Friday, March 25, 2011

Speaker for the Dead (Book)

Understanding the Other...Uncovering the Whole Story…Redeeming the Past. The 1987 Hugo Award, 1987 Locus Science Fiction Award and 1986 Nebula Award winning novel, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card is one of the most deeply philosophical and fascinating science fiction novels I have ever read. Based on all the many awards that it received, I gather that I am not the only one that felt changed by reading the book.

The concept of the speaker of the dead is an interesting one, easily applicable to my life. In the book, the speakers of the dead tell the story of people’s lives, both the good and the bad. The speakers tell not only what the deceased did, but also what they intended to do and why they did what they did. The speakers are a combination of researcher/detective, storyteller, and an almost religious figure. In the book, the speaker may only do the speaking on the request of the decedent or someone close to the decedent. The First Speaker was Ender—of Ender’s Game—who anonymously wrote a book about the victims of his xenocide. As I grow up, I find myself talking more honestly—and compassionately—about people who have passed away.

The second interesting concept is based on the writing of Ender’s sister, Valentine, who writes as Demosthenes. From what I can figure out these ideas come partially from Nordic language and partially from Card. Strangers are described on a continuum, using four terms: Utlanning, the human of our world; Framling, the human of another world; Raman, the human of another species; Varelse, those with whom no conversation is possible. The implication and extrapolations of these concepts could easily fill several weeks’ worth of blogs. I encounter this idea of stranger almost every day in the news. Recently when I was watching a local politician, I realized that he didn’t see those who disagreed with him as fully human; they were very other to him. In the United States some people don’t recognize gays, Hispanics, Union members, Democrats/Republicans as Utlanning. [I just read that Card was against gay marriage, so I am not sure he would agree with all my thoughts about his book.] One could surmise that more people in the US recognize the Japanese as Utlanning than they do people in the Middle East. In Speaker of the Dead, Card introduces the reader to a very revealing concept that permeates out lives.

Ah yes, I suppose I need to give a quick overview of the plot. Ender is now biologically 35, but chronologically over 3000 years old due to the relativity of time travel. Traveling from planet to planet with his sister Valentine, Ender speaks for the dead; no one knows that he is the First Speaker and the person who committed xenocide. Ender receives a request from a young woman whose mentor has been murdered on an experimental colony by the piggies, only the second alien species to be encountered. By the time that Ender arrives—22 years chronologically but only weeks for Ender biologically—the woman has withdrawn her request, but two more requests have been made for a speaker based on the deaths of two other individuals. One of the new deaths is again attributed to the piggies. Ender works as part detective and part confessor. His presence and his uncovering of the truth radically change the lives of everyone on the planet.

While the book is primarily about people, the science and politics are also interesting. Card describes how a single event shapes the lives of a whole family. Card also shows how Ender changes those he meets. The very otherness of the biology that shapes the planet is fascinating. The questioning of basic premises behind scientific and political decisions is eye opening.

Ender’s Game and Speaker of the Dead have a tremendous potential to truly change reader’s lives, because they cause many people to question the way they think and their basic assumptions. Now, I am off to reading more Hugo Award winning novels and having my thinking changed even more.

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