Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card; A Moral Dilemma

  • Title: Speaker for the Dead
  • Author: Orson Scott Card
  • # of Pages: 254

In the aftermath of his terrible war, Ender Wiggin disappeared, and a powerful voice arose: the Speaker for the Dead, who told of the true story of the Bugger War.7967

Now long years later, a second alien race has been discovered, but again the aliens’ ways are strange and frightening…again, humans die. And it is only the Speaker for the Dead, who is also Ender Wiggin the Xenocide, who has the courage to confront the mystery… and the truth.

I first read Ender’s Game in 2011. I was (almost) fifteen years old. It was brilliant. And when I closed the book I remember thinking to myself how completely and utterly pointless life is. That feeling was overwhelming, and the memory of it has stuck with me to this day.

Afterwards, it turned out that Orson Scott Card was homophobic. Not just homophobic, but very outspoken about it, and also on the board of directors of the anti-LGBT organization “National Organization for Marriage”. It was very strange to find out that someone who was able to write in a way that affected me so deeply, to truly reach out and touch my heart, was also someone whose personal views were so different from my own. I still find it hard to comprehend how a person whose stories reflect such a deep understanding of humanity and human beings is also a person who, in my opinion, has some serious blind spots.

I found myself grappling with the contradiction, wondering how it should affect my feelings and opinions about the book I loved so much. It’s the age-old question: are an artist’s personal views ever relevant? Should they affect our choices in which art we choose to consume and how? In 2013 I tried to give a fair answer (Reading Is Not Just A Habit But A Way of Life or That Time I Told You Why I Don’t Buy Orson Scott Card Books) so I’ll leave you with that, and with the fact that Card left NOM in 2013, and that when, in 2013, people called for a boycott of the Ender’s Game film, he said “With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.” (source) A quote, by the way, that only further exposed his deep misunderstanding, but that’s for another time.

A month ago, on a whim, I decided to re-read Ender’s Game. It was just as fantastic as the first time and I fell in love all over again. When it was over I was truly disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to visit Battle School again, and I know this sounds crazy, but every once in a while I found myself feeling like I was missing some experience and realizing it was the feeling of being in the Battle Room, which is probably the closest any piece of writing will ever get to creating the feeling of zero gravity. Card writes wonderful dialogue, his universe is extremely well thought out and and his characters easily come to life on the page; it all just feels very… real. Admittedly, the second read didn’t leave me with the same doomsday feeling, but it has been six years; things change and that’s okay.

This time around, I decided to keep going. After a quick debate about whether I should continue with the publishing order style or read according to the timeline’s chronological order, I decided to go with the former. This route allows me to follow Card’s train of thought, even his writing process (progress?). I unravel it all in the order Card chose to create it, which seems much more interesting than the technical timeline details (especially when the people themselves don’t exactly follow… time anyway).

We all know the key to happiness is to lower expectations. Speaker for the Dead didn’t require that sort of mental manipulation. I’ve already used the word “fantastic” twice, so you’re welcome to fill in the blank with some synonyms.

It goes without saying that Card’s writing abilities work their magic here as well. There were a few more bumps along the way this time, with the foreign names (and a pronunciation guide on which I implemented my usual system – I say everything out loud once, whatever sticks- sticks, the rest will probably be butchered and that’s fine), the occasional Portuguese and a bit too much religion, but when I stopped to question whether the book would be better without all of this I suddenly couldn’t imagine losing any part, even the smallest. It took a few chapters to open up and welcome new strangers in but soon Libo and Pippo, Miro and Ela were just as dear as Alai and Dink an- hell, all of Dragon Army. I dare say there’s no such thing as an extra, a background actor, in Card’s world. Every single character has been meticulously designed, with a believable personality and a consistent and stable existence, one that doesn’t deviate from their usual state in order to move the plot along. By doing so, Card manages to create the complete experience for his readers, a world they can immerse themselves in, without things seemingly out of place throwing them back into reality.

I also really enjoyed the anthropology aspect. I’m not a big fan of biology, or science in general, but the study of behavior and society fascinates me. Using fantastic dialogue and strong, detailed descriptions, Card brought me onto the researcher’s team, and I practically felt like I was part of it myself, discovering new things about an alien species, trying to piece together the story. I really enjoyed watching the characters deal with the problem of trying to study their subjects without affecting or influencing them in any way, and eventually tackling that guideline and the reasoning behind it head-on. As in many other instances in the book, it almost seemed like I was actually learning about real places and creatures, and not ones that were created by the person who created everything else too.

For those who loved Ender’s Game it’s also nice to see what Ender grew up to be. Speaker for the Dead Ender seems like the only natural continuation of Child Ender, as if it’s not Card that designed it to be this way, but the other way around, with Card only documenting something that’s out of his control.

I did have two issues with the book, both of which didn’t affect my overall opinion but did feel unnecessary. First off, at a few points I was getting close to my limit in the religion area, especially when it wasn’t really about the ideas themselves and more about the politics of which church ruled what. There were also moments where the science or the tech explanations became a bit too much and weighed down on an otherwise very reader-friendly story, including when it handled very abstract, theoretical concepts. Secondly, there were times where I felt like something was being explained to me in a way that should’ve been incorporated more naturally into the story. It happened rarely, but it when it did I could feel the rough edges.

Speaker for the Dead may be labeled as sci-fi, but the aliens, the space travel and technology, they’re all just the background to a story that’s really about relationships, family, religion, and a whole lot psychology and philosophy. There’s loss, forgiveness, the mental challenge of recognizing that the right of others’ to exist is equal to our own, however hard that may be. Just like Ender’s Game, the bottom line is friendship, compassion, learning to form bridges and overcome differences – and how valuable and important all of those things are.

Many years ago I decided to stop recommending Card’s books to people, because I could choose, myself, to enjoy his work without putting money in his pocket, but I couldn’t stop others from breaking that rule. I’ve always wondered if the value in that is worth giving up this experience, the one that leaves me speechless, inspired and profoundly touched. I’m not sure there’s an answer to that, and if there is I’m not sure I want to hear it.


2 responses

  1. Very good post! I too really enjoyed Ender’s Game and the continuations when I first read them but have struggled with Card’s statements/beliefs since learning of them. It’s hard to separate the art from the artist when the art affects you so strongly but the artist disparages your identity.

    1. Thanks so much! As for what you said – exactly. It’s even harder when said art reflects the complete opposite of the problem with the artist. As in, his art is all about compassion, caring and acceptance. Very strange.

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