Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lullaby, Chapter 4, in which we start to see a pattern

What happens in this chapter: Carl thinks his boss is sooo not rad, is given a lead on another story, tags along with the paramedics to go sightseeing to check out some more dead babies, and finds a common denominator--the same book, open to the same page, is at the home of every death.

The book up to this point has had very weak hooks. There's been some stuff about the supernatural (haunted houses in the prologue, witch hunting in chapter 1, teasers of Carl's TRAGIC PAST TM in chapter 3) but this chapter I would say is where the real hook is. Four chapters in may seem like quite awhile to get there, but keep in mind that the end of chapter 4 is only page 26. So, without further ado, let's see what sort of ZANY HIJINKS Carl gets into this chapter!

...Getting interrogated by his boss, Duncan. Oh, okay. Back when Carl was talking about his ethics test and the inanity of "What color was the ornament FIND OUT OR GET FIRED WHAT DO?" I looked at it and thought it was stupid. Like, really, does that matter? Pick a color, and if someone says "NO THAT WAS WRONG" you can run a correction, fuck off. I'm like 35% sure newspapers are not run by Satan, Palahniuk. Apparently this is where Palahniuk decides 'nope, totes run by the devil' and we see Duncan interrogate Carl about things like the kind of sink (double or single? What kind of faucet? What kind of handles?), the make of the fridge, the calendar on the wall... all of which Carl spits out with ease because he's been doing a bang up job turning himself into a robot. The whole stomping tiny model homes is just him practicing for when he is a giant robot trying to destroy the Earth.

Now, here is where I'm unsure if Duncan is supposed to be an insufferable dolt who spits when he talks and expects the impossible (which is the feeling the text gives) or if he's seeing how much Carl remembered because holy crap he even looked into the sink to see what kind of food was dried on the plates and investigated which brand of tomato sauce was in the bin and the nutritional value of it. Duncan even says "Damn you're good", and while I think he wants all of his reporters to be this thorough, he knows that Carl's ability to do so is worthy of note, praise, and wouldn't you poke to see what bizarrely specific details he had stored away this time? The text, however, offers us little on Duncan other than that he dyes his hair and spits when he talks, so things like inflection and intention that could possibly be positive are lost to Carl (and therefore the reader) because that whole basically-dead-inside thing he's got going on these days.

So why do I think Duncan is actually not horrible and likes Carl? Well, one is that "Damn you're good", but he also put Carl on this story for slow news with the idea of it being award bait. He could have sent Carl to go report on cat shows and craft fairs and squirrels jet skiing, but instead he says "Okay, here's this thing that will actually drum up readership and maybe get you noticed". He is trying to put Carl in a position to do well, and paired with the previous comment, I think that is because Duncan has faith in Carl's abilities. He also then hands him a newspaper ad, which, when I first read, I got the in-story intent, but not what it was actually saying.
Attention Patrons of the Treeline Dining Club 
The body copy says: "Have you contracted a treatment-resistant form of chronic fatigue syndrome after eating in this establishment? Has this food-borne virus left you unable to work and live a normal life? If so, please call the following number to be part of a class action lawsuit." 
Then there's a phone number with a weird prefix, maybe a cellphone. 
Before I get into the ad its self, Duncan actually asks Carl if he thinks there's a story there. He doesn't say "Look into it", he says "Maybe this is worth your time. What do you think?" I'm just saying, Duncan may not do well in the dating department given his descriptors, but he sounds like a pretty decent boss.

Now back to the ad. This is the second time we see an ad like this--the last time was in chapter 1--but because I knew it would come back, I didn't mention it then, because I wasn't quite sure how I wanted to handle it. The short answer (and spoiler) is that these ads are placed by the fourth main member of the cast who we have not met yet: Oyster. For those of you paying a lot of attention and with incredible memories, you may remember that is the name of Mona's boyfriend. The deal with these ads is that it's a way Oyster makes money: he places these outlandish ads (the one in the first chapter was about spiders bursting out of new furniture) about high end businesses, and harvesting that sweet sweet "Shut the fuck up" money. I won't get any further into Oyster beyond what we get from this ad until we actually meet him, but there's a lot in this ad.

First being that chronic fatigue syndrome, unless my last round of food safety certification skipped bits, is not food-borne. Admittedly, it does have many causes, and you can get some pretty terrifying stuff from food (my last round of food safety certification went into great deal about a guy who got erectile dysfunction from it as well as dramatic sinister pictures of sandwiches--no, I'm not making this up) but the ad is made of Fox-News-worthy scare tactics. IT'S DANGEROUS AND IMPACTS UR LIFE OH NOES! but involves not actually really paying any attention to it to get even mildly freaked out because seriously you guys? Seriously? And that, in a nut-shell, is what Oyster thinks of the average person. That putting an ad like that out would actually damage a business rather than be laughed off as obviously fake. It says something about Palahniuk that these businesses don't just slap Oyster with a big old cease and desist, since this is slander, because it's easier to give him money (and potentially encourage repeats when he tells people about it?) rather than crush him with their terrifying lawyers. Palahniuk never tried very hard to hide his own biases in his writing though.

The rest of the chapter has less to pick over/apart. Carl going to see some more dead babies (and one dead child), and the book revels in giving us so many details of the homes, further establishing Carl's disconnect with humanity since we almost never see the parents of these dead children. We are introduced to Nash, one of the paramedics, who comments that with all these entirely clean deaths they could be working in Hollywood (and then follows up with some charmingly specific details about what bodies do when they die). The chapter ends with a bit of a cliffhanger as Carl finds out the common denominator! The thing that paramedics, doctors, and scientists have never ever been able to figure out about crib death! That they all were reading to their kids from the same library book, all opened to the same page! But Carl, being a super robot, and the perfect camera, sees and notices this.

Next chapter we get to see Helen, the supposed main character of the book, again.  Until next Thursday!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter eight, in which we genre shift to thriller-horror

I wondered, weeks ago, why chapter three was named for Libo instead of Novinha, and now we have the answer: Card was saving her name for this chapter.  Chapter three, of course, was the chapter in which Novinha ruined science, came up with like four terrible plans to protect her boyfriend, and then called Ender to save the day.  Presumably now, twenty-two years later, she'll have a much better showing, right?  (Just kidding; ya'll know how he do.)

(Content: domestic abuse, and if anyone can think of how the hell to summarise Ender's deal in this chapter, please make a suggestion, because it's terrifying.  Fun content: scientists who dare to follow the scientific method, those bastards.)

Speaker for the Dead: p. 123--133
Chapter Eight: Dona Ivanova

The notes this week are from Libo again, and again an excerpt from evidence used in some future trial, and also hilarious, because it turns out that the xenologers have been intentionally giving the Little Ones new knowledge since Pipo was still alive.  I almost want to call this a retcon, except I can't off-hand think of any 'Oh no we revealed things' moments that chronologically came after the acrobat incident.  Anyway, Libo is explaining to his daughter how much lying she'll have to do in her reporting as well, to avoid revealing the Prime-Directive-breaking to the other scientists:
When you watch them struggle with a question, knowing that you have the information that could easily resolve their dilemma; when you see them come very near the truth and then for lack of your information retreat from their correct conclusions and return to error--you would not be human if it didn't cause you great anguish.
(Remember, species is decided by vote.)  The one thing I like about this is how much withholding information from other scientists is cast as the exact mirror of withholding it from the Little Ones, which is the least-condescending thing that the book has yet done for them.  I mean, given Card's characterisation of Other Scientists, it's still no compliment, but it's a step up from "What's the deal with all of the not-raping?"
And for every framling scientist who is longing for the truth, there are ten petty-minded descabeçados [headless ones] who despise knowledge, who never think of an original hypothesis, whose only labor is to prey on the writings of the true scientists in order to catch tiny errors or contradictions or lapses in method.
Like, fuck peer-reviewers, am I right?  'Rigour', pah.  'Reproducible results', double-pfeh!  Science isn't about constantly re-checking and re-testing and investigating apparent contradictions in order to smelt through masses of data in order to identify the common and reliable truths of the processes of the universe!  Science is about writing things down.

And let's not forget that these xenologers on other worlds have zero ability to actually test any of their hypotheses; if they study Little Ones, literally the only thing they can do all day is re-read the reports of the xenologers of Lusitania and try to link facts together in new ways.  Once they've come up with an "original hypothesis", the only way they can test it is by checking whether it matches all existing data, and asking the Lusitanians to find a way to test it more directly.  They're all detectives who are never allowed to leave their desks, and Libo is criticising them for noticing contradictions.

Given that Card is not and has never been a scientist, and given how logic-free some of his writing has proven to be, it's hard not to read this more as an attack on critics of art (as compared to those great creators, the authors) than on insufficiently-creative scientists.

But maybe the best part is what information Pipo and Libo started sharing:
That means you can't even mention a piggy whose name is derived from cultural contamination: "Cups" would tell them that we have taught them rudimentary pottery-making.  "Calendar" and "Reaper" are obvious.  And God himself couldn't save us if they learned Arrow's name.
Yup.  That's how that's gone down.  Pipo and Libo, xenologer academics, have taught the Little Ones pottery, archery, farming, and time-keeping.  And they think it's a much better and safer idea to keep these things quiet rather than indicate that the Little Ones might have invented any of these things themselves.  In a society built mostly of secrets and places humans aren't allowed to go, they figured never mentioning that they had given the Little Ones calendars was easier than saying "Oh, and they must be trusting us more because today I overheard one of them talking about a holy day coming up and they've revealed they do in fact have a calendar after all!"

But more to the point: WHY.  The Little Ones are low-tech, but they also have no need to be otherwise.  They have no predators and they don't hunt large animals, so they have no use for archery except war--did Pipo and Libo learn/teach how to make bows so they could defend themselves better against the other tribes?  (What if the close-contact murder is actually vital to the genetic exchange in their wars?  It would be awful but also kind of perfect if they gave the Little Ones bows and arrows for combat and the entire species died out in ten years because they were killing in a non-reproductive manner.  Card would have to be on board with that; we know how he feels about non-reproductive genetic exchange.)

The Little Ones also don't have any reason to farm that we know of, so why reaping?  Agricultural revolutions completely reshape societies if they take effect at all.  And wouldn't the satellites notice if the Little Ones started farming and were able to support a much larger population?  We don't even understand their current nutritional needs and yet they adopted farming and yet they haven't done anything with it in twenty years?

This book is an amazing exercise guide for critical thinking skills.

Novinha is finishing up in her lab at the end of the day, stalling before going home, chastising herself for not being a better parent, never seeing her youngest children except when they're asleep in bed.  She thinks she should be happy Marcão is gone, thinks that "all our reasons expired four years" ago, and wonders why she never thought of leaving him, even if they couldn't get divorced.  She's still aching from the final time he beat her, three weeks ago.
The pain in her hip flared even as she thought of it.  She nodded in satisfaction.  It's no more than I deserve, and I'll be sorry when it heals.
So, Novinha is obviously horrifically emotionally and mentally damaged, in ways that are pretty normal for abuse survivors: she's internalised the idea that she deserved to be hurt (she keeps using the phrase "no worse than I deserve"), even though she hated him.  I wait to see whether she gets corrected or if Card determines that she really did 'deserve' to be hurt for her sins.  As she approaches her home (having bid a rather poetic good-bye to her plants), she sees all the lights are on and grows immediately suspicious.

Olhado is uploading/downloading memories when she arrives, and she thinks a bit about the ones she wishes she could delete and could replace, and how it's her fault, her curse, that Olhado lost his eyes instead of being "the best, the healthiest, the wholest of my children", which I hope will be explained because: what?  Olhado tells her that the Speaker has arrived, and she panics as Ela shows up with cafezinhos in the kitchen.  Olhado and Ela try to tell their mother that Ender is italicised-"good", unlike what the bishop claimed, but she takes silent pride in being unshakable, and reflects on how it's not her fault Libo is dead, since she kept her secret all those years.  She sits, and Ender, still a ninja, reaches in and is already pouring before she notices him.
"Desculpa-me,"she whispered. Forgive me. "Trouxe o senhor tantos quilômetros--" 
"We don't measure starflight in kilometers, Dona Ivanova. We measure it in years." His words were an accusation, but his voice spoke of wistfulness, even forgiveness, even consolation. I could be seduced by that voice. That voice is a liar.
Look, y'all, I'm doing my best, but I cannot speak and I can barely imagine how to turn those two sentences into an accusation while expressing wistfulness but allowing for forgiveness and offering consolation.  Like, two, maybe, and I would sound like a twit to anyone except maybe someone very emotionally damaged who was just happy I wasn't brimming with evil.

Novinha apologises for having called him away twenty-two years, and Ender just says he hasn't noticed it yet, then he springs the passive-aggression on the abuse victim he's supposedly come to help:
"For me it was only a week ago that I left my sister.  She was the only kin of mine left alive.  Her daughter wasn't born yet, and now she's probably through with college, married, perhaps with children of her own.  I'll never know her.  But I know your children, Dona Ivanova." [....] 
"In only a few hours you think you know them?" 
"Better than you do, Dona Ivanova."
Everyone gasps, though Novinha privately thinks he might be right, but more importantly how does Ender judge this?  He knows literally nothing about Dona Ivanova; he invented a bond with little Novinha and then arrived here and learned nothing about the family before coming to see them.  He has literally no evidence on which to judge how well she understands her children.  He then turns to walk out, and Novinha snaps at him to come back, but he proceeds to her bedroom, where Miro and Quim are arguing.  Novinha is startled to see Miro smiling, but it vanishes when he sees her, which stings more.  She tries to ignore it and tell Ender again to leave, saying he has no death to speak, saying that as a foolish girl she imagined the original Speaker would come and console her.
"Dona Ivanova," he said, "how could you read the Hive Queen and the Hegemon and imagine that its author could bring comfort?" 
It was Miro who answered [....] "the original Speaker for the Dead wrote the tale of the hive queen with deep compassion." 
The Speaker smiled sadly. "But he wasn't writing to the buggers, was he?  He was writing to humankind, who still celebrated the destruction of the buggers as a great victory. He wrote cruelly, to turn their pride to regret, their joy to grief."
Just a note: first the mayor wasn't shocked Ender could be two thousand years old, and now Novinha suggests that the Speaker might have lived three thousand years, and yet literally no one except Plikt (who needed four years to entertain the notion) actually considers how far into ancient times people might have come forward in this galaxy.  Speaking of scientists who lack creative thought and curiosity.

I do like this exchange as far as it can be taken as a commentary on scripture, and the changing meanings of old writing, the way people might look at something today and see a story completely different from the way it might have struck its original audience.  Again, a very weird thing to hear from the keyboard of Orson Scott Card, given that he's the worst kind of fundamentalist and bigot.

Novinha mentions the Speaker's target, Ender, a person who ruined everything he touched, and Ender snaps for a moment, "his voice whipped out like a grass-saw, ragged and cruel", to say that everyone touches something kindly and to say a person destroyed everything they touched is "a lie that can't truthfully be said of any human being who ever lived", and I am abruptly and uncomfortably aware that Marcos is going to get a post-mortem redemption arc.

Ender says that while Novinha called him first, others have called speakers since then, so it's not all on her conscience, and she wonders who else could know enough about speakers to have done so.  She's shocked to learn someone called a speaker for Marcos, that anyone would miss him, and Miro speaks up:
"Grego would, for one. The Speaker showed us what we should have known--that the boy is grieving for his father and thinks we all hate him--" 
"Cheap psychology," she snapped. "We have therapists of our own, and they aren't worth much either."
Wait, they do have therapists?  No.  Not buying it.  The last time we saw anyone with anything approaching therapeutic qualifications they were Valentine's school guidance counsellor.  The planet should have therapists, among many other things, but I just don't believe for a moment that Card's universe contains therapists.  At some point, someone would go to one.

Miro and Ela start laughing about Grego soaking Ender's pants, and Novinha has a montage of flashbacks, the joy of Miro and Ela as small children, Marcos' slow growing hatred, the way everything was ruined by the time Quim was born and he never got a happy childhood.  Marcos' rage grew "because he knew none of it belonged to him", foreshadow, clunk.  Novinha's response to this flash of cheer is of course to retreat to rage that anyone would interrupt the quiet gloom she's created, and try to throw Ender out again, though she knows the law protects his quest for TRUUUUUUTHHHHH.
"If I told nothing but what everyone already knows--that he hated his children and beat his wife and raged drunkenly from bar to bar until the constables sent him home--then I would not cause pain, would I?  I'd cause a great deal of satisfaction, because everyone would be reassured that their view of him was correct all along.  He was scum, and so it was all right that they treated him like scum. [....] No one's life is nothing.  Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins."
There's some back and forth about whether Novinha is really hating Marcos or herself, how recently Ender studied her younger self, how Pipo loved her, et cetera, but I'd rather focus on the above.  There is this cultural notion we have with empathising with the worst people.  Empathising with good people is obvious and admirable, but empathising with villains is the mark of A Great Heart.  You may notice that in that dichotomy, no one ever gets around to empathising with the middle ground.  The neutrals, the people who are just trying to get on with their day, they're not part of the consideration.  You have to be a hero or a monster before anyone cares about anyone caring.

So let me provide an advance alternative interpretation--I'm guessing it's alternative, I'm guessing this isn't what Ender is going to say, although if I'm wrong about that I will be 1) impressed and 2) irritated that my blog hasn't won the Nebula and Hugo awards.

Marcos' truth is the story of no one stopping him.  Marcos is an abuser and apparently everyone knows and no one has ever done a thing to intervene.  They know that he beats Novinha, but the police don't stop him, they know that Grego is practically feral but they don't help him, they don't try to draw Novinha--daughter of Os Venerados, sole master of shaping and reshaping life for their alien world, bringer of potato vodka--out of her abusive home and into a shelter, or haul Marcos out of his house and into a jail cell.  They do have cops, apparently, cops who will kick him out of the bars but not stop him from nearly murdering his wife.  And for two decades they have watched him grow more terrible and violent and watched him damage his family and they have done nothing, because it was easier to pretend everything was okay.  It's the same gross neglect that they inflicted on Novinha until she became xenobiologists, but extended four times as long and harming five or six children instead of one.  How's that for a truth that would make the people of Milagre uncomfortable and shake their assurances that they did the right thing by gossiping about how awful Marcos was?

But yeah, I can't wait to hear Ender explain that Marcos' had a secret kindness that redeems him.

Novinha tries again to throw Ender out of the house and yells at him in Portuguese, and we get another grammar lesson about how rude she was with her pronoun forms, and yet Ender's response in the same overly-familiar Portuguese tones was instead kind and intimate: "Thou art fertile ground, and I will plant a garden in thee".  Wait, what?  He walked into her house, got all her children on his side, told her that she's too cruel to herself and to the memory of her abusive husband, and then told her he would plant a garden in her fertile ground?!  That is the creepiest fucking thing I have read in months.

Oh, and then Quara wakes up crying and Novinha hears Ender go into her room and soothe her with a Nordic lullaby.  Forget it.  This is just a straight-up horror flick now.  Next morning he's going to be wearing Marcos' skin like a snuggie.

Novinha falls asleep, and when she wakes again in the night she hears her children gathered in the living room, Miro and Ela and Quim and Olhado, laughing together, and she dreams that Libo is among them, alive, her true husband, foreshadow, clunk.  She fears that Ender will, in repairing her family, learn her secrets and reveal them and Miro will die like Libo did, because apparently she's in denial that keeping her secret didn't protect him.  I'm not clear if Ender ever actually left the house or if he just moved in.  Regardless, that's the merciful end of this chapter.  Next week: science investigation, Ender is a jackwagon, and in a shocking twist teenage xenologers make bad decisions.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter seven, in which Ender is a magical social worker

This is a long one and I am burnt.  Also still gotta make sure I'm ready to GM tomorrow.  Enjoy, insofar as that is possible in this context.

(Content: familial/ partner abuse. Fun content: OSC writing an atheist talking about scripture.)

Speaker for the Dead: p. 108--122
Chapter Seven: The Ribeira House

Last time, Miro mentioned that he likes the Little One named Human, and this time we start with Ouanda's notes giving us some information about him and their slow puzzling-out of how to make babies.  Ouanda mentions that she saw Miro talking to Human "before you took off for the Questionable Activity", which I normally wouldn't turn into a masturbation joke except that these two are barely-abstinent teens and I was at a house party last night with people who are terrible (in a good way).

Another Little One named Mandachuva then mentioned that Human is really smart, already talking by the time he could walk, and gestured about ten centimetres off the ground.  Ouanda is apparently eighty times smarter than any of the previous xenologers, as she deduces this means they start walking at that height, smaller than they've ever seen one.  Mandachuva also conspiratorially added that Pipo knew Human's father: Rooter.  Ouanda proves her aptitude again by coming up with more than one theory that could explain this: it could be a 'spiritual' fatherhood, it could be that Little Ones gestate for twenty-four years, or have a twenty-four-year childhood hidden away somewhere, or they might just have some way of saving genetic material.  (She half-jokingly suggests they've saved Rooter's sperm in a jar, for which I dock her a couple of points since as yet they completely lack evidence that Little One reproduction involves human-analogue gametes.)

She also notes that this means Rooter, despite apparently being an executed criminal, was named as a father, and in turn that means that this group isn't a bunch of ostracised failures, but potential fathers, and since Human is so special and hangs out with them too, this group must actually have some prestige after all.  That's probably going a little far--high-prestige human men continue to be cared for by oppressed and denigrated human women--but Ouanda is still the first competent xenologer yet.  She concludes with some notes asking Miro to wake her up for a kiss when he gets home, which is going to get awkward next chapter.

The stinger to all this is that these notes are excerpted "from Lusitanian files by Congressional order and introduced as evidence in the Trial In Absentia of the Xenologers of Lusitania on Charges of Treason and Malfeasance". I would be worried more if only the last book hadn't acquitted all the protagonists of abuse, neglect, murder, and genocide after we spent three hundred pages watching them do exactly those things.

Back to Ender.  He arrives at the Ribeira's patchwork house--all houses are a bit patchwork, since new couples get one built for them by friends and family, and they then expand it as they pump out more and more children.  Theirs varies from simple plastic sheets in the old parts to proper bricks and plumbing for the more recent rooms.  Ender notes that Lusitania's economy is completely controlled and so there is no poverty: "The lack of decoration, of individuality, showed the family's contempt for their own house; to Ender this bespoke contempt for themselves as well."  I'm not sure that's a natural conclusion for Ender to reach after a formative childhood in which everything was regulation-made for practical purposes and individuality was largely suppressed, but I suppose he must have had some kind of character growth in the last couple of decades.  Eventually we might even see it!

Olhado and Quara ventured right in, and Ender asks Quara (who settles in a slump against the wall, blank-faced) if he can enter, but she doesn't respond at all. Ender muses again on how there's a disease in the house.  There's a lot of that going around.  The plague and the dysfunctional families and the stuff we're going to find out killed Marcos--disease appears to be the big theme we're running with for this book.

Another boy (Grego) shows up at a sprint, six years old to Quara's seven, and "unlike Quara, his face showed plenty of understanding.  Along with a feral hunger."  Boy's got a kitchen knife taped to his leg, which he draws, and lunges at Ender for a crotch stab.
A moment later Ender had the boy tucked under his arm and the knife jammed into the ceiling. Ender had to use both hands to control his limns; the boy ended up dangling in front of him by his hands and feet, for all the world like a calf roped for branding. 
Ender looked steadily at Quara.  "If you don't go right now and get whoever is in charge in this house, I'm going to take this animal home and serve it for supper."
Apparently Ender is still a ninja after all these years, despite no mention of training. Quick reminder, since I keep forgetting myself: Ender is the only white guy on this planet; everyone else is some substantial degree of black.  Because this whole barging-in-and-taking-charge-of-the-broken-home would be freaky enough if it were just the usual 'social worker tames the underclass' type of thing we've seen before, but at least in those situations I think the tradition is the Magical Negro rather than Mighty Whitey.  We're not even taking the 102-level problematic trope here; we've just got straight up racist overtones.

Quara flees and fetches Ela, who is briefly apologetic, then panics when she realises he's the Speaker she called, then apologetic again when he mentions the knife attack.
"Grego," she said to the boy, "it's wrong to poke at people with the knife." 
Grego growled in his throat. 
"His father dying, you see." 
"They were that close?" 
A look of bitter amusement passed across her face. "Hardly. He's always been a thief, Grego has, ever since he was old enough to hold something and walk at the same time. But this thing for hurting people, that's new. Please, let him go."
Ender refuses to let him go until he's satisfied that he won't be attacked again, and Ela gets rightfully angry about this strange dude who's barged into her house and is essentially holding her brother ransom.  Ender brushes this off by asking for a chair, and then ninjas his way into it by hurling Grego into the air, sitting down, and catching him again and locking him down in his lap.  Grego hammers his heels ineffectually into Enders shins as they all exchange names.  Ela suggests that Ender should come back tomorrow, and she gets backed up by another older boy (Quim):
"Didn't you hear my sister?  You aren't wanted here!" 
"You show me too much kindness," Ender said. "But I came to see your mother, and I'll wait here until she comes home from work."
Ender's passive-aggression kung fu also remains strong, but I suspect he's had plenty of time to practice that over the last twenty years.  They all fall silent at the mention of their mother, and Ender takes the opportunity to Bible-banter with Quim, so forgive me if I indulge my love for Christian authors trying to write atheists discussing scripture, because it is always comedy gold:
"You must be Estevão Rei Ribeira. Named for St. Stephen the Martyr, who saw Jesus sitting at the right hand of God." 
"What do you know of such things, atheist!" 
"As I recall, St. Paul stood by and held the coats of the men who were stoning him. Apparently he wasn't a believer at the time. In fact, I think he was regarded as the most terrible enemy of the church. And yet he later repented, didn't he? So I suggest you think of me, not as the enemy of God, but as an apostle who has not yet been stopped on the road to Damascus."
You know Ender down with the rad jive lingo. Scriptural metaphor is definitely the best way to earn the trust of an angry fifteen-year-old, and not just seem like yet another pompous authority figure on a world literally populated by pompous authority figures who make scriptural metaphors.  Fortunately, Ender is a level 25 Protagonist and so gets a +30 bonus to his Diplomacy rolls.  Ender calls himself "apostle to the piggies" and Miro arrives.
Miro was young--surely not yet twenty. But his face and bearing carried the weight of responsibility and suffering far beyond his years. [Does anyone not, in this family?] Ender saw how all of them made space for him. It was not that the backed away from him the way they might retreat from someone they feared. Rather, they oriented themselves to him, walking parabolas around him, as if he were the center of gravity in the room and everything else was moved by the force of his presence.
How does that even--no one is walking anywhere; where do these parabolas go?  This is what comes of telling rather than showing.  For the rest of the book I'm just going to imagine that every time Miro enters the room, rather than getting a leitmotif, everyone else just does a ten-second ballet routine around him.  (Ender is of course the centre of his own universe, and so pirouettes in place.)

Miro also calls for Grego's release, and Ela tries to explain the situation, indicating that everything's okay, but Grego claims he's being tortured.
"I am hurting him," said Ender. He had found that the best way to earn trust was to tell the truth. "Every time he struggles to get free, it causes him quite a bit of discomfort. And he hasn't stopped struggling yet."
First: what does it say about Ender's concept of 'truth' that he opens with a misleading statement, given that he's largely not responsible for Grego's discomfort and yet can't resist setting up a 'gotcha'?  Second: how does he know when Grego is or isn't in pain?  He's apparently keeping nigh-absolutely still, since it seems no one else can tell that Grego is still trying to break free.  Bah.  Miro's good with this and tells Grego he's not saving him this time.  Quim is disgusted, and Miro remarks that people starting calling him Quim (pronounced much like 'king') because his middle name is Rei, but "now it's because he thinks he rules by divine right".  So, Miro the Centre of Ribeiran Gravity has arrived and his first three actions are to declare that he might defy the law and let an offworld stranger meet the Little Ones, abandon his six-year-old brother to said strange adult, and mock his younger brother to said adult.  Maybe this is supposed to be because he instantly and flawlessly assessed Ender's quality and so decided to treat him as a confidante, but mostly he looks like a massive suck-up to me.

Miro asks why Ender is there, and is deeply relieved to hear he's looking for Novinha (not for Miro himself, since he called a speaker for Libo). She's of course in her lab, "trying to develop a strain of potato that can compete with the grass here". Wait, I thought they controlled the spread of plants via herbicide.  They can't seal a field off to keep out the grass?  Has it occurred to anyone that the xenobiologist's job would be like 90% easier and the risk of introducing an invasive species to the rest of the world would be slashed if they just built a goddamn greenhouse?  Hey, if they made the entire colony a greenhouse dome, they would have a much easier time keeping people from looking in by climbing a nearby hill, too!  I wonder if that could have some benefits!

(Miro adds that the potato breakthrough is in high demand, as the miners and farmers have made vodka into the stuff of dream and legend.  It would be those blue-collar types and not any of the hundreds of scientists who presumably spend so much time studying other aspects of Lusitania. (Yes, I continue to refuse to believe that this colony of 3000 exists purely to support two teenage xenologers.))

Miro's smile is literally compared to sunlight coming into a cave, and everyone relaxes.  Grego relaxes most of all: he stops fighting and instead enthusiastically wets himself.  Ender mentally notes that his reflexes are under conscious control--he can toggle them on and off--and so doesn't flinch, although everyone else is shocked.  Ender just says it's a meaningful gift and he'll never let him go.
"Why are you doing this!" said Ela. 
"He's expecting Grego to act like a human being," said Miro. "It needs doing, and nobody else has bothered to try." 
"I've tried," said Ela. [....] 
"We're not a very happy home," said Miro.
(I am 95% sure we're never going to find out how Ela has tried to engage Grego or why she failed where Ender will succeed, but I'm going to go ahead and guess that it's got a lot to do with Ela being a mere eighteen-year-old girl and Ender being a manly white Protagonist whose empathy is indistinguishable from overwhelming physical force.)

They finally start discussing Marcos' recent death, and it's obvious to Ender that most everyone is pretty happy about his death, but Quim gets furious whenever anyone hints at their family's problems.  When Ender asks if Macros beat them, Ela says no, but Miro decides he's had enough too, and there is much shouting and disagreement, especially once Ela lets slip that she called Ender to speak their father's death.  She counters by launching into a rant, how everyone in town is so understanding, they overlook Grego's thieving and Quara's silence and pretend the family is okay, brilliant grandchildren of Os Venerados, and ignore the way Marcos would come home drunk, brutally beat their mother, and verbally abuse Miro until he fled the house.  Quim is still upset that this is all being revealed, and Olhado finally snaps and plugs his eye into the computer, revealing that he secretly recorded the assaults.

Seeing Olhado jam a cable into his 'eye' sends Ender into a flashback to the Giant's Drink, the nightmares of which the formic queens used to anchor a philotic connection to his head, linking him to the hive-queen, infodump infodump.  Jane snaps him out of it by quietly remarking that while Olhado is plugged in, she's copying all of his other recorded vision, because, as y'all will recall, in the Enderverse it is legally mandatory to violate privacy at every possible opportunity.

The holoprojector shows Marcos shouting Miro away (Grego clinging to his father's leg, shouting along) and then attacking Novinha.  Ender notes that the real Grego is just shaking now.  More outbursts: Quim reveals that he prayed for their father to die, prayed to Mary and Jesus and his own grandparents, so he now believes he's going to hell and he's not sorry.
"Well, another certified miracle to the credit of Os Venerados," said Miro. "Sainthood is assured." [....] 
"Papa, papa, papa," whispered Grego. His trembling had given way to great shudders, almost convulsive in their violence. [....] 
"Papa's gone now," said Miro comfortingly. "You don't have to worry now." 
Ender shook his head. "Miro," he said, "didn't you watch Olhado's memory? Little boys don't judge their fathers, they love them. Grego was trying as hard as he could to be just like Marcos Ribeira."
The siblings are all shocked and horrified that they failed to understand Grego's turn for violence was in response to Marcos' death, which is weird, since you'll note that a bit up the page I quoted Ela explaining Grego's violence by noting that his father just died.  So... yeah, no, she totally got that.  The only thing she didn't apparently grasp was that Grego liked their father, despite, you know living with him*.  Forget Olhado's Steadicam eyes**; Miro was literally there when those events occurred, again and again.  No one noticed that Grego was attached to their father?  No one noticed that, presumably, their father was relatively kind to Grego rather than abusing him like his wife and eldest son?  (If he did verbally or emotionally abuse Grego or anyone else the way he did Miro, we don't hear about it.)

Ender says it's the type of thing it takes a stranger to see, which is at least a kind way of excusing his protagonist powers, and explains that Grego couldn't confide in any of them because he heard what they said about their father and so thought they hated him by extension.  Grego spins and hugs Ender around the neck, sobbing.  Jane congratulates Ender in his ear for "the way you turn people into plasma", which... I'm going to need someone to explain the analogy to me.
Ender couldn't answer her, and she wouldn't believe him anyway. He hadn't planned this, he had played it by ear.  How could he have guessed that Olhado would have a recording[...]? His only real insight was with Grego, and even that was instinctive, a sense that Grego was desperately hungry for someone to have authority over him [...].
Quara tells Ender he stinks and marches out of the room.  Olhado says this is impressive; the most she's said to anyone outside the family in months, and Ender thinks: "Didn't you notice?  I'm in the family now, whether you like it or not. Whether I like it or not."  I... am at a loss on that one.  How long is this conversation--twenty minutes?  Thirty?  He figures out that Grego's concept of a loving father figure has been fucked up by an abusive environment and suddenly he's convinced (despite no one in the family saying so) that he's part of the family now?  These people might be terrible colonists, but at least they've got colonialism down solid.

Grego cries himself out, then falls asleep, and Ela takes him away to clean him up and put him to bed.  Miro offers a pair of his own pants to wear while they clean Ender's, which Ender accepts though his own have "long since dried", reminding us all again that this author has no concept of the passage of linear time.  I stepped in a tiny puddle yesterday and my sock was damp for a couple of hours; there is no way Grego let loose on Ender half an hour ago and he's been dry for ages already.  Whatever.  Miro says Ender can stay until their mother arrives in another hour, and that's it for now with Ender Wiggin, Patriarchal White Social Worker.  Next week, he goes back into detective mode, though his jackwagonry remains the same.  Obvs.


*Also, can I just note that I had definitely transitioned into judging my father before age ten?  Not viciously judging, and not by age six, admittedly, but my father was also never awful on this scale, and not physically abusive.  I'm just saying that the whole Fight Clubby 'our fathers are our models for God' thing never resonated with me at all.  (Of course, I also wasn't raised religious, so there are a few factors at play there, I guess.)

**Incidentally, we're told the hologram is in "bas relief" since it was recorded from a single individual's perspective, not true 3D, but there's still no explanation of how Olhado has any real depth perception.  I guess he could have a certain amount of parallax if he had multiple optics all slightly apart, but wouldn't it be way simpler and cooler if he had echolocation?  His eye could have one camera and one echolocator and then combine the data to figure out which parts of the image should be perceived closer than others, like turning a map topographical.  I would demand Bat-eyes, in his position.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Happy Valentines day!

No post today because Erika is grappling with The Sick and is too heavily medicated to be insightful and coherent. Also she's referring to herself in the third person.

However all is not lost, since tomorrow is Valentines day, let me wish you all happy Valentines and shower you with cards!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter six, part two, in which subtitles are misused

(Content: actually this one is pretty okay? Fun content: xkcd and aliens and phrasing and fruit.)

This is not a fascinating chunk of book.  This is Orson Scott Card making sure everyone knows he has a rudimentary knowledge of Portuguese and it's super-authentic.  I will do what I can for you.

Speaker for the Dead: p. 97--107

Ender settles into his room in one of the original colony's plastic shacks and stows the Hive Queen under his bed, wrapped in towels.  After all, he's just a detective in town to investigate three suspicious deaths and the religious leaders of the planet have been telling everyone not to trust him or anything he says, so I can't imagine why he'd want to take any kind of security precautions.  It occurs to me that, in addition to everyone assuming he Little Ones collectively murdered Pipo (and now Libo), rather than it being the work of a lone pequenino-Jack-the-Ripper, no one seems to think for even a moment that Pipo might have been killed by a human who knew that if Pipo died in the forest everyone would assume it was aliens.

Was there a police investigation of his death?  Does Lusitania even have police?  Is it a crimeless utopia?  Come on, we have to have something to show for the last three thousand years of existence.

The Hive Queen remains 100% totes certain that Lusitania will be her new home, although she hasn't actually told Ender why.  She's barely talking to Ender at all, and she launches into a somewhat poetic run-on sentence explaining that it's so hard to talk to humans but the philotic mind she's found on Lusitania--one of many, she says--is so much easier to connect with, and so with apologies she withdraws:
<...Forgive us, dear friend, forgive us if we leave the hard work of talking to your mind and go back to him and talk to him because he doesn't make us search so hard to make words and pictures that are clear enough for your analytical mind because we feel him like sunshine, like the warmth of sunshine on his face on our face and the feel of cool water deep in our abdomen and movement as gentle and thorough as soft wind which we haven't felt for three thousand years forgive us we'll be with him...>
Huh, that's exactly how my first girlfriend broke up with me.  It's okay, Ender.  The spontaneously manifest consciousness of the internet still loves you.

I can't blame the Hive Queen for closing off "until you wake us until you take us out to dwell here", because the only thing worse than sharing thoughts with Ender for ten years would be sharing thoughts with Ender for three thousand time-dilated years.  Boy could take a decade just thinking about how hard it is being the only person in the room who actually thinks of everyone else in the room as real people.

Ender is left thinking about how he's going to have to deal with the church and the xenologers and twenty-two years of buyer's remorse from the xenobiologist who summoned him, and his longer-term discomfort with the idea that, if the Hive Queen does settle here, he will have to do the same.  He recognises that he's avoided really connecting with anyone but Valentine in about twenty-five years, and the thought of being a permanent citizen is daunting.
"I can hear your heartrate falling and your breathing getting heavy.  In a moment you'll either be asleep, dead, or lacrimose." 
"I'm much more complex than that," said Ender cheerfully. "Anticipated self-pity is what I'm feeling, about pains that haven't even arrived." 
"Very good, Ender.  Get an early start.  That way you can wallow so much longer."
Wow, even Card has realised how excessive this is.  Do we have hope of a change?  Ah, but no, the whole point of that exchange is that awareness of something doesn't translate at all into resistance to it.  Petra even says as much in Shadow of the Hegemon, when she talks about an incredibly clichéd play that nevertheless moved her to tears as she dissected its tropes.  (That's not a link to TVtropes.  That's a link to the actual definition of 'trope', which is the only one I actually use, because I am a colossal hipster and I own nine bowties.)

Ender asks Jane for a map of the colony and she says they don't have one because everyone knows where everything is, which is just fantastic.  No cops, no city planning, population of like 5000 people constantly growing but with an absolute limit on the space they're allowed to remain within, and no one keeps a map. Awesome. They do, however, keep a map of the sewer system, from which Jane extrapolates the buildings.  She projects this into Ender's room, because his shack is totally sweet and has a holographic terminal "sixteen times larger than most terminals, with a resolution four times greater".  I hope that becomes plot relevant, or else Card just randomly decided that Ender deserved a widescreen space TV.

The colony cuts off at the fence, where there's an electromagnetic field to keep anyone from crossing over.  It causes incredible pain if you touch it, but Jane doesn't say it actually creates force, so I'm wondering if someone sufficiently determined couldn't just leap through and bear the hurt for a second.  Agony fields make terrible walls.  Ender talks about whether the humans are trapped within or the Little Ones are trapped out there, separated from the rest of the universe.  Jane wins:
"It's the most charming thing about humans.  You are all so sure that the lesser animals are bleeding with envy because they didn't have the good fortune to be born homo sapiens."
But unfortunately there's no further exchange on this subject and I am left wondering again how Card can write things like that and then go on to write things like everything else he writes.

Jane explains that the only settlement the humans have contact with is about a kilometre inside the nearest forest (where all the males live inside a log house), and satellites (they do exist!) have confirmed that just about every forest on the planet contains its maximum sustainable population of Little Ones.  On request, she zooms in to show Ender the space where Pipo and Libo died, which now has three trees nearby--the ones that grew out of Rooter and two more Little Ones found dead in the same manner since then.  The leading hypothesis is that trees are named for the dead and humans aren't part of the tree religion, therefore we don't get trees named for us.  I figure there's zero chance the trees aren't made of people; my only question is whether the Little Ones are larval trees or if they get trees planted in them to absorb their minds at time of death.
"Except that I've found that rituals and myths don't come from nowhere.  There's usually some reason for it that's tied to the survival of the community."
Oh, good, Ender knows the fundamental principle of every skeptical detective who doesn't yet know that they're going to discover some mundane ritual secretly has actual supernatural (or superscientific) significance.
"Andrew Wiggin, anthropologist?" 
"The proper study of mankind is man." 
"Go study some men, then, Ender."
PHRASING; BOOM!  (Don't forget Jane is the internet--she is partly composed of all that Ender/Alai fanfic that Ender obviously wrote as a teenager and posted anonymously to AO3 where it formed a lesser-known religion, Speaker for the Queer, which centres on very empathetic people helping others understand the truth about their orientation and identity after someone tells them that heterocis is the only normal.)

Tragically, it turns out that what Jane actually means is that she thinks he should go meet the Ribeiras (Novinha's family).  The computer network has been coded to deny Ender information on where anyone lives, but Jane being Jane, she's already hacked that--they live in a relatively isolated house behind the observatory hill, because apparently there's an observatory hill.  Ender says he'll need to find a guide anyway, to avoid giving away that their computer security is as dust and ash to him.  He and Jane have a weird conversation about how she's got all the power and she wants to make sure he does what's in her best interests.  I can't figure out what brought that on, given that her only "vested interest" here is that Ender doesn't screw up his redeemer-of-the-alien-monsters shtick.  Ender asks for a promise:
"When you decide to hide something from me, will you at least tell me that you aren't going to tell me?" 
"This is getting way too deep for little old me." She was a caricature of an overfeminine woman.
Earlier she encouraged Ender to cheer himself up by getting more exercise, while projecting herself in the form of a Little One in the middle of a chorus line of "leggy women".  I don't know what the fuck Jane's deal is supposed to be, but so far she's mostly composed of plot convenience and stereotypes of Wrong Femininity (the use of sexuality and deception for personal benefit) and I have the feeling I'm not supposed to like her nearly as much as I do.  The final book in Timothy Zahn's Conquerors Trilogy has a brilliant AI as one of the viewpoint characters, and I feel like that kind of story (sneaking around inside data networks the way spies sneak through air ducts) could be awesome with Jane in the lead.

Ender finally heads out to the praça, where kids are playing football.  Most of them are just showing off, but a boy and girl are duelling, standing three metres apart and kicking as hard as they can at each other without flinching.  Ender asks people to show him to the Ribeira house and the kids steadily drift away until only the duelling duo are left, plus the little girl who fetches the ball for them, and another boy with electronic eyes.
Only one eye was used for sight, but it took four separate visual scans and then separated the signals to feed simulated binocular vision to the brain.
I'm like 70% sure that doesn't make sense.
The other eye contained the power supply, the computer control, and the external interface.  When he wanted to, he could record short sequences of vision in a limited photo memory, probably less than a trillion bits.
By my math, that's about 100 gigs, so... several hours of moderate-quality video, no?  I have the 90-minute Sherlock premiere on my computer in 720p HD and it's 1.6 gigs.  This is why Star Trek TNG started referring to data in 'isoquads', because it sounds big and technical but no one will ever be like 'I can fit that on a sticky note'.

The girl kicks a crotch-shot at the boy, who winces in pain, but she says he twisted to deflect, and he insists he did not.
"Reveja!  Reveja!"  They had been speaking Star, but the girl now switched into Portuguese. 
The boy with metal eyes showed no expression, but raised a hand to silence them.  "Mudou," he said with finality.  He moved, Ender translated. 
"Sabia!"  I knew it!
And it goes on like this.  Half the dialogue over the next few pages is made up of short phrases of Portuguese and then the narrative giving us the English translation.  And then when they notice Ender:
"Porque está olhando-nos?" asked the boy.  Why are you looking at us? 
Ender answered with a question. "Você é árbitro?" You're the artiber here? The word could mean "umpire," but it could also mean "magistrate."
Aside from me loving the idea that Ender is actually terrible at Portuguese and sounds ridiculous to them (yes, my copy says 'artiber' instead of 'arbiter', which I choose to take as a translation of his incomprehensible accent), I'm just boggled that we've paused the soap opera murder investigation in space for a Portuguese vocabulary lesson.  And then gratuitous Space Vocabulary when Ender calls himself a stranger:
"Stranger?  You mean utlanning, framling, or raman?" 
"No, I think I mean infidel."
I know it's important for Ender to be all dangerous and sassy to get Olhado to like him, but that question made no sense.  Lusitania has no utlannings; everyone's from the same village.  Humans by definition can't be raman to another human.  The only possible answer was framling, and the only possible reason to ask that question was to remind everyone that Card invented some words.

Ender wins over Olhado, who finally reveals that people call him Olhado, but his real name is Lauro Suleimão Ribeira, and the littlest girl is Quara.  Jane adds his bio in Ender's ear: he's 12, the fourth child, lost his eyes "in a laser accident", those are seriously her exact words, what the hell does anyone use lasers for on this world, and notes that the first significant thing she has managed to uncover about the family is that they are apparently willing to defy the bishop.  Ender silently notes that Olhado enjoyed deceiving Ender and enjoyed revealing the surprise even more--he hopes that Jane doesn't follow that example, and I'm back to wondering if maybe it wouldn't be easier to make Jane seem sinister by actually having her do something morally suspect, rather than just constantly giving her the side-eye until it seems natural.

Outside the village, Miro (Novinha's eldest son, the xenologer apprentice, you remember him) is on a hillside in the shade of some trees, looking down into the village.  ...Wait.  Wait what.  There's a fence and an Agony Field and laws saying not to let the Little Ones see any human technology and no one but the xenologer is allowed to leave the perimeter and there's a hill where you can just secretly look down over the fence and see most of Milagre WHAT.

There's also a Little One there with him.  More translation, this time fractionally more interesting:
"Miro," whispered Leaf-eater.  "Are you a tree?" 
It was a translation from the pequeninos' idiom.  Sometimes they meditated, holding themselves motionless for hours.  They called this "being a tree." [....] 
"Is it going to rain?" asked Miro.  To a piggy this meant: are you interrupting me for my own sake, or for yours? 
"It rained fire today," said Leaf-eater. "Out in the prairie."
They can see the shuttles.  THEY CAN SEE THE SHUTTLES.



Leaf-eater is desperate to meet the Speaker for the Dead, and begs Miro to bring him as soon as possible: "I root my face in the ground for you, Miro, my limbs are lumber for your house."  Yeah, they are definitely trees.  Miro says he needs to learn if the speaker can be trusted first, and reflects that the Little Ones never seem to understand the idea of 'stranger' or 'malice'.  While this confuses and frustrates him, he doesn't seem to think it has any particular contradiction with their constant inter-forest wars.  God, these scientists are awful.

Miro tries to make a pun by telling Leaf-eater to "vai comer folhas", "go eat leaves", but Leaf-eater is just confused and calls him crude when Miro explains the joke, proving at least that the aliens have an actual sense of humour.  Miro thinks that Leaf-eater always seems hostile, and he'd rather hang out with the one called Human, even though Human is smarter "and Miro had to watch himself more carefully with him".  This also makes no sense to me, since Miro appears to have gone the full interventionist route by telling the Little Ones about interstellar civilisation and Speakers and shuttles.  What's he got to watch?

He spots Olhado carrying Quara home, and then sees they're followed by a strange man, who he realises has to be the speaker, and sprints down to intercept.  Next week: Card goes full soap opera, Ender goes social worker, and everything is terrible.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lullaby Chapter 3 in which Carl shares his "coping" methods with us

What happens this chapter: Carl buys a model home, builds it, and laments at how everyone is so noisy and he's so much better than them. Also some more stuff about dead babies, depression, and self-harm.

Confession. I forgot this chapter existed until I started reading it. It isn't that it isn't well written or it's a toss off, it's that I blitzed through the book so quickly when I read it as a kid that I missed what it was saying so it didn't stick. Going through again, more slowly, I see what Palahniuk was trying to do. I'm not sure what teenage me thought was going on in this chapter, mostly because she forgot it, but I suspect she came away with something different.

Last chapter, I observed that Carl desperately clung to objectivity and being detail-oriented to avoid actually dealing with his past, and commented on how he wasn't a very trustworthy narrator because he fails to own his own bias. This chapter is basically extrapolating on that. There is a lot of Carl wallowing in his own depression, anger, and smug sense of superiority, which causes me as a reader to feel conflicted. On one hand, dude's got some very real reasons to be a depressed little angst bucket and angry, and I'm sympathetic to that. On the other hand, he's smug and superior and that makes me want to go get the bees.

You have no idea how long I have been holding onto this .gif

I was at work and I noticed a customer holding a copy of Choke, another Palahniuk book. I asked how he liked it, having read it many years ago. He paused, "I really like the writing but... the characters are all so unlikable." I warned him all Palahniuk books were like that. I have to give Palahniuk credit for willingly, knowingly, and repeatedly writing unlikable characters, but it does make them harder to get through without reaching for your handy crate full of bees sometimes.
Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead. [...] 
These people who need their television or stereo or radio playing all the time. These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics. 
Laughter of the dead comes through every wall. 
I want to take a moment to remind you all that Carl is at least 40, and in fact not a college freshman. The whole chapter is spliced with him hearing his neighbors TV/radio/screaming through the walls and floor and ceiling. He is surrounded and constantly assaulted by noise (his floor and table even rattle from it) throughout this chapter. He literally starts to describe it in terms of war, battle, and assault. 
This is the arms race of sound. You don't win with a lot of treble. 
This isn't about quality. It's about volume.  
This isn't about music. This is about winning.  
You stomp the competition with the bass line. 
You rattle windows. You drop the melody line and shout the lyrics. You put in foul language and come down hard on each cussword. 
You dominate. This is really about power.
The outside world is literally invading and attacking Carl as he tries to go about his business from his perspective. Any act of creating noise in a public space, is an invasive attack.  
Anymore, no one's mind is their own. You can't concentrate. You can't think. There's always some noise worming in. singers shouting. Dead people laughing. Actors crying. All these little doses of emotion. 
Someone's always spraying the air with their mood.
In between Carl lamenting his neighbors being jerks, and how big brother is not watching us but controlling us by filling up all our attention (no really he even uses the phrase "big brother isn't watching. he's singing and dancing" and I nearly took out the bees) he goes about building a model home. He goes to the store, limping, and buys it without seeing the package at all (we're told it was $149). He goes home and meticulously blinds himself to what he's about to build, takes it out of the box in a dark bathroom, puts the box and instructions back in the bag and takes just the pieces out and begins to build. This is something he does regularly, sometimes he trashes the models by screwing something up, sometimes he doesn't. This time he doesn't and he takes us through in minute detail of attention he's pouring into this tiny house. In between building we get glimpses into his past, and how he is (not) coping.
There are worse things than finding your wife and child dead. 
You can watch the world do it. You can watch your wife get old and bored. You can watch your kids discover everything in the world you've tried to save them from. [...] 
The truth is, even if you read to your wife and child some night. You read them a lullaby. And the next morning, you wake up but your family doesn't. You lie in bed, still curled against your wife. She's still warm but not breathing. Your daughter's not crying. The house is already hectic with traffic and talk radio and stream pounding through the pipes inside the wall. The truth is you can forget even that day for the moment is takes to make a perfect knot in you tie. 
This I know. This is my life.
This is all spliced with "advice" he wants to give parents of children who have just died. Things like taking up a hobby (such as building meticulously detailed model buildings without instructions), and:
These people with a dead child, you want to tell them, go ahead. Blame yourself.
Carl is not just depressed. He's turning his mental distress into physical disability as a coping mechanism. That tiny house he is building in such detail will be set on the ground, he'll take his shoe off, and then he will go Godzilla on its ass. He will stomp it to bits, and injure his foot in the process. His depression, this self-harm, has given him a bad foot as well as an inability to deal with anything for any length of time. 
You might move away, but that's not enough. You'll take up a hobby. You'll bury yourself in work. Change your name. You'll cobble things together. Make order out of chaos. You'll do this each time your foot is healed enough, and you have the money. Organize every detail.
This isn't what a therapist will tell you to do, but it works. 
He blames himself for the death of his wife and child. He can't stand the idea of waking up and facing his own thoughts, let alone his past, and he resents everything and everyone for being able to handle their own. It seems impossible to him. So he sneers at them for refusing to allow themselves to think--because that's the only way they possibly could. Otherwise they would all pack up, move, and assume a new identity every few years. The only reason they can settle down and lead "happy" lives is because no one except for him thinks, because he's just such a special nihilistic little snowflake.

This is the bit where I start screaming THERAPY FOR ALL! Except he's obviously already tried that. Instead he opted for running away and smashing up tiny buildings as often as possible. 
The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close-up.
The shortcut to closing the door is to bury yourself in the details.
Oh hey look, that sounds a lot like how he approaches his job doesn't it? Carl's entire life is a series of activities for the sole purpose of trying to outrun his own thoughts, and up to the point where we meet him, he's failing.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Speaker for the Dead, chapter six, part one, in which I no longer know what is going on

Totally unrelated news: some very talented friends of mine have produced a web series called YouStar, about a trio of siblings who join forces to win an online music video competition by appealing to the disturbing romantic trends of our time.  It's pretty great and everyone involved is brilliant, and as a bonus, I have some cameo scenes, so if you'd like a mental image and voice to put these Ender posts to, you should definitely watch all of them.

The first three episodes can be found here, and new ones go up on Thursdays.  (My first appearance is episode 3, but start from the beginning or you won't have any idea what's going on and you'll be missing out on their brilliance.  You'll know it's me when you see a low-quality video of a guy in a bowtie spewing the most ridiculously pseudo-academic jargon he can improvise.  They say to write what you know.)

(Content: death, terminal disease, discussed rape of prisoners.  Fun content: did you see that YouStar link?)

Speaker for the Dead: p. 84--97
Chapter Six: Olhado

We have left behind Pipo's incredibly bad science notes in favour of grown-up Libo's notes.  Unfortunately, these are no less awful.  Libo writes of the Little Ones' storytelling, which is almost always about war, and how war seems to be their only form of interaction with other tribes.  Everyone dies, and bafflingly they never seem to have any interest in enemy women "either for rape, murder, or slavery, the traditional human treatment of the wives of fallen soldiers".  It might be three thousand years in the future and humanity might have all but forgotten the concept of war, but that's no reason to stop defaulting to ancient sexism and rape culture-derived assumptions!
Does this mean that there is no genetic exchange between tribes?  Not at all.  The genetic exchanges may be conducted by the females, who may have some system of trading genetic favors.  Given the apparent subservience of the males to the females in piggy society, this could easily be going on without the males having any idea; or it might cause them such shame that they just won't tell us about it.
How could you have 'genetic exchange' that the males don't know about, given that males are presumably the people being exchanged?  I think they're going to notice getting traded.  Is he hypothesising that the women just trade men for an afternoon sometimes, or keep harems, and/or that the 'traded' men are then killed?  Has Libo considered that maybe the reason the Little Ones are so enthusiastic about war is that they consider it the vastly superior alternative to slavery and rape?  That maybe they glorify death in battle because it always carries the implicit notion of "He got honor, and then he got out before the worst could happen"?  (I mean, I'm sure that we're going to find out war is actually part of their reproductive process, but if Libo's not going to go near that idea, he could at least try harder with the theories he has got.  ...Wait, if war does turn out to be part of reproduction, does that mean that all their tales of battle are basically porn?)

Does he know of anything yet that the Little Ones have indicated shame about?  For all that the error of the Lusitanians is supposed to be that they're treating ramen like varelse, it seems to me that their actual mistake here is that they're treating aliens like humans and then aggressively rejecting any motivations that don't come from stereotypes about ancient humanity.

Libo's apprentice is his daughter Ouanda, who apparently took notes on a storytelling session (I guess from memory, since they're not allowed to write things down?) by one warrior speaking of another who brutally slew several of the first one's allies before getting killed himself.  There are various remarks that I suspect might be hints, like the storyteller showing his enemy a handful of grass, and singing a song "of the far country", and then the whole group breaking out into a chant in the Wives' Language, despite there being no women present.  The Little Ones also speak Stark most of the time and slip into Portuguese for emphasis, a pattern they apparently picked up from Libo.  (Why, again, did they teach the aliens two languages when they're trying to avoid contamination--never mind, we're all bored now.)

Ender's in space again and hasn't got much to do.  I actually kind of like their warp drive, if only because it's so bizarre--the ship makes an instantaneous "Park shift" to high speed, but apparently can't predict how high, so once it's in motion it figures out its velocity and then sets a timer for the appropriate moment to downshift back to normal speeds.  I think that's the first bit of SF I've liked in this book.

He starts from Spanish (he's fluent, obviously) and learns Portuguese, but talking to the ship gets boring after a couple of hours every day.  Apparently Jane can't talk to him while he's in flight, nor can the hive queen, due to the sixteen-hours-per-minute time dilation, which you will recall he only had explained to him yesterday despite this being the twenty-fourth time he's done this exact thing.  After eight days, he's functional in Portuguese and "desperate for human company--he would have been glad to discuss religion with a Calvinist, just to have somebody smarter than the ship's computer to talk to."  Gettin' tired of your Super Bowl Day WOO SUCK IT CALVINISTS routine here, Card.
The starship performed the Park shift; in an immeasurable moment its velocity changed relative to the rest of the universe.  Or, rather, the theory had it that in fact the velocity of the rest of the universe changed, while the starship remained truly motionless.  No one could be sure, because there was nowhere to stand to observe the phenomenon.  It was anybody's guess, since nobody understood why philotic effects worked anyway[....].  Someday a scientist would discover why the Park shift took almost no energy.  Somewhere, Ender was certain, a terrible price was being paid for human starflight.
If the starship is remaining motionless and moving the universe around it, Futurama-style, wouldn't that prevent two starships from moving at the same time, since each would gain velocity relative to the other one?  Or am I being too Newtonian here?  Someone who understands real physics better than I do, please let me know if this is less stupid than it sounds.  (Not the part about Ender's intuition and his nightmares that every Park jump is fuelled by the death of a distant star--I'm sure that's stupid.  And prescient, somehow.)

Jane explains that Lusitania has no landing authority, just an automated shuttle that takes people down to the surface when needed.  It might not fly often, but do the Little Ones not notice the huge metal sky-boat rocketing out of the clouds when it does come?  We've discussed before how humanity must not have cloaking technology, or else they'd never be so stupid as to approach aliens like they have.  Jane also notes that, since Ender is the Speaker, he literally can't be refused access to the planet, which sounds like a terrible idea, given that there are literally no background checks or overseeing authorities to become a speaker.  Are they even going to check his bags?

Plot twist: Novinha cancelled her call for a speaker five days after she sent it--from Ender's perspective, about six minutes after he went to warp speed.  Starways Code says that you can't cancel a speaker once they're in transit, probably because, to quote Anton Mates a couple of weeks back: "How often do you think Speakers set out for distant planets, and then about seven years into their voyage they get a message saying that they're no longer needed, thanks, the police finally figured out that Mr. Jones was poisoned by his ex-wife because she despised his politics, and a poet in another star system did a really nice eulogy over the ansible for him?" 

But, as a bonus, Novinha's kids Miro and Ela also called for a speaker.  Ela, just a few weeks ago, to speak the death of their father Marcão after he died of some terminal disease.  Miro, four years ago, to speak the death of Libo, who was apparently killed by the Little Ones in exactly the same style as his father.  (Bets that the book will 100% blame Novinha's secrecy for Libo's death in the end?  Ha ha of course it will.)  Officially, contact with the Little Ones is now forbidden, but Ouanda refuses and no one is willing to stop her; they're just going to wait thirty-three years for the scientists from Calicut to arrive and take over.  Y'all, this galaxy is weird.  You could literally train multiple replacements in the time it takes for an expert to fly in to deal with your problem, but they do it anyway.

Bonus plot twist: the hive queen detects another philotic mind on the planet.  Ender seems bizarrely disinterested in this.  It's not the Little Ones, but it knows of them.  She's also super in favour of settling there; it looks totally sweet and woodsy.

We skip over to Ela in church, watching her little brother Grego use a screwdriver to pry rivets out of the plastic pews during the homily, and reflecting on what the consequences would have been when their father was alive, how he would have ultimately put all the blame on Miro.  Grego is a little monster; when a nun tries to stop him from destroying the bench, he tricks her, knees her in the mouth, and she flees, bleeding.  Ela, being a viewpoint character, obviously has darkly poetic thoughts about how the physical sickness that killed their father (weird organ mutations that I'm guessing are another variant on Descolada) lives on as a spiritual sickness in his children, because sure, let's assign a moral value to being afflicted by disease, that's not stupid and terrible.

Ela notes that her mother (Novinha) doesn't help at all by being so obsessed with work and inventing new cereals.  I'm trying to think of any career-focused women in any of the Ender/Shadow novels who aren't chastised for failing to focus on their family, and I'm not coming up with anyone.

Bishop Peregrino starts ranting against the coming Speaker for the Dead ("give him your smiles, but hold back your hearts"), which freaks Ela out because she think he's somehow found out about her request, but her brother Quim (it's short for Joaquim and that'll have to do) explains that someone called a speaker for Pipo decades ago and he arrives that afternoon.  Ela panics further, because she thinks it's too soon for Marcão's death to be spoken and his awfulness to be revealed.  I dunno.

Her other brother Olhado must be important, since the chapter is named for him.  He has electronic eyes, and when he's bored or hiding from reality he switches them off or replays old memories, but to leave church:
Olhado switched his eyes back on and took care of himself, winking metallically at whatever fifteen-year-old semi-virgin he was hoping to horrify today.
I'm not sure I even want to know what Card means by 'semi-virgin'.

Ender and Mayor Bosquinha ride in a hovercar over the grasslands toward Milagre, and I wonder again what happened to the ban on ever letting the Little Ones see human technology. "Good god, man, do you really think that just because we launch shuttles in and out of orbit and sending anti-gravity cars cruising over the hills that you can just go and use a pen in front of them?  We have no choice about the cars; are they supposed to walk the whole afternoon?!"  That's basically how I figure that went down.

Bosquinha doesn't want to talk about the Little Ones, and manages to indicate (intentionally?) that the Bishop has named Ender a "dangerous agent of agnosticism", but notes that the cargo ship full of skrika probably won him friends, as "you'll see plenty of vain women wearing the pelts in the months to come."  I'm now trying to tally any women in any of these books who aren't criticised for some intensely feminine-coded flaw.  I can think of two candidates: Petra, who is of course too masculine, and one in the Shadow books who spends all her time supporting Bean and ends up getting fridged to make him sad.

The mayor instead talks to Ender about local life, such as the useless native grass that can't be turned to thatch because it dissolves in the rain once cut, and the herd animals whose meat has no nutritional value.  But then there's an important moment:
The tone of her voice was heavy with concealed emotion.  Ender knew, then, that the fear of the piggies ran deep. 
"Speaker, I know you're thinking that we're afraid of the piggies.  And perhaps some of us are.  But the feeling most of us have, most of the time, isn't fear at all.  It's hatred.  Loathing."
Ender intuited something, knew it, and was then immediately told he was wrong.  Glory hallelujah praise be to Zalgo.  It's moments like this that make me wonder if our third-person-omniscient narrator is supposed to be unreliable and Ender isn't half as smart or right as he thinks he is.  Wouldn't that be awesome?

Bosquinha goes on about the bishop's theologising and whether the Little Ones are morally vacuous or simply unfallen, but then apologises because she's sure she sounds ridiculous to a speaker.  Ender says nothing, just thinks to himself that religious people always think they sound absurd to nonbelievers, which, in my experience, is also incredibly not true, and then congratulates himself for appreciating sacredness in many forms and how the mayor will have to slowly learn to see the truth about people instead of her assumptions.

He starts by mentioning the local religious order, the Children of the Mind of Christ, and explains that he's heard of them before, when he spoke the death of San Angelo on Moctezuma.  The mayor is shocked, not because Ender has just revealed he's been a speaker for more than two thousand years, but because it's supposed to be a heretical story that the now-sainted man asked for a speaker on his deathbed, afraid people were going to claimed he had performed miracles.  Ender, however, attested the miracles himself, and San Angelo was canonised within a century.

...What?  There had better be more backstory coming, because so far this makes no sense at all.  Speakers are required to tell the truth, so if Ender attested to miracles he must have believed they were real, but Bosquinha implies that he thus "meddle[d] in the affairs of the Church".  Ender just says that "where the followers of San Angelo are, the truth has friends", even though Angelo apparently called Ender to speak his death specifically to refute these miracles.  So either Ender lied or Angelo wanted him to lie, and either way I'm not sure how these people are supposed to be truth's best friends.
Bosquinha sniffed and started the car again.  As Ender intended, her preconceived notions of a speaker for the dead were now shattered.
On the plus side, for once a religious author is writing a religious character being startled that their assumptions about an agnostic were wrong, rather than the reverse.  On the downside, Card is no better equipped to write an agnostic than most fundamentalist Christians are to write an atheist.

Bosquinha's complete non-reaction to Ender saying he was there on Moctezuma two thousand years ago indicates to me that, as we've all been saying, incredibly 'old' people should be very common in this galaxy, so I'm even less sure why Ender's ancientness is still treated as such a big deal, and why it took Plikt four years to work out that Andrew Wiggin is Andrew Wiggin.

That's all I can take for this post; come back next week for Ender's detective work and Olhado's sweet robot eyes.