Speaker for the Dead (1986)

Speaker for the Dead
Book Review
By Jeffrey Kieviet

This Little Piggy Went “Wee Wee Wee…”

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Most sequels go bigger and bolder. Terminator 2: Judgement Day has epic battles between 2 robots as opposed to the sole Arnold of the first flick (as well as the aforementioned subtitle referring to the end of times). Aliens has more than just the one Alien of the original. The Karate Kid Part II pits Danielson against all of Asia instead of the blond kid from Cobra Kai. Hell, the subtitle for Die Hard 2 is literally “Die Harder.” This is a trope that movies, books, and video games have stood by since the First Author ran out of original ideas and decided to serialize his hottest commodity (which I can only assume was Batman. Issue 2 of Detective Comics broke the mold. Not sure why they listed the first as #1 since they didn’t have sequels back in the 40s but good on them for forsight).

If you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I highly recommend it. Here, check out this trailer for the upcoming film adaptation:

Pretty sweet, right? Explosions, epic space battles, alien landscapes, and a mumbling Harrison Ford! How is a sequel gonna top that? By blowing up the entire human race? No. By having a bunch of scientists talk about their feelings on a planet where the laws say they can’t do anything. Seriously, the rules state they can’t get involved or tell the local “Pequeninos” (aliens) anything about anything. It’s a little ridiculous, but a fascinating read.

Speaker for the Dead is an “indirect” sequel to Ender’s Game. The only reason it’s referred to as “indirect” is because it takes place 3,000 years after the original, but still stars the titular Ender. But because time is relative in space, the dude’s in his late 30s. I wish I could explain it better, and as a sci/fi nerd I should have a clearer understanding of such a widely used concept, and I get the idea of time being relative in the whole LL Cool J way (“put your hands on a hot stove, a second can feel like an hour; put your hand on a hot woman, an hour can feel like a second”), but even if one is traveling at faster than light speed, 3,000 years is still a long-ass time. They never mention that traveling at hyper speed puts the traveler in a stasis or anything (like in Planet of the Apes), they just experience 40 years as 2 weeks. And I’ve already delved into it deeper than I’d like and smarter minds than mine have accepted the theory as at least fictionally understood if not factually possible, but if you’re one of those minds, I’ll buy you a beer sometime and you can explain it to me because at this point it just seems contrived.

Pequeninos
Pequeninos

Not that Ender, THE Ender, leader of he genocide (xenocide) and original speaker, author of The Hive Queen & The Hedgemon, being the one called to Lusitania isn’t an unlikely coincidence on the level of a C.S. Lewis lion. Ok, as succinctly as possible, here’s the rundown: in Ender’s Game, humanity wipes out an entire alien race, and it’s kind of Ender’s fault. So when they find another alien species that may be as sentient as humans, the government puts the kibosh down on any interaction that would lead that species away from their natural evolution. Which means the scientists who study them, while they can talk to the alien piggies (Pequeninos) in both their language and ours (Portuguese is our language, verdad? That’s Spanish, I don’t speak Portuguese), they don’t know shit from Shinola. Honestly, I don’t know what Shinola is either, but I’m not a scientist. But then the piggies kill a couple people (and another dude dies from a testical-shrinking disease [totally not kidding, read the book]), so Andrew “Ender” Wiggins is sent for to speak. To speak the dead.

So Ender’s Game was written mainly to set up Speaker for the Dead. At the end of the audiobook, author Orson Scott Card even admits that the story he wanted to tell was the one found in Speaker. And it totally works. You start with something along the lines of a Robert Heinlein sci/fi action adventure about kids in space and end up with a philosophical debate about humanity.

There are 2 main questions Speaker for the Dead raises. A) What is the human condition; what make us human; what separates humanity from other life forms? and 2. What happens to terrible people when they die? Not them specifically, but the people they leave behind. What can be said at the funeral of someone you hated? Why were they such a vile person? Is there anything redeemable about them or does that even matter? Both of these concepts, human life & death, are not given direct answers, just philosophized on throughout the book.

A race or species from a different planet that is able to understand humanity is not necessarily human. Just because some animal can speak English (or Portuguese) doesn’t mean they are human, and just because they can learn from us (or we can learn from them) doesn’t make us human either. And at a certain point, the question that truly needs to be asked is “is humanity right?” Just because we are the more advanced species, advanced as we understand it, does that put us in the superior position, and is that position meant to be exploited or used as a way to advise the “lower” species… I guess the point is to just raise questions, not answers, and to get humanity to discuss humanity. Talk to your neighbor about what people can offer in a way to increase our public knowledge. Grow as a species, reach for the stars. Or keep watching Netflix, whatever works for you.

Basically, I think Orson Scott Card is calling out war. If people just understood that their were different ways of life, different customs, different belief systems, we would be able to accept people for who they are. And while we may not agree with what they do, if we understand it we can tolerate it, accept it for what it is, and move on in harmony. Which is ironically terrible considering all the homophobic crap that’s been coming out Orson Scott Card’s mouth lately. I don’t have a link to it because there’s a lot of it, google and see what’s been going on. I may have a muddled idea of things because all the conversations I’ve had about his hateful ramblings have been with people who only know that things were said but not specifically what was said. The worst part is where he said something along the lines of (and I’m way paraphrasing) “If you’re so tolerant, watch my movie even if you hate the things I say.” The reason this is the worst part is because that’s a fair statement. For long whiles I have tried to convince people that Marilyn Manson makes awesome music but so many are put off by the wacky behavior and Gothic rumors (of course he didn’t have a rib taken out so he could fellate himself. If that operation was possible, our entire generation would be in line at a hospital so they could suck their own–). I keep telling them, listen to the music, forget about the guy who made it. And now I’m in the same stupid situation where I really dislike the creator, but should I allow that to reflect on the art created?

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The 2nd part, bad people & death, what can be said unless you truly get to know someone? And know someone in that humbly honest way, where you know all their deep dark secrets. Because if you know all their ins & outs, you know why they did everything. And it may not morally justify what they did, but if you see their hurt and their pain, their tears and their sorrow, can you resent them for feeling that way? And if they feel all torn up inside, and you were part of the problem, you didn’t help them find a reasonable outlet of the emotion, can you be mad at them for doing the best with what they had? I mean, the dude that lived down the street that punched me in the face when I was 11 was clearly a dick. But his parents were ass-hats who hit him when he misbehaved, so when I laughed at him for being a pussy, he reacted the only way he knew how and punched me in the face. I’m still mad at him, I don’t like him, but there’s a certain clarity and inner peace that I have knowing why he did what he did. It doesn’t make it all better, but knowledge is power and such. Understand why people do what they do, not just that they do it because they’re dicks. Because in someone else’s eyes, you’re probably a douche too.

Speaker-for-the-Dead

Speaker for the Dead
Written by Orson Scott Card
1986

13 comments

  1. Pierce Nahigyan Reply

    I’ve been meaning to read these books for years. I duck in and out of physics books every now and then, so I used to know this better, but my understanding of time dilation is that while time does not stop aboard a vessel traveling at or near the speed of light, it does slow down relative to observers. A ship that left the earth traveling incredibly fast could leave and return with very little time elapsed for the passengers, but centuries past for the people he/she left behind. 3,000 years is a lot but I would trust Card to know his physics well enough to get the calculation right.

    • J.K. Reply

      I recommend the books. I’ve only read 2 and they’re easy reads but I was struck by how different they are. Action & excitement (with a little epilogue of religion & philosophy) vs and entire book just kind of debating what it takes to be human and whether that’s relevant.

      And I get that time would SEEM relative, that I think I can understand, but how, on a molecular level, does the body not age over the course of a century of light speed travel?

  2. Pierce Nahigyan Reply

    Alright, special relativity. Here we go. There are no absolutes. Think of two dudes on a train: Bob and Jim. Bob’s on the train, Jim’s on the platform. Logically, you think Jim’s standing still and Bob’s moving. According to Einstein, everybody’s in motion all the time, things just appear to stay still relative to each other.

    Now. Bob’s on the train, he drops a ping pong ball. The train has a very big window and Jim watches him do that as the train speeds by (for the purposes of this example, the train is going super duper fast). Assume, again, that Jim has super duper vision skills and can watch the train as it blazes by.

    So. Bob drops the ping pong ball. Aboard the train, Bob drops it, it bounces, and it takes one second. Jim, watching this, sees the ball drop. Think of a right triangle with one very long diagonal.

    A . . . . . . . . B
    .
    .
    C

    Bob drops the ball at A, Jim’s at C. However, as the train moves and the ball drops, Jim doesn’t see it bounce until it gets to B. To Bob, the bounce took one second. To Jim, the light traveling to his eyes takes longer and so it lengthens the time. To Jim it takes 2 seconds for the ball to bounce (for the sake of this very, very basic and not mathematically accurate example).

    Now the light takes a long time to travel for both of them, so both Bob and Jim appear to be moving in slow motion relative to each other. The difference is that because Bob is moving really, really fast, what would be a normal day for him would appear to be two days to Jim. If Bob could still see Jim after moving two days away, Jim would still be moving in slow motion because light has a FINITE speed and can only reach him at a prescribed time. Once Bob started zooming back to Jim though, time would appear to speed up because the light would have a shorter distance to travel (haven’t double-checked this, but I believe it’s correct).

    The point is, time doesn’t slow down per se, but it is experienced differently by its observers because of the effects of physics. It’s enough to know that the faster you go the slower you personally age relative to anyone standing still.

    • J.K. Reply

      Well alright! Time to make a time machine out of a train set and ping pong balls. Whoa, new idea for a short story next week.

    • Derek Hobson Reply

      May be a simple example, but I still don’t get it.
      I like the review though, I’m actually interested.

      • Pierce Nahigyan Reply

        The biggest thing to remember when getting into relativity and higher physics is that on larger scales a lot of stuff we take for granted actually has limitations. Gravity and light, for instance. We know gravity exists but actually quantifying it has been one of the hardest things to prove (there’s no graviton, plus gravity doesn’t work at the sub-atomic level). And light, rather than being instantaneous, has a set speed limit. It also has both particle and wave attributes – not really worth getting into. What special relativity shows us – by its very name – is that there are no absolutes. If you can harness enough energy you can do astounding things to physics. The whole time dilation effect is 100% accurate and has actually been proven. Clocks in super-fast rockets lose synch with clocks sitting still. The effects of gravity on time have also been proven. Time runs a little bit slower at the bottom of a mountain than it does at the top because of the greater mass of the earth (more gravity at the base of the mountain).

        I highly recommend both the Physics of Superheroes by Kakalios and The Elegant Universe by Greene. Amazing books that aren’t too hard to wrap your head around. Brief History of Time by Hawking is also good.

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