Aug 23, 2011

[Books] Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the DeadIn popular culture, our collective history is littered with various child stars who failed to make it big in their adult years. It's become a bit of a meme at times - it being poking fun at failed child actors. But then what can we really expect, right? The way we select children as actors for roles isn't necessarily the same as what we need for more adult roles. Thus a lot of folks crash and burn in the transition effort and we're left with a weird result.

However, this is a book review and not a movie / TV show review.

But I use this concept as a springboard for this review since I feel like we had to go through a similar transition. But instead of some adorable kid who grew up really badly, instead we end up with a character who we grew to love and / or respect as a child but has left mixed feelings now that he's an adult. I suppose the transition from Ender being Andrew Wiggin felt like this to me - a bit awkward and definitely needing time to get used to.

Or maybe it's because the setting / tone of the book changed drastically from the first title. Before we were dealing with the rigors of military training as the Battle School prepared for interstellar conflict. But this time we were brought to some colony world all by its lonesome without a battle in sight. Thus the shift from a more action-packed adventure to one that came off a lot more philosophical certainly resulted in rather mixed feelings about the whole thing.

Speaker for the Dead was the second book published in the Ender series of titles and is roughly a sequel to Ender's Game. It was also written by Orson Scott Card and it managed to win both the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1986 and 1987 respectively.

The book begins on one of the many former Bugger worlds now colonized by humankind. What makes Lusitania unique versus other planets is the fact that it is home to the Pequeninos - a race of sentient aliens with rather porcine features. The human colony on Lusitania only exists to study these aliens, colloquially known as the "Piggies", however there are very rigid rules around this continued study in order to avoid excessive contamination with Pequenino culture. At the forefront of these research efforts are the father-and-son xenologers Pipo and Libo and the orphan girl and official biologist Novinha. Ironically her parents died because of a virus unique to Lusitania known as the Descolada, whcih they had just managed to develop a cure for before their deaths.

Tragedy strikes the colony and Novinha calls out for a Speaker of the Dead to speak the life of the dead xenologer and somehow make sense of what had happened. In this case, the Speakers of the Dead are treated almost like non-religious ministers who travel the stars and investigate the lives of the departed in order to tell their full and honest stories to the world. The practice began after Ender - now using his given name of Andrew Wiggin - had written The Hive Queen and The Hegemon, famous accounts of the lives of both individuals. Little did Novinha expect that her summons would bring THE Speaker for the Dead himself, Andrew Wiggin. But due to the limits of relativistic space travel, the trip will mean losing 22 years of time in normal space while only experiencing two weeks of travel himself. But despite the sacrifice of time and finally leaving his sister Valentine behind, he makes the trip to the colony world.

Picture that I took while attending an Orson S...Image via WikipediaThe book begins with a bit of a cold opening (in movie / TV terms) as we plunge right into the world of the xenologers on Lusitania. While I accept the value in such an approach, it did make the transition from Ender's Game a bit more difficult than it should have been for a book that was roughly a sequel. While I understand it, I don't have to like it. If anything, it made it a bit harder for me to just jump into the book since I was too curious as to who the heck these people were, why we had them talking to a pig and what the heck was with the need to use Brazilian words as part of the discourse of the characters, to cite a few questions.

I liked how the limits of relativistic travel acted as an integral narrative device. While the ansibles allowed for instantaneous communication across the various colony worlds, space travel still occurs at a snail's pace in comparison as entire lifetimes can pass as one makes the journey across the stars. It has also allowed Ender to live for more than 3,000 normal years while being in his mid-30's relatively speaking. Thus as much as you get committed to the tale of young love and hardship at the beginning of the book, the passage of time becomes a lot more powerful once people start flying to and fro across the planets.

I also appreciated just how alien Card decided to make the Pequeninos and the strange world of Lusitania. To have a race of aliens that resembles an easy subject of ridicule in human eyes on a planet with a virus that almost seems feral in its destructive capability did set the stage for a very interesting discourse. Card created a world that was just ripe for speculation and even intellectual / philosophical discussion as is the goal of a lot of science fiction writers.

Pacing was a bit weird for me at some points and the narrative got a bit bogged down when we constantly had to deal with everyone's egos or their personal rants. While I understand what difficulties the characters had to go through, you have to admit that dealing with that much ranting and whining can really get to you over time. Plus the book really plays out like a morality play at some points and gone are the previous scenes of combat and action and all that fun stuff. It's a much more serious book that clearly has a message or seven that it wants to impart, if you get my drift.

Still, it's an interesting piece and a nice return to an "older" style of science fiction writing that felt obligated to explore more complex ideas and subjects. It's not necessarily light reading, but the whole colonial science fiction setting did remind me to some extent of Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy. And that's not necessarily a bad thing either.

Speaker for the Dead is a solid piece of science fiction but definitely worlds away from the original Ender's Game. It still warrants 3.5 creepy conversations between Ender and the new Hive Queen out of a possible 5.

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