Ender’s Game (book)

By Orson Scott Card

As Earth’s only hope, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is paced off to Battle School at the tender age of 6 to become a great military leader. He is, of course, already a genius, and in spite of all the psychological torment the school puts him through, he manages to survive and shine.

But why has he been sent to battle school? Because mankind is fighting a war against the buggers.

Buggers?! Yup, buggers, Card’s (Scott Card’s? NB. Americans, please choose sensible names) unfortunate term for the race of insects against which the human race has fought two wars and is on the verge of fighting a third.

Having endured Battle School, Wiggin is sent to Command School because time is running out. He’s reunited with some of his classmates from Battle School, and after a series of supposed tests, the pass mark for the final exam is genocide (insecticide?). Wiggin becomes a great hero, but can’t return to Earth, and having been sent to a former insect colony, he discovers something unexpected.

While Wiggin is at Battle School, his psychopathic brother, Peter, plans to conquer the world along with their sister, Valentine. Together, using the pseudonyms Locke and Demosthenes (writing as their alter egos to muddy the waters further), they establish themselves as major commentators on the nets, influencing politics and international relations. Wiggin is a blend of the other two. He can be decidedly deadly (the incidents with Stilson and Bonzo Madrid), but he also has a conscience (the egg). It seems strange that although both of the older Wiggins were rejected from Battle School, no one seems to have considered that they, being just as brilliant as their younger brother, might pose some danger to Earth in the right or wrong hands.

Ender’s Game is an odd book in that it’s a story of institutionalised child abuse and, ultimately, casual genocide. Card writes Wiggin as a highly resilient child who endures everything that is thrown at him and yet survives largely unscathed by his experience. The book is about war as a game, and although the characters of Peter and Valentine are used to explore political ideology, Wiggin isn’t subject to any sort of racist indoctrination. (Tellingly, this article on Wired says “The only time his beliefs came up in our conversations was a comment he made about fiction being a totally inappropriate venue for any kind of ideological proselytizing.”)

The original story goes back to 1977, and the book was first published in 1985. At the time, the Vietnam War would’ve been recent history, but the Cold War had not yet come to an end. Although the threat to Earth is external, in a bout of unintentional foresight, Card writes of the Russians preparing for a terrestrial war in spite of a treaty which is intended to keep the peace on Earth while the insects remain a threat. The alien race could still stand for the Russians at the time or Communism (totalitarianism) in general.

Thus, if Ender’s Game is a Cold War yarn, is Ender Wiggin a reflection of Card himself, who, it seems reasonable to suppose, was quite possibly a child whose precocity isolated him from others? Wiggin perpetually shines throughout the book, coming close to defeat in some battles, but never losing one. His fatal fights with Stilson and Bonzo Madrid are the sort of scenes of wish fulfilment that would appeal to clever people who have been bullied by stupid ones.

Ender’s Game is well written, but ambiguous. Wiggin’s treatment raises intermittent comments; the extermination of the insects ultimately doesn’t bother anyone; and Wiggin’s discovery of the egg potentially undermines his genocidal victory. What is the reader meant to think? What’s the message? And do you have to be a Mormon to understand it?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

By John Boyne.

Bruno’s dad is someone important, although Bruno isn’t really certain of what he does. It does mean that the family has to leave its nice home in Berlin and go and live outside a camp in Auschwitz where everyone wears striped pyjamas.

Having little else to do, Bruno goes exploring and soon meets a boy called Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the wire. The pair are precisely the same age, and they become friends, although the wire almost always interposes. At one point, Shmuel turns up at Bruno’s house, and gets into trouble for allegedly stealing food when Bruno disowns any familiarity with him. In spite of the consequences at the hands of Lieutenant Kotler, Shmuel resumes his accustomed place beside the wire.

Eventually, they make arrangements for Bruno to enter the camp where he discovers not only how wretched their lives are, but also their fate, although Bruno dies in blissful ignorance.

I think the story strains credulity just a little too far, an observation made in other reviews. Bruno seems stunningly stupid and ignorant even for a nine-year-old whose entire life would’ve been spent under Hitler’s reign. It’s a touching enough story about the son of the man in charge of Auschwitz making friends with a Jewish boy and dying with him in tragic innocence in the gas chambers. It’s not, so I’ve read, meant to be faithfully accurate or among other things, Bruno would’ve been electrocuted when he wriggled under the wire. But like other readers young and old alike, I felt the protagonist needed to display a little insight, or there needed to be some insight from somewhere.

Sci-fi, fantasy, or faerie tale. Same story, but done as one of these with a more aware Bruno and the same tragic ending. Thus there would be no need to distort the truth.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is another of the books which I considered as a possible replacement for To Kill a Mockingbird for the higher-level English B students next year. From a practical perspective, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the course (also a problem with To Kill a Mockingbird) and even our pupils may find Bruno somewhat irritating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

By Mark Haddon

15-year-old Christopher Boone has Asperger’s Syndrome. He likes red, Maths, and confined spaces; he can’t read expressions; he doesn’t like the colours yellow and brown; hates being touched; cannot cope with crowds of people or strangers; has problems understanding non-literal language and inexplicit instructions; and doesn’t like the food on his plate touching.

After he finds his neighbour’s dog dead, skewered with a garden fork, he decides to investigate the matter to track down the killer. In the course of his enquiries, he uncovers a secret, which briefly takes him to London before he returns to Swindon to sit his A-level Maths exam.

The book ends with Christopher reflecting on his successes and his firm conviction that he can do anything.

The final message is a bit clumsy because of its obviousness, and it felt a bit abrupt. Christopher succeeds because the story requires him to do so, but I was also left wondering whether the message could possibly be true because of level of support which the boy would need to become a scientist.

Christopher’s parent seem to be archetypes. His dad is more patient than his mum, but even he has his limits, and he makes his son promise to stop investigating Wellington’s death. It’s after his dad takes his book away that Christopher discovers a secret, and it is also when his father really loses his patience out of the frustration of dealing with someone who lacks the ability to effectively interact with others. Christopher’s mum had less patience and that put the marriage under pressure.

The book is written as if Christopher himself had written it, although there are times when certain passages (especially some of his reasoning) can be skipped without any great loss.

I’ve thought about buying The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time several times over the past few years, but had never got round to it till now because we’ve been talking about replacing To Kill a Mockingbird (mainly because of issues with the language and style; also, I think the book is overrated, but that’s just me). Would The Curious Incident be a reasonable replacement for it?

I think our students would relate to Christopher to some extent. They like Maths, they’re literal-minded, and they have a limited understanding of the world. (They are, I believe, more ignorant than I was at their age even if they can do Maths at a third-year university level.) The language in the book is mostly undemanding, but there are a few tortuous passages where they’d give up, and it’s sometimes adult (which may or may not get through the vetting process to which, I assume, the book is probably subject).

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time would tie in well with TOK and mental health (which we’ve been doing as a second-year topic).

The book is a distinct possibility as a replacement for To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s more contemporary, less obscure in its language, more cohesive, and about a subject which is less alien to our students.

Lamentation

By C.J. Sansom

When Catherine Parr’s book, Fifty Shades of Religion [Really? –ed.], goes missing, she turns to her favourite PI, Matthew Shardlake to find what has happened to it. It seems that the wrong people have probably got it and will publish it any day… Any day now… Or perhaps not.

Shardlake’s day doesn’t get any better when his searches get him tangled up with the oily Sir Richard Rich, who has been involved in a little extrajudicial interrogation of Anne Askew, the religious fanatic who got burnt at the start of the book. She managed to write an account of her time in the Tower which is at risk of being smuggled abroad, and indeed is after a desperate battle at the docks. Yet in spite of that volume going abroad, there’s no sign of the Queen’s modest tome which, she fears, is going to annoy the King if he gets his pudgy little hands on it.

In his usual OCD style, Shardlake just won’t let go, and his two sidekicks won’t let him go alone in spite of the near-fatal injuries done to Jack Barak.

As Shardlake eventually discovers, there are some top people involved, and he manages to live to fight another day, but sent packing with a right royal flea in his ear.

Six months later, Henry has died, and the threat from Sir Richard Rich increases with his promotion to Lord Chancellor, but the Dowager Queen has a solution, and they all live happily ever after – at least until the next novel.

As with other books in the series, some judicious cutting might’ve helped, and once again, there was a certain amount of repetition, not just words, but also passages where the same ideas were repeated.

Once again, Shardlake has problems with his steward, who is open to blackmail because of his son; he keeps falling out with Guy of Malton; he nearly gets Barak killed (and seriously annoys Tamasin because of the deceit surrounding Barak’s other injuries); and while the reader hopes that he’ll succeed in spite of the opposition against him, he’s not the most endearing character.

Although Sansom may have other Shardlake novels in the pipeline, I’m inclined to think that the death of Henry VIII should see the end of the series. After all, what’s he going to do with Edward VI? “You, peasant,” demanded the gangly adolescent king, “find my iPhone for me, the one which has all my naked selfies, which I sent to Jane Grey.”

Sovereign and Revelation

Sovereign

By C.J. Sansom

Although Matthew Shardlake may have escaped Cromwell’s clutches (what with him being dead and all), he gets pulled in by Archbishop Cranmer to head to York to provide assistance with legal matters to Henry VIII’s progress and to ensure that Sir Edward Broderick is in good health for a spot of brutal human rights abuse in the Tower. What could possibly go wrong?

Before Shardlake has taken two steps inside the gates of York, there’s a murder which leads to the discovery of some secret papers that could topple the monarch. He also sees something else that he ought not to have seen, but if Henry VIII was playing with dolls in a locked room with no windows, Shardlake would see him doing so. There’s the usual cast of bullying, heartless bastards all making Shardlake’s life just that bit worse as well.

Shardlake makes friend with Giles Wrenne, a elderly local lawyer suffering from a terminal illness, while Jack Barak, Shardlake’s assistant (inherited from Cromwell) meets a pretty girl called Tamasin Reedbourne

The story drags on until it reaches a climax as the gang travel back to London, and the reader thinks, “I don’t mind not knowing about the rest because it’s now fairly obvious who the other villain is.” But there’s quite a bit of book left before it’s all resolved and Shardlake is extracting a promise from Cranmer not to bother him with matters of state again. The grateful archbishop promotes him.

Some uncompromising editing would’ve improved the pace of the book and with some care, the second villain, whose identity was immediately obvious after the Unexpected Guest Villain had been revealed, might’ve remained a mystery a bit longer.


Revelation

An inventive, religious-themed serial killer has been murdering people is various gruesome ways based on the Book of Revelation. One of the victims would happen to be a mate of Shardlake’s, and before he can say a Hail Mary, he’s right up to his neck again when he finds himself in Cranmer’s presence once more because these killings have implications.

Who’s the killer? Who knows, although the evidence points in one definite direction? With dogged determination, Shardlake works out the puzzle.

He also has to deal with another religious extremist, who has ended up in (the) Bedlam because he’s been praying himself silly, although there seems to be no rhyme or reason for it until Shardlake works out the answer in the course of his investigation.

Meanwhile, Jack and Tamasin Barak have been having marital problems following the death of their first child.

Although Shardlake has successfully solved another case, he can’t quite escape the clutches of some very important (grateful) people.

Dark Fire

By C.J. Sansom.

Matthew Shardlake is hired to deal with the case of Elizabeth Wentworth who has allegedly pushed her cousin, Ralph, down a well. The girl is entirely reticent and is likely to be pressed until Cromwell gives her a stay of torture because he needs Shardlake to investigate another matter.

To this end, Shardlake is joined by Jack Barak, one of Cromwell’s men to search for the Gristwood brothers, who have acquired the secret of Greek Fire, but who have been predictably murdered.

As Shardlake investigates this matter, he also gradually uncovers the truth about the Wentworth case, and while the conclusion to that is successful, the search for Greek Fire ends less well. Shardlake also acquires his Dr Watson in the form of Jack Barak.

Since the first volume, Sansom has got a bit more into his stride with Dark Fire, although that’s not to say there’s no repetitious vocabulary. Barak is prone to calling everyone “arseholes” (34 times).

Dark Fire also has a bit more energy as well. The introduction of Jack Barak gives the novel some dynamism which Dissolution lacked, and to the same end, setting the story in London supplies the book with a wider variety of locations than the monastery of Scarnsea in Dissolution.

Overall, this was enough to get me to buy the next book in the series, Sovereign.

Three book reviews

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Wolf Hall is the plump opening tale of Thomas Cromwell, and his rise from a child abused by a brutal father to one of Wolsey’s servants to one of the key players in the court of Henry VIII as the king pursues Anne Boleyn and breaks with the Catholic church.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically as someone of low estate who rises in the face of class prejudice from the likes of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. Sir Thomas More is an academic snob, who looks down his nose at those who are allegedly intellectually less capable than him. (I don’t know to what extent this is an accurate portrayal of More and his attitude towards others; nor do I know what his interactions with Cromwell were like; his character seems to be fictional, but it may be based in reality; More has always seemed to be someone who was at least admirable for standing up to the tyrannous Henry over his split with Rome.)

Although Wolsey fails to get Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and then fails to become the Pope to achieve the same end, Cromwell finds favour with the king and continues to rise even after his first master falls.

As others have noted, Mantel has this oblique style of writing where she starts talking about a character without stating which one. Most (all?) of the time, it’s Cromwell, but the style can be irritating because it’s unnecessarily obfuscatory, and apart from being a quirk, it seems to have nothing to recommend it. Whatever Mantel’s aim might have been, such vagueness soon loses its novelty value.


The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières.

I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin many years ago. De Bernières’s proclivity for sounding like the worst excesses of a Chinese SAT word-list book did not endear him to me and smacked of pretentiousness. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts was recommended to me by a colleague of mine, who handed me a battered volume.

The story is is a collage. Part of it is about a village which is likely to find itself targeted for having Communist sympathies when it has no particular political inclinations. Part of it is about the clandestine programme of savage torture in the capital and the Disappeared. Part of it is about a band of guerrillas, and part of it is mystical and faerie tale like. But part of it is also de Bernières expostulating anthropologically about some aspect of South American society over many pages when a brief paragraph would have been sufficient.

The author also once again resorts to the pretentious style of writing of which he is so fond.

Sometimes the tale is amusing, and at other times, unremittingly grim. The title is really just there to catch the eye because Don Emmanuel’s nether parts don’t feature that much, and the war surrounding them comes to nothing.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts is a book which doesn’t appear to know what the author wants it to be. Perhaps a series of short stories might have been better.


Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.

Matthew Shardlake, like any good fictional ’tec, has a particular quirk, viz. he’s a hunchback.

His boss, Thomas Cromwell, sends him off to the monastery of Scarnsea where another of Cromwell’s people has been murdered. Shardlake arrives as a reformist with the dissolution of the place hanging over its head.

In best Inspector Morse style, there are two more murders, and the corpse of another victim, is dredged out of the fishpond. If that wasn’t enough, there are thuggish monks, gay monks, ethnic-minority monks, and a mad Carthusian to contend with as well.

Shardlake doggedly investigates the entire sorry affair while his zeal for reform is tempered by his experiences, including Cromwell’s indifference to admitting that the evidence against Mark Smeaton, the musician who was executed for allegedly bonking Anne Boleyn, was fabricated.

In his first book in the series, Sansom hasn’t quite got the style right. It feels clunky and clumsy as if he sat down at his desk one day and decided to have a crack at doing some creative writing. As well as his awkward style, Sansom has a tendency to repeat (novel) words in quick succession, which makes them stand out. I suppose it’s something that I latch onto because I see it so much in my pupils’ writing, and even though the word in question may not be significant, it sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. A little revision wouldn’t have hurt.

I’ve now moved on to the second book in the series. We’ll see whether Sansom’s writing improves with experience.

What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

via What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ.

One of the English B topics we do is language diversity. The book we use has several articles arguing that English may or may not retain its crown as, more or less, a global language. Mandarin is often touted as a possible successor, but I remain sceptical because China has none of the cultural clout globally that America does. At most, Mandarin may become a lingua franca among nations with less reputable regimes which are nominally cosy with China.

However, I’m less interested in this particular debate than I am in what Dr McWhorter has written in his article for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s start with my lead above.

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

Two thousand years ago, Germanic was a Sprachbund (which to all intents and purposes is pretty much any language with a minimal amount of dialectal variation). When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain in AD455, they were still speaking dialects of West Germ­anic, and wouldn’t be speaking Old English until sometime in the 7th century at the very earliest. Even then, the Anglo-Saxons could still have returned to the mainland Europe and have conversed with their continental cousins. St Boniface was the West Saxon who took Christianity to the German parts of the Frankish Empire in the middle of the 8th century (wikipedia).

Old English bristled with three genders, five cases and the same sort of complex grammar that makes modern German so difficult for us, but after the Vikings, it morphed into modern English, one of the few languages in Europe that doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects.

Five noun cases? Try four; and in the masculine and neuter, the nom­in­at­ive and accusative had merged. And if German has such a complex grammar, how on Earth do the Germans manage to acquire it at all? What about the Lithuanians, who have twice as many noun cases, or the Finns who have about four times as many? How do the Hungarians and Turks cope with all that agglutination? What about all those languages with noun incorporation?

As for the Vikings, they did have a lexical impact on English (e.g., leg, egg, skirt, they, their, them, though), but changes to English grammar came from within the language. The inflectional system of English was dying throughout the Old English period. Unlike Old High German and Old Saxon, Old English had reduced the present plural endings of the verb to -aþ, which was, in origin, the 3rd per­s­on ending.

The same applies to the effect of French on English. The lexicon may have been irrevocably altered, but the morphology and gram­mar of the language remained native. Whatever the source of continuous verb forms in Modern English (a feature which is not shared by any other continental European language), it cannot be Old Norse or Old French.1

Mandarin, Persian, Indonesian and other languages went through similar processes and are therefore much less “cluttered” than a normal language is.

A “normal language”? Does this mean that Mandarin, Persian, and Indonesian are all abnormal?

Even if much of the article is sound, it is statements such as these which undermine any pretension which McWhorter might have to academic rigour or merit.

Notes

1. Icelandic also has continuous verb forms, and such constructions can also be found in Italian, but have a much more limited scope. One possible areal feature of European origin in British English is the range of the perfect, which is wider than it is in American.

It’s that week again

Stepping up to the microphone.

It’s been that week again when in 1949, Chairman Mao addressed the ex­cited crowds in Tiananmen Square, welcomed them to the People’s Re­public of China, and warned them about how deadly PTSD could be.

“But PTSD isn’t generally life-threatening,” said someone in the crowd.
“It is in my case.”
“Say it isn’t so, Son of Heaven.”
“Ah, I meant life-threatening for you. I’ll be fine. No, no. I’ll live to a ripe old age and traumatise the Empire… Sorry, nation, for generations to come.”
“Can I vote for someone else?” asked the man.

It’s the 65th anniversary of the founding of the current dynasty, although apart from a few posters proclaiming this, it doesn’t seem to have been treated as one of those landmark anniversaries.

I went to Chengdu to see Linda, but since the trip was largely domestic, I’ll confine most of the rest of this post to pictures.

Apart from a couple of occasions when it was grey and damp, the weather in Chengdu was warm and pleasant to the point of being summery, and the air quality was generally very good by the city’s usually dubious standards.

I agnize that it’s antique vocabulary

Introduction

[07.09.14. I originally posted this as part of a larger entry on the 3rd of February 2007, but decided to extract it from that and make it a se­par­ate entry.]

Agnize.

We read Othello when I was at school. 6th form, if I remember rightly. I remember that no one, apart from me, had the faintest idea about the function of the grave accent in the edition we used so that the meter got mangled at times. Most of the time was spent reading the play out loud, but I don’t remember much about the meaning of the English or the themes. I think I regarded Iago as an interesting character because he was completely without scruples in his quest to destroy Othello.

There is one linguistic thing I learnt from Othello, and that is the verb “agnize” which, not surprisingly, I thought might’ve been some variant of “agonise”, but it actually means “recognise; acknowledge”. It’s only used once in the whole play in

I do agnize
A natural and prompt alacrity
I find in hardness and do undertake
These present wars against the Ottomites.
(Act I, Scene iii)

I don’t know whether it’s ever had any airtime beyond this single instance. A search of Renaissance Editions [dead link removed] yields only two examples – the one above and the following from John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays.

I hate to correct and agnize my selfe, and can never endure but grudgingly to review and repolish what once hath escaped my pen. (Book 3, Chapter IX: Of Vanitie)

Robert Southwell (1561-1595) uses it in the following stanza from New Heaven, New War.

The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is He that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your King a mortal wight,
His borrow’d weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where He lies;
That is your bliss above the skies.

From the Twenty Fifth Book of Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso we have

13. Now when the youth from danger quite was freed,
And all that sought his death away were fled,
He thanks the author of this worthy deed,
And thanketh her that had him thither led
Then, when of helpe he stood in greatest need,
When otherwise he doubtlesse had bin dead,
And executed like a malefactor,
Agnizing him his Lord and benefactor.

I don’t know why I happen to remember agnize. I’ve never used it myself since it’s obsolete for a start and I’d forgotten what it meant until I checked the meaning on answers.com.

I wonder how much longer it’s going to take before someone agnizes that Shakespeare’s English needs to be translated to facilitate the comprehension of his works. The content may have meaning for us, but much of the language doesn’t.

Now, some homework. Yes, that means you lot. Find other instances of agnize from English lit. When was it last rarely used?

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.

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