It’s been 3000 years since Ender Wiggin, as a child, was tricked into committing xenocide. While he and his sister Valentine traveled the universe and benefited from the effects of space-time relativity, Ender’s name has been reviled on Earth and all the inhabited planets. He is infamous for his childhood deeds, but almost everyone thinks he’s been dead for centuries. They don’t realize that the man who holds the respected position of Speaker for the Dead is actually Ender Wiggin. And they don’t know that the Hive Queen of the Buggers still lives and that Ender has vowed to find her a new home. When Ender is called to the planet Lusitania to speak the death of a beloved xenologer, he thinks he may have finally found a suitable place for the Hive Queen to resurrect her race.
In the author’s afterward to Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card explains that this was the novel he had always intended to write and that Ender’s Game, its more famous and popular prequel, was just an introduction. I’m sure that’s why, as much as I loved Ender’s Game as a thrilling action-packed YA adventure, I liked Speaker for the Dead even more. This is a more mature, thoughtful, and far-reaching story.
Card explains that he wanted to explore this question: “What do we do about dead people whose lives were really crummy? What do we do about people who were vicious… What do you say at the funeral?” He suggests that we deal with this by lying, or by erasing the person they really were, re-making them, after their death, into the person we wish they had been. To address this human tendency, Card created the function of Speaker for the Dead — an objective outsider who would learn about the person who had died and would then speak the truth about him. This would involve uncovering not only the person’s good and bad deeds, but also the background that would let his acquaintances understand why he became the person he was. Card effectively uses the role of Speaker for the Dead to show us that there may be a very good reason why a “bad” person turns out that way. Not that this excuses his behavior, but it at least makes it understandable and may help us see how our own behaviors could have contributed to it. Perhaps then we can be more forgiving.
There is way more going on in Speaker for the Dead than this, though. Card explores the sciences of cultural anthropology and genetics as researchers on Lusitania are learning about the native alien species that live there. In so doing, he manages to touch on ecology, biodiversity, virology, xenophobia, cultural elitism, our motivations for scientific study of other species, and how advancing technologies drastically change a culture. He asks us to consider when we should disobey our government and when we should abandon the ethical principles we’ve sworn to uphold. He asks us to constantly question all of our previous knowledge.
Though this is a meaty and thought-provoking work, Speaker for the Dead is populated with characters you can love, hate, or otherwise relate to, and Card holds it all together with a heart-wrenching story about loneliness, bullying, abuse, hate, jealousy, adultery, incest, companionship, guilt, forgiveness, redemption, love, and death. There’s a lot going on here.
At the conclusion of Speaker for the Dead Ender finds that, once again, he has both destroyed and saved lives, and he is severely misunderstood by most of his fellow humans. He has accomplished much in Speaker for the Dead, but there is more trouble literally on the horizon. I can’t wait to see how he deals with it in the third ENDER WIGGIN novel, Xenocide.
Speaker for the Dead was published in 1986 and, like its prequel Ender’s Game, it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, making Orson Scott Card the first author to win both awards two years in a row. It also won the Locus Award. I listened to Audio Renaissance’s full-cast audio production of Speaker for the Dead. It’s excellent and highly recommended.