As 2018 approaches I’m suddenly remembering all the resolutions that I made back in January that I have been somewhat lax in implementing. One of those was that I would write a review of every book I read, so here’s my review of Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card: read the damn book.
If you’ve ever read a science fiction book and liked it, you should read this book. If you’ve ever read a fantasy book and liked it, you should read this book. Actually, if you’ve ever read character-driven fiction and enjoyed it, you should read this book.
Speaker for the Dead is not the greatest book I have ever read, but it is very damn good. When I was thinking of giving it a rating my mind automatically went to 7/10, and then my brain remembered Tim Ferriss saying that rating things at 7/10 isthe shitty pacifist way to rate things that gave you an out on actually saying anything. I thought about it more and decided Speaker deserved at least an 8, maybe even a 9. Probably not a 9, but maybe. Definitely a 4/5.
Ranking systems are anxiety provoking for me.
Speaker is ostensibly a sequel to Ender’s Game, the novel for which Orson Scott Card is probably most known, but the two are wildly different. Card says in the introduction:
“It was my intention all along for Speaker to be able to stand alone, for it to make sense whether you have read Ender’s Game or not. Indeed, in my mind this was the ‘real’ book; if I hadn’t been trying to write Speaker for the Dead…there would never have been a novel version of Ender’s Game at all.”
If you haven’t read Ender’s Game you should stop reading this review and go read it. Honestly if you haven’t read it at this point I really don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life. It is stupendously fun.
Speaker for the Dead is about a group of humans and aliens thousands of years after the events of Ender’s Game. The aliens are the first species that humans have met since (spoilers) they killed every single alien in Ender’s Game. Humanity has to deal with that alien civilization and with its own emotions at the meeting. It’s about the actual people researching the aliens, who live actual lives outside of meeting aliens and have actual human conflicts like whether the boy with the robot eyes is a fair judge of children’s games. And it’s about trauma: how people and societies cope and wrestle with trauma, how they eventually move on from it, and ultimately how inescapable that trauma is for the traumatized and those around them.
In case this book isn’t sounding super fun, Speaker for the Dead is also a little bit a murder mystery.
I’ve never really loved Card’s writing style, and that remains true for Speaker. He’s always felt a bit infantilizing to me – for instance, the alien species in the series so far are named ‘buggers’ and ‘piggies’. It isn’t a major problem, but it’s enough to make the book a strong 8 rather than a weak 9.
Other than that, Speaker is strong in exactly the way that good science fiction always is: you take regular people, put them in a setting where technology has somehow fundamentally changed the world we know, and you watch what happens. It’s sort of a written documentary. I haven’t written fiction before so I don’t know how this differs from the kind of stuff that Jonathan Franzen writes, but it seems like the process is more about watching your characters do what they do on their own rather than making them do anything.
Speaker for the Dead is very, very good. The characters are distinct and believable. The new species humanity discovers, the planet they live on, and the culture of the human colony living there are all interesting and very non-hokey. The ending is particularly good: it refuses to take the easy route and not everyone is happy when the story ends. This is exactly as it should be in a story with interesting characters that grow and change.
So go read the damn book.