written by David Steffen
Speaker for the Dead is the sequel to Ender’s Game. Ender’s Game was first a short story and then was expanded to a novel, and just last year was made into a movie. I reviewed the novel and the movie in a previous article. As usual I will try to avoid spoilers for the story being reviewed, but I’m not even going to try to avoid spoilers for Ender’s Game, so if you don’t want to find out some of what happens in that book then go read it and come back.
Three thousand years have passed since the events of Ender’s Game. With the buggers now apparently extinct, humanity has colonized the galaxy unopposed, a hundred worlds all connected together and governed via their ansible connection that allows instantaneous communication across unlimited distances even though the movement of matter between stars is still limited by the speed of light.
The book The Hive Queen and the Hegemon, which is written by someone the general public knows only as the Speaker for the Dead has told the story of the buggers in a way that captured the empathy of the general public so that by the time of this story everyone laments the loss of this alien intelligence and condemns Ender the Xenocide. The book has gained such popularity to as to spawn its own religion in which people who call themselves Speaker for the Dead respond to requests to illuminate in unvarnished fashion the life of a person. The Speaker for the Dead not only tells of the actions of the deceased, both good and bad, he also explains the reasons those actions were taken as best he can. This goes against the custom of not speaking ill of the dead, and so can make many people uncomfortable, but it’s meant to be as honest a story of the deceased as can be told because to tell of only the good or only the bad of a person’s life is like a second death for the person to withhold the telling of part of that life. This movement gains such a following that over three thousand years it has become its own religion.
Little does anyone know, let alone the adherents of the religion, that Ender Wiggin was also the one who wrote The Hive Queen and the Hegemon. Not only that, but he is still alive, because he and his sister Valentine have spent most of the last three thousand years in the time-slowing relativistic speeds of interstellar travel as Ender speaks for the dead and his sister shares her political views through the continued existence of her Demosthenes alias that she established in the first book.
All of that is little but backstory, just the minimum necessary to kind of get a grasp where the book starts. On a Catholic colony world a new intelligent alien species has been discovered, a species of small creatures that look like pigs and so are nicknamed “piggies”, the first to appear since the buggers. The Starways Congress, which control the ansible network between the hundred worlds, has strict limitations in place to control interaction with new intelligent alien species that are all centered around not contaminating the alien culture with human influences while learning as much as possible about them. These limitations make the quest for knowledge extremely difficult, but violation of them could be punished by means as serious as cutting the colony off from outside supplies and communication. After decades of work, very little is known about them, not even their basic social structure or reproductive methods.
One day, with no warning, one of the researchers tasked with working with the piggies is found dead, having been tortured. The young xenobiologist calls for a Speaker for the Dead to come speak for the researcher, and Ender Wiggin answers the call. The colony had previously been out of his reach because its Catholic license prohibited non-Catholics from visiting without reason, but as an invited Speaker for the Dead he could finally go and see the new intelligent species himself, to make up for the near-extinction of the buggers. I say “near-extinction” because unbeknownst to anyone else, he carries with him the larva of a bugger Hive Queen which can repopulate the species.
The travel to Lusitania to speak for the dead takes just two weeks from Ender’s point of view, but takes twenty-two years from the colony’s point of view. Novinha has married and had a handful of children since then, and has changed much since the message that Ender received. She rescinded her request for a Speaker less than a week after she made it, but two of her children have made requests in the meantime.
I thought this book was very good, and made a very good followup for anyone who liked the first one. Again the emphasis is on the power of empathy. Ender Wiggin is an extraordinary human being because he has an extraordinary proficiency for empathy, both towards his fellow human beings and for creatures of different species. This makes him the ideal ambassador for dealing with new intelligent species. My favorite aspect of the book is gradual reveal of how the piggies’ social structures and stages of life work together to form the society. It’s a master craft of speculative work to put together something that is so foreign, but which can be understood, and which has the complete feeling that a real ecosystem has while being novel enough to be interesting.
The characters of the book are another strong point. particularly Novinha and her children. Their family is terribly damaged from a net of lies that has affected everything that has happened to them over the past twenty-two years. When Ender left the family didn’t exist yet, and now Ender’s first thing to do is to try to interact with the family to discover what he needs to discover to be able to speak for the dead. All tied up with the fate of the family is the interactions with the piggies, which I found absolutely fascinating in every conversation.
And just the basic concept of Speaker for the Dead I found incredibly alluring. I don’t know how I would feel if someone spoke that way about one of my dead relatives, to hear unvarnished truth about the wrongs they committed on other people but while trying to understand what motivated them to do these things. But the book never claims that the reveal is a pleasant experience, but after the reveal people do typically find a measure of peace in understanding the ones they loved better than they ever had before. It does make me wonder how Ender would speak of, say, a pedophile. I’m not sure how he could spin that in a way that people could empathize with. But that small wrinkle aside, I really thought it was alluring.
I would highly recommend this book to any SF fan. I would also recommend reading Ender’s Game first, because even though it’s not strictly necessary it would help to see that story to understand the potential for destruction in the ability to empathize, while this book focuses on the potential for creation and healing in the same.
I have not read any books in this series besides these two. I have heard from a couple people that these two are the only ones that really stand out as great works. Any opinions on that, dear reader? Are there any others that you’ve read that you found very valuable?
One thought on “Book Review: Speaker for the Dead”
I read the entire Ender/Bean series a few years ago. I enjoyed many of the Shadow books because of their expanded secondary character story lines.