Friday, January 3, 2014

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

"You're quite right that the truth about him will cause nothing but pain, but not because he was a miserable man," said the Speaker.  "If I told nothing but what everyone already knows--that he hated his children and beat his wife and raged drunkenly from bar to bar until the constables sent him home--then I would not cause pain, would I?  I'd cause a great deal of satisfaction, because then everyone would be reassured that their view of him was correct all along.  He was scum, and so it was all right that they treated him like scum."

"And you think he wasn't?"

"No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless.  No one's life is nothing.  Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins."

I said in my top ten for last year that I thought one of the remarkable things about Speaker for the Dead is how miserably its author, Orson Scott Card, seems to have lived up to the moral vision it expresses.  If you want to read a more thorough and coherent along those same lines, I highly recommend Rany Jazayerli's article in Grantland about what Card's Ender's Game meant to him as a young Muslim in America.  Speaker, even more than Ender's Game, is a paean of "inclusion and tolerance," and a serious investigation into what those terms might mean in a universe where humans discover that they are not alone.

As a sequel to Ender's Game, Speaker takes a wild left turn.  It's set thousands of years in the future, but Ender is still around, thanks to the (sort of ) life-lengthening benefits of interstellar travel.  Yet he travels incognito as Andrew, as Ender has become a legend of evil for his role in destroying the Buggers eons ago--the "Xenocide".  Ender, still haunted by his actions, works as a "Speaker for the Dead," researching and declaiming on the lives of those who have passed away so that the living might understand their life as they had wanted to live it.

Ender gets several calls from the planet Lusitania requesting his services.  He is invited to speak for Pipo, a biologist studying a native race of sentient beings called "piggies"--the only other sentient race discoverd since the Buggers--as well as for Marcao, a brutish lout whom almost everyone is happy to see dead.  Pipo and Marcao's lives were intertwined in the way one might expect from the inhabitants of a very small colony, but I won't try to explain the very messy network of relationships that Ender wanders into here.  More important is the fact that Pipo, as well as his son Libo who has attempted to follow in his father's footsteps, have been brutally murdered by the piggies for reasons that no one seems to be able to explain.  Once the murders become known throughout the colonized universe, the piggies face the possibility of being wiped out, like the Buggers before them.  Ultimately, Ender must speak not only for Pipo and for Marcao, but for the piggies themselves.

By creating an alien race that is so foreign and so difficult to understand, Card challenges his reader's own sense of inclusiveness.  How different, he asks, does another sentient being have to be before we are no longer willing to grant its life sanctity?  I think that only a science fiction novel could do this so well; we are so used to the language of "human rights" and "tolerance for all people" that only by imagining a non-human race can we see how empty those terms often are for us.  And though at first blush a novel about "inclusion and tolerance" seems like a shallow creation, we are incredibly bad at actually putting the ideas Card offers here into practice.  I think you can see this in the recent Phil Robertson kerfuffle, not only in his startling lack of sympathy toward homosexuals but in the eagerness of his detractors to cast him as beyond the boundaries of civilized society.  We are so bad, in fact, that Card has clearly failed at it himself through his public comments on homosexuality.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many writers and thinkers believed that sympathy with others was the underpinning of moral life.  Adam Smith wrote that sympathy with others begins with imagination, the ability to mentally share in the feelings and experiences of others.  If we believe fiction can make us better people, even a little, this is why.  While Speaker of the Dead wasn't crafted with the same kind of writerly skill as the other books on my top ten list from last year, it is a feat of great imaginative sympathy, and that may be worth even more.


billy said...

My only problem with the book is that Ender Wiggin going through life incognito as Andrew Wiggin would be like some guy strolling up to you and saying, "Sup! I'm Dolph Hitler. Nah, no relation..." I mean, I know it was 3000 years before, but come on. He's not leaving a lot of dots for folks to connect... (I'm mostly kidding)

Christopher said...

I think the idea is that no one would possibly think that he's the same guy, although if I recall, they do ask him if he's related? I think it stretches plausibility in that no one thinks about how interstellar travel means he could be the same guy--if you could launch yourself thousands of years into the future by traveling that way, I'm sure LOTS of people would do it, especially those actively dying of diseases they want cures for. But in this book, it seems like the idea hasn't occurred to anyone but Ender.