring as usual the possibility of compromising their own geniuses with crushing despair?)
The next morning, at 0340, Mazer rouses Ender from a dream of being vivisected and brain-scanned by the formics and takes him to his first campaign mission. They chatter about who'll take what ships (Alai, Petra, and Vlad share a carrier's complement of fighters) and Ender assigns Bean one fighter from each carrier, which echoes back to his Ridiculous Ops squad, but seems like a terrible idea to me in this kind of scenario. If he sees something that requires a ship from someone else's group, can't he just relay the command? What do squadrons get out of having one of their fighters inexplicably not under their own control?
The formics have a spherical formation with an obvious core ship that Ender realises they want him to believe is the queen. Ender ignores it and orders them to try to compress the formation, not telling his friends about Dr Device as they protest the weirdness, and then they sit back to watch as Alai's first shot devours the fleet in a chain reaction. Mazer explains that, for a proper campaign, they had to have one fight in which the formics didn't know what the humans could do, and they'll learn rapidly from now on. He then proceeds to critique their technique, and gets increasingly harsh--a harshness that Ender passes on to his team.
"You're too kind to us," said Alai one day. "Why don't you get annoyed with us for not being brilliant every moment of every practice. If you keep coddling us like this we'll think you like us."
Some of the others laughed into their microphones. Ender recognized the irony, of course, and answered with a long silence. When he finally spoke, he ignored Alai's complaint. "Again," he said, "and this time without self-pity." They did it again, and did it right.Their friendship withers, their trust in Ender as a commander grows, and somehow Ender knows that "it was to each other that they became close; it was with each other that they exchanged confidences", even though he never talks to them outside of game time or sees them in person at all. Obviously, this makes them all even more effective soldiers, because the Enderverse runs on the Omelas principle and making people sad and wounded always makes everything around them better. I bet whichever general thought they should supply Ender with his friends instead of all their assorted best students is feeling kind of stupid now.
Ender starts having more nightmares, dreaming of the Giant's corpse shaped into a formic village, and child-faced wolves that hunt him, not just the obvious threats like Peter and Bonzo, but Alai and Valentine and Dink, but in his dreams he still kills them all in the river, sobbing as he does so. He accuses Mazer of cheating at programming the game, and feels like his dreams are being watched. This section is just randomly trippy on its own, but it's foreshadowing a bunch of stuff, which is sort of cool. It'd work better for me if more of the stuff it was foreshadowing was in this book and not the sequels, but this is what happens when a standalone novel gets drafted into becoming backstory for an unrelated series.
It finally occurs to Ender that all this psychological stress might be affecting his brilliance, but the first big burnout is Petra, and the contrast between the way it's described here and the way it will be in Shadow is interesting. In Shadow she literally blacks out in the middle of a battle because eleven-year-old children are mortal; here she just makes a stupid maneuver, "and she discovered it in a moment when Ender wasn't with her" and gets shot up. When Ender does notice, he immediately tosses command of the surviving ships to Tom and has to salvage the battle because Petra's forces were the core of his strategy.
Ender knew at once that he had pushed her too hard--because of her brilliance he had called on her to play far more often and under much more demanding circumstances that all but a few of the others.So, I'm mixed on this. Petra falters because she's been pushed too hard, and she's been pushed too hard because she's too awesome not to use, but "a few of the others" like Bustopher Kobayashi have been even pushed harder and they're apparently doing fine. Ender's pushing himself even harder and he still reacts as perfectly as he can, because Petra needs handholding through emergencies? Shen saves the day with a perfect Dr Device shot that eats a swarm of the enemy, and Fly Molo mops up.
She was not there for the next few practices, and when she did come back she was not as quick as she had been, not as daring. Much of what had made her a good commander was lost. Ender couldn't use her anymore, except in routine, closely supervised assignments. She was no fool. She knew what had happened. [....] The fact remained that she had broken, and she was far from being the weakest of his squad leaders.I try not to link to TVtropes very often, but this is just such a flawless Faux Action Girl scenario. Petra, we're told, is totally hardcore and badass and brilliant. She also fails, utterly, and never recovers, and is the only girl we're aware of in the entire group. If you believe what the narrative tells you, then there's nothing wrong with this because Petra is so strong. If you consider the narrative unreliable for two seconds, Petra has been just barely not good enough for the entire book and of course the girl needs her hand held through everything. This comment thread also has some good previous discussion, if you missed it.
Ender's stress continues to mount; he chews his hand in his sleep until it has to be treated by a medic, and starts getting ideas like thinking that any prior candidate who washed out died--he doesn't say whether he thinks they get executed or if they just wasted away or what, but Mazer assures him this is ridiculous and he's perfectly safe.
"I think that Bonzo died. I dreamed about it last night. I remember the way he looked after I jammed his face with my head. [....] My whole life keeps playing out as if I were a recorder and someone else wanted to watch the most terrible parts of my life."
"We can't drug you if that's what you're hoping for. I'm sorry if you have bad dreams. Should we leave the light on at night?"
"Don't make fun of me!" Ender said. "I think I'm going crazy."But Mazer remains unsympathetic and so Ender resolves not to tell him about this ever again, and continues to weaken. The battles get worse, longer, he has to rotate commanders in the same battle, then one day Ender blacks out in the middle of practice and is confined to bed for three days, then back to battles every day.
During the night he thought he felt hands touching him gently. Hands with affection in them, and gentleness. He dreamed he heard voices.
"You haven't been kind to him."
"That wasn't the assignment."
"How long can he go on? He's breaking down."
"Long enough. It's nearly finished." [....]
"I can't bear to see what this is doing to him." [...]
"I know. I love him too."So here we have Mazer and Graff acting as audience surrogates to be ineffectually kind to Ender. Of course this kindness takes the form of unsolicited touching and invading his privacy at night, because that is how these jackwagons roll. Ender thinks he's dreaming it: "If there was love or pity for him, it was only in his dreams. He woke up and fought another battle and won. Then he went to bed and slept again and dreamed again and then he woke up and won again and slept again and he hardly noticed when waking became sleeping".
And then one day he wakes up and no one's there to shepherd him around, but he can't think of anything he could do other than eat breakfast and go to practice. There are other people in the simulator room, but he doesn't ask; Mazer explains that today is his final exam and these are the evaluators. Mazer adds that to switch things up, the test battle will occur around a planet, and Ender lists a few effects (gravity changing fuel costs):
"Does the Little Doctor work against a planet?"
Mazer's face went rigid. "Ender, the buggers never deliberately attacked a civilian population in either invasion. You decide whether it would be wise to adopt a strategy that would invite reprisals."
Ender runs through some warm-ups with his team and muses on what training will be left for him between today and the war.
And as he waited for the game to appear, he wished he could simply lose it, lose the battle badly and completely so that they would remove him from training, like Bonzo, and let him go home. [....] Failure meant he could go home.Then the battle appears: ten thousand formic ships swarming around a planet, constantly shifting through random patterns, versus his own twenty old-model carriers with eighty fighters. Ender hears his team breathing heavily over their microphones (hot) and one of the evaluators swears behind him. They start to shift nervously as they realise how unevenly matched it is.
Ender once said that all Bonzo knew how to do was fail with style.
"Remember, the enemy's gate is down."Bean says that, and they all laugh. Ender decides to remember that it's just a game and so to pursue a strategy that breaks Mazer's rules. He won his last game in the battleroom by ignoring the armies and going for the gate. ender decides that if he goes for the war crime, they'll consider him too dangerous to put in command, "and that is victory". He orders the ships into a 'thick cylinder', to better penetrate the enemy formation, and the enemy happily engulfs him. Supply your own subtext. Ender's ships fly in seemingly random patterns, then at a word they burst in all directions, firing madly, then at another a dozen fighters form up on the far side of the enemy fleet and dive for the planet. The formics cut off his escape, but he doesn't care anyway, because the only point is to get close enough to fire on the planet.
In three seconds, the planet is gone and the fleets as well, with only a few human ships surviving at the edge of the system.
Ender took off his headphones, filled with the cheers of his squadron leaders, and only then realized that there was just as much noise in the room with him. Men in uniform were hugging each other, laughing, shouting; others were weeping; some knelt or lay prostrate, and Ender knew they were caught up in prayer. Ender didn't understand. It seemed all wrong. They were supposed to be angry.Graff and Mazer embrace him and thank him, tell him how proud they are. Ender remains confused until Mazer explains that the entire campaign up to this point wasn't testing, but the actual campaign, humans versus formics, and Ender has just won the war forever by destroying all their queens and committing xenocide. Ender walks out of the room, ignoring everyone, back to his room, strips down [drink!] and gets into bed. He wakes up to find Graff and Mazer in the room, informing him that Earth has heard what happened and every government in the world has given him their highest medal.
So here, in full, is the defence of this entire book.
Ender grabbed Mazer's uniform and hung onto it, pulling him down so they were face to face. "I didn't want to kill them all. I didn't want to kill anybody! I'm not a killer! You didn't want me, you bastards, you wanted Peter, but you made me do it, you tricked me into it!" He was crying. He was out of control.
"Of course we tricked you into it. That's the whole point," said Graff. "It had to be a trick or you couldn't have done it. It's the bind we were in. We had to have a commander with so much empathy that he would think like the buggers, understand them and anticipate them. So much compassion that he could win the love of his underlings and work with them like a perfect machine, as perfect as the buggers. But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew, you couldn't do it. If you were the kind of person who would do it even if you knew, you could never have understood the buggers well enough."I don't know what to say to this that I haven't said before. Ender's big thing at Eros has been lack of compassion, has been his refusal to be any kinder to his subordinates than Mazer has been to him. If he had been given a raft of brilliant lieutenants who had never met him before, they'd have quite reasonably hated him even if he was a genius. He's running on the love that he supposedly earned from them back when he was in Battle School. Maybe that's why they shipped in Bean and Dink and Bustopher, so that Ender would have subordinates who would put up with his hardassedness. 'Compassion' as a superweapon would also have worked better if it were clear how it actually affected Ender's strategy--it's been a long time since he needed to, for example, identify a queen in an enemy fleet.
"And it had to be a child, Ender," said Mazer. "You were faster than me. Better than me. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn't know. We made sure you didn't know."Well, apparently any decent person except the ones who plan the campaign, deploy fighters, and pull the trigger to destroy a civilisation. Who planned this war? I mean, the ships have been in flight for seventy years and they successfully scheduled them all to arrive over the course of, what, two, three weeks? Just to maximise the possible burnout of their tacticians? The formic worlds are light-years apart and communications are instant, so there's no actual tactical value in hitting everywhere at once; they can't reinforce each other world-to-world. The battles could have been spread out over months to the same effect. Don't generals like Ender normally have some say in the way the war proceeds and not just individual firefights? What was the entire invasion fleet for, anyway? Wouldn't ansible-equipped drones have been about a jillion times more effective, what with being able to survive much greater physical stresses and save room/weight on life support? That way those could also have been piloted by genius children who think they're playing a video game. Has Earth ever had a competent Polemarch or Strategos or whoever planned this gong show? (Actually, it turns out Mazer plotted the campaign. Graff reprimands him for not leaving the minor outposts for later. Mazer tells him to screw off.)
Anyway, just as Peter and Valentine predicted, Earth has erupted into war. The Russian soldiers aboard Eros are leading an attack, and so Ender is locked down under guard. He dreams, has nightmares of the Giant's Drink again and of the End of the World, where he watches the formic homeworld burst and sees the Queen except it's his mom and her children are his friends and a dying formic is Bonzo accusing him of having no honor and his reflection is Peter. And at last he wakes up and Alai is there in his room, and there was much rejoicing.
"Some of the Russians who came in told us that when the Polemarch ordered them to find you and kill you, they almost killed him. [....] There's a million soldiers who'd follow you to the end of the universe."Ender just wants to go home--good luck with that. The war ends, the lights come on, and Bean enters the room, followed by Bustopher, and Petra and Dink holding hands because of course she needs a man. They further explain the terms of the peace, stuff that won't be relevant until the second Shadow book. The banter is mostly pretty sweet and realistic. And maybe others don't read it the same way, but recalling what Dink taught Ender while naked in the battleroom ages ago:
"You OK?" Petra asked him, touching his head. "You scared us. They said you were crazy, and we said they were crazy."
"I'm crazy," said Ender. "But I think I'm OK."I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the message that mental illness is not shameful, not a mark or cause of evil, and not life-defining is the only consistent positive message in this entire book.
They joke about what they'll do next, and how they'll probably be forced to go to school until they're 17 because it's the law, and the chapter has the chutzpah to give us an Everybody Laughs Ending after slaughtering an entire species. But at least they were a species of monsters! And the people we like are alive! And if you talk to enough fans of Ender's Game, you'll find that some people stop here, because they aggressively miss the point. The graphic novel stops here. I'll be curious to see if the movie stops here. There's one more chapter to go, and it's not easy, but it's the only chance this book has at redemption. Next week: everything is terrible forever.