Orson Scott Card and The Speaker for the Dead Trilogy

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The second novel by Orson Scott Card I read was Ender’s Game, which I found to be extremely powerful. The first had been Speaker for the Dead, which hadn’t impressed me much when I first read it. Recently I decided to read it again.

This time I was much more impressed. Ender is a man who has been drafted by the military as a child, to be part of the effort to save the world from an alien race that has invaded the solar system twice. He does so by defeating their space fleets and eventually destroying their home planet, which is effectively genocide, or xenocide. He’s considered a hero, but doesn’t feel like one. His military experiences have been difficult enough; to have destroyed a whole alien intelligent race seems a tremendous burden. The real twist in the plot is that he hadn’t realized at the time that the fleets he was fighting were real: he thought he was undergoing a particularly grueling set of war games. When he finds out it WAS real, the experience is shattering.

After the war is over, he and his sister leave the solar system to help colonize one of the worlds formerly populated by the aliens. During his days of military training he has found strange imagery on his computer, and never known its significance. Now, on this new world, he finds one of the landscapes with various structures familiar to him from the computer game he had once played. He also finds a cocooned Hive Queen (the aliens are very much like insects, socially organized like ants), and hides her, meaning to take her to another world, where she can resurrect her race.

In the meantime, he is able to communicate with the Queen, and learn something of how her race saw and did things. He writes a book about this, and it suddenly becomes fashionable to consider him a villain instead of a hero. The Queen is always in telepathic contact with all her workers and drones, controlling and directing them, no matter how far away they are. On the basis of this ability a technology has been constructed by humans called the ansible. It enables them to communicate faster than light, but only to travel at a sizable fraction of light speed. If one travels to the stars, it’s usually a one-way trip. If one returned, everyone one knew would have been dead for decades.

When Speaker for the Dead begins Ender is in his thirties or forties, but some 3,000 years have passed on earth. He has become what the title of the book says: a speaker for the dead. This idea is not to simply eulogize the person under discussion, but to tell every significant truth known about him or her. Only when they are understood as completely as possible can they be seen accurately, which can lead the living to understand and, if necessary, forgive.

Meanwhile, on a world called Lusitania, settled by Brazilians, another alien and sentient race has been found: the pequeninos, also known as “piggies” because they look like pigs. They are being very gingerly studied by scientists–gingerly because the scientists don’t want to contaminate their study by telling or showing the piggies about human technology.

There is also, however, a virus that causes an epidemic. A scientist couple manages to isolate the virus and produce a vaccine that arrests it before dying themselves. Their daughter is adopted by another scientist who is studying the piggies. But he is later murdered by the piggies in a particularly gruesome way, which is shattering to the young woman. Once she gets her grief somewhat under control she marries and has children, but then almost the same thing happens. The son of the murdered scientist, and her close friend, is murdered in a very similar way. Ender finds out about this, and decides he wants to speak about this death, and leaves the world where he’s living to do so.

He arrives at Lusitania a couple of decades later, local time, to discover that Novinha, the young woman scientist who has lost parents, adopted parent and close friend in tragic ways, has just had her husband die too, of unknown causes, leaving her and her children (ranging from pre-teen to teenagers) alone, and very dysfunctional as a family.

Some of the children welcome Ender, some (and Novinha) try to push him away. But he irresistably enters their lives, and starts getting them to talk, revealing truths about their family, as well as what is going on in the wider world.

In the wider world it seems that the pequeninos have also been affected by the virus, and one of the effects seems to be a very odd reproductive and life cycle.

As infants they spend their lives within “mothertrees” until they’re big enough to transform into “piggies”, and live outside the trees. They can undergo a further transformation, but only when flayed alive, their organs removed, laid out, and buried, when they become “fathertrees”. Only these can fertilize the mothers, who are mostly nonsentient. And most of the “fathertrees” are heroes in one way or another, somewhat paralleling ancient Greek religion, but also like the lives of some terrestrial insects.

This is imagination of great richness. Partly because of the details of what is imagined, but perhaps even more by how these details are integrated into the story and affect the characters, both human and alien.

Card had written good work before, but this novel and its two sequels may be the beginning (unless Ender’s Game is considered the beginning) of his mature work, having been published some twenty years ago.

Great imagination is shown in the first novel, but becomes what might be seen as an embarrassment of riches in the two sequels. Pausing in the midst of reading these sequels, one wonders if he can actually do the ideas he’s introduced justice.

On the whole, he does. There may seem to be some artificial moments, when he seems to have overreached, but on the whole he manages to keep all the balls in the air. Others may have a similar degree of imagination, but few can lay the foundation that makes it plausible, as Card does. His foundation may not be perfect, but it’s pretty strong, as it has to be to make so many disparate ideas fit together. A novelist has to be a counterfeiter of reality, and not everyone can do it widely and deeply at the same time.

The imaginative highwire act really kicks into gear in the second novel of the series, Xenocide. The Congress which oversees all the human worlds has learned that local scientists have been giving the pequeninos access to human technology (they disapprove), but also that the virus, the descolada (because it destroys human DNA), is in all inhabitants of Lusitania, and threatens all other human worlds if there is any travel between them. The Congress sends a fleet to destroy Lusitania, as Ender destroyed the Hive Queen’s world. The Congress would probably be no happier if they knew that the Hive Queen has resurrected her people, and they are building starships to take themselves and the pequeninos to other planets, so they can survive.

Humans, pequeninos and “buggers” (as the Hive Queen’s people have been called) all consult to seek solutions.

Among these allies is an entity called Jane, who lives within the ansible communication constantly traveling between planets, starships and computers. Since computers are connected to this communication, Jane has access to enormous computing power, and has numerous levels of consciousness. The human universe also learns of “her” existence, and fearfully plans to close down all the ansible systems at once, to destroy her.

So there are several problems. One, to prevent the world from being destroyed. One of the solutions for this is to replace the virus with another, which will support the pequeninos without attacking humans.

Two, to influence the Congress to refuse to destroy Lusitania. For this, it is necessary for any representatives to be able to travel faster than light. Congress won’t listen to Lusitanians talking on the ansible. Actual human persons are necessary for influence.

The “Buggers” (the Hive Queen’s race) seem to have created Jane when reaching through Ender’s computer to try to influence him, while he was in military training. The Hive Queen speaks of having reached outside the physical universe to summon something akin to a “soul”. A very metaphysical proposition, but when one thinks about it, doesn’t it seem that human babies are something more than the expression of human DNA, with experience mixed in? Not always, perhaps. Some people may seem like something less. But Card’s concept of thie “other” space is that it’s where ideas, or dreams, can come true. Perhaps something like Plato’s world in which the ideal of each object in our world exists in a higher reality.

A trip to this other space creates the ideal virus, which will solve the problem of the pequeninos and the rest of Lusitania, but it also creates three new people. One is a young man who suffered brain damage. A copy of his former body is made, he occupies it, and his brainpdamaged body disintegrates.

The other two come from Ender. One is the older brother he remembers as an overbearing bully (who in real life became something much better); the other is his older sister as she was at a time when he was particularly dependent on her. This is especially disconcerting because his actual sister is living in the same colony with him.

But both bring discomfort. Peter, the older brother, is the one he always feared, and this version represents the qualities they had in common: the ruthlessness that enabled each to succeed in achieving their respective goals. The idealization of his sister Valentine represents the sensitivity and empathy he shares with her, and which was ALSO necessary for him to succeed, but her personification is difficult for his actual sister to be around.

Children of the Mind is the last volume of the series, in which most issues get resolved. Having all of them resolved would be neat, but Card doesn’t make that mistake. As he leaves it, he can always revisit this series if he cares to.

In the end, Ender dies, Jane survives, Peter and Valentine become real people rather than partial representations of others, Lusitania is saved from destruction, and the human race prevented from another xenocide (or genocide).

There are moments in the trilogy that may seem excessively metaphysical or artificial, at at one point I saw Card as less confident than he usually portrays himself, possibly wondering if he could actually bring all these issues to a successful conclusion, but overall the series is masterfully executed.

Card has done good writing in other novels and other series, but the novels surrounding Ender have been a particularly fruitful area for him. He wrote another series in this same universe in the past decade, and has recently begun another one. The one most recently finished seems less metaphysical and more focused. The circumstances are centered on this world, and most of the storyline has to do with the logic of geopolitics together with the people centrally involved. Whether one would consider it superior to the previous series would probably be a matter of personal taste. Both are executed at a high level by a superior writer who has already served his apprenticeship before embarking on the novels about Ender and his universe. The trilogy mentioned here is the work of his maturity. If there are mistakes, they’re minor.

It’s not that Card hasn’t written other good novels, many of them fantasy, outside the Ender group, but that particular universe seems to have called up more of his strengths. He seems equally comfortable with psychology, philosophy, history (and its alternatives), and maybe especially religion. His is obviously important to him, as is his family.

Not all his characters, even his heroes and heroines, are religious, but most eventually have families. These are seen as both a challenge and a source of strength. His universe is always moral and ethical, presenting questions for the characters to answer, which most do to the best of their ability. None, I think, are entirely successful, and some are notably unsuccessful, but most do strive.

You can tell that Card felt he’d achieved something with the Speaker of the Dead trilogy, because he allows himself some cautious boasting in an afterword. He characterizes American mainstream literature as decadent, and something very little of the population cares about, also commenting that only one of his novels up to that point could be defined as mainstream (despite a small element of the supernatural), as it recounts his families move from the West to Greensboro, NC, where they still live.  I don’t think he’s particularly wrong in that assessment. When I visit the public library most current books in the main fiction section are thrillers–not exactly what I’d consider meaningful literature. Most authors of note in mainstream literature seem to be of minority ethnicity or foreign writers. Few white Americans seem prominent in the mainstream: most seem to be involved in mysteries, science fiction, thrillers, or horror.

Card sees the science fiction reading public as being as demanding of good work as any, and perhaps more than most. Though he doesn’t say so, others have pointed out that science fiction is a particularly demanding form, as the author must create a world that’s different, yet consistent. Of course writers can always write stereotypes, and often do, no matter what genre. To be really original, and bring it off successfully and plausibly is very difficult. Card now has a long record of doing it successfully. And he doesn’t seem to have slowed down much.

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