Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lullabye Chapter 2 in which DEAD BABIES. DEAD BABIES EVERYWHERE.

What happens in this chapter: Carl tells us about an ethics question on his journalism exam and about the story he's about to be working on: a five-part series on sudden infant death syndrome.

Right, so: dead babies. What, did you think I was kidding? No, no, this is Palahniuk, the more morbid the better! The chapter opens with Carl talking about a the only question that was on his ethics exam before he graduated from Journalist school. The question was basically this: You're sent to get details on a kid that choked on a Christmas ornament on Christmas eve. You go, get the details, write the story, and your editor is demanding the color of the ornament for the article. Won't run the article without it.

Do you:
Call the grieving parents
Refuse and lose your big shot job?

Carl, being smarter than everyone around him, especially his teachers who wrote the exam, chose neither. He'd call the paramedics! They have that catalogued, obviously. They gave his ethics a D. Carl doesn't go on about what bullshit that is, but the wording of "They gave my ethics a D" has a certain level of  a superiority complex. He's obviously being punished because he outsmarted their test and they were angry. Not because he failed to understand the point of the question. He will continue to miss the point near the end of the chapter and wonder if this was less about ethics and more his teachers trying to warn him, "Are you really sure you want to do this?"

An artist's interpretation of Carl

Carl will then go on to try to tell us how he's TOTES A RELIABLE NARRATOR! 
Instead of ethics, I learned only to tell people what they wanted to hear. I learned to write everything down. [...] And maybe I didn't learn ethics, but I learned to pay attention. No detail is too minor to note.
I definitely trust this man to be honest about what's going on and not be bias as fucking hell in all his writing, I don't know about you. A man who claims everything they do is robotic and they are a perfect machine and therefore obviously rational and what are these feelings you speak of? No no, those are for women, he is a man and has no such thing, so they couldn't possibly cloud his judgement or ability to report on things (spoiler: Yes it can).

We're told about Duncan, Carl's editor who put him on this 5 part "feel good" special about sudden infant death syndrome (more on that in a minute) and, once again, not charitable descriptions.
 The details about Duncan are he's pocked with acne scars and his scalp is brown along the hairline every two weeks when he dyes his gray roots. His computer password is "password."
I want to underline how we're not told "Duncan is like X", we're told "Duncan IS X".  Look at how hard Carl's trying to be a reliable narrator. No, no, he's just giving us the facts about Duncan and letting us form our own opinions! Doesn't matter that he draws attention only to his imperfections, and says absolutely nothing positive. That said, Carl is not supposed to be a kind or generous kind of man. 
Now, back to the dead babies. Or rather, Duncan's pitch for them.
There are so many people with infants, my editor said. It's the type of story that every parent and grandparent is too afraid to read and too afraid not to read. There's really no new information, but the idea was to profile five families that had lost a child. Show how people cope. How people move forward with their lives. ... That angle.
Award bait, basically. Carl tags along with paramedics and gets to see the scene of tragedy of the broken home as the parents tearfully answer the seemingly random questions. He snoops around the nursery with the other paramedic. As he goes through and tells us about the decor (there's a needlepoint saying "Thursday's Child has far to go"), the smell (baby powder), the books laying around (Poems and Rhymes from Around the World) and continues to try and be a machine and report this all in a very robotic way. 

Again, the narrator is trying to prove how reliable he is, but his reaction to wandering around the house of someone who just lost their kid being coolly observing his surroundings (and it is his surroundings, not the parents he notices) is telling. He is supposed to be writing about the people--profiling their family, writing about how they cope, but while he goes into such detail about what the nursery looks like there is no description at all of the parents. He may be able to notice every minor detail, but he chooses not to. He chooses to not even notice the big details of the parents.

This should be telling about his objectivity, and this is caused by his feelings, which we're given no indication on because Carl is so determined to be objective. He's so determined he leaves out his own bias and (actual spoiler) doesn't mention his own child who he lost to crib death 20ish years ago. He at no point shows us his own details or feelings on the subject of being put on this exploitative, award bait story, and why? Because he's never dealt with it, and he refuses to, because that would involve admitting he has feelings, or something like it. He just goes along and starts doing it with no hint to anyone (his editor or the reader) of his own very personal history or experience with it. There are Reasons we don't get this information yet--but it underlines just how unreliable Carl is because dude's got his own issues with refusing to have feelings and hiding behind a front of cold, rational objectivity.

The chapter ends with Carl coming to the previously-mentioned conclusion of "The test was really a warning" because, again, not projecting at all.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter five, in which loving siblings trying to destroy each other

I was researching the relativistic physics from last week's footnote further, and in doing so, noticed that the time dilation effects of travelling at relativistic speeds are all crammed up at the fast end.  What this means is that if we assume humanity can get up to any speed short of lightspeed, Ender's average of 133 years per spaceflight could be on trips that take (from his perspective) a year or two weeks and the speed is still going to be roughly the same (0.99999~ c).  So my conclusion that Card had actually done meaningful math is unfounded, because he could have justified Ender aging ten years or one or fifty with just about exactly the same calculations.  My apologies, folks.  I didn't mean to mislead you about how much science Card actually put in his science fiction.

(Content: dysfunctional family, victim-blaming, emotional abuse.  Fun content: super awkward RPF.)

Speaker for the Dead: p. 71--83
Chapter Five: Valentine

I don't keep an actual list, but I think Pipo's notes have to be in my top five worst info-dumps ever.  Not because they're so clunky (Card does a reasonable job of making them sound natural, and at least he found a justification for Pipo to tell the reader directly about the aliens) but because he gives us bits of information with no linkages.  I can't imagine what kinds of conversations they could be having that would let him draw these conclusions and no others.  For example, he let it slip one day that he was Libo's father, and the Little Ones were astonished and impressed:
The conclusion is inescapable.  The pequeninos that we've known so far are not a whole community, or even typical males.  They are either juveniles or old bachelors.  Not a one of them has ever sired any children.  Not a one has even mated, as nearly as we can figure.
HOW?!  How can that possibly be the only conclusion?  How can he possibly have gained inconclusive evidence as to whether any of them have ever mated?  He doesn't even know what mating means for their species!  This is like an investigative RPG with a really inept GM who knows what information they want to feed their players but no idea how to hide it, so everything just comes in the form of rumours ex nihilo.

Pipo concludes (because it's true for all primate societies he knows of) that these Little Ones are powerless outcasts, which explains why they flipflop between speaking of females with worship and total contempt, never defying their wishes but still insulting their intelligence.  (Personally, I think he should have realised that when all the Little Ones showed up wearing fedoras, but I'm not a xenologer.)  He thus discards his theory that the females are nonsentient animals, and concludes that the males he knows are just bitter, which... well, to paraphrase Farnsworth, that theory is less stupid, although he came to it in a profoundly stupid way.

He doesn't quite believe it, though, because he's sure the Little Ones he knows are too smart to just be the least-desirable mates.  And for whatnapple, he says he can't report any of this because it would mean admitting he accidentally revealed information.  Even though he has admitted to revealing information at later times, like, say, chapter one.  So instead he just hides these findings "in Libo's locked personal files, where even my dear wife wouldn't think to look for them", because apparently on Lusitania spouses break each other's trust and privacy six times before breakfast.

Back to Trondheim, to Valentine, eight months pregnant and frustrated that she can't help load the boat for her history class to go on a "söndring", which Google tells me means "difference".  I dunno.  She met Jakt on her first söndring.  They had come to Trondheim like it was any other planet, where Ender would Speak someone's death and she would take a few months to write a history... oh god:
It was a game they played, pretending to be itinerant professors of this and that, while in actually they created or transformed the world's identity, for Demosthenes' essay was always seen as definitive.
I just can't with these people anymore.

Card does finally address the whole 'all of these essays are written by Demosthenes' thing by saying that people believe Demosthenes to be a name taken up by a series of individuals, in the same way that there are many Speakers for the Dead.  There are theories that some secret council of wise historians reviews sufficiently brilliant writings that are submitted to them and judge if they are worthy of the Demosthenes pseudonym.  Apparently no one, despite relativistic travel occurring on a near-daily basis, believes that maybe one author could be skipping around space writing things periodically, and no one is correlating the trail of publications with the travels of the Wiggin siblings.  I mean, Ender the Xenocide is supposedly the name everyone knows and hates, but no one has tried to investigate where he actually ended up in life?  Did he fake his death a few millennia ago?

Everyone in this galaxy is a colossal twit.

At least Val notes that each world changes her as well, and none more than Trondheim.  To get away from all those goddamn Lutherans and Calvinists, she decided to start taking groups of students on camping trips, to live off the land and have intellectual debates in the woods.
Her idea was to break the patterns of intellectual rot that were inevitable at every university. [....]  When their daily food depended on their own exertion, their attitudes about what mattered and did not matter in history were bound to change.
This is... weirdly Maoist for Card, but okay.  First principles, away from the taint of books, not completely out of the ordinary.  She hired a boat from Jakt, who fully expected to have to rescue the lot of them within a week, but they did well, built a little village, and produced a mess of brilliant publications on their return.  Valentine keeps taking more students camping, and gets to know Jakt: not much education, but he's very Close To The Earth and knows the sea and ice and the skrika, which are apparently seal-like, given the way they're described flopping onto the beaches.  (Y'all will recall that Ender just bought a starship full of skrika, of which Jane said some would be eaten and some would be worn.  I assumed it was, like, a plant, and now I'm assuming she meant they'd be divided into meat and fur, but I'm enjoying the idea that they chew the fur and wear the meat.)

So Jakt and Valentine were married (by a "Lutheran minister--not a Calvinist" because Card has some serious anti-Calvin grudge apparently) and she rapidly got impregnated and she's due very soon, so they must have been there for almost a year, if not two.  (I went back and Ender did indeed say he hadn't spent more than six months on any world except Trondheim.)  She has rooted, and she's grateful that Ender understands their wandering is over, so clearly nothing can possibly go wrong and they will all be happy forever.

Ender arrives, and she sees his bag and thinks he's intending to come camping with them, which she notes will kind of defeat the purpose, because Ender's incredible brilliance will infect the other students and the revelations they come to will be the ones he hints at, not their own.  I'll give Card this--he's so dedicated to first principles that he's even stopped approving of Ender teaching other people.  (Sometimes.  Teaching his own classes is still okay.  And telling everyone what the lives of dead people really meant.  Look, I don't know anymore.)

They greet each other, and joke about whether it'll be okay if Valentine has her kid while camping (yes, because her father will Nordic at her and wrap her in furs), and then out of nowhere Valentine intuits that Ender is leaving Trondheim.
"I can have this baby on söndring, but not on another world." 
As she guessed, Ender hadn't meant her to come.  "The baby's going to be shockingly blond," said Ender.  "She'd look hopelessly out of place on Lusitania.  Mostly black Brazilians there."
Oh god.  I mean, okay, well done on keeping human diversity in the future, Card, but what this means is that lily-white Ender is leaving behind the peaceful world of blonds to go to an all-black planet and teach them how to empathise with the humanoid beings they think are actually just mindless savages.  Given that we've already established that the Portuguese flavouring here was inspired by Card's missionary work... this just got so much more uncomfortable.  I know it's a science fiction standard to have people basically interchangeable according to their planet, but that is the opposite of a good reason to make everyone black on Bad Colonialist Science World.

They argue a bit over whether things could have been any different, once Valentine met Jakt, given that wife and husband are (assuming all goes well) inevitably going to be emotionally closer than siblings.  Plus Card needed to get his reproduction fetish in there somewhere:
"The Wiggin genes were crying out for continuation.  I hope you have a dozen more." 
"It's considered impolite to have more than four, greedy to go past five, and barbaric to have more than six."
Somehow, Valentine saw Ender with his bag on his back and intuited that he was leaving the planet, but she's still shocked that he's leaving today, which I feel just highlights how much the magic intuition of these characters isn't 'extrapolation from small details to a comprehensive whole' but 'direct line to the author'.  They might as well have all their brilliance come to them in dream sequences.  Anyway, when he reveals that he wants one of Jakt's boats to the spaceport so he can leave in the morning, Valentine quickly turns furious.
"Why are you in such a hurry?  The voyage takes decades--" 
"Twenty-two years." 
"Twenty-two years!  What difference would a couple of days make?  Couldn't you wait a month to see my baby born?" 
"In a month, Val, I might not have the courage to leave you."
In other words, "This is going to be really hard on one of us, so I've decided it should be you".  Ender is a magnificent example of what it looks like one someone has enough empathy to understand other people's emotions but not enough to actually care.  Valentine says Ender's done enough by redeeming the formics' memory and should just relax and stay and marry (Ender notes that he'd have to put up with obnoxious Calvinist proselytising), and reminds him of what it was like after their first trip, when they talked to 70-year-old Peter back home.
"It was an improvement, as I recall."  Ender was trying to make things lighter. 
But Valentine took his words perversely.  "Do you think I'll improve, too, in twenty years?" 
"I think I'll grieve for you more than if you had died." 
"No, Ender, it will be exactly as if I died, and you'll know that you're the one who killed me."
These are supposed to be incredibly closely-bonded deeply-empathetic siblings and they talk like dysfunctional co-dependents with a blood feud.  It's realistic dialogue for completely different, intentionally awful characters, but these two are supposed to be the most enlightened beings in the galaxy.

Valentine, whom y'all will recall was rejected from Battle School for being too gentle, informs Ender that she won't even write to him for the twenty years he's in space, won't tell him about her daughter growing up, won't speak to him until she's old and she writes her memoir and dedicates it to him.
"To Andrew, my beloved brother.  I followed you gladly to two dozen worlds, but you wouldn't stay even two weeks when I asked you." 
They rant at each other further.  Valentine says she's only being cruel because Ender is sneaking away like a burglar in the night, so it's his fault and he can't turn it around on her.  Which... I can't even decide who's doing more victim-blaming here, but I'm pretty sure they're both neck-deep in it.  It is a fantastic idea for them to get the hell away from each other.

Ender admits that he's rushing because he thought it would hurt less, and says it hurts him to see Valentine growing closer to Jakt and further from him even though he knows that's the way things should be (love is zero-sum, I guess, so growing closer to Jakt while staying close to Ender is nonsense), and eventually he tumbles to a halt and they just hug and weep and he leaves.  Valentine goes on the söndring and fails to fully hide her sorrow from her students, and the students wonder if there's some untold story there, so the girl named Duty Plikt starts to investigate.

Her research somehow takes four years, even though we have no indication that it's more complicated than getting access to a series of passenger manifests.  Valentine's daughter Syfte is four and her son Ren is two when Plikt confronts her with a short story she's published, about the oldest people in the universe, a brother and sister and how they finally parted.  Plikt has written Real Person Fic about Valentine and Ender.  She's apparently missed some details, but on the plus side she hasn't decided there was some kind of terrifying Lannister-esque sex going on.
...She knew enough of their story to write the tale of their good-bye when she decided to stay with her husband, and he to go on,  The scene was much tenderer and more affecting than it really had been; Plikt had written what should have happened, if Ender and Valentine had had more sense of theatre.
Note that Card himself developed his writing skills as a playwright and editor, so I wonder if he's making sort of an in-joke here, saying that he knows what he's written doesn't look like polished stories normally do because he's made something more realistic.  I'm not asserting that's what he did, but writers talking about writing are worth keeping an eye on.

Valentine tries to step lightly around the issues, but then Plikt reveals that she knows Andrew Wiggin is Ender the Xenocide.  Val freaks, but Plikt assures her that if she meant to reveal it, she would have already.  She's endlessly delighted that, once the Speaker for the Dead revealed Ender's crime, Ender took up the mantle of Speaker himself and travelled the worlds as penance.  (Not to beat a dead civilisation, but the fact that everyone thinks HQ&H is absolute fact based on no evidence continues to baffle me.)
"Plikt, mybrother didn't imitate the original Speaker for the Dead.  He wrote the Hive Queen and the Hegemon." 
When Plikt realized that Valentine was telling the truth, it overwhelmed her.  For all these years she had regarded Andrew Wiggin as her subject matter, and the original Speaker for the Dead as her inspiration.  To find that they were the same person struck her dumb for half an hour.
Does Card not get tired of telling us how casually Ender and Valentine transform and revolutionise everything they touch?  I'm bored.  How is Card not bored?  Ender could make a fricking BLT and no one could ever eat a sandwich again without writing a ballad and ending a war and reuniting with an estranged relative.  Valentine invites Plikt to be her co-writer and tutor to her children.
It became the family legend, and as soon as the children were old enough to be discreet, they were told the marvelous stories of their long-lost Uncle Ender, who was thought in every world to be a monster, but in reality was something of a savior, or a prophet, or at least a martyr.
Okay then.  Savior, prophet, and martyr.  Card has declared Ender is Jesus.  That's just canon now.  Good to be on the same page.  Plikt doesn't quite convert Valentine to Lutheranism, but teaches her to appreciate the stability of family life and her five children (so, an "impolite" number but not yet "greedy" according to her earlier assessment), and to understand Ender's destiny in religious terms, as "apostle to the ramen".  The stories of Ender of course have mythic power to the kids, and Syfte grows up to aspire to join him on Lusitania and help him.
"What makes you think he'll need help?  Your help, anyway?"  Plikt was always a skeptic until her student had earned her belief.
Conventional teaching and parenting might say that children need the support and belief of their adult guardians in order to have the courage to chase their dreams, but I'm guessing Plikt also read How I Totally Saved The World Through Consistent Child Abuse by Col. H. Graff.
"He didn't do it alone the first time, either, did he?"
Oh my god.  Syfte actually noticed that Ender's successes have always been incredibly dependent on the other people supporting him--Valentine, yes, but she'd be right if she meant Alai and Petra and Bean and Dink and Bustopher--and she fully expects him to need help again, and to save worlds with him, even if it'll take her twenty-two years to catch up.

Syfte is my new favourite.

She's still worshipful, but she would be, given the stories she was raised on.  For Ender, it's only a week or two later, and the pain of losing Valentine is fresh, but the chapter ends with him thinking of Novinha, wondering what she'll be like when he arrives, "for he loved her, as you can only love someone who is an echo of yourself at the time of your deepest sorrow."  I'll be looking forward to seeing if that 'wives and husbands are always closer than anyone else' holds true for Ender and Novinha, 'cause I'm guessing not so much.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lullaby, Chapter 1

I said before that Lullaby had a linear storyline, but that isn't quite true. It is linear by Palahniuk's standard. It bounces between two points in time, but follows those two threads without jumping around on them too much. The two threads follow the past, and the present.Well, "present". This chapter opens with speculation on the subject.
The problem with every story is you tell it after the fact.  
Even play-by-play descriptions on the radio, the home runs and strikeouts, even that's delayed a few minutes. Even live television is postponed a couple seconds. 
Even sound and light can only go so fast. 
Another problem is the teller. The who, what, where, when, and why of the reporter.
I speculated at the end of the last chapter about how reliable our narrator is, apparently forgetting who wrote this book. Of course Carl isn't a reliable narrator--he's an actual character, so everything he tells us are things that happened to him.  He can pretend this is Helen's story, but it won't read like it, because he's going to be shoving himself at us even as he tries to matter-of-factly tell us what happened, and as he himself points out, he's telling us after the fact. Even the most honest person is going to make mistakes and remember things just a little bit differently than they actually were. The narration goes on to tell us that the whole book is being written on the road, from similar diners in different towns as they try to chase down the most recent "miracle".

Now, this is the danger of picking a book I've read before (but long ago, and I blitzed through it). Reading it now, it is painfully apparent who these two characters be alluded to next are supposed to be, but I'm not sure to a first time reader if it would be in another three chapters. So, compromise: I'll out one of them.

The miracle that is described is "The Flying Virgin". A young white* woman with dirty bare feet, an Indian cotton skirt, denim halter top, and dreadlocks is literally flying around (no plane, tragically no jetpack).  She sprays "STOP HAVING BABIES" in insect fogger in the sky, then accidentally flashes the crowd before blowing a few kisses, flashing some peace signs, and flying off. This woman is Mona, Helen's secretary from last chapter.

I'll get to the blatant cultural appropriation this character has going on in a moment, but first (I can't believe I'm saying this) I want to concentrate on her junk.
And there's a bush of brown hair under her arm. The moment before she starts writing, a gust of wind lifts her skirt, and the Flying Virgin's not wearing any panties. Between her legs, she's shaved.
I want to concentrate on her junk because the author so desperately wants us to. Palahniuk was very deliberate in showing us her junk, but first, in showing us that it's the only thing she shaved. Last chapter Mona was described in vaguely infantile terms (sucking on her crystal like a baby with a soother) and in this chapter she is described as seeming pretentious and clueless. She mixes and matches different cultures with little to no knowledge about what they mean and wears them as a statement, divorced of their context. You know at this point she's eventually going to talk about how Native American's are, like, sooo spiritual and isn't that like super cool?  And you're right, she will! Mona seems to think she's doing good, or at least is trying to, but is just steeped so far in her own white privilege that she can't see it. The general response to her will be people rolling their eyes at her affectionately. Oh, look at her, she thinks she's an activist!

Or... that would have been my read of her, if not for the unfortunate up-skirt here which underlines how she's unshaven where people can see it--but where only her boyfriend can see it, she's shaved. I think this is meant to underline both her hypocrisy, but also to make her "fake". Now, I am speculating on what I think Palahniuk is trying to communicate by having her shaved; these are not my feelings on women shaving what ever the hell they want. I see Palahniuk as writing this with a sneer: "Look at how hard she's trying. Look at how she bought all the accessories but in the end is just doing it all to please a man. Look at how she tries to be a child of the Earth but shaves like some sort of plastic Barbie". My general motto being "Do what ever you want so long as no one is getting hurt in ways they didn't consent to", this sort of judgement seeping in from the sides of the pages makes me uncomfortable. The random use of a woman's genitals, and the state of hair they have, as a quick character building thing is also telling of how the author (and this is the author, not the narrator) sees women. Which would not shock me usually, but Palahniuk is gay, so his investment in women's genitals took me by surprise.

Moving on, and wrapping up, Carl reports on people freaking out over the miracle (the can of insect fogger is being sent to the Vatican) in a way that again, feels almost like a sneer.  He goes on to say that this wasn't a miracle: it was magic, and he and Sarge (his travel companion, an older man) aren't chasing after these miracles for religious reasons or to witness anything. They're witch hunters! Hey, it's a fun hook, I'll give him that. We then swerve back to Carl insisting this story is about Helen.
Still, this isn't a story about here and now. Me, the Sarge, the Flying Virgin. Helen Hoover Boyle. What I'm writing is the story of how we met. How we got here. 
All of this judgement, largely aimed at women and common, blue collared folk isn't surprising, in a book that is supposedly about a woman but narrated by a man and concentrates on his feelings seems... typical. I am not sure if this is supposed to be Carl's privilege seeping in, or if it's Palahniuk's, but it's there and it's loud.

Tune in next Thursday for chapter 2!

*I assume white, given the character, but I can't seem to confirm it. However given the fact that this book is written by a white man who is encouraging me to challenge his narrator's bias, I'm going to assume from the lack of mention that she is. Carl is a journalist, and journalists never say "A young white woman" but they definitely would say "A young (any other ethnicity) woman" and another news article is reference about her, featuring a description that lacks race, so I feel this is a safe assumption.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter four, in which Ender only has secret friends

The vagaries of an uncaring universe are such that there was not a Lullaby post on Thursday after all.  Look to the future Thursday the 23rd, when the blogqueen's majesty may shine forth.

(Content: discussion of Transatlantic slavery, racism.  Fun content: Space math, Spanish is newer than you think.)

Speaker for the Dead: p. 56--70
Chapter Four: Ender

More of Pipo's notes, this time discussing languages, and they're especially whatnappley this week.  The Little Ones apparently have four of their own, the common Males' Language, the less-common Wives' Language used to speak with females ("how's that for sexual differentiation!" Pipo notes, because he's a tool, and also doesn't seem interested in how the females speak to each other), the Tree Language used for prayers to totem trees, and the Father Tongue, drumming sticks together.  Pipo offhandedly notes that they believe the trees contain the spirits of their ancestors, which I'm sure isn't a massive hint about the secret life-cycle of aliens.  (Also, females are only "wives", never sisters or daughters, and "fathers" is only used for ancestor trees.  Foreshadow foreshadow!)

He acknowledges that the Little Ones are incredibly good at learning human languages, much better than humans are at learning theirs, and they speak Stark or Portuguese most of them time when humans are around and maybe even when they're not.  
Language contamination is regrettable, but perhaps was unavoidable if we were to communicate with them at all.
Actually, yeah, if they're so petrified about cultural contamination, why did they teach the Little Ones human languages at all?  Why didn't they devote themselves to speaking Males' or something?  ...What's that?  Because it would be inconvenient for the other characters and also this book is hilariously colonialist?  Well, I'm pretty sure they could still let Ender take part by having himself spend a week becoming a fluent poet in all four Little One languages, but... if you say so, voice of the bloody obvious.

Pipo notes that the Little Ones also named themselves, things like Rooter or Chupaćeu ("Sky-sucker") as they learned human vocabulary, and so he doesn't know if those are translations of their native names or nicknames or what, and Buddha only knows why he hasn't asked.  This contamination thing is so inconsistent I can barely care enough to try to sort it out.  Like: apparently they've already also learned Demosthenes' Hierarchy of Exclusion, which we know was published maybe a month ago, so what the hell, did Pipo bring them reading materials?  Does he typically keep them up to date on linguistic fads from around the galaxy?  But this is really an excuse for Card to indulge himself: the Little Ones consider us framlings, and--
Oddly, though, they refer to themselves as ramen, showing that they either misunderstand the hierarchy or view themselves from the human perspective!  And--quite an amazing turn--they have several times referred to the females as varelse!
ARE YOU NOT ALLOWED TO ASK THE QUESTION "WHY", PIPO?  What is your job, man!?  How do you--why would--

The brilliance of writing these things as notes at the beginning of chapters instead of actually writing the scenes with Pipo is not just that it lets him spread worldbuilding infodumps out over the course of the book, but also that the book quickly moves on to other scenes before the reader has the chance to realise that there is no conceivable plausible way these xenologer conversations could ever have happened.  Pipo taught them Stark and Portuguese and raman and varelse on purpose but can't say "That's not how I would use the term 'raman'; what do you mean to convey?"  If he's not able to say "I think you're misusing that word", how did he teach them languages in the first place?!

I've reached some kind of threshold where the terrible writing in this book is actually soothing: it is my rock, a constant anchor in the storm of an uncertain life.  Let's get back to Ender.

Ender is of course in his apartment in the fjord, and he's enjoying his window, having grown up in the Battle School where there were no windows or scenery.  (You know, they spent a bajillion dollars building it, it's got forcefield doors in the gym for no apparent reason, and no one considered putting wallscreens around the school to show images of home and remind the kids of what they're supposed to grow up to protect?)

As soon as he gets back, Jane whispers in his ear.  Jane is the internet.  Skipping ahead briefly:
Jane first found herself between the stars, her thoughts playing among the vibrations of the philotic strands of the ansible net.  The computers of the Hundred Worlds were hands and feet, eyes and ears to her. She spoke every language that had ever been committed to computers, and read every book in every library on every world.  She learned that human beings had long been afraid that someone like her would come to exist; in all the stories she was hated, and her coming meant either her certain murder or the destruction of mankind.  Even before she was born human beings had imagined her, and, imagining her, slain her a thousand times.
Jane sees Skynet as a cautionary tale from the other side, and I think this is the first idea I've actually liked in his book.  And then, naturally, she kept herself secret until she found The Hive Queen and the Hegemon and traced it back to Ender, the one person she trusted enough to reveal herself.  (She's made a holographic avatar as well, of course, an immortal child.  Ender's probably not supposed to be creepy in appreciating that.)

Jane gives Ender holographic hypotheticals about how Pipo died--she might be the first person to imagine it might have been a lone killer and not a tribe-approved execution.  She's a bit crude and immature, provoking Ender by sarcastically calling the worm-munching Little Ones an advanced civilisation, so Ender can point out that "Many a moral imbecile has good table manners".  Ender declares that the situation is "worse than it ever was with the buggers", because all of those videos showed cleaner kills, and I'd just like to point out that the first formic attack on Earth apparently burned down China just for starters, so maybe Ender is a little hypoerbolic here.  I mean, I'm sure he means 'it's going to be hard to convince people to empathise with these aliens after seeing this kind of murder', but it's not like humans have a good track record of empathising with other humans after a war (or anything remotely resembling war), so this just feels like "Oh golly, this season's villain is way scarier than last season's villain".
"Another incident like this, and there'll be an outcry for quarantine.  For replacing Milagre with a military garrison whose sole purpose is to keep the piggies ever from acquiring a technology to let them get off the planet."
Won't the military garrison be equipped with technology that would let them get off the planet?  I'm pretty sure I've seen that movie before.  Or those books.  Animorphs.  Other people read Animorphs, right?  Seerow's Kindness?  Jane, tell him about Seerow's Kindness.  This is another case where spy satellites would do a much better job than people.
"And the new xenologer is only a boy.  Pipo's son.  Libo.  Short for Liberdade Graças a Deus Figueira de Medici." 
"Liberdade.  Liberty?" 
"I didn't know you spoke Portuguese." 
"It's like Spanish.  I spoke the deaths of Zacatecas and San Angelo, remember?" 
"On the planet Moctezuma.  That was two thousand years ago."
Fun fact: Spanish isn't much more than a thousand years old; it split off from Latin sometime in the 700s.  Good thing language stopped evolving as soon as humanity developed spaceflight, eh?  (Except for Stark; we invented Stark, and then it stopped evolving too.)

Ender can tell Jane is trying to get him to go to Lusitania, and half-heartedly arguing he needs to settle down--apparently Valentine got married and pregnant.  Jane tempts him with some Biblical allusions, Satan offering Jesus rulership of the world, but she quickly moves on to the real temptation: to restore the name of Ender Wiggin to love and honor instead of hatred as the Xenocide.  Ender is still focused on the egg.
"I had hoped it would be here," said Ender.  "A wasteland, except at the equator, permanently underpopulated.  She's willing to try, too." 
"But you aren't?" 
"I don't think the buggers could survive the winter here.  Not without an energy source, and that would alert the government.  It wouldn't work."
Jane says that Ender has now lived on twenty-four of the Hundred Worlds and sees now that the formics wouldn't be safe on any of them*.  Ender says the formics can't live on Lusitania, insists that the Little Ones would be even more terrified of them than us, because they're more advanced than humans, and I feel like Ender is forgetting the formics aren't going to hatch strapped to fusion reactors and Ecstatic Shields, but sure, let's just go with the genius primitives being inherently afraid of smart people.
"How can you or anyone say what the pequeninos can deal with?  Until you go to them, learn who they are.  If they are varelse, Ender, then let the buggers use up their habitat, and it will mean no more to you than the displacement of anthills or cattle herds to make way for cities."
I feel like I'm missing something colossal here where people think that something being foreign is different from it being sapient or valuable.  The 'varelse' excuse made some sense for the formics--they didn't understand they were killing people and so didn't think it was any more immoral than humans would think of breaking an enemy's weapon.  But that wasn't about foreignness except to the extent that foreignness prevented understanding.  "I don't understand you, so I don't understand why this is wrong" is enormously different from "I don't understand you, therefore this isn't wrong".

The terrifying thing here is that this is now getting really fucking close to slavery apologetics.  When Europeans built the entire industry of North America on the genocide of indigenous peoples here and the chattel slavery of Africans, they put a metric fuckton of effort into pseudoscientific papers and theology and literature all designed to explain that the brown people were not really human, they just looked like it.  The case, essentially, was that because they were only mimicking humanity, it wasn't immoral to slaughter them at will.  And the case that the orders of foreignness apparently makes is that this means genocide and slavery weren't immoral as long as they were conducted by people who truly believed that propaganda.  And here's Jane, telling Ender that if the Little Ones are varelse, and not people we can relate to, then there is no immorality in wiping them out to make room for the formics.

But Ender is our compassionate hero, right?  Ender will have the comeback here, explaining to Jane that to meet a varelse is to lack certainty about what is moral and what is not--it is not simply a license to assume that they are automatons incapable of relating to our morality.  The formics were considered varelse as well, and now they're thought of as ramen.  Transition is possible and therefore desirable.  Varelse means be careful, not careless.
"They are ramen," said Ender.
Fuck you, Ender.

He goes on to insist that Pipo's death wasn't torture--it was too careful, too sacred, like they were trying to save his life, not kill him.  Jane is relentless, and finally someone points out that Ender's sole qualification to understanding everyone everywhere is that he "wrote a bestseller".
"I can only trust my intuition, Jane, the judgment that comes without analysis."
First principles!  Geniuses in sealed boxes!  (Though, as I think this blog shows, Card has good reason to hate analytical perspectives.)

Jane says she's got him cornered, that he either has to go to understand the Little Ones or to settle the formics, but both personal and altruistic goals point to Lusitania, and he's allowed to go, despite the Catholic License, because Novinha has requested a Speaker.  Ender looks at her holographic face, recognises the same weary pain that he saw in himself when he realised he had committed xenocide, and wonders what she's done to bring that on.  Speaker Scanner activated!
...His genius--or his curse--was his ability to conceive events as someone else saw them.  It had made him a brilliant military commander, both in leading his own men--boys, really-and in outguessing the enemy.  It also meant that from the cold facts of Novinha's life he was able to guess--no, not guess, to know--how her parents' death and virtual sainthood had isolated Novinha, how she had reinforced her loneliness by throwing herself into her parents' work. [....] There was no living soul on Lusitania who really knew Novinha.  But in this cave in Reyjavik, on the icy world of Trondheim, Ender Wiggin knew her, and loved her, and his eyes filled with tears for her.
I am distressed by the proportion of the Ender chapters so far which have been devoted entirely to telling us how awesome Ender is.  Even Ender's Game wasn't this egregious.  But at last he decides to go, if for no other reason than to help Novinha, even though she'll be thirty-nine by the time he arrives.  He wants to leave tomorrow.  In a flash of realism, Jane points out that starships take time to schedule.  The only one in orbit is a cargo ship intended to delivery high-priced skrika (it's a food and jewelry--really) to Cyrillia.
"I've never asked you how rich I am." 
"I've handled your investments rather well over the years." 
"Buy the ship and cargo for me." [....] 
"[The owner] has accepted your offer of forty billions dollars for the ship and its cargo." 
"Forty billion!  Does that bankrupt me?" 
"A drop in the bucket."
Jane has also nullified all the crew's contracts and bought them passage on other ships, since she can pilot the Havelok herself.  Let's just note that Ender won't arrive on Lusitania for twenty-two years, so it makes basically no difference whether he leaves tomorrow or weeks or months from now, so this whole thing is just an exercise in Ender being super-privileged and wealthy and his whims becoming fact.

Ender realises that Valentine won't come with him, and doesn't even intend to ask--she's married to a guy named Jakt, "lord of a hundred fishing vessels", expecting a baby, and they apparently have great conversations every day and love the ice floes.  How long have they been on Trondheim?  Ten years/three millennia travelling the galaxy and in a handful of months she met a guy, got married, and got pregnant?  Better than fridging her, but... really, Card?

The queen in her egg has been listening in this whole time as well, permanently psychically linked to Ender, and realises that leaving Valentine behind will cost him.  They discuss whether it's possible that the formics could settle on Lusitania, and Ender finally gets around to saying he won't destroy the Little Ones for the sake of the formics (though it's not clear to me if he would if he thought they were varelse).

In another fit of terrible science, the queen asserts that she experiences time objectively because of her philotic attunement, and so from her perspective it has been three thousand years that Ender has been on his quest--how does Ender not know that?  She didn't think it was worth mentioning after the first two millennia?  But she urges him faster, and Ender says that while people condemn the Xenocide publicly, not that many people really believe his book is true.  (Consistency, what?)
< In all our life, you are the first person we've known who wasn't ourself.  We never had to be understanding because we always understood.  Now that we are just this single self, you are the only eyes and arms and legs we have.  Forgive us if we are impatient. [....] We know who killed us, and it wasn't you.> 
It was me. 
<You were a tool.> 
It was me. 
<We forgive you.> 
When you walk on the face of a world again, then I can be forgiven.
I want to like this, I really do, mechanically I love the writing sometimes, but seriously, I don't care if Ender forgives himself or not.  He didn't know he was killing them all, but he never questioned the war, he never questioned murder as a solution, and I don't see any indication that he thinks he did anything wrong now.  His regrets are based in irrationality--he doesn't think "I wish I could go back and challenge the need for the invasion", he just wishes he hadn't been involved, that things had magically worked out differently.  Sorrow without any need to change.  It's a great excuse to have everyone tell your angsty protagonist how wonderful he is over and over again, but I got more of that than I needed from fanfiction as a teenager, thanks.

Next week: Valentine again at last!  Grand farewell?  The last bit of reasonable perspective we'll get?  We'll find out!


*So Ender has lived on twenty-four of the Hundred Worlds.  Let's be generous and assume that doesn't include Earth, since Earth was presumably not in the running for the new formic colony.  The latest is Trondheim.  The first was whichever world he found her on.  That means twenty-three interstellar flights of indeterminate length, adding up to about 3058 years, which means about 133 years skipped per flight.  Twenty-four worlds in ten years also means a new world every five months, including travel time (and Ender mentioned earlier he's never spent more than six months on a world, so Card must have done that much math at least).  I don't think we have enough information to determine the probable parameters of flight lengths, so I'm going to be lazy and assume an average of three months in space.  The velocity necessary for a time dilation of 133 years in 3 months means... 99.99982-ish % the speed of light.  Average.  (99.99968% if it's a four-month flight from Ender's perspective.)  Again, that's average, which means incorporating acceleration and deceleration requires the peak speed to be way, way faster, but I admit I'm honestly impressed/startled Card fit the story to these calculations.  This is the most care he's shown in anything so far.  (I haven't done the math to determine what happens if some of these flights are longer, or what happens if he stays on more than a few planets for 5-6 months each, or if planets are more or less than 133 light-years away.  Moctezuma was 2000 years ago and 15 worlds ago, if anyone wants to math harder.)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter three, in which Novinha ruins science over her boyfriend

I wondered why this chapter was named for Libo, given that it's 100% Novinha's point of view, but in time I realised that it was all about him.  Novinha does eventually get a chapter named for her, much later in the book; I wait in anticipation to discover why Card saved it for then.  In the meantime, buckle up, because it's time for a woman to make bad decisions because of her unscientific emotions.

(Content: sexism, invasion of privacy.  Fun content: Gwen DeMarco knows what's up.)

Speaker for the Dead: p. 41--55
Chapter Three: Libo

This chapter opens with some of Pipo's working notes on the Little Ones' diet (primarily worms, with occasional leaves that might just be sort of recreational snacks), which lacks in a lot of proteins, trace elements, and calcium, leading Pipo to hypothesise about whether their bones use calcium differently from humans.  The only things they know about actual physiology are from the photos of Rooter's corpse (which, as others have noted, he shouldn't have had, since it meant taking a camera beyond the perimeter).  Their complicated tongues and climbing spikes also have no clear evolutionary purpose; Libo suggests maybe they evolved elsewhere and were forced to migrate by some catastrophe.
There's no competition for them.  The ecological niche they occupy could be filled by opossums.  Why would intelligence ever be an adaptive trait?  But inventing a cataclysm to explain why the piggies have such a boring, non-nutritious diet is probably overkill.  Ockham's razor cuts this to ribbons.
SCIENCE MYSTERY!  I don't, offhand, have any theories for this either, unless it's some kind of guided evolution by a further biological overmind force, but then we'd just have to explain where that overmind came from.  'God as first cause' is not a useful system of thought.

So now Pipo is dead and Mayor Bosquinha arrives to take charge of the situation; she's already got the bishop preparing a place in the graveyard.  Libo insists he needs to be there to help photograph the body for all forensic purposes, but the mayor reminds them both that they should be writing their reports immediately, which is followed by maybe the stupidest use of the ansible ever:
The computer had already been alerted, and their reports went out by ansible even as they wrote them, mistakes and corrections and all.  On all the Hundred Worlds the people most involved in xenology read each word as Libo or Novinha typed it in.  Many others were given instantaneous computer-written summaries of what had happened.  Twenty-two lightyears away, Andrew Wiggin learned the Xenologer João Figueira "Pipo" Alvarez had been murdered by the piggies, and told his students about it even before the men had brought Pipo's body through the gate into Milagre.
For what possible reason could it make sense to literally beam these reports out letter-by-letter?  I understand Card is trying to convey urgency here, like old movies where vital plot-changing messages get telegraphed out beep-by-beep, but there isn't any urgency.  Everyone else in the galaxy who cares is light-years away; they could literally raise children in the time it would take to get to Lusitania.  Plus you've got Libo and Novinha stumbling over words as they go, no second draft, no proofing, no double-checking with each other to see if they misremember details.  The ansible is so expensive that sitcoms are a big deal, but not so expensive that they can wait for spellcheck?

Also: it occurs to me at this point to wonder who the other xenologers in the galaxy are.  Of course there will be some people who spend time pouring over Pipo's reports and becoming experts on the Little Ones as well, but logically, the majority of xenologers will be students of the better-known alien species: the formics.  The formics who left their cities empty of all but their bodies three thousand years ago.  Why do they need this update at midnight rather than, say, the next morning when Libo and Novinha could read over their first drafts again?
His report done, Libo was at once surrounded by Authority.
Not legitimate authority, like super-geniuses and generals who intuited which enemy ship to shoot first seventy years earlier, but false, harmful authority, like bishops and elected officials.  Bishop Peregrino 'comforts' Libo by telling him the Little Ones are probably just soulless beasts, but by nodding along Libo manages to ditch him quickly.  Dom Cristão asks questions, helping them find stability in scientific analysis, but Novinha falls silent because she knows what happened, and she's terrified that if anyone else sees the data from which Pipo got his revelation, they'll end up dead too.

The men who carried Pipo's body away return, and show a strange amount of reverence to Libo, now recognising him as Zenador.  No real authority (obvs), but he's important--"his work was the whole reason for the colony's existence, wasn't it?"  Which: I don't know if Card is particularly familiar with scientific outposts in remote locations here on Earth, but I don't think even half of them have their own monastery.  Nothing we know about this colony is optimised for science.  They only have two people actually studying the Little Ones!  They have a trailer-sized Zenador's Station and no other research support staff beyond one medievalesque 'apprentice'!  They have no satellites or surveillance!  They went for a decade without xenobiologists!  THIS COLONY WAS BADLY WRITTEN!
"We'll not harm the piggies," he said, "or even call it murder.  We don't know what Father did to provoke them, I'll try to understand that later, what matters now is that whatever they did undoubtedly seemed right to them.  We're the strangers here, we must have violated some--taboo, some law--but Father was always prepared for this, he always knew it was a possibility.  Tell them that he died with the honor of a soldier in the field, a pilot in his ship, he died doing his job."
Pretty solid woobification.  Novinha has to look away, and instead meets the eyes of Marcos "Marcão" Ribeira, whom she defended from accusations of bullying (when he was the real victim) years earlier.  Marcos has a pretty good 'brooding bad boy' image going, with the rain-plastered hair in his face and the mud and blood from carrying Pipo.  Novinha hasn't thought of him in years, but it occurs to her that he might think of her as the only person who ever stood up for him.  (For a colony of thousands, there are a remarkable number of people here who have zero social connections.)
Her action in defending Marcão meant one thing to him and something quite different to her; it was so different that it was not even the same event.  Her mind connected this with the piggies' murder of Pipo, and it seemed very important, it seemed to verge on explaining what had happened, but then the thought slipped away in a flurry of conversation and activity...
Novinha 'intuits' something vitally important to the thematic premise of the book, then gets distracted by shiny objects.  (My guess at this point is that, as the Little Ones kill smart people in order to reproduce, and whatever Pipo said to them convinced them that they wanted his brain, so they tried to pregniscerate him.)  The Arbiter (judge, it seems) explains that Libo's family is staying with him now, and takes him away, not extending the invitation to Novinha because no one likes Novinha.  There're a lot of odd mental tangents for Novinha in this chapter, but some moments are good:
Now she felt the magnitude f Pipo's loss.  The mutilated corpse on the hillside was not his death, it was merely his death's debris.  Death itself was the empty place in her life.  Pipo had been a rock in a storm, so solid and strong that she and Libo, sheltered together in his lee, had not even known the storm existed.  Now he was gone, and the storm had them, would carry them whatever way it would.
The mayor is still there, uploading all of Pipo's remaining data to the ansible for other xenologers to try to figure out what the hell is going on, but Novinha knows it was her data that caused it all, and she stares at the hologram of Little One DNA, trying to yank the truth from it.  In time she sinks out of her analytical mindset and into guilt, accusing herself of having killed him by finding this biological anomaly.  The mayor finally notices her distress and acknowledges that Pipo was "like a father" to her, but Novinha has reached that kind of self-destructive guilt where she feels she doesn't deserve to be comforted.  The mayor takes her to her home, where the mayor's husband manages to coax some food into her and then gets her to bed, which I note only because it's the sole example of a nurturing man I can recall in all of Card's books I've read.

She wakes not long after, uses the Mayor's home terminal to remotely log off from the Zenador's Station, and then walks out through the early morning to the Biologista's Station, her home-on-paper, though she hasn't slept there in months, maybe years, only ever coming to use the lab.  She purges the lab: destroys every sample and note on cell structures that led to Pipo's discovery and death.
Even though it had been the focus of her life, even though it had been her identity for many years, she would destroy it as she herself should be punished, destroyed, obliterated.
Reason #36 why teenagers aren't generally given sole responsibility for all scientific inquiry and conduct in vitally important fields.  I do think this is a realistic sort of teenager move for Novinha--but practically nothing else about her prior to now has been normal or realistic for her age, and Libo is the same age but immediately took up the mantle of merciful and responsible decision-making authority after finding the shredded body of his father, so... still actually kind of sexist here.
The computer stopped her.  "Working notes on xenobiological research may not be erased," it reported. [....]  The sacredness of knowledge was deeper in her soul than any catechism.  She was caught in a paradox.  Knowledge had killed Pipo; to erase that knowledge would kill her parents again, kill what they had left for her.
(That is not a paradox oh my god Card this isn't difficult.  A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself.  This is just two undesirable options.)

Novinha realises that she can keep the data secret herself, remain xenobiologist but refrain from sharing the data, keep it sealed behind security systems so that no one but her eventual successor can find it.
With one exception--when she married, her husband would also have access if he could show need to know.  Well, she'd never marry.  It was that easy.

Just so's we're clear: scientists do not have a right to keep scientific findings secret from their spouses (I'm going to assume it's spouses and not just wives having no privacy from their husbands).  No one has a problem with this?  'Need to know' is a thoroughly subjective concept, and why should a spouse have that right when apparently other scientists don't?  I just--WHO WROTE THESE LAWS?!

Despairing over her bleak, lonely future stretching out ahead of her, Novinha decides even she won't think about what it is that Pipo discovered, lest she figure it out and tell someone else and get them killed.  But then, for some reason, she decides that some day she does want people to know, and so she will call for a Speaker, who might arrive decades from now and determine the truth about Pipo's life and death.

See whatnapple above.  Welcome back, whatnapple.  You're doing an important job.

This is a scientific problem and she is a scientist but her solution is to hermit away, cut off all contact, cut off the part of her work she is most passionate about, and summon a priest to make a decades-long trek to hopefully sort out what's actually happened here.  This is a terrible plan that makes no sense and even if it works it will lead to exactly the conclusion that she is supposedly purging her lab specifically to avoid ever occurring!

And though she hasn't said as much, she is doing this for Libo.  She doesn't care about anyone else; she doesn't know anyone else.  She was good at her job and she helped her boyfriend's father make some discovery that he was killed for understanding, so she's ditching her job and protectively ditching her boyfriend forever more to punish herself for daring to science.  What am I even reading?  (I suppose it could have been even worse: the revelation could have come from looking at an alien apple that the Little Ones had forbidden them to study.)

She awakens flopped over her keyboard, with Libo whispering in her ear.  She thinks he's come to comfort her and gets defensive, but he remembers what she said about the simulation that spurred Pipo charging out into the night, and he wants to see it.  She tries to play dumb, but he's not buying it, and accuses her of wanting credit for the discovery, but she makes it clear she doesn't care.  Libo is furious, but all she will say is that she doesn't want him to die.
She saw comprehension come into his eyes.  Yes, that's right, Libo, it's because I love you, because if you know the secret, then the piggies will kill you, too.  I don't care about science, I don't care about the Hundred Worlds or relations between humanity and an alien race.  I don't care anything at all as long as you're alive.
Well, that sort of makes what I said earlier redundant.  Okay then.  Anyway, he's an emotional mess, so she takes him to her bedroom, half-disrobes him, tucks him in, and lies with him while he falls asleep.   And then--oh fuck, Card went there after all.
She might have been thrust out of the garden because of her ignorant sin, like Eva.  But, again like Eva, she could bear it, for she still had Libo, her Adão.
And then she realises again that she can't marry him or he'd have access to her data whether she approved it or not: "The Starways Code declared it.  Married people were virtually the same person in the eyes of the law."  This isn't even some kind of hardcore-Space-Catholic oddity, this is secular interstellar law.  Card is playing this like a soap opera when it's screaming to be a dystopia.  "Oh no, I mustn't marry my true love or I fear his sciencelust will lead him to his doom!  Also we aren't allowed to live together unless we get married if we get married I literally have no right to privacy because I'm only half a person!"

Now, I'm not an engineer, so I can't be sure what kind of storage media they're using, but if she's counting on a Speaker to one day come and solve all the mysteries, why not ansible out all her data to the Speaker Index or whatever repository lets her request one to come to Lusitania, and/or beam it all out to some secret dropbox with tons of security where no one will ever think to look for it, and then--stay with me here, because this is where it gets technical--delete all the local copies of that information by crushing them with a hammer?  (The best kind of hacker is the kind that brings their own axe.)  If she can't bear to destroy all the data but doesn't dare let Libo have it, why not give it to someone else?  You're already planning to do that, Novinha, so this would just speed the process up.  No?  You're a female character in a Card novel and required to make bad decisions?  Okay then.  Sorry to hear about that.  Let me know if I can get you anything.

Next week: Ender's girlfriend is literally the internet, because he's the only person special enough to deserve her.  No, really.  This is my serious face.

And come back Thursday for Lullaby, chapter one!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lullaby, Prologue, in which we meet our "hero"

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you
This is short but appropriate quote before the prologue. I realize that at some point I did something to my copy of the book I have never done to a book in my life: I wrote in it. So far I'm only seeing a few underlines, and I don't know how far I got on a re-read of it, but it's like past me is pointing out things and saying "This isn't a spoiler since you already know what happens, but remember this, this is important" and I can't help but appreciate that past me did that for me. She was a real doll sometimes.

The first chapter is simply titled "Prologue" and like many chapters in Palahniuk's books, it is short. We're dropped into descriptions of haunted houses, and then introduced to our "Hero" of the story, Helen Hoover Boyle. She's a real estate agent who runs a rather ingenious scam. She sells haunted houses. Not cold spots, but blood running down the walls. The person who moved in will call, and she convinces them that they should just let her resell it and they won't say a word. I mean, sure, they could try to prove the place is unlivable but that's hard to do and it gets publicized and then if they lose the lawsuit it's impossible to resell--and don't even unpack, we'll tell new people you're moving. For work. You loved the place! She has a rotation of houses she does this with, and is constantly watching the police scanner and the newspaper for violent crimes taking places in houses so she can add another one to the roster, which is all kept neatly written out in her daily planner, a book bound in what looks like red leather.
Helen, she's wearing a white suit and shoes, but not snow white. It's more the white of downhill skiing in Banff with a private car and driver on call, fourteen pieces of matched luggage, and a suite at the Hotel Lake Louise.
She is always monochromatic, but she's never wearing just a color, it's always described like that. I'm underlining it now, here, because Palaniuk loves to show, not tell (a breath of fresh air from 50 Shades) and so these little things that when I was younger I wrote off as stylistic moments are actually his way of telling us about a character. So what is he telling us here, and in future moments with this style of description?

We get a clear mental image of Helen, we see someone polished and posh, but not necessarily pristine. She isn't wearing virginal, pure white, she's wearing white of wealth and luxury. We see a woman who is trying to look good, and is trying to look well-off (and succeeding). Helen Hoover Boyle is pristine and ruthless. There is nothing we're given at this point to make us think anything else. The scheme she runs, and how normal her day is around it, underline how ruthless she is. Personally, I like that. It is rare we get a woman who is supposed to be sympathetic, competent, over the age of 25 (a quick google search yields no response, but Helen is somewhere in her forties to fifties) and still hyper competent and utterly ruthless.

Now, why did I put hero in quotation marks above there? I adore Helen, but I do not think of her as the main character, but rather the love interest. The narrator, who is not named or on page this chapter (Carl), is in my mind the main character. Having not read this book in 6 years, I won't speculate too much on who the main character is yet, but I don't think we're going to get a Great Gatsby scenario where Carl is the narrator but Helen is the star. Perhaps the narrative means she is, in her ruthlessness and poise, actually the more heroic one of the two, but even then that seems spotty. I'll touch on this again in later chapters.

We meet Mona (who I'll get into more next post), Helen's secretary who is a New Aged Hippy, and somewhere in her late teens to early twenties. She is employed to do things like figure out if houses Helen is hunting are haunted or not. We don't get much information about Mona yet, but I want to point out that we're given a book that has the first chapter passing the Bechdel test in between descriptions of horrific haunted houses and Helen giving fairly bland orders to Mona, pick up her dry cleaning and for the love of God can she get some decent coffee in this place what is this crap? All in-between trying to do today's crossword. The narrator, Carl, talks to the reader directly near the end of the chapter, and there is a lot of foreshadowing/establishing here, so I'll post the excerpt.
This was Helen Hoover Boyle. Our Hero. Now dead but not dead. Here was just another day in her life. This was the life she lived before I came along. Maybe this is a love story, maybe not. It depends on how much I can believe in myself. 

This is about Helen Hoover Boyle. Her haunting me. The way a song stays in your head. The way you think life should be. How anything holds your attention. How your past goes with you into every day of your future.
The book drops us in and shows us a character who is brimming with agency and her own shit, and then we have the white male protagonist tell us that this is about her as he starts making it about himself, and I can't help but wonder if this was deliberate. Did Palahniuk mean to make Carl a less reliable narrator by introducing us to him being self-absorbed, or are we meant to think he is about to tell us Helen's story, on its own merit, not only in how it related to him?

That's the end of this chapter (and post). I'm still feeling out doing a deconstruction where I'm not just suffering through obviously terrible and way too long chapters, so feel free to point out things you find are or are not working format/style wise as well as things that strike you about the book. Until next Thursday, where hopefully things will start to happen. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter two, in which the galaxy revolves around Ender

Hello and welcome to the new year!  This week we finally catch up with Ender again and it is just amazingly bad.  Also, don't miss Erika's return to Thursday posts later this week with the prologue of Lullaby!

Speaker for the Dead: p. 31--40
Chapter Two: Trondheim

The opening letter for this chapter is from Pipo (full name turns out to be João Figueira Alvarez) to some ridiculous straw professor at the University of Sicily who apparently tried to have Pipo censured for failing to provide sufficient information about how the Little Ones reproduce.
When would-be xenologers complain that I am not getting the right sort of data from my observations of the pequeninos, I always urge them to reread the limitations placed upon me by law.  I am permitted to bring no more than one assistant on field visits; I may not ask questions that might reveal human expectations, lest they try to imitate us; I may not volunteer information to elicit a parallel response; I may not stay with them more than four hours at a time; except for my clothing, I may not use any products of technology in their presence, which includes cameras, recorders, computers, or even a manufactured pen to write on manufactured paper; I may not even observe them unawares.
The specification of 'manufactured' is kind of interesting to me, since it seems to imply that if he were able to craft some kind of makeshift pen and paper those would be allowed.  Surely the greater concern is that they not introduce written language if the Little Ones have no such concept?

But my main protest here is tricky, because it's a clash of reality-versus-story, a bit like people complaining that Frodo doesn't just leap on Gwaihir's back and fly all the way to Mordor to throw the Ring into the Cracks from half a league up.  The in-universe reason is that the skies of Mordor aren't safe and they'd lose all hope of stealth, which is worse than a long walk.  The real reason, of course, is that the point of the story is Frodo's quest and the way it scours Middle-Earth with a reckoning against those who would choose power and domination over peace and mercy.  So, if Speaker is about the chaos of surviving cultural contact when the galaxy-roaming humans of the distant future meet some low-tech incomprehensible aliens and try not to interfere, it sort of misses the point to argue that this should be side-stepped.  And yet!

I feel like Card desperately wants to forget that this story is taking place three thousand years in the future.  Not even just three thousand years in our future, but three thousand years from Ender's time--Ender's time in which humanity already had the technology to sculpt gravity, to create fields that shred molecules in a hungry nova, to project harmless forcefields so subtle that they could easily be confused for physical doors inside an army gymnasium in space.  They can make tiny chips they clip to your spine that let them directly pick up every sensory input your body receives and how it reacts.  They can transmit information instantaneously across any distance, and they know this can be done with biological systems, perfect telepathy.

I think maybe it wouldn't have been a huge stretch to build little observational drones that noiselessly hover around with anti-grav engines, maybe wrap them up in cloaking forcefields, and set them to drift through the forest just listening in.  (I'm pretty sure the forcefields in Ender's Game were always completely opaque, not invisibility cloaks, but I'm only asking them for one technological advancement in three thousand years to pull this off.)  Now, zero question that this would be a huge invasion of privacy, and that is not going to be morally okay with everyone.  On the other hand, the option they did go with still involves tremendous risk, gets little information, has lead to two deaths in this chapter, and is guaranteed to cause some degree of the cultural contamination which supposedly everyone is completely terrified of instigating.  So maybe they should rethink which is the lesser of two evils here.

Anyway.  Pipo's explains "I can't tell you how they court and reproduce because, shockingly, they haven't invited us to watch them bang", flips off his antagonist with academic flair, and we draw back out to the galactic scale, where news of his death has just been ansible-broadcast across the Hundred Worlds.
Within hours, scholars, scientists, politicians, and journalists began to strike their poses.  A consensus soon emerged.  One incident, under baffling circumstances, does not prove the failure of Starways Council policy toward the piggies.  On the contrary, the fact that only one man died seems to prove the wisdom of the present policy of near inaction.  We should, therefore, do nothing except continue to observe at a slightly less intense pace.
I know Card means this as an indictment of this idea, if only because he's talking about the herd-agreement of eggheads, tyrants, and muckrakers trying to look good, rather than the reasoned conclusions of a single pure genius in a sealed box who has never met another living being.  That's where you get the good stuff.
Libo is ordered to cut his contact down to an eighth of its previous level and to not ask the Little Ones what happened to Pipo.
There was also much concern about the morale of the people of Lusitania.  They were sent many new entertainment programs by ansible, despite the expense, to help take their minds off the grisly murder.  And then, having doe the little that could be done by framlings, who were, after all, lightyears away from Lusitania, the people of the Hundred Worlds returned to their local concerns.
Some standard issue panem et circenses criticism of the galaxy, boring--the interesting thing here to me is that this implies ansible broadcast is actually incredibly expensive.  Here I've been assuming that everyone had access to the galactic internet all the time at minimal cost.  We've been told, after all, that it's the pervasive influence of the ansible that keeps all of the Hundred Worlds speaking the same languages--Pipo and Libo upload their findings to the galaxy every single day--yet sending them a Netflix update is an expense out of the ordinary?  They have to file a special requisition explaining their dire need for sitcoms?

It's funny that these books and this author are seen as such a giant in the world of science fiction when it seems so often to be actively antagonistic to coherent and consistent science.  I mean, sure, the SFF umbrella absolutely has room for stories with a high-tech aesthetic and all the scientific rigour of Dr Seuss, but it might be worth asking ourselves if these things would fly by without comment if, for example, the author were a woman and not the type of Jesus-and-warfare, no-homo man that Card is.

In case anyone was worried that Ender might have become a mere human in the last twenty years, the very first sentence describing him assures us that he's still the best person ever:
Outside Lusitania, only one man among the half-trillion human beings in the Hundred Worlds felt the death of João Figueira Alvarez, called Pipo, as a great change in the shape of his own life.
Only Ender feels any personal impact from Pipo's death.  No student of xenology who followed his writings with the faith of a disciple and dreamed of making first contact one day, no desperately compassionate person who feels the pain across the millennia of the xenocide of the formics and fearful of interspecies violence, no one anywhere else in the galaxy feels that their life has been changed by the apparent brutal murder of Pipo Alvarez except Ender.  Sigh.

Andrew Wiggin, who tends not to go by 'Ender' anymore, is speaker for the dead on the ice planet Hoth Trondheim in the university city of Reykjavik, built into the side of a fjord, bastion of Nordic culture.  No, come back, I'm serious.  The most Nordicful place in the galaxy isn't on Earth, it's a college built into a fjord on icy fjord world.  It's a beautiful day in Epcot Galaxy.

Andrew/Ender is a temporary professor, overseeing a discussion among history students about whether the destruction of the Formics was necessary before humans could expand across the stars, which he knows always comes down to people hating on Ender the Xenocide, so he tries not to pay too much attention.  Instead, he listens to his stud--which is to say, the ansible bluetooth gizmo "worn like a jewel in his ear"--reporting Pipo's death, and he interrupts his students to ask them about the Little Ones.
"They are our only hope of redemption," said one, who took Calvin rather more seriously than Luther.
Card just doesn't care that three thousand years have passed, apparently.  The theologies of Calvin and Luther are still a huge deal to these university students, rather than any other authors who might have made some contributions to concepts of theodicy and salvation.  They aren't even Nordic theologists!  (I suppose John Calvin did flee to Switzerland before publishing his big stuff [edit: I have been reminded that Switzerland is also not a Nordic country, my bad], but that doesn't change the fact that Card appears to mostly have wanted to set this book last week, a few blocks from his house.  I wouldn't even know what the hell these people are talking about if I hadn't been reading Fred Clark for the last six years.  Shorthand: they disagreed a bit on the degree to which salvation from hell was flexible or predetermined.)

The students start disagreeing about alienness and empathy, leading Andrew/Ender to call on Plikt, the only person in the class who has read Demosthenes' latest publication, in which she defines the the 'orders of foreignness': utlannings of another city, framlings of another world, ramen of another species, and "the true alien, the varelse, which includes all the animals, for with them no conversation is possible."  The other students are irritated with Plikt, and Andrew calls them out for just being ashamed that they haven't read Demosthenes' new history yet and so feeling stupid because she has.  Card/Ender seem to have forgotten since last book that the smart kid who gets picked out by the teacher as Best Student just makes the resentment even worse.

I'm going to quote heavily a bit, because this is intensely bad stuff.

Plikt goes on to defend the Third Invasion:
"...Ender was not a true xenocide, for when he destroyed the buggers, we knew them only as varelse; it was not until years later, when the original Speaker for the Dead wrote the Hive Queen and the Hegemon, that humankind first understood that the buggers were not varelse at all, but ramen."
Another student contradicts her, declaring that 'dead is dead'.
Andrew sighed at Styrka's unforgiving attitude; it was the fashion among Calvinists at Reykjavik to deny any weight to human motive in judging the good or evil of an act. [...] Because Speakers for the Dead held as their only doctrine that good or evil exist entirely in human motive, and not at all in the act, it made students like Styrka quite hostile to Andrew.  Fortunately, Andrew did not resent it--he understood the motive behind it.
I imagine that all y'all have read Kinsey Hope's essay on Magical Intent.  But in this case, it's not even Ender's philosophy that bothers me so much--it's far from the first time Ender would be howlingly wrong--but that the opposition is such a hilarious straw philosophy:
"This talk of varelse and raman is nonsense.  If the piggies murder, then they are evil, as the buggers were evil.  If the act is evil, then the actor is evil." 
Andrew nodded.  "There is our dilemma.  There is the problem.  Was the act evil, or was it, somehow, to the piggies' understanding at least, good?  Are the piggies raman or varelse?  For the moment, Styrka, hold your tongue.  I know all the arguments of your Calvinism, but even John Calvin would call your doctrine stupid." 
"How do you know what Calvin would--" 
"Because he's dead," roared Andrew, "and so I'm entitled to speak for him!"
Oh my god.  Ender has grown up from being the isolated resentful smart kid's validation fantasy and become the smart kid's fantasy of what it would be like to be a teacher.  At last he has the authority to shout down the stupid students.  (He reflects that Styrka is smart enough that he will drop his philosophy before he graduates, which I suppose is a form of twisted praise.)

These are the two positions we are given: either good and evil exist only in our heads and so no action of itself contains any moral weight (in which case, near as I can tell, the most 'moral' life is led by someone who never learns that other people are capable of feeling pain), or good and evil are absolutes that infect us through our actions--if you do a bad thing then you are a bad person, you should be punished, end of story, no mitigating factors, world without end amen.

It seems to me like the main purpose of both of these systems is to level judgment: to definitively declare that a person was Good or Bad.  Sometime in the last decade, I lost all interest in trying to lay a final judgment on people; I tend to think more in terms of 'situation is good', 'situation can be fixed', and 'situation needs to be escaped'.  Actions can be good or bad--we can see that from their harmful results--and intentions can be good or bad--we can see that by whether people care about their results.  If someone causes harm with good intentions, that doesn't make their action good; it makes it salvageable.  If a person wants to do good and fails, then they should be enthusiastic about understanding how they screwed up and how to not screw up in future.  If a person causes harm intentionally, then the first challenge is getting them to agree that they shouldn't have done it.  Both of these cases are in the 'situation can be fixed' category.  If a person causes harm and doesn't care (or did so maliciously) and they can't be talked out of it, then we end up in the 'situation needs to be escaped' category.

Intentions, in this framework, don't impart their morality to actions.  They tell us what to do next.  Judgment doesn't, of itself, make anything better.  I'm mostly in favour of making things better.  Judgment is a distraction.  Judgment is boring, it's static, like the dead that Ender demands the right to speak for.  Am I good, am I bad?  Fucking yawn.  I am still alive and I will use my time trying to be better.

Andrew leaves his students and starts thinking of himself as Ender again, recalling his past, giving us solid timelines at last.  It is the year 1948 Starways Code, and he destroyed the formics in 1180 BSC, so 3128 years precisely since the xenocide.  He's about thirty-five now, having spent the last ten years of his life skipping from world to world constantly--the math tells us he's been skipping an average of 50 years every two months, although we don't know what the average length of an interplanetary voyage is among human colonies (his first voyage was 50 years, anyway).

Hey, remember when Graff mentioned that travel from Earth to Battle School cost more money than a highly-qualified professional would make in their entire career?  Apparently it's still so common than Ender never lands on a planet and finds that they're just not intending to send a ship out for the next year or so.  Also, let's note that Ender has zero trouble communicating with anyone there on Trondheim, despite three thousand years of supposed linguistic evolution.  It's not just that the ansible keeps a common language among the worlds; it literally keeps language static for three thousand years.  But it's also super expensive to use and so transmitting new sitcoms to Lusitania is a big deal.

I hate to be a hypocrite, and I really am about improvement more than judgment, so, pro tip to aspiring novelists: don't do these things, because they suck and you can do better.  You can handwave.  Ender's apparently got the internet in his brain; use those three thousand years of advanced technology to say that someone invented neural interfaces that rapidly update language centres of the brain in order to help address these exact sorts of time-dilation issues.  (Hell, the ownership of that kind of software practically begs to be the centre of its own sci fi story--they who control the evolution of language control the fate of humanity.)

Plikt follows Ender after class; she keeps up with the news and she has realised that Ender had to have got the report of Pipo's death in the middle of class, which means he's got ansible priority, which is a big deal.  She's also tried to investigate him and found that "Everything's classified.  Classified so deep that I can't even find out what the access level is.  God himself couldn't look up your life story."  Subtle, Ender.  Maybe just make up a fake name and say you're from South Carolina?  That seems easier.

Plikt wants to be a Speaker too, and aspires to one day speak for Ender, which means understanding his story first, but Ender's having none of it, and as he escapes her she shouts that she knows he's going to Lusitania, although there hasn't been any request for him to go yet.  There's some standard-issue 'I don't care about anyone or owe anyone anything', with the exception of the last hive queen, though she's not named.  Normal foreshadowy stuff, so angst, much ominous.

Next week: Novinha derails her life's work and vital science in a fit of passion over her boyfriend.

(And again, do not miss the blogqueen's triumphant return with Lullaby this Thursday!)

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Officially back from hiatus! For those of you interested, there is no change or clarity on my health stuff, but my doctor is at least good at helping me fend off my employers who are behaving in ways that are only barely legal. I've started breaking my silence on the issue with my family which has been a somewhat mixed bag, but mostly made up of behaviors that has me looking into firing them. The wedding went incredibly, and I managed to work a Firefly reference into my vows and troll my parents with my musical choices for the ceremony and everything went perfectly.

Now onto what you lovely people get to expect from me in the future! I'm not doing 50 Shades Freed. I know, boo, hiss. I kept trying to read it and I just--I just couldn't. I have precious few spoons and reading it just ate up too many of them. I will read through it and write about it, but that is somewhere in the vague future. I had also initially said I was going to do Eat, Pray, Love when I came back from hiatus. I've changed my mind on that too. I wanted to do a book I knew, a book I actually enjoyed, a book that was problematic, and a book that in its own way meant a lot to me.

I dug through my shelf and plucked a few books that I had loved when I was younger, but afraid to go back to since I came to since I had thrown myself into feminism. I found myself staring down a pile of books almost entirely by Chuck Palahniuk and Nick Hornby. Having stayed away from Palahniuk for longer, I narrowed it down to the three of his that I owned and liked the best when I was younger, and immediately tossed Fight Club off the pile because there is absolutely nothing I can do there that hasn't been done already, and done better. I stared down Survivor and Lullaby. Survivor was tempting, I remembered the themes better in it, and there was a lot to be said for the lone female character even from the fragments I recalled. Still, non-linear story telling does not lend its self well to chapter by chapter deconstruction unless you really know the book and I hadn't touched it in six years.

I eyed Lullaby, its white cover with black text, innocent save for the small neon yellow bird on its back. There was another reason I hadn't read Palahniuk in years, and that was that he and his books were inherently tied to my ex of significance, P, and a very specific time in my life. Like a lot of kids, my friends and I looked for ourselves in fiction around us to feel a little less like freaks. P and a few of our friends looked exclusively in Palahniuk books, and when I joined that circle, I was assigned a character. P had claimed Carl, the narrator of Lullaby (an assessment I never agreed with) and enthusiastically agreed with the Marla of our group that I was Helen, the female lead (also an assessment I never agreed with, or understood). We carry our own baggage into books, and I don't think I can avoid doing it with a deconstruction of one. So there it is, feel free to rifle through, because odds are I'm about to.

Lullaby posts will run on Thursdays so come back on January 9th for the first post.