Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
I enjoyed Ender’s Game when I read it last year, so I was excited about the sequel. In the author’s talkback at the end of the recording I listened to, Card said that this was the book he really wanted to write, and Ender’s Game was kind of just a set-up for this. Speaker for the Dead is more hopeful, taking the second half of Ender’s Game to its logical conclusion. In some ways it’s a more adult book, and has a larger scope.
It’s 3,000 years after the end of Ender’s Game, but Ender has only aged to about 34, thanks to light-speed travel. He travels to Lusitania, a small human colony on a planet inhabited by an intelligent alien race called the “piggies.” He’s a speaker for the dead, which is like a funeral director whose job is to tell the truth about the dead person, and he comes to honor two scientists who were killed by the piggies and to understand why they died. The xenologers studying the piggies have been restricted by an overzealous IRB, but have begun to break the rules, and the consequences could be dire for both sentient species on Lusitania.
This book is a great example of science fiction fulfilling its greatest potential. It imagines a full, complicated world with problems not unlike what we’ve encountered in our own, and solves them in creative ways that have implications for our life on earth. It creates conditions for psychologically interesting conflicts within characters, as well as complex problems for characters to solve in creative ways, and these are intriguing conditions and problems that could not exist in realistic fiction. Basically, this book tackles colonialism and the ethics of contact with new cultures. It emphasizes the imperative not to do harm, but also points out that refusal to share one’s own culture with a less technologically advanced race means denying its humanity/personhood. It’s hard to imagine the way that a whole different species would see their world(s), and even harder to express that understandably, but Card manages it for three alien species. That becomes a strong argument for empathy.
Card balances these philosophical issues with strong characters, brisk plot development, and world-building information dumps. He builds suspense by describing the complicated life cycle of an invented species and ecosystem piece by piece, as the scientist characters slowly understand them, and withholding the answer to the mystery of why the seemingly peaceful piggies killed the xenologers. The sentence-level writing was purposeful, often mournful in tone, with forceful, expressive dialogue. It was a pleasure to read, to learn about this strange new planet, and to wonder about the ethics of interacting with foreigners of all kinds.
I also picked up a graphic novelization of this book that I was really impressed with. It’s from Marvel, and the chief artists were Aaron Johnston, Pop Mhan, and Veronica Gandini. It cuts a lot of detail, of course, but it’s a strong adaptation with compelling artwork. I liked its cover better than the one on my audiobook, so that’s the one you see above.