I've looked forward to a lot of the novels I knew I'd be reading for my run-through of Best Novel winners at the Hugo Awards but perhaps none more than this one. I've read 'Speaker for the Dead' once before but only once and I remembered the strange feeling of being blown away by it in a completely different way to how I was blown away by the novel that came before it, 'Ender's Game'. I'm happy to report that it did that all over again. 'Ender's Game' is a very different novel in so many ways, with this first sequel a far more thoughtful, mature and complex read.
If you'll recall, 'Ender's Game' follows Ender Wiggin, a child prodigy as he graduates from Battle School as the leader the planet Earth needs to defeat the Formics (I'm still not going to call them Buggers) in a pivotal preemptive strike on an alien race who only just failed to wipe us out in their first attempt. It was a typical coming of age novel, updated to a neat science fiction setting, until, well, it wasn't, as the ending is utterly brutal: Ender wins the final game without realising that it isn't a game at all.
'Speaker for the Dead' fast forwards three thousand years, during which time Ender Wiggin has shifted from the saviour of mankind to the Xenocide, the boy who destroyed an entire alien species. Ironically, much of that shift was due to a book that he wrote himself called 'The Hive Queen', under a pseudonym, Speaker for the Dead. He gave a voice to someone who no longer had one, because they were dead, and sparked a spiritual movement, in which a succession of other Speakers of the Dead do likewise, given a strong remit to access what they need to investigate and eulogise lives, the request for such task being seen with religious importance.
The location is Lusitania, one of the Hundred Worlds ruled over by the Starways Congress, and a colony called Milagre, which is predominantly Brazilian, which means that its people tend to speak Portuguese and practice Catholicism. The occasion is the discovery of a new sentient species, who live in the forests of Lusitania in a strange society, one in which the females are dominant but never seen and also one in which they worship trees as their ancestors. The powers that be, recognising that the Formic War was a brutal exercise in false assumptions and lack of communication, isolate the colony and strictly regulate interaction with this new species.
Xenologers across the Hundred Worlds call them Lusitanian Aborigines, but the locals prefer to use the term Pequeninos, for "Little Ones", a name they adopt for themselves, though they're also inevitably dubbed "piggies" because their snouts are highly reminiscent of swine. They're highly intelligent, able to speak at least two languages of their own, and also quickly picking up both Portuguese and Stark, an English derivative that's the default language of the Hundred Worlds. However, they're happy to exist in a non-technological state and they seem to practice brutal sacrificial rituals, eviscerating bodies and planting saplings within the remains.
The relativistic shenanigans prompted by light-speed travel means that Ender Wiggin, long considered dead, is actually still alive and appearing to be in his mid-thirties. He's inevitably ditched his nickname to be known as simply Andrew Wiggin, a Speaker for the Dead, and he answers a call from the Milagre colony to speak for Pipo, a xenologer murdered by the pequeninos just like their own, but without the sapling. It takes twenty-two years for him to get there, only to discover that Novinha, the young lady who made the call, quickly cancelled it, but that her eldest children, Ela and Miro, made separate calls of their own, for Pipo's son Libo, murdered by the pequeninos in the same fashion, and for Marcos, the brutal husband of Novinha and brutal father to her six children.
There are mysteries here, of course. Why did Novinha, so deeply in love with Libo, marry Marcos? Why did the pequeninos killed Pipo and Libo and how can the Milagre colony avoid that fate for their future xenologers? Most of all, how does pequenino society work and how does it tie to the Descolada virus, a disease that is lethal to humans, until Novinha apparently cures it, but appears to be pivotal to the life of what few native species exist on Lusitania? Naturally, it falls to Ender to solve these mysteries, even though he's hardly welcomed by pretty much anyone.
I found this book absolutely fascinating and from a whole slew of perspectives. It works as a mystery, or as a number of mysteries, as the paragraph above suggests, though we know whodunit immediately, so puzzle over why. It's fascinating as a character study, with an expansive cast of characters, some quickly dead but never less important for that. It's fascinating from a cultural and linguistic standpoint, with a heavy focus given to the Brazilians who populate the Milagre colony.
It's especially fascinating from a worldbuilding standpoint, the science of anthropology at the heart of everything. And, when dealing with an sentient and intelligent but apparently primitive society, that boils down to asking the right questions and understanding the answers without, under orders from a panicked Starways Congress, returning the favour whenever the inquisitive pequeninos ask questions of their own. That's a heck of a balance to walk and a nigh on impossible one. And that's why it makes a lot of sense to bring in a genius of the level of Ender Wiggin to stir things up.
Orson Scott Card doesn't just leave us adrift on the path to understanding, though he does take a long and patient time to get to his various points. One principal key that he gifts to us early on is the four orders of foreignness, a Nordic concept introduced by Ender's sister Valentine under her Demosthenes pseudonym, on Trondheim, the Nordic world on which she settled. The utlanning is a human stranger of our world. The framling is a human stranger of another world. The raman is a human of another species. And the varelse is the true alien. The question of course is where the pequeninos fit into this model and where we fit to them. That one key pequenino calls himself Human is an answer in itself.
I found myself caught up in 'Ender's Game', but following one character. There were other worthies but they play supporting roles and never become much focus or they're there for a single purpose and don't develop beyond it. If there's another character we find ourselves caring about, it's the Hive Queen, who doesn't really appear much at all until this book. Here, there are a host of characters we care about, an abundance of whom aren't even human. The Hive Queen plays a role, as she communicates with Ender about where she wants to be planted. Various colonists and pequeninos are important too, not merely Novinha, the obvious candidate for our sympathy. We even care about characters who don't appear to be sympathetic at all, which is a solid achievement for Card.
Perhaps most impressive is the way that he handles our emotions in the final chapters. While we don't necessarily see every development coming and certainly don't see the details of those developments, we surely know where we're going to end up, at least roughly. Yet Card hits us so powerfully in the feels when we get there that he outstrips the emotions we felt at the end of 'Ender's Game'. Another major part of this emotion is the inclusion of a third sentient species, merely one that nobody else knows has been discovered. She's Jane, an AI who exists only in the Ansible communications network, the instant internet of the galaxy in the Enderverse, and she's quite the sympathetic character.
The catch to these two astounding books is that they're so astounding that I don't think I ever mustered up the courage to dive into the third one, Xenocide. There are five books, all-told,in Ender's story, four in strict succession and the fifth, Ender in Exile, filling in the gap between books one and two. However, it doesn't end there. There are now eighteen volumes within the Enderverse: sixteen novels and a couple of novellas, outlining the Formic Wars before Ender was born, the Shadow Saga focused on characters he left behind after becoming the Speaker for the Dead, and a Fleet School novel that I reviewed a few years ago. Oh, and there's another one on the way. I should delve further. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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