Posted by: Mish | January 8, 2009

Speaker for the Dead

Scott Fitzgerald said, “The sign of intelligence is the ability to carry opposed thoughts at the same time”.  Orson Scott Card has an ability to clearly put forth opposing ideas and arguments and debate each side. Because of personal beliefs and convictions it can be difficult not to blatantly lean to one side or the other, or come off as preachy. Card does neither of those and can even stab at his own beliefs, which I find refreshing. The more I get to know Card’s mind, the more I enjoy his writing or is that the more I read of his, the more I enjoy his mind?

In Speaker for the Dead, the Bugger Wars have long been over and humans have expanded to what has become known as the Hundred Worlds. On the planet-colony Lusitania, a newly discovered alien race is being studied. Lives perish and the Speaker for the Dead comes to do his job.

Because it is a sequel to Ender’s Game, it is difficult to say just enough about Speaker for the Dead without giving too much away of either. In general, Card writes so that any of his books within a series can be read alone, but both of these in particular were written with that intention. In fact it is out his working on Speaker for the Dead that Ender’s Game came to be.

Card tends to explore concepts that one can really bite into. The idea for Speaker for the Dead arose because he was dissatisfied with the way funerals are used to:

“make them into a person much easier to live with than the person who actually lived. I rejected that idea. I thought that a more appropriate funeral would be to say, honestly, what that person was and what that person did. But to me, “honesty” doesn’t simply mean saying all the unpleasant things instead of saying only the nice ones. It doesn’t even consist of averaging them out. No, to understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story- what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know- and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth telling.”

I could continue at great length and although it’s hard not to pick Speaker for Dead apart here and now, I won’t. I’ll stick to dissecting it with a friend who has read the series. That reminds me, I want to find out what my uncle thought of Ender’s Game. Both are favorite reads from 2008 and I highly recommend them.

Quotes:

  • “Rituals and myths don’t come from nowhere. There’s usually some reason for it that’s tied to the survival of the community.”
  • “Order and disorder, they each have their beauty.”
  • “No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing.”
  • “Some sort of rigid hierarchy always emerged as the conservative force in a community, maintaining its identity despite the constant variations and changes that beset it. If there were no powerful advocate of orthodoxy, the community would inevitably disintegrate. A powerful orthodoxy is annoying, but essential to the community.”
  • “The bones are hard and by themselves seem dead and stony, but by rooting into and pulling themselves against the skeleton, the rest of the body carries out all the motions of life.”
  • Good vs Evil: “It’s figuring out which is which that takes so much work.”
  • “We question all our beliefs, except for the ones that we really believe, and those we never think to question. “
  • “Sickness and healing are in every heart. Death and deliverance are in every hand.”
  • “What man of you is there, when his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”
  • “When you really know somebody, you can’t hate them. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them.”
  • “Once you understand what people really want, you can’t hate them anymore. You can fear them, but you can’t hate them, because you can always find the same desires in your own heart.”
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Responses

  1. I have been meaning to read Speaker for the Dead since I read Ender’s Game two years ago I believe. Fascinating review. The quotes are thought-provoking. I better add this to my 2009 reads.

  2. Thank you and, yes, best add it to the List. I need to the get the next few in the series.

    Aside from liking it enough to read Speaker, what did you think of Ender’s Game? I was kind of surprised when a friend told me Ender’s Game was on the Commadant’s reading list for military folk. But at the same time, that makes sense.

    “Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart.”

  3. Hmmm. That does make sense. War always has that effect of changing an individual for better or worse.

    Ender’s Game had that feel of a “superkid saves the world” but it was better. As I recall, Card’s writing impressed me in that he portrayed his characters as human, able to serve in their loyalties or fall prey to fear. The concept of training young children for war is frightening; it serves as a reminder that the only thing that determines whether that child is friend or enemy is their values. Everything else about the child is all military: no mercy, only orders.

    Ender struggles with that dilemma. He wants to do what is right and not risk everyone’s life but has no choice to face the tasks at hand. His change throughout the book says volumes of the effect of war on the individual: the loss of values and times spent in enjoyment.

  4. If Ender’s Game was simply a war story, it would have been game over for me. Yes, training children is frightening, but that they are bred and selected for that reason is more so. “the only thing that determines whether that child is friend or enemy is their values.”- Well said. Ender made the best of circumstance because he knew it was the only way to beat the guys at their own game. Despite characters’ beliefs, faults, or actions, the reader can understand what caused them.

    Card has played with these ideas a couple times: Isolation to bear creativity and humanity. The 2nd also in Speaker. If you can find it, his short Unaccompanied Sonata was horrifically excellent. It was also my introduction to Card.

    This reviewer’s quote sums up (one of the reasons) why Card has become a favorite:

    Card understands the human condition and has things of real value to say about it. He tells the truth well- ultimately the only criterion of greatness. Ender’s Game will still be finding new readers when ninety-nine percent of the books published this year are completely forgotten.

  5. Hello! I came here via Orchidus’ blog. Card is one of those amazingly erudite authors who can pack so much substance into a single novel, without making it sound didactic or preachy. (And I have low tolerance for those books. I unfortunately dropped Heinlein because he started getting preachy; should read him again.) He’s also one of those few authors whom I disagree with on some levels, but nevertheless still enjoy reading to find out what his ideologies are. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Xenocide =)

  6. Preachy writing rubs me the wrong way too. Card’s certainly risen as one of my favorite writers. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Heinlein, but I have a few books on the shelf of his waiting.

    I noticed you have a spoiling review of Xenocide, which I won’t read. I’m looking forward to my thoughts on the book as well. Thanks. =)


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