Saturday, December 07, 2013

Book Review: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

Speaker for the Dead was published by Tor Books in March of 1986.  It had one prequel, the novel adaptation of Ender’s Game, originally published as an independent novella.  All three were written by Orson Scott Card, and by the time the two novels were written the third, Xenocide, was on the way.  Speaker for the Dead  won the Nebula Award in 1986 and the Hugo Award in 1987 and starred Ender Wiggin, the star of Ender’s Game.

I’d find it refreshing to continue in this vein, and simply speak the truth about the novel, but I’m either not talented enough to do this book justice in that manner, or it’s simply not the way for me to go about this.  That might be true for yet another reason: the Ender series isn’t dead.

Speaker for the Dead was conceived independently of Ender’s Game, and it shows, because the two novels are completely different.  Ender Wiggin is the connecting factor, and he’s a big one; as literally both the head and the heart of the novels, his mind and methods are an important piece of why both novels succeed.  Ender Wiggin is, at the core of his person, a genius, from the same ilk that spawned a man who hid his identity until after he had taken the world.  Other than the fact that both Ender and his sister have continued publishing works under their assumed identities for a thousand years in real-time (accounting for the effects of thousands of light-years of travel at relativistic speeds), that’s stopped being relevant long ago.  What’s important is that he’s assertive and compassionate, with all of the people skills learned by a lifetime of officer training condensed into a single childhood, and all of the empathy that made him worthy of all of that training.  Add that to the fact that he’s become close friends with an AI that acts as this universe’s version of the Force, and Ender Wiggin may just be able to solve any problem that’s thrown at him.

But Ender’s a hero, and he’s survived his trials.  Of course we root for him, but what’s truly powerful about this writing is the people who were never intended to be heroes.  When someone like Ender Wiggin or Luke Skywalker, or Odysseus goes through trials, it’s okay.  We grieve with them, we emphasize them, but ultimately as an audience, we’re cheering for them.  Because we know that they have a destiny, that all of this pain is going to serve a purpose, and they’re being prepared to save somebody.  But when regular people, with no special training and no special future, go through the same trials and have nothing in return for it, that’s when it really hurts.

That’s the thing about Fiction, really.  People who decry Fiction for being too dark and people who hate escapism are both missing the point.  Fiction allows a reader to experience things, powerful things, without facing the consequences themselves.  It’s about emotional highs and lows as much as it’s about anything else.  It allows you to experience incredible pain and sadness and anger and relief and acceptance all in a short time, without requiring you to live through the physical or emotional abuse of a lifetime first.  It’s the rush of a race without the risk of impending crash, but in the hands of a dedicated writer, it becomes so much more than that too, because you’re meeting real people, and helping them through their trials just by bearing witness.  And that, more than anything else, is what Speaker for the Dead is about.  Feeling, without being devastated.  Speculating without the consequences of acting on mistakes.

Not that everything is quite so straight-forward as the power of Fiction.  In order to make this a true world, a real world with people living in it, Card by necessity made this a more complicated book. After all, a military organization- any military organization- is simpler than a town with a belief structure.  That’s a large part of the function of the military: to keep everything in the social and power structure as simple and easy to follow in order to eliminate distractions.  On Lusitania you have three competing power structures: the political, the religious, and the intellectual.  In order to subvert the trope of characters from other worlds always having short, simple to pronounce names, the colonials speak Portuguese, each having long, over-blown names in addition to a shorter nickname for the audience.

The Catholic Church is a major player in this novel, which might be a problem for some readers.  As somebody who both disagrees with certain aspects of the church in very strong ways and somebody who came into the novel with certain notions about how I expected the author to handle religion, I struggled with certain scenes.  Early on, the portrayal of the church seemed to alternate between it being a villainous organization and the right way to live.  Ultimately, though, this book doesn’t come out with a lot to definitively say about the church.  The Catholic religion functions exactly as it does, one individual is shown to be pompous and overbearing in the beginning and to have a more open mind toward the end, and the church is portrayed as having the exact amount of power that it would have on a monotheologic colony twenty light years from the nearest other human settlement.  Much like a speaking for the dead, this novel portrays the good along with the bad as part of a more complete truth, and doesn’t cram any belief or intent down the reader’s throat.

Speaker for the Dead is a story about the hard knocks of life.  Through the veneer of Science Fiction and the suspense of interspecies relations, Orson Scott Card writes about dealing with terrible things, and about how good intentions lead several families through misery that might take several generations to work itself out.  It’s also about more mundane miseries, such as the pain you feel when somebody shows affection that you’re used to seeing reserved for yourself to someone else in your stead.  This is balanced out by the xenobiology and anthropology featured in the novel, which makes for some fascinating philosophical debates and great mysteries for the scientific-minded to work out, making this a great book for anybody who desires full immersion in a novel that pulls very few punches and demands you to read with both your mind, and your soul.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I've got this one but haven't read it. For some reason it just never grabs me when I have a look at it.