Monday, February 13, 2017

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game is our Great American Novel. The American story is most definitely science fiction, and it's fitting that a story of a gifted, stunted child describe us, a prodigy among the nations, old while young, spoiled by victory, a product of a great industrial machine that paradoxically regresses mankind to our basest, most animalistic emotions. It's understandable that such a work is so widely read, and so widely read intentionally. For many people, it's the only book they've read on their own.

I recently reread the three sequels, properly a trilogy in themselves, though lacking important context without Ender's Game. I found them to be breathtaking examples of one of our greatest storytellers acting in his prime, and I'm going to attempt to share with you some of my thoughts and emotions about them, in this and following posts. I will assume familiarity with the novels and their plot twists.

Speaker for the Dead is a hybrid of the two most active SF movements in the 1980s, the Niven-led Campbelline revival and the flagging New Wave. Card's success in this attempt is shown by his back-to-back Hugo and Nebula awards, a feat not duplicated since.

In light of  my connection with the Pulp Revolution, it's fitting to ask: Is Speaker for the Dead pulp? By the Potter Stewart test, no. There isn't a lot of fighting, the driving emotion tends toward conceptual breakthroughs over heroism, and it just, I don't know, feels feminine somehow.

Speaker is not an action-packed book, if we go by the old pulp standard of physical action. As far as plot action, and character being shown by their actions, Speaker is drenched in it. There are at least four major questions the characters are acting to find answers to:

1. Who is Andrew Wiggin?
2. Why do piggies murder people? (Can we stop them from killing again?)
3. Can we even truly communicate with the piggies?
4. Why did Novinha marry Marcao instead of Libo?

The first question is raised when a summons for a Speaker for the Dead brings a mysterious man who purchased a starship for this job and who has incredibly high security clearance. Readers know Ender intimately, but his two alter egos have achieved mythical stature in the time between books. Nobody guesses that he would be the Ender or the speaker. There are hints, when he mentions he Spoke the death of a saint four hundred years previously, or when he turns out to be uncannily good at strategy games, but his story seems so implausible no one even thinks to ask.

It would have been a powerful story indeed if there had been some way to hide Ender's identity from the reader. As it is, we experience Miro's discovery at a distance; fortunately, there's enough impact from the other reveals that the story isn't made weightless just by this. 

Note: How are Speakers normally paid? There's no mention of this. Ender shows up with a starship he bought, gets assigned a house - who was expected to pay for his meals? Did other people ask this question? If not, chalk it up to Card's talent.

The second question, and the main physical peril our heroes face, involves being sacrificed by piggies for no apparent reason. We're frightened for Miro because he's beloved of Novinha and would be the third man she loves to die that way. We're frightened for Ender because we know he'd be fine with being killed by an alien. Having been spoiled on the plot at a young age, I can't say just how well Card brings this tension to the reader. On this reread I tried to act like I didn't know, but Ender and Miro felt so confident it was hard to imagine the story coming to a tragic end.

The question of whether we can communicate with the piggies, now that's Ender's moral peril. A competent author will see the need for Ender's guilt at exterminating the buggers be balanced against his desire to do right by this new species - and of course that happens. Now, this is an important thread, because the entire sequel trilogy is centered around communication, whether it's possible or desirable, and Card makes sure to weave this into the human story.

Next time: How Card uses a family drama to tie up all three of these main plot questions, and the real romance of Speaker for the Dead. Is it pulp? Well, no. Can those of us itching to write about real, passionate people take notes from it? Absolutely.

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