Review: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

On March 19, 2012, in Book Review, Cathy Russell, by Catherine Russell

Orson Scott Card‘s second book in the Ender series, Speaker for the Dead, takes place years after humanity’s war against the alien ‘buggers.’ Ender Wiggins, the former child hero of the Bugger Wars, has spent twenty years traveling from world to world, speaking for the dead – telling the truth about the lives of those who can no longer speak for themselves. Ender knows pain, and now he’s been called to a new world to speak another death – this time, a human Xenologer to the ‘piggies’ – the only other alien species humanity has ever known.

The Lusitanian colony exists under a Catholic license for the sole purpose of observing the piggies without contaminating their society with human culture and technology. The small Catholic community exists within a fenced area, separated (but near) the piggies’ forest community. For a set time each day, the sole Xenologer and his apprentice are allowed to visit and speak with the piggies under very rigid circumstances. Amid this extreme caution, one of the Xenologer’s was killed, and Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins answers the call to speak his death.

The empathy and ruthless practicality that served Ender during his childhood is necessary for many reasons – not the least of which is his role as Speaker. Not everyone in this small Catholic community is ready to hear the truth, but for the good of the community – especially one paricular family, as well as the future of the piggies – the truth must out. For only with understanding common desires and feelings can empathy and compassion exist and healing begin. Ender himself hurts and heals, and is also hurt and in need of healing.

One of the story’s great strengths is the way themes are reinforced repeatedly throughout the relationships in the story. When Ender answers the call of a young girl for a Speaker, he immediately understands her plight because he himself has shared it – the too-heavy guilt of child who committed an innocent atrocity. No one understands her pain or her actions, and she is misjudged and ostracized by her community. The same ignorance leads the Catholic Bishop to warn his flock against cooperating with the humanist Speaker – calling him an agent of Satan. The religious community misunderstands the Speaker the same way they misunderstand the alien piggies (whose differences reminded me a great deal of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land). Ender must show them their common feelings and desires – expressed by different cultural languages.

In fact, there is even an instance when Speaker Ender is criticized for using scientific terminology to make a point to a xenologer and for quoting scripture to make same point to another. He’s accused of saying whatever he needs to get what he wants, but his answer is that he simply speaks in the terms that his audience best understands.

Clarity is certainly an issue throughout the book. The author goes to great pains to make his concepts clear, to the point of including a pronunciation guide for Portuguese (for colonist’s names and some phrasing). There is also a Heirarchy of Foreignness (written by Demosthenes) referred to throughout the plot by both colonists and piggies alike. I confess I cheated a little by looking up terms to understand concepts more easily, but frequency of usage would have made them clear regardless.

My only real complaint is that the Introduction should have been an Author’s note at the end of the story. When I started reading the book, the introduction almost immediately gave away one of the main twists. I skipped the rest, then returned to the Introduction when I’d finished the actual story. It’s well worth a read, but not before the story itself.

There are too many philosophical and psychological metaphors to go through them all without giving away parts of the story – passing from one world into the next, the healing power of truth, self-imposed barriers, and the quest for understanding are just a few. The empathy I felt as a reader for the characters in the book left me in tears towards the end – an ending that’s both a conclusion and a new beginning. This sequel, in some ways, is almost the opposite of Ender’s Game. According to the introduction, Ender’s Game became a novel because the character of Ender needed to grow enough for this story to be written. This novel is well worth the investment in time and will surely stay in your thoughts for years to come.

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One Response to Review: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

  1. […] Functional Nerds (Catherine Russell) on Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. […]

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