Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game, both of which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best Science Fiction novel in back to back years for Orson Scott Card, the first time that achievement has ever happened, is a masterpiece of literature. Notice I said literature, not science fiction. That’s because I believe this to be a serious work of literature and not just science fiction. It crosses standard sci fi boundaries early and often and keeps the reader engaged in numerous areas they may or may not be comfortable with. This book explores not only standard hard sci fi fare, but religion, mysticism, politics, biodiversity, ecology, genetics, space travel, anthropology, xenophobia, technology, what makes a species sentient, can an advanced AI be sentient, cultural elitism, our reasons and means of studying other species, the ideals of upholding or abandoning our ethical principles, political rebellion, the knowledge we have of those around us, what we believe about them, the truth behind those beliefs, and much, much more. It’s a heavily philosophical novel, as well as at times, a psychological novel, and it is so much more than just a standard science fiction novel. For those of you who read and enjoyed Ender’s Game and expected more of the same, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed. I read several reviews by people expressing this viewpoint. But as this has a 4.0+ rating on Goodreads, most people appreciate its broad scope, what it attempts to do and what it succeeds at doing, and I think this book stretches the mind and soul in ways not normally stretched by most any book you’ll ever encounter.
It’s been 3,000 years since Ender Wiggin was tricked into committing xenocide by destroying the “buggers” as commander of Earth’s fleet. Unknown to the world, he became Speaker for the Dead, which is a sort of humanist priest who learns about those who have died and speaks the truth of their lives, good and bad, their hopes, fears, intentions, virtues, and vices, and he traveled the known worlds with his sister, Valentine, writing several key works in which he brought the beauty of the buggers to life as well as his brother Peter, the Hegemon, to the forefront of civilization. Sprint forward 3,000 years and “Andrew” Wiggin is a Speaker for the Dead living on a Scandinavian planet with his sister Valentine. They have survived all of these years through the miracle of space travel and how it slows the system and aging down markedly, so that while he destroyed the buggers at age 12, he is now the equivalent of age 36. However, now all this time later, Ender’s name means the Xenocide and he is reviled throughout the universe.
We’re introduced to a planet called Lusitania some 40 years away, but two weeks by space travel, where he has been called to speak the death of a beloved xenologer. In this, he gets excited because he has been carrying the bugger Hive Queen with him this whole time, looking for a suitable place to allow her to create a new world for herself and her race. They think this may be the place. He’s also excited because this world is a world where humans have encountered their second alien race, the stupidly named “piggies.” Unfortunately, it’s the piggies who have killed this xenologer. The woman who called him to speak the man’s death is like his daughter and Ender is taken with her.
When he gets to Lusitania 40 years later their time, he discovers the Catholic-dominated culture they’re led by their Bishop has been instructed to avoid talking to him because he is Satanic. The young woman who called for him no longer wants him. She was married to a man who beat her, has six children and the family is excessively dysfunctional, and the original xenologer’s son and the woman’s friend and colleague was also killed in a similar manner by the piggies. Two of her children have also called for a speaker and a power struggle ensues. Wiggin stays to do his speaking, against all odds. He also meets the piggies and many mysteries are answered while more are brought up.
There’s a lot that goes on in this book. Two of the young scientists disobey the law to teach the piggies some things to make them more self sufficient. They know that if they get caught, if could mean the end of the colony. And they are caught and Starways Congress sentences them to transport to the nearest planet decades away for trial and a probable prison sentence. Even if they get off, they’ll likely never see their families again, as they’ll probably be dead by the time they return home. Meanwhile, Andrew proves to be a healing presence in Novinha’s family and life (the woman who originally called him and no longer wants him there), even against her will. She’s now a bitter, unhappy woman. She’s frankly an unpleasant character. But Ender sees something in her. Progress is made.
Another character who is really cool is Jane, some form of advanced AI, which is really an understatement, with near-godlike powers. She lives in the wires of the universal networks and has been there for thousands of years. She knows all, or nearly all, and is Ender’s best friend. Something major happens, though, and another character is introduced to Jane and things change. Jane goes on to play an increasingly significant role in the rest of the Ender books in the series, so if you’re reading the whole series, pay attention.
The overall premise of the book, then, is excellent – mankind’s dark history with the buggers, their potential for redemption with the piggies, the mysterious evil Descolada virus, the precautions taken to protect xenobiology, etc. But it’s the characters who are the stars. They make the book what it is, truly excellent. Ender, who is the epitome of humanity in his genius, wisdom, tenacity, and ruthlessness, is the killer seeking redemption, and the last Hive Queen, of course Jane, the insecure sentient AI, Ender’s brilliant sister, Valentine, bitter Novinho, the brilliant but angry xenobiologist who Ender is determined to make accept his love, and her dysfunctional family, and then there are the piggies themselves, an alien race who rank up there with some of the better alien species we’ve seen in science fiction. And don’t forget the buggers, who make their fearsome appearance at the very end of the novel. The characters carry this novel.
Perhaps one of my favorite scenes in the novel is Ender’s speaking the death of Marcão, Novinha’s late husband. It’s a brilliant scene and a bit of a show stopper. You know some of the things that are coming, but even then, you’re still surprised by some of it. And the reactions of the crowd are priceless. It’s truly an emotional scene and epitomizes Wiggin’s role in the world as he lives it these days.
Speaker for the Dead isn’t a perfect book. But it’s damn close. I was so impressed with it that I immediately moved it into my list of top five books of all time. Not sci fi books. All works of literature. I think it’s that good. It covers just about anything you want it to cover. It’s all encompassing. It’s heavy on the philosophy and I like that. It makes you think. It’s so much more than the average sci fi book where you see a space/warship or alien, shoot, and go bang. This is a thinking man’s sci fi, and again, I’d argue it’s literature or literary fiction, not merely sci fi. It’s the second book in a four book series. I’ve already finished the series, so I know what I think of the next two books. I think this is the best of the bunch. It’s most definitely possible to read this as a standalone book, if you want to do that. A strong five stars. Most strongly recommended book possible!
One thought on “A Review of Speaker for the Dead”
5 ⭐ YAY!
My young adult daughter has recommended this series to me.
How are you doing, Scott?
HUGS to you and SweetG, from me! 🙂
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