Orson Scott Card

Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

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.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Berkley, 1994 paperback revised edition of 1985 original, 352 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-812-55070-2

It’s hard to overstate the prominence of Ender’s Game as one of the major novel in the Science Fiction genre. It swept the major awards of the field upon initial publication in 1985 and hasn’t stopped selling in the three decades since then. It’s one of those rare SF novels that nearly every serious fan has read, and it has found a substantial audience outside the genre. It’s a perennial favourite of SF academics, a part of the US Army course curriculum and has been translated in nearly all major languages. Now that it’s a movie, it’s likely to replace Dune as my perennial favourite for demonstrating the reach of media SF compared to written SF. (As in: In any given room, more people will have seen the averagely-successful movie than will have read one of the best-selling SF novels of all time.)

And with that success has come a substantial backlash, reinforced by the widely held perception among the most progressive wing of SF fandom that author Orson Scott Card has since become a conservative right-wing homophobe. (Vulture has a nice timeline of the controversy.) There is now a vigorous number of essays criticizing the novel from various points of view: John Kessel’s Creating the Innocent Killer remains a landmark, but for a comprehensive look at the various self-contradictions and outright puzzlers of the novel, I can’t recommend highly enough Will Wildman’s vastly entertaining and insightful Ender’s Game read-through. And I’m sure that there’s plenty of accumulated wisdom somewhere in the 7643 reviews that the book (merely 179 of them one-star) has accumulated so far on Amazon.

I first read Ender’s Game as an older teenager, and it’s fair to say that almost exactly twenty years later, I don’t quite have the same perspective on it than I did back then. I picked up the book shortly after seeing the movie adaptation, and unlike my mid-nineties read-through, I immediately started second-guessing the basic premise of the novel. Ender’s Game appeals to smart teenagers because it tells them that they are special, and so are inevitably ostracised by normal people, and that being so exceptional gives you the right to kill your tormentors as long as you feel bad about it. This is the kind of power-fantasy that explains the book’s success… and that seems toxic once you graduate from high school. Given my life’s journey so far, I’m increasingly dubious (and headed toward repulsion) of fantasies of exceptionalism. The bedrock of Ender’s Game plot machinations are that the end justify the means, that it’s OK to systematically abuse a boy if he’s the only chance that humanity has at surviving. But that only works as a narrative conceit. The real world doesn’t require such harsh premises: smart people are everywhere, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where a single exceptional person could save the world. In reality, many people are suitable for even the toughest assignments, and they usually succeed because of systems, teams, procedures and support mechanism that do much to distribute expertise among capable groups. (Yes, I work in an office.) Exceptionalism is a sure road to exceptions and abuses of power. We don’t need exceptional people to save us: We need structures so that we never get in a situation where we need saving by exceptional people.

But never mind that for a moment: Broad ideological objections aside, Ender’s Game does remain a highly enjoyable read. Card has a gift for prose narration that remains easily readable while hitting ambitious emotional targets. His handling of incluing is as good as it gets (as you can see from the use of technology that is never explicitly explained, but fits the plot naturally while surviving twenty years of innovations) and he manages to render a compelling internal monologue for his characters. As strange as some of the novel’s plot points can be, their handling feels right –the sequences where the teams of soldiers-in-training go in combat are exhilarating, and there is some strong emotional material in the conversations that Ender has with his sister.

It’s also worth underlining how ironic the novel seems to be from beginning to end. Ender may be a savior of humanity, but he needs to be made alien to everyone in order to do so. His greatest triumph remains his biggest mistake, and for an entire novel thirsting for xenocide, Ender’s Game seems positively devastated when humans triumph over their opponents. Ironies pile upon each other in a rich blend that makes it hard to dismiss the entire novel as being much of this and some of that.

Still, Card’s contemporary reputation as a right-wing homophobe being what it is, it’s amusing to spot in a 1985 novel the various kernels of what would later define him among a certain audience.

  • Sexism? Try the bit where girls are said to be less aggressive than boys due to centuries of evolution:

“All boys?” “A few girls. They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them. (Chapter 3)

  • Jingoism/religionism/birthism? I was gobsmacked by the bit where the French (in their “arrogant separatism” ) are bashed for daring to speak French rather than “common” language –in the same novel where the Poles are praised for chafing against anti-Catholicism (and, more importantly, anti-birth-limits) restrictions. Have a look at this:

His name, Ender quickly learned, was Bernard. He spoke his own name with a French accent, since the French, with their arrogant Separatism, insisted that the teaching of Standard not begin until the age of four, when the French language patterns were already set. (Chapter 5)


Your father was baptized with the name John Paul Wieczorek. Catholic. The seventh of nine children. (…) Your father denies his Polish ancestry, since Poland is still a noncompliant nation, and under international sanction because of it. (…) [Your parents] haven’t really given up their religion. They look at you and see you as a badge of pride, because they were able to circumvent the law and have a Third. (Chapter 3)

  • Zionism? There’s a few paragraphs dedicated at explaining why Jews make the best generals (and this despite a Jewish character called by a slur and demonstrated to be not very good at the stuff.): it starts with

“Since the I.F. was formed the Strategos of the military forces had always been a Jew. There was a myth that Jewish generals didn’t lose wars. And so far it was still true.” (Chapter 8).

  • Racism? There’s a bit where the kids trade the n-word and then laugh about slavery, which ends with

“Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”
“My great great grandpa would have sold him first,”
. (Chapter 6)

[This bit apparently isn’t to be found in the latest editions of the novel.]

But there’s something even more amazing (not) to be found in a contemporary reading of Ender’s Game: For an author often accused of homophobia, you’ll find quite the opposite in the novel. In fact, it doesn’t take much imagination to read protagonist Ender as a gay, and the events showing him his true preferences in bonding with other boys while having ambivalent non-romantic feelings about girls. In a better universe, a slightly-revised version of Ender’s Game has become beloved for showing a positive role model for young gay teenagers. In this world, oh well. Moving on.

Perhaps my biggest reaction to a second reading fifteen years later is how rough the novel can feel at times. The world-building is a bit shaky around the edges, the plots points handled more arbitrarily than needed. A close reading of the text reveals astonishing contradictions, and push buttons that readers may develop later in life. I still think (as documented in my big list of Alternate Hugo Winners) that Ender’s Game is one of the novels from 1985 that everyone should read, but I now have to temper this assessment with a few warnings (and maybe move Sterling’s Schismatrix to the top spot). This, too, feels like the passing of the years more than any change in the novel itself: I’m not the same reader than I was twenty years ago, and my then-tendency to see it through uncritical fannish lenses has been eroded away (and even more so lately that I’m reading far less SF and am so not as completely immersed in its privileged assumptions.) So it goes; much like the plot of Ender’s Game requires an innocent ready to be molded into a destroyer of worlds, it strikes me more than ever that Ender’s Game is deliberately optimised for less-jaded readers. Which may very well explain its massive appeal: there are far more innocents out there than stone-cold readers.

[April 2014: Reasoning that I’d never get as good an opportunity while the original was still fresh in my mind, I re-read “parallax” novel Ender’s Shadow, which explores the same rough timeline from the perspective of ‘”Bean”, a minor character in Ender’s Game. Here we see Card’s attempts to patch the holes in Ender’s Game with fifteen years’ insight and second guesses about the first novel. Nearly every dicey plot development in Game is explained in Shadow as part of a masterful plan by someone even smarter than Ender. It often reaches ludicrous levels of disbelief (especially once you factor in Bean’s age) but there is some compelling material here and there, especially in getting another, better hit of the same kind of excitement about Battle School training. There are some major contrasts between both novels, though, and some of the issues in the previous novel simply can’t be explained away. My advice: If you’re going to read Ender’s Game, have a quick look through Ender’s Shadow while events are still fresh in your mind. Browse quickly over the parts with Sister Carlotta and Achilles, and focus on the parallax view of Ender as from other viewpoints.]

Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender’s Game (2013)

(Video on Demand, February 2014) As a confirmed Science Fiction reader with an extensive knowledge of the genre’s classics (seriously, have you read the book reviews on this web site?), the big-screen adaptation of Ender’s Game after decades of discussion and false hopes (“Jake Lloyd as Ender!”) is a Big Deal. It’s one of the genre’s biggest, most passionately-discussed novels finally brought to a wider audience, with all of the good and bad that this supposes. (I’m going to mention, but not dwell upon, the controversy surrounding novel author Orson Scott Card’s homophobia… except to note ironically that if someone reads Ender’s Game without any clue as to Card’s attitudes, they’re likely to find a sympathetic depiction of a protagonist who may very well be more interested in boys than girls.) The good news are that much of the novel’s plot has been adapted reasonably faithfully. Even the changes feel like a much-needed polish over the novel’s rougher elements: Ender being a more reasonable age, streamlining some of the plot points, toning down the “bugger” slurs, excising the “genius bloggers” angle, and including a redemption for one of the minor antagonists: It makes the novel’s most problematic edges easier to take (and if you don’t think the novel has its share of edges, go re-read it.) Much of the novel’s surprises are included as well (although, yes, the trailer does spoil one of the pivotal images) although telegraphed so hard that readers may find them underwhelming. The use of cutting-edge special effects makes not only for visually pleasing space-fight sequences, but for a convincing Battle Room as well. Gavin Hood’s direction is nicely unobtrusive, while Asa Butterfield makes for a serviceable Ender even as Harrison Ford turns in another fun grumpy-old-man performance. Ender’s Game does feel rushed (the novel takes place over years, making the progression of the protagonist more realistic –the film seems to take place over six months.), doesn’t seem to portray Ender’s isolation and exhaustion as accurately, and takes a few too many shortcuts in an attempt to set up the background information. And while the novel was explicitly written to set up sequel Speaker for the Dead, the film does the same, leading to a truly puzzling conclusion for non-readers that is unlikely to be satisfied by a filmed sequel. For a novel as flawed as the original, the adaptation does its best, and while the result is unlikely to be as much of a classic in the movie realm as the original was in the written, Ender’s Game is a decent-enough Science Fiction film. For years, in speaking with large audience about the reach of written SF compared to filmed SF, I always used Dune as my example: in pitting the best-selling SF novel of a generation compared to a mildly-successful film adaptation, I always found that more people were familiar with the film. Now I’m about to update my example to Ender’s Game: As massively successful as the novel was and as tepidly received as the film is, more people will be familiar with the film than the novel. Even die-hard written-SF fans will have to live with that.

Ender’s Shadow, Orson Scott Card

Tor, 1999, 379 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86860-X

Over the past few years, it has become acceptable in some Science Fiction circles to deride Orson Scott Card as, to put it bluntly, a homophobic pro-Bush religious nut who -as a side cheap shot- doesn’t write anything worth reading anymore. Look on the web (better yet, search for “Orson Scott Card” and any of these keywords) and you will find a deep and widely-shared assessment that, at the very least, Card doesn’t write novels like he used to. The glory days of Ender’s Game and Speaker of the Dead are long past, and Card’s latest work doesn’t seem to appeal to the largely left-wing secular SF constituency.

This makes 1999’s Ender’s Shadow fascinating for all sorts of reasons: Billed as a “parallax novel”, it follows more or less the events of Card’s classic Ender’s Game, but from the perspective of another character rather than Ender Wiggins himself. Cynics like me are usually quick to see the lucrative possibilities of such a novel and hindsight proves us right: the built-in name recognition automatically attracted attention and virtually ensured best-selling numbers. Ender’s Shadow even made it on the New York Times’ famed hardcover bestseller list. At a time where the only ways to sell SF books seems to be to capitalize on sequels, series, media tie-ins or celebrity names, a “parallax novel” seems like just another way to make a living.

So you can say that I came to Ender’s Shadow with low expectations. But the surprise is that, even with a number of significant annoyances, this is a novel that ends up working well, and meshes better than you may think with the existing framework of Ender’s Game.

It’s partially a triumph of emotional manipulation. Card’s success has often felt grounded in cheap deliberate stunts that leave little room for interpretation: By touching upon taboos, stock situations and easy unpleasant sentiments, Card has often been able to exploit built-in prejudices in his audience. Ender’s Game itself seemed like a product deliberately designed to appeal to the Science Fiction readership: The archetype of a poor misunderstood super-genius hero who ends up saving the day despite himself is, shall we say, deeply comforting to a number of SF fans.

And if it worked once, well, it can work again: Card doesn’t seem to have any scruple in making Bean an even smarter and even punier protagonist than Ender Wiggins. This is often pushed to a ridiculous extent: Bean isn’t just a small smart kid: he’s a genetically modified ultra-genius who escapes from an eeevil lab at an age when he crawls better than he walks. Then it’s the life of a homeless kid in a hellishly socialist Europe for him, where he’s eventually saved by a nun and packed off to meet Ender Wiggins in orbit… but not before encountering yet another exceptional genius who will give him trouble later on.

From afar, Ender’s Shadow teeters on the edge of credibility. But Card hasn’t become a New York Times best-seller without some writing skills, and the biggest surprise of the book is how readable it remains even as it covers familiar events with a slightly skewed perspective. It goes without saying that Bean, being a super-genius and all, figures out the “twist” to Ender’s Game long before Ender, which scatters the cards somewhat for the readers who come into the book already knowing the outline of the story. But it works, and the characterization holds together so well that when I went back to re-read the original “Ender’s Game” novella, Bean’s role still fit perfectly well with the extra knowledge of Ender’s Shadow.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a particularly good novel. The religious rants from “Sister Carlotta” are tedious, and the smarter-than-Ender shtick wears thins. Ender’s Shadow remains a stunt for everyone who would pay again to relive Ender’s Game: Comfort fiction meant to push the same buttons than the previous experience. But as derivative products are concerned, this one is better than most. Better yet, it marks a significant notch in Card’s decline as a favourite writer of the SF crowd. In retrospect, you can see hints of the opinions he would loudly adopt during the Bush presidency; Ender’s Shadow may have been Card’s last acceptable book before his entire mental framework turned inside-out.

[January 2008: Alas, the trilogy that follows Ender’s Shadow gives further comfort to the “Card can’t write anymore” crowd: After making my way through Shadow of the Hegemon and Shadow Puppets, I’m not particularly motivated to read, much less pay any kind of money to get any further book in the series. The focus of Ender’s Shadow is gone, and what’s left is basically a game of Risk starring teenage protagonists and an increasingly sillier view of geopolitics. The bad traits of Ender’s Shadow are magnified, and there’s little to make up for it. Neither the prose nor the characters rise above the dull plotting, and the increasingly strident echoes of Card’s obsessions do much to leaden the reading experience.]

Children of the Mind, Orson Scott Card

Tor, 1996, 349 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85395-5

The four-book cycle concluded by Children of the Mind is remarkable: The first volume, Ender’s Game, was one of the best books of the eighties. Critics will forever argue whether it was designed to be popular, or just ended up being an exceptionally-well written power fantasy, with just enough guilt at the end to make the reader realize that while destroying another species is fun, it’s not without consequences.

The second book, Speaker for the Dead, sent the series in a whole new direction. Andrew (‘Ender’) Wiggins is trying to atone for his crimes, and his new purpose in life is to Speak for the Dead. (ie: Make fancy eulogies at funerals.) While Ender’s Game was hyperkinetic, its sequel is reflective, quieter but not without interest. In addition to winning the Hugo, it was a remarkably enjoyable novel on many levels.

Xenocide wasn’t so unanimously praised. The events set up in Speaker for the Dead are further developed in this third tome, but one seemingly deus-ex-machina event left a sour impression in most reader’s minds, as did a completely new focus on Japanese culture.

Children of the Mind is a better novel, but builds heavily of the weaknesses of the third book. The threads introduced in the previous books are tried up together in a satisfactory manner and if a possibility for a sequel still exists, it is evident that this is the end of Ender’s story. [Newsflash! Card is preparing a prequel! Aaaarrgh!]

The prose is mostly readable, at the exception of a few needlessly sophisticated scenes on a beach. Card’s talent at dialogue is impressive: We’re hanging on to every reply, each more sagacious and penetrating than the one before. Children of the Mind almost approaches in this respect the incredibly sophisticated multileveled dialogues of the Dune series, with layers of hidden meanings and single phrases that send the conversation in a new direction. What Card masters and Herbert didn’t, however, is the amusing touch: Even in the most serious, dramatic exchanges, there’s always a humorous reply, a hilarious comment that puts the conversation in perspective. As the old movie slogans go: “You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!”

Children of the Mind gets high marks for character development, managing to turn a few characters inside-out, to kill a few of them and to marry the rest. (Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said that a comedy concluded by a marriage and a tragedy by a funeral? Then what is Children of the Mind?)

Speaking of conclusions, Children of the Mind kicks in overdrive somewhere past half-point. Threads are resolved in almost every chapter, relationships stabilize, galactic issues are settled. No villains remains at the end, an interesting characteristic of this series. The book could have easily been a few hundred pages longer, but sense prevailed over length, and the result is a good, medium-sized book, unlike Xenocide, which was a good 200 pages longer.

The author’s after-word is curious, talking mainly about a small aspect of the fourth volume instead of global thoughts about the entire series. Disappointing, and this from an after-word fan.

This book is highly recommended to fans of the series, but builds so heavily on the previous volumes that it’s not a good singleton choice. This might not be a problem: Given the excellence of the first two books, it’s a fair bet to say that not many readers will try to read Children of the Mind as a stand-alone.