Friday, December 26, 2014

Speaker for the Dead

Orson Scott Card
Completed 12/3/2014, Reviewed 12/16-26/2014
5 stars

This being the review of a sequel, be aware it contains spoilers of its predecessor. 

The sequel to “Ender’s Game” is another difficult book to read.  It continues the story of Ender as a 35 year old man, though it takes place 3000 years after the events of the first book, thanks to relativistic travel.  As a way of atoning for his leading military forces to destroy the “buggers”, he becomes a Speaker for the Dead, a person called upon at a person’s death to speak to the life of that person, the good and the bad.  He did this initially when he finds a larval queen bugger who communicates with him telepathically and explains the history and intentions of the race.  Ender recorded this in a book, anonymously using the name Speaker for the Dead.  The book became a sensation, inspiring others to become speakers. 

Humans now live on one hundred planets, one of which is Lusitania, colonized by a mission of Brazilian Catholics and home to the pequeninos, or “piggies”, the only intelligent life discovered since the xenocide of the buggers.  When Pipo, the lead xenologist (alien anthropologist), is murdered by the piggies, one of his assistants makes a request for a speaker.  Ender, being the closest, fulfills the request, uncovering a dysfunctional community and piecing together the biological and sociological mystery that is the piggies. 

There are several themes in the book that made it difficult for me to read.  First, the relationships of the main characters are profoundly dysfunctional.  At the beginning of the book, Novinha is a young girl whose parents died discovering the cure to a fatal virus which decimated the colony.  She grows up an orphan in the shadow of her parents who have been put on the fast track to sainthood.  She becomes a xenobiologist, marries a man she doesn’t love, and neglects her five children.  Novinha knows the reason why Pipo was murdered.  She hides this information so that Pipo’s son, her true love Libo, doesn’t suffer the same fate.  And it’s all this hiding that is the source of all the dysfunction in her life.

Card created an incredible cast of characters with the children of the scientists.  They all have distinct personalities and issues because of the circumstances of Pipo’s death and Novinha’s secrets.  They are exacerbated by growing up in a tight-knit, gossipy, stereotypical Catholic-controlled community.   I think the brilliance of Card is in the children, and that’s what made it so cringe-worthy.  They are distinct, troubled, and even tortured souls, like their mother.  I have often found that children in science fiction novels, and more often films, are saccharine, creating melodrama rather than real emotion.  Here, the drama is tense and gut-wrenching. 

Another relationship that’s difficult is Ender and his sister, Val.  After the horrors Ender endures in the first book, his only companion and support has been his sister.  He’s traveled the hundred worlds with her for 3000 relativistic years, but now must leave her for his next speaking.  By going to Lusitania, he will still be in his 30s upon his return, while his sister will be in her 80s.  It makes for another gut-wrenching scene. 

Lastly, the world of the piggies creates one of the most difficult moral dilemmas I’ve ever read in a science fiction novel.  Their morality is based on their biology, but seems anathema to us.  It is the source of all the conflict between the humans and the piggies.  And it conveys the clear message that we cannot judge the actions of others unless we understand who they are.  It is perhaps the most difficult concept in humanity.  As difficult as it is to take in the context of human-alien relationships, it makes it that much more accusatory when we transpose it on ourselves and our own human conflicts.  While reading it, the irony of author’s own xenophobia towards the LGBT community was not lost on me. 

The one thing I didn’t like about the book was the stereotypical portrayal of Catholicism.  Like most religions, it is expressed in many different ways across its body of believers.  I acknowledge that there are many places and communities where the Church still wields great power, control, and repression over its members.  At the same time, there are other expressions where there is love, acceptance, and healthy dialogue.  Card’s choice of this experience of Catholicism would be equivalent to my writing a story with a Mormon mission peopled with polygamist families with 14 year old wives and controlling interest in corporations which manufacture products forbidden to the Church members.  I much preferred the more modern treatment of missionary work in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

This is another 5 star book by Card.  He creates an incredible world with difficult issues and emotions.  It is perhaps one of the most profound Hugo winners in its tackling of the morality challenges of first contact.  

1 comment:

  1. This one is a difficult one, but in all the right ways. As you point out, Card's characters have dimension. They are complex beings, wringing a great deal of emotion out of you as you read. The man can write, that is certain. I found Ender's Game to be very impactful, and Speaker of the Dead was more so.