Sci-fi Novel Review: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

I read Ender’s Game about ten years ago and thought that it was absolutely fantastic—it nailed the academy setting, had fictional competition that actually made sense (infamously no guarantee in sci-fi/fantasy), and had a whole lot of depth to boot. But I felt it ended so well that I didn’t want to risk spoiling it by reading the sequel. And then I started hearing about insensitive comments made by the author, and it further put me off continuing. But it’s hard to spend a lot of time in sci-fi spaces without hearing a lot of praise for Speaker for the Dead, even 35 years after its publication, and I decided to go ahead and give it a shot. Now I wonder why I waited. 

Speaker for the Dead is undoubtedly a sequel to Ender’s Game, and it does reference the events of the first book (including spoiling the ending, so don’t read this one first). But it’s pretty indirect, as sequels go, taking place 3,000 years after its predecessor, with all of the original characters presumed dead. Ender is not, due to the temporal effects of interstellar travel, and has taken up a position as the titular Speaker for the Dead, investigating the lives of the deceased and giving an honest account, neglecting neither the good nor the bad. And when the second known intelligent alien species (the first being the enemies in Ender’s Game) kills one of the only human researchers permitted to contact them, it is Ender who arrives to piece the story together. 

I’m quite open about my love for stories that do a good job with cross-cultural communication, and Speaker for the Dead absolutely knocks it out of the park on that score. The alien “piggies” are different enough from humans to make communication difficult, and the restrictions put on interfering with alien life makes it essentially impossible. Merely learning the basic facts about piggy life is a challenge sufficient to being the main plot of the book—and is indeed an integral part of the “why did they start killing people” question—but there’s plenty of interpersonal and political conflict on the human side that joins it to create a truly tremendous novel. 

Card drops enough hints to make it clear from the beginning that the human characters are drastically misreading quite a bit of piggy claims and to allow the reader to make certain educated guesses as to how the gaps should be filled. But those hints are vague enough that the piggies feel genuinely mysterious and that putting together the pieces remains a driving force in reading. But Speaker for the Dead is ultimately less about the mystery and more about how different cultures relate to each other—it has a lot to say, and plenty of judgment for people whose perceived superiority prevents them from doing the work to really understand the other. The human characters do quite a bit of debating about the proper attitudes and behaviors toward a truly alien race, and as such it may not be the right book for someone looking for more of the fast-paced action of its predecessor. But those debates don’t feel shoehorned into the story—they’re exactly the sorts of discussions that people should have if faced with the scenario that underlies Speaker for the Dead. The characters all have their concerns, and the concerns are respected. Card is not shy about including moral judgments, and the heroes deliver clear invective against various forms of arrogance and presumption. But he also leaves room for characters genuinely struggling to determine how to relate to the non-human people—the priests of a proselytizing religion (Catholicism), for instance, are not censured for their conviction that their faith is good for more than just human persons, though they may draw critique in other respects. 

Obviously, the question of how to relate to the piggies drives most of the story—both in the plot and in the themes. But it hears an echo in the relationships between human characters in the small outpost that serves as the primary setting. There is deceit and infidelity and toxic relationships and children growing up in the middle of it all, and the need for empathy and understanding in these mundane trials is no less than in the first contact scenarios. And while the barriers to such understanding may not be quite as high, Speaker for the Dead shows them to be significant obstacles in their own right. 

If I have any complaint here, it’s that Ender may be a bit too good at seeing through the pretense and confusion, and he has a partner who is even more massively overpowered. But it’s a minor complaint set against the backdrop of all the good in a novel that delivers a fascinating plot featuring a truly alien culture and deftly handles so many crucial themes. Speaker for the Dead has fully earned its status as a sci-fi classic, and I hope the story continues its influence as the decades pass—even if the author himself may not live up to its vision. 

Recommended if you like: culture clashes, thoughtful sci-fi. 

Can I use it for Bingo? You might have to twist to get it to fit the letter of the category, but it’s First Contact hard mode in spirit. It is also a Forest Setting and has Chapter Titles.

Overall rating: 19 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.

2 thoughts on “Sci-fi Novel Review: Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

  1. This was one of my favorite books growing up. And it’s definitely good. However, there are a couple of things now that I’ve grown up – aside from Card basically seeming to ignore its preaching of empathy in his own personal views – that no longer work for me and are problematic.

    The most emblematic is the Speaking – which can very much be read as a charismatic forgiving of an abuser’s crimes by blaming his victim. Card doesn’t go fully towards absolving him, which was what prevents it from being fully problematic, but well it really shouldn’t be sympathetic for a man to hit a woman he married no matter what, even if she is cheating on him (to say nothing of him entering into the marriage knowing she would). The story carries this on later as well, as Novinha blames herself for the behavior and treats the punishment as what she deserves which well….no, no this is bad. Abuse is bad, is not the blame of the abuser, and if the church is the reason why the two people who obviously loved each other couldn’t divorce and get together, that’s the problem, not the individuals (Libo cheating on his wife is bad too don’t get me wrong).

    In a more debatable ground, Card’s theory that basically no person can be reduced to just evil through and through has in my mind been disproven by the real world. Some people have proven themselves to just be selfish evil assholes with no empathy, and while the correct response to same is not the abandoning of empathy in return, Card’s attempt to argue that you can find some good moment in those lives is too simplistic and optimistic for this world. Moreover, it overrates how important those moments are compared to the evil those people do, to the sake they do exist.

    This is incredibly well written, and I don’t mean to say it’s not great at times (and there’s a passage in its far less good sequel that was one of my favorite passages forever), but Card’s theory and legitimizing of an abusive relationship no longer holds water for me, and prevents this from really being the all time great I thought it once was.

    1. So I don’t necessarily see that Speaking as absolution so much as giving him a tragic backstory. I didn’t come out of it feeling like I was supposed to overlook the abuse, but rather that I was supposed to look at more things than the abuse. Marcão being abusive was his fault, but his marriage being a wreck was both his and Novinha’s faults, and him being treated horribly growing up was the fault of his cohort.

      Maybe that’s too generous of a reading, but that’s how it hit for me, and I thought it worked well (actually, thinking back, that whole bit reminds me quite a bit of the book I just finished, The Echo Wife, where the protagonist is both a horrible person and also abused through no fault of her own). But if you’re reading it as absolution, I definitely understand finding it way off base.

      You might be right about Card being too optimistic—not everyone is going to have that kind of tragic backstory—but erring too optimistic or too pessimistic based on the point you’re trying to make doesn’t bother me all that much tbh.

      (Also it wasn’t the church standing between Novinha and Libo—Novinha had her own reasons to want to avoid a formal marriage)

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