Orson Scott Card
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –
SPOILER ALERT (for Ender’s Game)
In the introduction to my edition of Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card said that he never meant to write Ender’s Game. He had intended to make Ender’s childhood a relatively small part of the beginning of Speaker. But when he got into it, he realized that Ender’s war-gaming backstory was involved enough to deserve its own novel, so he split that part off into Ender’s Game, making that book a prequel to this one, which was the book he really wanted to write in the first place.
I think Card’s priorities were right on. I liked Ender’s Game quite a bit but this is an even better book. Not many people are able to write something so touching and sensitive without being trite or cloying, but Card was up to the task.
Before getting into the plot of Speaker, a brief review of the events detailed in Ender’s Game are in order: Thinking he is only running a computer simulation, a teenage military prodigy named Ender Wiggin brilliantly wipes out the “buggers,” the only other known sentient species in the universe, with whom we are at war.
Ender defeated the buggers due less to his tactical genius than to his ability to understand others. He grew to know his enemy well enough to intimately understand their weaknesses. This insight allowed him to learn how to kill the buggers, but it also meant that he could no longer bring himself to hate them.
Ender’s victory over the buggers makes him a hero. But when he finds out what he has done to them, his guilt wrecks him inside. He goes to the buggers’ home world and finds a cocoon containing the very last remaining bugger hive queen. He secretly takes the cocoon with him, hoping to place it on a hospitable planet one day, once all the humans have finally gotten over their fear and hatred of the buggers.
In the meantime, the hive queen in her cocoon is able to communicate telepathically with Ender. In an act of contrition, Ender writes a history of the queen and her species. This book, The Hive Queen, is published anonymously – the author is listed as “Speaker for the Dead” – and it is distributed across the populated universe. It makes humans understand the buggers so fully that they undergo a guilt-fueled reversal of opinion. The formerly-revered Ender Wiggin, Savior of Humanity, becomes reviled and hated as Ender Wiggin, Xenocide. Nobody has any idea that the Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead are actually the same person.
Speaker for the Dead becomes a model for many people. The anonymous author even inspires the growth of a sort of new religion, in which Speakers are called by the living to research and report – warts and all – on the life of someone who has died, in the hope that it will increase understanding all around.
Ender goes underground to escape the celebrity, both the good and the bad. By traveling at light speed from planet to planet, he ages only a few years while human society ages hundreds of years. By the time Ender is 35 years old, 3,000 years have passed in real time. He ends up on Trondheim, a planet of snow and ice, where he goes by his given name (Andrew) and starts teaching at an institute that trains Speakers of the Dead.
This is the point where Speaker of the Dead begins. The action is centered on the planet Lusitania. In colonizing Lusitania, a group of humans have discovered the third known sentient species in the universe, the “piggies.” The piggies appear quite primitive, so the humans establish strict rules, limiting contact to avoid influencing their development. Unfortunately, however, Pipo, one of the xenologers whose job it is to study the piggies, ends up getting killed by them in a horribly gruesome manner – dissected, with his stomach opened up and his organs strung out from his body across a hillside.
Pipo's young daughter Novinha sends out a call for a Speaker to "speak," or report on, her father's life and death. Ender takes the call himself, but he is several light years away. By the time he arrives on Lusitania, only two weeks have passed for him but 22 years have passed for everyone on the planet. In the meantime, not only has Novinha’s abusive husband Marcão died, but her friend Libo, the new xenologer, has been killed by the piggies in the same way as his father Pipo – and Novinha’s children have called for someone to speak the deaths of both of them too.
Ender researches the three men’s lives and deaths and uncovers a lot of painful and/or really cool truths not only about them but also about the colony, the piggies, and the planet’s strange biology. When he speaks the deaths, it is like a root canal to the colonists, exposing all their secrets and faults. But it is also a release and a relief for them – especially Novinha and her children, who had been living with lies and guilt their whole lives.
Although I enjoyed the story of the colony and the piggies a lot, the real strength of the book is the character of Ender, his tremendous capacity to understand those who are different from himself, and the message he carries about seeing the shades of gray in everyone.
This understanding is what made him want to be a Speaker. He knows that no one is as all-good or all-bad as people want them to be. He doesn’t glorify anyone when he speaks, and he doesn’t vilify them either; he tells the truth so the living will know them as they really were. He shows everyone that Marcão is not 100% bad, and that Pipo and Libo are not 100% good, even though that is what most people wanted to hear.
The great thing, though, is that Card doesn’t make Ender into some drippy, self-righteous spiritualist. Ender knows that sometimes it’s necessary to be threatening or cruel or to use physical force. And he makes mistakes and has doubts, just like everybody else. Almost everyone in the universe regards Ender as an extreme: genius, hero, devil, Xenocide. But he knows that he is just a human being trying to do what he thinks is right.
The one part of the story that makes me a little impatient concerns Valentine, Ender’s sister and his only real companion on his galactic travels. I know Valentine is important to Ender, as the only person who has really loved him all his life, but I never got interested in her or the political machinations she pursues.