Monday, November 1, 2010

1987 Hugo and Locus, 1986 Nebula – SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD by Orson Scott Card

A year after sweeping the big three US awards with Ender’s Game, Card did it again with a sequel, a very different book than its predecessor – the simplicity seems to be gone (or is it?), as is the repetitiveness. The result is a rather byzantine mystery story that managed to fascinate and infuriate me at the same time.

I usually avoid spoilers as much as possible, but it’s impossible to talk about this novel without mentioning a few facets of the conclusion of Ender’s Game, so readers beware.

Speaker for the Dead picks up 3000 years after Ender’s Game. Ender is regarded as a genocidal monstrosity, the worst human to ever live, but Andrew Wiggin is the sainted founder of the influential philosophy of Speaking for the Dead (which is pretty much what it sounds like). He and his sister Valentine are only in their thirties, thanks to relativity, and both generally conceal the fact that they are influential historical figures as they flit from colony planet to colony planet. Ender is called to speak for the dead at the Brazillian-Catholic colony of Lusitania, which also happens to be home to the first sentient lifeforms humanity has encountered since the buggers, called "piggies." Once on the colony, Ender must unravel several nested mysteries about the piggies and a family of xenologists who have studied them for generations. These mysteries have implications for Ender’s own past and for the future of all of humanity.

There was a lot of fascinating material in this book, and in many ways it held my attention better than the parade of school battles that was Ender’s Game. Card doesn’t shy away from using religion in his novels, and the piggies have some interesting biological and cultural characteristics. However, the novel also managed to get on my nerves, a lot, usually at the same time it was fascinating. For instance, Card sets up a family drama worthy of Tennessee Williams: two young xenologists are deeply in love, yet they cannot marry because of a dark secret. Instead, the woman marries another man, a steelworker, who she knows to be sterile, and bears six children with her xenologist lover. The children believe the steelworker to be their father, but he knows the truth, and beats his wife mercilessly, which she feels is fitting punishment for her infidelity with the man she truly loves. In the hands of a subtler, more skilled author this could make for a meaty, layered, family chronicle; however, here it’s just annoying. The dark secret is portrayed as a matter of life and death, but it turns out to be quite pointless. The reason for the lovers not marrying turns on a highly contrived, illogical, and unlikely set of future privacy laws. The characters, whose passions and traumas should be the center of this drama, all fall flat, and are simple stereotypes. Worst of all, Ender glosses over the crimes and heals the wounds of this sad situation in almost no time at all.

This last issue is symptomatic of the most infuriating thing about the book: Ender’s complete and total perfection, including his moral infallibility, which I complained about in my review for Ender’s Game. It’s much worse in Speaker for the Dead. Ender is clearly an analogue for Jesus – wise beyond human limits and carrying the weight of all human sin (through his guilt about the buggers). Again I say, “barf.”

The central complication of the novel is what Star Trek fans would recognize as a “prime directive” problem: how much should humans interfere with piggy culture? Should the piggies be allowed to evolve in their own direction, or should humans give them advanced technology? What if they’re starving? What if they earnestly want the technology? These are interesting questions with no simple answers…. Except that Ender has the simple answers, and he is always right, even though he’s completely inconsistent. Along the way, the xenologists come off as idiots, so that Ender can correct them on all sorts of factual and ethical issues. In other words, no character is allowed to breathe, think, or love except to forward perfect Ender (Don’t even get me started on the Ender-loving sentient computer, Jane). As a result, all of the characters, especially Ender himself, are completely dull and pointless.

Grade: C+

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