Thursday, January 31, 2008

Review - Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Orson Scott Card was flying high coming off of Ender's Game. It was popular with fans and critics. He had plans to write sequels that were guaranteed to be best sellers. When the first sequel, Speaker for the Dead, was released people pounced on it and decided that their golden boy could do no wrong. The faults in Speaker for the Dead, though, are vast and despite being the first person to win back to back Hugos for novels the book is one of the worst of the Hugo winners.

Thousands of years after Ender's Game Ender is still alive and wandering the universe thanks to time dilation. To atone for what he did he has founded a philosophy called the "speakers for the dead" who turn up at funerals and speak the truth about the person who died. Humanity has finally encountered a third sentient species in the universe, a primitive group they call "the piggies", and establish a Star Trek style non-interference rule for them while maintaining a small colony on their world to study them. Ender receives an invitation to speak for a blue collar worker who died on that world and discovers a conspiracy to break that non-interference oath.

Let me get my polite words out of the way fast. The segments in the book about Ender dealing with the consequences of his actions in Ender's Game are good. They're very good. But they can't carry the book. People have to react like human beings to his reactions and they don't; they treat Ender as the second coming complete with not very subtle Messianic pretensions which fall apart when you try to examine them closely.

Those messianic abilities are my first major problem with Speaker for the Dead. Ender turns up in a house where decades of cruelty has left every child a shattered wreck. And fixes it by talking for less an hour. One of the children has become withdrawn and doesn't speak and Ender heals him by hugging him. So if you've got autistic children you should know that letting strangers into your house to hug your children is apparently the cure.

And then there's the entire concept of a "speaker for the dead". Despite Card's belief just saying the truth does not make things better and can quite often make things worse. The colony consists of very religious Roman Catholics and are more than willing to just accept the web of lies that has been built up over decades with more taboo breaking than you can shake a stick at just because it was true. They're not going to stone the people involved but they're not going to accept them with open arms either.

Speakers may be dedicated to telling the truth but what is the "truth" about someone who died? The image described is colored by the facts that the speaker chooses to present and giving a complete picture of a life could take almost as long as that life took to live. Do lies of omission not count for speakers? It makes their dedication to truth seem hypocritical. Since the beliefs of the speakers is the hook that pulls the novel forward the problems with their philosophy weighed on me constantly while I was reading.

The biggest single plot hole though is the fact that the biologists working on the planet have performed genetic modification to native plants. All native life on the planet has a very unique life cycle and the fact that people don't understand it (despite some of the least subtle hints ever) is a key plot point. So a group of genetic engineers and biologists working on life that has this feature don't understand the basic principles of its life cycle. Wait a second... that's the same plot as the also horrifically awful Dreamsnake! The fact that science fiction authors think that not understanding sexual reproduction works as a plot device I think says something...

Speaker for the Dead is a bad book. Don't let the fact that it is a sequel to a very good book fool you into accepting it. Capping off its problems as a Hugo winning book is that it doesn't even stand on its own; it ends on a cliffhanger that leads to yet another sequel. I haven't read that sequel and have no intention of doing so; I hated Speaker for the Dead and it convinced me that I have no need to read the other two dozen books that Card has milked out Ender's Game.