Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review of "Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card


Orson Scott Card’s books are like shooting stars: a few flash brilliantly across the sky, but always an anonymous twinkle remains.  His Wikipedia entry proudly boasts of him being the only author ever to win Hugo and Nebula awards for the same two books in consecutive years, yet the remaining 59 he’s published have few additional epithets, most none.  And it’s not a mystery why.  Erratic prose, forced plotting, harsh characterization, and bold conservatism trail everything he writes.  His is a cult following.  With Ender’s Game, his greatest success, Card came upon a concept that worked within his talents and created a highly entertaining novel.  The follow up, or as Card puts it the originating idea behind Ender’s Game, is not as successful but remains a solid read for its themes and suspense, nonetheless.  

Able to stand fully by itself, Speaker for the Dead picks up the life of Ender at age thirty-five—yet 3,000 years in the future from Ender’s Game.  As a Speaker for the Dead, he must travel great distances between planets to speak over people’s deaths, thus giving him an age measured in millennia in reality but mere decades, physically.  The Hive Queen still alive, Ender carries the telepathic insect with him everywhere he goes, searching for a suitable planet in which to set her free to rebuild the bugger species.  Lodged in a jewel attached to his ear, Ender is also now accompanied by the AI, Jane, who helps him gather info to speak for the dead—and much more.

But Ender’s quest to find a place for the Hive Queen is only part of the Speaker for the Dead’s story.  A group of Portuguese Catholics have arrived at the planet Lusitania and discovered humanity is once again not alone.  The pequeninos, or piggies, who inhabit the planet are the only other sentient species besides the buggers mankind has encountered.  Not wanting to repeat the genocide of Ender’s Game, the colonists immediately put in place a host of regulations and restrictions for interaction and research on the piggies.  The piggies, however, prove to have more on their agenda.  The two families of biologists and anthropologists studying the creatures soon find themselves in a world of inexplicable trouble, and unfortunately, in need of a Speaker’s talents.

The suspense surrounding the in-depth knowledge of piggie culture is where Card earns his pay in Speaker for the Dead.  Anticipation built with each of their strange and curious acts, readers readily turn the page to find the reason for the perplexing behavior.  The reveal both surprising and satisfying, the bittersweet feelings which result prove Card’s idea a fertile one.  The journey to reach the conclusion should likewise be mentioned.  While real-world anthropologists will undoubtedly throw the book in frustration, Card’s mixing of cultural perspectives remains poignant to the story and worthwhile food for thought.

Theme is a strong point of Speaker for the Dead.  Guilt (both personal and social), empathy, civic understanding, cultural sensitivity, religion, transcendence, and the need for honesty in all things are discussed, particularly the latter.  Though not always presented in the most believable of fashions or developed in a manner that fully engages the reader, Card’s intentions are in the right place.  Ender’s objective to heal the suffering of the colonists and piggies, while gone about in super-emo-man style, remains subject matter rarely dealt with in sci-fi.  The narrative often harsh and ineffective, Card’s objective still comes shining through, the sensationalist yet hopeful ending drawing it all together in morally exaggerated style.

Like wedging a square peg into a round hole, the dialogue and internal monologue of the novel are forced.  It is a rare moment that interaction amongst the characters feels realistic.  Moreover, Card jumps and skips irregularly between third person narrator, internal monologue, and occasionally his own voice.  The context straight-forward enough that confusion is rare, reading the book is nevertheless neither a smooth or fluid experience.  Topping the lingual list of no-nos, however, is the regular usage of a foreign language.  Words, phrases and sentences from Portuguese feature heavily, Card translating the material immediately after.  The story thus at times feels more like a do-it-yourself Portuguese tutorial than a novel.  El estilo de Card, o la falta del mismo, no mejora la novela. Card’s style, or lack thereof, does not improve the novel.  (A test of Google translator to prove the point.)

Unfortunately, there are some additional lowlights.  Firstly, there is the choice of several plot devices that suit the scene but do not fit the whole.  The AI Jane is a good example. A literal deus ex machina, she controls technology omnipotently at times, yet her talents remain suspiciously absent at others for no reason.  Secondly, Card plays the shock card, and plays it hard.  One important scene in particular fully intends to manipulate readers.  In exaggerated fashion it succeeds, but at the price of contradicting all of the anthropological logic built to that point.  A third problem with the novel is the intrusion of authorial voice.  Like a tornado in Kansas, Card sends Ender on an emotional tear through Lusitania, leaving Freudian repressed guilt, angry tears, and forgiveness in his wake.  Less than subtle, readers are constantly aware Ender is Card.  Pressing so hard, his voice literally breaks the fourth wall on a couple of occasions.  Undoubtedly a reason Card has a cult following, those unfamiliar may be put off by the overt nature of the moralizing.

Only potentially negative, there are some additional aspects of the novel which should be discussed.  Card’s far-future has advanced significantly from ours, interstellar travel, AI, and biomechanical organs to name a few things.  There are others which have not—a seemingly random contradiction.  Despite the thousands of years that have passed, Catholicism remains Catholicism, satellites are still big dumb objects, and electric fences are still five feet tall, humanity having come up with no better tricks to prevent people from entering certain places.  This anachronistic aspect, while perhaps charming—even insightful—to some, will undoubtedly annoy others.  Be warned.

In the end, Card’s intentions in Speaker of the Dead are strong enough to balance the book’s shortcomings.  Syntax, at times internal logic, and the consistency of the novel may fall flat, but the importance of the underlying message burns through.  More YA than adult literature due to the immaturity of Card’s style, the aforementioned themes remain pertinent as the years go by.  Readers coming from Ender’s Game and expecting more of the same military sf should be warned: the sequel has the same strong social commentary as Game’s conclusion, but not the action.  (As Card borrows the ansible in homage, fans of Le Guin may also want to check out Speaker for the Dead.)

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