A Review of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (by Bethany)

speaker_for_dead cover image

A couple of months ago I read Ender’s Game on the recommendation of a ten year-old whose taste I have come to trust. He said it was his second-favorite book, right after The Swiss Family Robinson. I read it over the course of a weekend and – well – it was one of those books that felt lonely to me, lonely because it had been waiting so long for me to read it. Ender’s Game was hardly lonely, of course, since it’s widely read among adults and children alike, but I felt an immediate and strong kinship with it. Of course I would like to explain that kinship to you at epic length – and at least parts of it would probably be relatively interesting – but this isn’t a review of Ender’s Game. Back in April, I wasn’t in the mood to slow down to write reviews. I was charging toward my goal of 135 books before June 2. I didn’t make it, but that’s OK. I’ve released myself from the final year of what was supposed to be a five-year reading challenge, and for at least the rest of this year, if not longer, I’ll just be reading at my own pace and maybe also developing some of my other interests that don’t involve staring at the printed page.

But back to Speaker for the Dead. One of the hardest things to understand if you are new to this series is the relationship between Ender’s Game and its many sequels. Here’s the short explanation, which I gained by reading Card’s introductions to several of his novels: Ender’s Game was originally written and published as a short story in 1977. Several years later, Card got the idea for Speaker for the Dead – a sequel – which would only make sense if Ender’s Game were extended into a novel. So he published the novel Ender’s Game in 1984, followed shortly thereafter by Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. These books were all well-received, except by the legions of children who had read Ender’s Game and weren’t happy with the more adult perspective in these novels. So Card decided to write Ender’s Shadow, a so-called “companion book,” which retells Ender’s Game from the point-of-view of one of its minor characters. I thought this was a terrible idea at first and just assumed that Card was looking for some fast income – but, in fact, Ender’s Shadow is terrific. My ten year-old friend described it perfectly: “It’s not as good as a book, but in some ways it’s even more interesting.”

Isn’t he smart? I was impressed by his ability to distinguish between a book’s content and its artistic integrity, and I agreed with him one hundred percent. We should all have such astute ten year-old friends.

Ender’s Shadow then spawned four direct sequels: Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, Shadow of the Giant, and Shadows in Flight, plus Ender in Exile, which in terms of its plot seems more like a direct sequel to Ender’s Game, except that this novel would be impossible for a reader to understand and follow if she hadn’t read the five Shadow books. Then came A War of Gifts and First Meetings in the Enderverse. These two books are pretty lame, really, but by now Orson Scott Card could publish the results from his latest colonoscopy and slap the word ‘Ender’ on the cover, and I would read it. In other words, Orson Scott Card has gained the status of Pat Conroy. And I hope he appreciates what an incredible honor this is.

At the end of Ender’s Game, Ender – who is only nine – saves the entire human race. In the process, he unknowingly wipes out an entire alien species. Afterwards, the human race – which had temporarily put aside its differences to unite against the invading aliens – rekindles its many rivalries. The authorities assume that Ender will become a contested resource during these wars (which are the primary subject of Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant) and could easily be kidnapped, exploited, and/or killed, so they decide to protect him by keeping him at a space station. Eventually, they send him far out into space, where he will use his precocious leadership skills as governor of a human colony that is being set up on one of the many planets once occupied by the defeated alien species.

Interstellar travel takes time, of course, and if you understand the theory of relativity (or if, like me, you pretend to understand it), you know that people aboard vehicles traveling near the speed of light age much more slowly during the span of their voyage than people who are on earth during the same period of time. For this reason, Ender is still very young – fifteen, I think; this was in Ender in Exile – when he arrives at his destination, even though several decades have passed in objective time. Ender is accompanied on this voyage by his sister Valentine, also a child prodigy whose skills lie in the areas of history, political science, and persuasive writing. Ender stays on this planet for only two years. Several important things happen to him there – and gosh, I wish I could tell you about them, but this review is close to a thousand words long already and I haven’t even gotten to Speaker for the Dead yet, so I’m going to push forward – and he serves as an absolutely excellent governor, for the simple reason that Ender Wiggin is absolutely excellent at everything he tries.

(Subject for a future rant: why are there no children’s books about failure? Ender’s Game isn’t really a “children’s book,” per se, although a lot of children read it, but this is a larger concern. Children need to learn about failure. There are children’s books about sex and getting your period and war and gang violence and rape and racism and having two mommies – why not about failure? Failure is the only remaining taboo, that’s why – and it shouldn’t be.)

Speaker for the Dead takes place three thousand years after Ender’s Game, and Ender has spent most of those three thousand years in interstellar travel, and as a result he appears to be only in his mid-thirties. Valentine is still traveling with him, too. By this time, Ender has learned that he did not really wipe out all of the alien species back when he was nine, and he has possession of a cocoon containing a hive queen, whose egg sac is potentially capable of replenishing the species. Ender has learned how to communicate intuitively with the hive queen, and he knows that her species is not evil and will never hurt humans again if he allows her to settle on a planet and lay her eggs. In the three thousand years since he wiped out the majority of her species, Ender has gone from being perceived as the hero who saved humanity to being vilified as a ‘xenocide’ – an evil villain who wiped out an entire species in cold blood. His status is semi-mythological, and of course everyone assumes that Ender is long dead and fails to connect the wise, quiet interstellar wanderer named Andrew Wiggin with the horrible murderer of the past.

Ender is an important character in Speaker for the Dead, but he isn’t really its protagonist. This novel is about a group of Portugese-speaking Catholic colonists who have settled a planet called Lusitania. These colonists share their planet with a sentient species that they call the pequininos, or “piggies” (humans are condescending in their naming of alien species in Card’s early novels – they become more P.C. later on). Regulations forbid the humans to teach the piggies anything about human technology or culture. Allegedly these rules are for the piggies’ protection (think of the Prime Directive in Star Trek), but as a piggy later points out, the rules could just as easily be designed to prevent the piggies from becoming capable of advanced warfare and space travel, thereby ensuring human supremacy. The heroes of Speaker for the Dead are the scientists (‘xenobiologists’) and anthropologists (‘xenologists’) who have been granted permission to initiate closely guarded contact with the piggies. All other humans on the planet are kept contained in an area bounded by an electric fence at all times.

Novinha is a woman whose life – like Ender’s – is circumscribed by guilt. Her parents died saving the humans on Lusitania from a terrible disease and are in the process of being beatified by the Catholic church. As an orphaned child, she was apprenticed to a xenobiologist who treated her like his own daughter, until a discovery she made caused him to die a mysterious and grisly death at the hands of the piggies. She also fell in love with this scientist’s son, but she refused to marry him because she feared that the knowledge she possessed – which after her mentor’s death she shared with no one – would cause his death as well. Instead she married a crippled, unhappy, violent, and sterile man who agreed to look the other way when Novinha repeatedly had children by the son of her mentor. This arrangement causes enormous guilt and unhappiness in Novinha’s home, which is compounded when her lover dies in the same horrific manner at the hands of the piggies. Novinha sees herself as cursed – she has created a miserably unhappy home for her children, and – as she sees it – caused the deaths of the only two men she has ever loved.

Enter Ender Wiggin, theme music and all. Ender, of course, is also a sad, lonely, emotionally crippled man. His relationship with his sister has sustained him for three millennia, but she has recently decided to get married and stop following Ender in his interstellar travel, meaning that she is aging at the usual rate and will soon die. Ender’s best friend is a computer voice that he receives through an implant in his head (her name is Jane, and she is much more than a ‘computer voice’ and deserves further explanation – but there’s no time, no time!), and through his intuitive communication with the hive queen, he has learned that Lusitania would be the perfect planet for the hive queen to settle and lay her eggs. Ender comes to Lusitania for another reason as well – a reason that is related to his identity as a ‘Speaker for the Dead,’ which is important, and I should tell you about it, but again: no time, no time!

Drat. I really should have reviewed the earlier Ender books as I read them so I wouldn’t have to play so much catch-up here, shouldn’t I? This is what happens when we don’t tend to our blogs.

So, long story short, Ender comes to Lusitania, solves everyone’s problems with his infinite wisdom, falls in love with Novinha and decides to stay with her forever, gets to know the piggies and discovers that – of course – they are not really evil, JUST MISUNDERSTOOD. He figures out why they keep killing off everyone that Novinha loves, and he arranges for them never to do this again. He also reveals his identity as the original Ender and manages not to get murdered by an angry mob. He establishes the hive queen on the planet – which will now be the only known planet in the ‘Enderverse’ (did I just say that?) where three sentient species will live side by side.

I think I’ve made this book sound kind of stupid, which it isn’t – not at all. It does have a bit of a religious agenda, as all the Ender novels do – and religious proselytizing disguised as sci-fi is not my favorite thing. But this book also has a lot to say about the transformative powers of isolation and suffering. What happens to Ender during his three-thousand-year exile is very much like what happens to Hester Prynne when she is shunned by Puritan Boston for her adultery and gains “access to the hidden sin in other hearts.” I used to joke with my students that by the end of The Scarlet Letter Hester has “become Oprah,” and Ender becomes Oprah in a sense too. As far as he is concerned, the worst things that could possibly happen to him – being used as a pawn by the military, being cut off forever from most of his family and friends, being consumed by guilt for the near-decimation of a species, being vilified by the entire human race, being forced to conceal his identity – have already happened. His constant awareness of this fact gives him a quiet courage and empathy and self-awareness that are contagious and that end up fortifying Novinha and her family and everyone else he meets on Lusitania. Because that’s the secret, isn’t it? – to act as if the worst has already happened and you have nothing more to fear – even if it hasn’t, and even if you do.

I have to think that this novel was an inspiration for Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which is a favorite of mine even though – in spite of what you’ll see if you look at my book list for the last couple of months – I actually read very little science fiction. Both feature brilliant, isolated, lonely protagonists on spiritual quests to other planets. Both feature well-intentioned encounters with alien races that lead to terrible misunderstandings. In both novels, the protagonists are faced with crippling guilt. I don’t like this novel quite as much as The Sparrow, whose characters are better drawn, but overall the Ender series has given me one of my most enjoyable reading experiences in recent years.

I’m glad I read these books. Good things happen when you listen to smart ten year-olds.

Oh, but P.S. Ender’s Game is WAY better than The Swiss Family Robinson. I’m just saying. Smart ten year-olds don’t know everything.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - Priests in Space, Fiction - SciFi, Orson Scott Card, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Review of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    Why is failure taboo, do you think? I think all kids would be more well-prepared for life if they were made aware that sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to. Do you think this “failure as taboo” business is becoming more prevalent now than it was when we were kids? You’re a teacher, so I think you’re well-equipped to answer this question.

  2. Maria says:

    I am not sure kids would be very happy reading a “failure” book, unless it has a jolly lesson learned that means it is really an accomplishment book in disguise. Kids love books that say they can be as powerful as adults, or, really, more powerful and effective. But, if there is really a hole here, maybe someone should fill it!!!!! I would have been disgusted to read a book only about failure, but I wouldn’t have minded a book where things turned out differently, but still okay.

  3. lfpbe says:

    Maria is right that kids like happy endings and stories in which child protagonists are empowered. I DO remember feeling as a kid that it was “lame” that the protagonists always succeeded in the end, not so much because I wanted them to fail but because I thought the plots of most children’s books were predictable. I think I would have enjoyed seeing a protagonist fail because that would have been so different from what happens in most other books that kids read. I see the failure taboo as probably equally present now and when we were kids, although the “everyone gets a trophy mentality” that refuses to allow kids to fail in real life is more prevalent now.

  4. Pingback: Rediscovering the ‘Ender’s Game’ Universe | KFPL Reads

  5. Pingback: Thoughts on Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide (by Bethany) | Postcards From Purgatory

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