Review: Speaker for the Dead

An innovative and intriguing tale of aliens and other worlds, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead is also a probing psychological examination of human passion and the power of the truth to ravage or restore a community. 

Thousands of years after Ender Wiggin defeated the army of invading alien Buggers, a new species has been discovered on the planet Lusitania. These pequeniños, or little piggies, appear primitive and helpless, but on rare occasions they exhibit grotesque violence that threatens the human colony of Milagro. What triggers the unfathomable piggie violence, is a mystery the human scientists cannot hope to solve, since their study of the alien species is hampered by lightyears of political red tape. 

While the colonists fear for their lives inside the walls of Milagro, other mysteries fester like a disease, eating at their souls and warping their hearts. The secrets and lies center around Noviñha, the head biologist studying the native life forms on Lusitania. Her refusal to leave her abusive husband, and her coldness towards every other colonist–even towards her own children–are only the superficial mysteries. 

When a Speaker for the Dead is requested to come preside over several deaths in the community, that Speaker will unravel the threads that keep Milagro hopelessly entangled in fear and hatred. However, the truths that he uncovers threaten to unravel Milagro itself. 

Orson Scott Card, known for his book-turned-movie Ender’s Game surpasses his own skill with his sequel Speaker for the Dead

Card’s brilliant science-fiction worlds fulfill the appetites of the genre-lovers while he deftly manipulates something entirely new. The worlds of Trondheim and Lusitania, the Hundred Worlds’ Congress, the alien pequeniños and buggers, and the devastating Descolada virus all tread familiar trails. The destination, however, is far from typical. 

The action in Speaker for the Dead  is perfectly paced, never lagging, never dipping, always flowing seamlessly from action to dialogue to inner conflict to scientific explanation and back to action again. Card’s writing isn’t rushed and breathless like a thriller, but there was never a moment in which I wanted to put the book down. 

The emotional dimension is also masterfully executed. Science fiction has a bit of a reputation for being geeky, technical, and focused primarily on action. World-building and grotesque alien life forms often take precedence over the characters’ inner conflict. Not true for Card’s novels. Speaker for the Dead made me feel deeply with the characters–more than I do with many literary novels, dramas, or romances. I identified with them, and at moments of crisis, Card drew me into the depths of their struggles and pain.

I especially appreciate how Card writes about philosophical issues. In Ender’s Game, Card explores topics of warfare, fear, and violence, and their effect on children. In Speaker for the Dead, Card delves into the tension between excusability and responsibility. 

The Speaker for the Dead, who presides at people’s funerals, speaks the truth about a deceased person’s life. The whole truth. He doesn’t gloss over the sins of supposed saints, nor does he ignore moments of grace in the lives of monsters. He exposes their fears and their ambitions, and he lists the wounds they suffered at the hands of others. Under no conditions does he excuse the cruelties that any man committed. Yet by showing the ways in which a man was hurt, he gives his hearers the gift of grace and compassion for even the worst criminal.


 On a Personal Note…

I love stories that wrestle with real life issues regardless of whatever historical or fantastical setting used to tell the story. I personally have churned this question over in my mind, of how much a person is responsible for their sins, when trauma or mental illness have damaged them. Certainly, we are all responsible for our own actions, but when we know better, we do better. We hope that people will have grace for us in our ignorance and our handicaps. When I grieved the death of my brother, I wanted people to bear with my anger and unsociability. After years of counseling and months of antidepressants, I pray that people can forgive the mistakes I made and the negativity I exuded for years before I knew better. Others want the same grace from us. Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead reminds us of the complexity of human pain: hurting people hurt people. And he inspires us to give grace to others. 

Although Speaker for the Dead is a true classic of the sci-fi genre, I believe many readers can enjoy this story for its portrayal of love and human drama, and for the way it plumbs the depth of victimhood and culpability. 

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