This review contains spoilers for Ender’s Game, but which are prerequisite knowledge in Speaker for the Dead.
Exactly a year ago, I posted my review of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which I had finally read after seeing it listed on so many lists of influential science fiction. But Ender’s Game is just a prequel in a much larger series, and considerably different from those that follow. Those following books haven’t received nearly the acclaim that the first has, with the possible exception of Speaker for the Dead, which won, like its predecessor, both a Hugo and Nebula award. This, combined with my brother’s description of Speaker for the Dead as “lightyears more sophisticated and thoughtful” than Ender’s Game, cemented my resolve to read it.
The two novels couldn’t be any more different: Ender’s Game, while cerebral, was action-oriented, mostly following the antihero of Ender Wiggin as he beat up larger boys, devised brilliant military tactics in battle simulations, and finally destroyed an entire civilization; it’s a prodigy-by-proxy, of the 1980’s style, wherein young readers can experience the thrill of being so good at something as to be unbeatable, even though they ultimately realize it’s very lonely at the top. At its heart, and despite the academic controversy it generated, Ender’s Game was a simple book to be read for pleasure.
Speaker for the Dead has no meaningful action by comparison; it’s largely a work about cultural sensitivity, and while its concept is important, it’s execution is not only poor and full of holes, but it was already outshone by the same principle in Star Trek. For those Star Trek fans among you, recall the Prime Directive—that of strict noninterference with pre-warp civilizations—and you’ve gotten the gist of the plot of Speaker for the Dead.
When we begin, a distant world is discovered to have a primitive but undeniably intelligent form of life, dubbed the Pequeninos, which is the first living intelligent species to be found since Ender’s genocide of the “Buggers” millennia earlier. Because it was a Portuguese ship that landed on the planet and discovered the “piggies”, as they come to be known, it is therefore the Portuguese who receive a charter to colonize a small section of the planet for research, but in accordance with new Starways Congress rules, they are not to interfere with the piggies in any way, which also includes even telling them anything about human technology. This is the first glaring inconsistency in Card’s universe, since these strange rules allow for human presence and limited interaction with the natives, but seems to assume that as long as humans don’t disassemble engines or fire weapons in front of them, they will stay blissfully unaware of the fact that these strange visitors possess all kinds of wonderful technology.
After Ender’s “xenocide” so many years before, the pendulum of cultural opinion swung to the opposite side, and human gained a arch-liberal abhorrence for the Ender and his single-handed victory (since it turns out the buggers really didn’t know that their actions appeared hostile to us); Ender himself shares in this opinion. The stance is almost a parody of the left-leaning academic stance that everything is relative, and I would be inclined to think this given Card’s religious baggage1 except that his series seems to embrace it wholeheartedly. This zeitgeist has also led to the institution of the Speaker for the Dead, apparently a government-sanctioned role arising out of Ender Wiggin’s book, The Hive Queen, which tells the Buggers’ side of the story and instantly became an influential classic—its present importance seems on par with the Bible. One gets the impression that Card’s analysis of human nature is somewhat flawed: his criminal underestimation of collective cynicism, bigotry, and apathy is apparent not just in the universally positive and adoring reception of Ender’s anonymous apologia but in, e.g., their rapid acceptance of Valentine and Peter’s internet posts in Ender’s Game.
Central not just to the story, but to the very idea of Speaker for the Dead is the invented hierarchy of being introduced by Ender’s sister, Valentine, to categorize species by their capacity for self-awareness and their relationship to the speaker.
- Utlanning are strangers, but within the same cultural identity.
- Framling are still strangers from within one’s species, but those living on other worlds (since many planets have been colonized by humans)
- Ramen are strangers from outside one’s species, but with whom one can communicate and, in theory, coexist. The piggies are an example, as well as the Buggers, though of course no one realized this when they have Ender annihilate them.
- Varelse are strangers from outside one’s species with whom one cannot communicate, or more pointedly, with whom one cannot relate at all.
- Djur are “monsters” (what humanity supposed the Buggers to be before they knew better).
Ender Wiggin is, in fact, still alive, though he now goes by his original name of Andrew. He and his sister, Valentine, have survived for 3’000 years by spending much of it in space travel and enjoying the benefits of time dilation2. He enjoys the post of Speaker for the Dead and the apparently tremendous amount of power it brings, and no one appears to make the connection that Andrew Wiggin is Ender Wiggin; the long time span seems to be the excuse, though in a galaxy full of people familiar with time dilation, the continued ignorance strains one’s credulity. It’s akin to pretending that once Superman puts on glasses and a suit, it’s a disguise as bulletproof as his chest. As a speaker for the dead, Wiggin flies around the galaxy whenever he’s requested via Ansible3, and his job—once again, a legally-mandated job, which affords him near unlimited power—is to fly to the indicated planet, learn about a dead person, and hold a public “speaking” where he talks about this dead person.
Before talking any more about the plot of Speaker for the Dead, what little there is of it, I think it’s important to stop for a moment and reflect on just how ridiculous a premise this is. At the conclusion of Ender’s Game, when Ender realizes the enormity of his xenocide of the Buggers, he resolves to become a “speaker for the dead”, before the term had any legal relevance. From this resolve came Ender’s book, The Hive Queen, and his continuing mission to find a suitable planet on which to deposit the still-living Hive Queen of the Buggers, so she can reboot their civilization. One can appreciate his immense feeling of guilt, and the message is clear enough. Now consider the yawning conceptual chasm between Ender’s new life direction and the institution by the Starways Congress of an official governmental position of Speaker for the Dead, not to speak about the Buggers, but about any schmuck on any planet who happens to die. Ask yourself why this exists, and why the Speaker has the right to access just about any personal information he wants—can do just about anything he wants, really, short of violating the prime directive.
The notion that most of the deceased persons for whom a Speaker is requested would be boring and uneventful is circumvented here by having Wiggin called to the planet of Portuguese and Pequeninos more or less to unravel a secret three generations in the making. Some of the secret is merely groundwork for later books—a virus called the Descolada, for instance—but some has to do with the way that the native creatures have tortured and killed several people, and the novel’s “heroine”, Novinha, has managed to make a hash of things by being terminally passive-aggressive, deceitful, and occasionally weepy. The fact that she’s so unlikeable doesn’t stop Card from proposing that we like her, or Ender from falling in love with her as suddenly and mysteriously as the rest of the strange plot twists. Why does the Speaker for the Dead have to be a government-sanctioned position instead of simply being something that Wiggin does? It just is, says Card. Why does Wiggin fall in love with Novinha even though she’s a terrible, neurotic person with a penchant for ruining lives? He just does, says Card. How do we explain all the strange behavior of the piggies? Um….. alien telepathy! says Card.
Speaker for the Dead tries really hard for nuance, but ends up with a pile of overwrought narrative and hysterical hand-waving instead.