Tor, 2009 revised reprint of 1986 original, 416 pages, $C9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0812550757
Having re-read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game shortly after seeing its film adaptation, I was struck by an irresistible impulse to re-read the sequel as well: I would seldom have the original fresher in mind, and it would allow me to revisit Speaker for the Dead much as I revisited Ender’s Game, twenty years after first reading it.
Looking at my 1994 notes about both novels, it’s clear that nineteen-year-old-me liked Ender’s Game a great deal better than Speaker for the Dead. Despite being directly linked, they are very different novels. In Ender’s Game, protagonist Andrew Wiggin is a teenager struggling to make it through a series of desperate battles. In Speaker for the Dead, he’s a mid-thirties man trying to atone for his early crimes by living a life of peace and civility. The age-gap between this older Wiggin and me now is almost the same as the one between Ender’s Game Wiggin and me twenty years ago. As a result, I’m not really surprised to find out that I liked Speaker for the Dead a lot more now than I did then.
It’s also easier, in some ways, to figure out why Speaker for the Dead was such a hit back in the mid-eighties: It features a blend of far-future extrapolation, clean prose, exceptional characters, anthropologic mystery, a world-weary hero, galactic portents, as well as an exploration of colonialism, scientific ethics and the consequences of abuse. I’m not going to pretend that the mid-eighties were a particularly innocent and naïve era, but I will suggest that a number of those themes had not yet been explored then in the way Card dares tackle them, with heartfelt earnestness or blatant emotional manipulation. Looking at the field back then (which was reeling from the cyberpunk wave and perhaps looking for a bit more humanity in its flagship titles), it’s easier to understand why Speaker for the Dead would go on to sweep all awards and earn a place as one of the decade’s defining SF novels… even if it hasn’t aged particularly well.
But before digging into the novel’s problems, let’s spend at least a paragraph praising what works. Because there’s a lot of stuff that’s actually quite good here: Card may have earned a disgraceful reputation as a right-wing homophobe since his eighties heydays, but he’s a skilled writer, and at its best Speaker for the Dead can indulge into easily-digestible exposition (such as when a AI’s inner workings are explained), emotionally resonant sequences (such as when our protagonist does speak for the dead), intricate science-fictional mysteries (such as the riddle behind the alien lifecycle that so baffles the characters) and the technical challenge of spinning a tale with multiple family members and twice as many other characters. Speaker of the Dead takes place in a future with hundreds of planets separated by slower-than-light travel but united by instant communications, and it doesn’t take much more than a few consequent extrapolations to make core-SF fans giddy. The prose is easily digestible, Ender is an exceptional character (and as much as teenager-me wanted to be Ender’s Game tactically brilliant Ender, thirty-something-me would like to have Speaker for the Dead Ender‘s gift for empathy and effortless soothing.) and you can recognize how the novel hits many of SF’s power chords.
But one thing that thirtysomething-me does quite a bit better than teenage-me is question core assumptions of a novel. I don’t suspend my incredulity so easily, and I’m willing to suggest that contemporary Science Fiction is quite a bit better at building a more credible model of reality compared to eighties-era SF. Where I’m going with these caveats is how flawed Speaker for the Dead can feel once you apply more complex models of reality. So it does tackle colonialism –but in ways that seem incredibly manufactured, always from the oh-so-repentant perspective of the white colonial rather than the colonized (a crucial difference now far more common.) (And I’m not even going to talk about the ridiculous passage in which all aliens really do is aspire to starflight, and will flip over themselves if they don’t.) It does tackle victimization by domestic violence, but feels compelled to blame the victim a little bit for not caring enough about the aggressor. It does feature scientists at work… except that a quick look at what they do suggests that they have no understanding whatsoever of the way science truly works. (Or, perhaps more appropriately, not as much that they themselves aren’t very good scientists, but that the entire scientific establishment of the book’s universe is considerably dumber than one of today’s least-competent review boards.) And for all of the wizzy-bang flavor of its universe separated by distance and time, this society three thousand years in the future feels almost too comfortably contemporary –down to a number of planets settled by people speaking today’s languages apparently unchanged. And the inconsistencies… I’m somehow led to believe that Ender has never turned off his link with his AI super-friend Jane even as it’s suggested early during the novel that she’s got to sit around and wait decades every time he takes an STL star-ship trip. The instant he does turn off the link in real-time –blammo, instant unfriending. And how about the ableism late in the novel…? Or, heck, the very strange aside about Calvinism?
Oh, I’m not going to thoroughly tackle the novel’s flaws in order (If you want to, I would rather suggest Wil Wildman’s incisive and hilarious series of posts.) But once you start poking and prodding at Speaker for the Dead‘s assumptions, a lot falls apart. And if something hasn’t really aged well in thirty years, it may be primarily Speaker for the Dead‘s almost smarmy self-assurance that it knows best. Since then, we’ve seen far better examples, writing from better-informed perspectives and achieving far more nuanced goals.
(It’s also worth mentioning as a flaw that, for all of the historical acclaim that Speaker for the Dead got, it leads straight to third volume Xenocide, which earned far fewer friends either then or since. No, I won’t be pursuing my re-reading odyssey any further.)
So it is that Speaker for the Dead nowadays feels far less formidable than it did upon publication. Distance isn’t everything: I believe that the novel contains a number of unforgiveable shortcuts that make it now far less palatable to better-informed, more world-aware audiences. It’s still worth a read for those who are interested in the historical evolution of SF, but I’m not sure that the novel is worth just an entertainment read today –too many flaws, too many vexing presumptions, too many annoyances to fix. But that’s what revisiting books is for –sometimes they improve, and sometimes they don’t.