3,000 Years with the Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the DeadLast year for the Sci Fi Experience, I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (review here).  It’s been a year now, and I finally got back to the series to read Speaker for the Dead.  Hopefully it won’t take me as long to get to the third book–because I really enjoyed this one!

I can see why Card felt he needed to write Ender’s Game to establish the backstory for Speaker for the Dead, because it’s remarkably complicated.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as I can, though…

The second book is set 3,000 years after the first one.  Ender and his sister Valentine have spent much of that time traveling at almost-lightspeed, changing how time passes for them, so that they’ve only aged into their mid-thirties.  Humans have colonized the Hundred Worlds in a society connected by instant communication but very lengthy spaceflight trips.  For the first time, they’ve encountered another intelligent alien species, the piggies, on the planet Lusitania.  After the disaster with the Buggers, they’ve put an extreme Prime Directive into place, limiting contact between the piggies and the human colony to almost nothing, and striving to let nothing at all about humans be revealed, lest the piggy society be contaminated.  When the researcher studying the piggies is killed, Ender sets out for Lusitania in his role as Speaker for the Dead, to Speak the man’s death and discern the truth.

I feel like I’ve barely touched the surface of the plot here.  It’s a plot that deals with large-scale events, yet is really more about individuals, about one person’s pain and how he or she copes with it, and the results–and how that affects others, and how they respond, and so on.

I think I liked Ender better in this book than the first one.  He’s gained a great deal of wisdom, while still keeping enough human flaws to be sympathetic.  There’s a cast of strong characters, but my other favorite is probably Jane, a self-aware computer program (to vastly simplify), with a deep attachment to Ender and a considerable sense of humor.

This book is full of mysteries, and I read it quickly because I wanted so much to know what would be revealed next.  I think I had all my questions answered by the end–sometimes I had to stop and think a little to work out how it all fit together and explained earlier parts, but that’s all right.  I don’t often think about whether or not books make me think (if that makes any sense), but this one did, in a good way.

Most intriguing are some of the concepts here.  I think the piggies are the most alien aliens I’ve ever encountered in books or movies.  Star Trek usually uses aliens to extrapolate on some aspect of humanity, Star Wars gives us visually-strange creatures but little depth about them, and most aliens in other sources are either humans with strange faces, or mindless monsters.  The piggies are deeply complex biologically and culturally, and they are deeply alien.  But Card takes it seriously, so they aren’t alien as a farce or for the sake of being bizarre–they’re alien in a way that makes us think about our own understanding of the universe, and our own deepest-held assumptions.

Most stories about aliens either show them as immediate allies or immediate enemies.  The interaction with the piggies feels like what maybe really could happen, as two well-meaning species struggle to understand each other because of their inherent differences.  This isn’t a story where we all find out we’re really the same under the skin, but it does suggest we can still meet in some way.

The space travel was also fascinating, though I almost want to call it time-travel.  Most sci fi invents faster-than-light travel and links up the galaxy, or else has very separate and disconnected colonies on different worlds.  Card gives us a society that is deeply interconnected, even though it can take twenty years to get from planet to planet.  The sheer practicalities of it are fascinating, especially the way travelers don’t age appreciably–so for them, two weeks passed, while everyone they left at home has lived through years.

I was especially intrigued by the way Ender and Valentine used space-travel to move through the years, ultimately becoming historical figures in their own lifetimes.  Masterful though most of this book is, I don’t think Card really got into how hard that would be.  He gets into the personal level, but not on the level of dealing with a changing society.  It would be like someone from the Trojan War trying to function today, after only checking in for a few months here and there in the intervening centuries.  Language, customs, technology–everything would change so much.  And if everything doesn’t change during Ender’s 3,000 year span, well, that’s kind of a sad commentary on the future of humanity…

But that’s a small criticism, and probably it’s just necessary to make the novel work.  And it does work, and it’s fascinating.  I preferred this one to Ender’s Game, though I think the first book is necessary for understanding the second.

Speaker for the Dead was full of mysteries that kept me turning pages looking for the reveal, and full of thought-provoking ideas that I expect to linger.  Highly recommended.

Author’s Site: http://hatrack.com/

Other reviews:
Realizing Grace
Ada’s Technical Books
Been’s Blog
John Walters
Anyone else?

Buy it here: Ender’s Game or Speaker for the Dead

One thought on “3,000 Years with the Speaker for the Dead

  1. I put off reading this review because I was right in the middle of the book when you posted it. Just finished it last night. I agree! Reading through this one so quickly just to get to all of the mysteries! (Or actually, listening raptly.) And he really kept some of them until the very end, too. I did this one audiobook and I’m pretty sure it was the same people who read Ender’s Game. Very nice, because their voices perfectly suit the mood.

    I hadn’t even thought about the more social ramifications of Ender and Valentine traveling so much through time as it were. But you’re right. I mean… just English and the way we speak and communicate have changed. So many things would have changed in 3000 years. Ah. I guess Ender and Valentine are prodigies, but it does raise some questions.

    And the piggies, too, yes very alien. I actually found myself thinking about the same thing while reading it, comparing them to Star Trek aliens and other aliens. Usually I don’t really like alien aliens, but I liked the characterization of the piggies. Perhaps because usually when aliens are so different, it doesn’t serve a purpose other than to call attention ot the fact that they’re aliens. But this really had a purpose to it, and I liked that.

    And reading this book, yeah I can appreciate the end of Ender’s Game now. Though, funny, Ender’s Game is the book I like more. There was a short note from the author at the end of the audio book and he said it was funny that Speaker for the Dead was the book he set out to write, but Ender’s Game is the more popular one. I think he likes Speaker for the Dead more, too. 😉

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