(Content: family dysfunction, death, suicide, colonisation. Fun content: Ender Wiggin is ha-Satan.)
Speaker for the Dead: p. 232--246
One more unnecessary roadblock in the discoveries finally happening out in the woods--we cut back to the Ribeira house, where Ela is serving dinner and enjoying the calm that comes from neither Novinha nor Miro being home, since that means she's in charge and (unlike them) she actually makes an effort to keep the younger children subdued. Of course, since the family has been Touched By A Xenocide, they're in some kind of healing trance; Olhado and Quim are barely speaking to anyone and she only has to tell Grego off twice for tormenting Quara. Then the meal ends and Quim settles in for the attack by accusing Olhado of teaching Ender how to spy in their files, and thus being "the devil's servant". Olhado briefly considers launching into a full assault, but thinks he has no support in the room, and so surrenders and apologises.
"I hope," said Ela, "that you mean that you're sorry that you didn't mean to do it. I hope you aren't apologizing for helping the Speaker for the Dead."Quim is enraged by the idea that they should help "the spy", and starts shouting, but Ela leaps up and shoves him back, keeps shoving until they run into the wall, and shouts louder:
"Mother's secrets are the cause of half the poison in this house! Mother's secrets are what's making us all sick, including her! So maybe the only way to make things right here is to steal all her secrets and get them out in the open where we can kill them!"Well. Let's consider this. Reasons the Ribeira house is fucked up:
- Abusive father (recently deceased)
- Neglectful mother
- Estranged eldest son who basically lives in the woods
- Eldest daughter desperately trying to fill parental role while also solving the Science Mystery
- Zero community support
"The only real treason is obeying Mother, because what she wants, what she has worked for all her life, is her own self-destruction and the destruction of this family."The quantity of hatred that gets piled on Novinha for being an impulsive and irrational person (not surprising given her apparently completely neglected childhood) and the lack of responsibility put on Marcos for being physically violent and verbally abusive is just boggling.
Olhado begins to sob, as Ela has convinced him that he hasn't actually sinned, and when she looks up she sees Novinha has arrived and overheard this last rant. Having accepted her role as Scapegoat Villain of the novel, she just says that "for all I know she might be right", dismisses everyone, and settles down on the floor to comfort Olhado for the first time in years.
We return to the forest, where it's time for Miro to tell-not-show us more about how terrifying Ender is:
Miro had expected him to be wise. He had not expected him to be so intrusive, so dangerous. Yes, he was wise, all right, he kept seeing past pretense, kept saying or doing outrageous things that were, when you thought about it, exactly right. It was as if he were so familiar with the human mind that he could see, right on your face, the desires so deep, the truths so well-disguised that you didn't even know yourself that you had them in you.Y'all might recall that back in Ender's Game I argued that one of the biggest flaws running through the book could have been corrected if "Hyrum Graff" was actually a false identity for Mazer Rackham, who would reveal his true self to Ender when they arrived at Eros, thus giving "Graff" an actual backstory, motivations, and justification for his otherwise inexplicable fetish for neglectful and abusive training environments. There was no good reason for those two characters to be separate.
This is as good as time as any to make my recommendation for the mistake in Speaker for the Dead that would have made it work so, so much better: Ender Wiggin shouldn't be the hero. Ender should be, narratively speaking, the antagonist. (As distinct from 'villain'; done properly this is the kind of story that doesn't really need a villain.) When one is writing about magic--and let's not pretend that Ender Wiggin is not, for all narrative purposes, a wizard--it is very easy to ruin tension by using ill-defined magic to get your protagonists out of trouble, but you are always allowed to use magic, no matter how vague or unprecedented, to get your protagonists into trouble. Ender the Xenocide, atoning priest, who comes into town and somehow learns everyone's secrets no matter how hard they try to hide them but has a thousand of his own, who sees through lies and breezes through computer security and damn near walks through walls and then drags all your secrets out for everyone to see: he's a nightmare, he's Keyser Soze, he's the devil, and in a better book he would be treated as such, and it would be the most incredible, awe-inspiring twist when the town lies in ruins at the whims of this strange ancient man's idea of truth and morality and then he suddenly seems to switch sides and help our heroes save the day, because he isn't the relatable everyman hero, the ansibles themselves are in love with him and he carries the last egg of the scourge of Earth, he's a force majeure, he's ha-Satan.
There are two core ways magic can work: you can be in on the secrets and be impressed by the performance, showmanship and wonderment and seeing the way a good magician tricks everyone into thinking they're so much more mystical than they are, or you can cheerfully decide to be an uninitiated audience member and accept the show for all the impossibility that it pretends to be. These are both perfectly valid. Card's mistake here is in not committing to either one, because he lets us in behind the curtain to see what Ender's secret techniques are, but instead of "I make them look over here and then I finesse the egg away here and sneak the dove out here, presto", the secret is "I snap my fingers and a dove appears because shut up", and, as far as secrets go, that's really not satisfying at all. There's no effort, no cost, no artistry to admire; everything just happens because the story says Ender can't be stopped. Card lets us see the inner workings of his magic and they're boring.
They come to the Little Ones' village and Miro wonders how many of the foreign technologies Ender spots: bows, pots, roots being leached of cyanide, but Ender just waits until the Little Ones bring him their copy of The Hive Queen and the Hegemon and, when asked, confirms that he wrote it. Ouanda shows a flash of vindication at this blatant lie, because the poor girl still hasn't realised what kind of book she's in. Human notices this, and Ender snarks that it still hasn't occurred to them that Rooter told the truth. He's so deadpan that it finally occurs to Miro that someone who travels a lot (like a speaker) probably could skip over three thousand years realtime, and that the original Speaker would probably be very interested in sapient aliens. They ask if Ender will bring them the hive queen, and Ender says again that he hasn't decided yet, and once again Miro begins to question whether it's possible that the formics aren't all dead. And, of course, if these things are true, then it becomes quite likely that Rooter's tree really does talk.
The Little Ones ask what Ender wants, saying they have nothing worth trading to him, and he says he needs true stories, but he only speaks for the dead, and the Little Ones bust out what I'm going to call, on the spur of the moment, the best part of the entire book:
"We are dead! [....] We are being murdered every day. Humans are filling up all the worlds. The ships travel through the black of night from star to star to star, filling up every empty place. Here we are, on our one little world, watching the sky fill up with humans. The humans build their stupid fence to keep us out, but that is nothing. The sky is our fence!"I'm not sure it's explained how they know this--if Miro has told them about colonisation or if they've heard about it through the hive queen--but finally the Little Ones actually get to speak for themselves about what actually concerns them, and while it doesn't particularly touch on the kinds of genocidal horrors that colonisation has meant on Earth, it's a vague gesture in that direction and at this moment that is like rain in the desert to me.
And then, because these are primitive tribals and can't be allowed to be taken seriously for too long, Human leaps up, then runs up a tree and leaps off as though trying to fly, and crashes to the ground hard enough that they briefly think he's dead.
In all the years that Miro had known the piggies, in all the years before, they had never once spoken of star travel, never once asked about it. Yet now Miro realized that all the questions they did ask were oriented toward discovering the secret of starflight.Like, for example, that time a few chapters ago when they literally asked Miro to bring them metal so they could learn how to make the machine that drove Ender's shuttle down from orbit. Just sayin': that's not a hard couple of dots to connect. Arrow reports that Rooter told them the hive queen would tell them everything they need to know: "metal, fire made from rocks, houses made from black water, everything". Ender says that there are many ways to learn to fly, some better than others, and he'll only teach them the things that he knows won't destroy them, and again there's an actual good moment from the Little Ones:
"If we are ramen," shouted Human into the Speaker's face, "then it is ours to decide, not yours! And if we are varelse, then you might as well kill us all right now, the way you killed all the hive queen's sisters!"Miro, still struggling on the path to genre savviness, wonders how they could possibly think Andrew Wiggin is "the monster Ender", but Ender just sheds tears. The Little Ones demand to know what this means, and when told it shows "pain or grief or suffering", begin to let out wails like Miro has never heard before--their own way of showing pain, because Mandachuva says he saw tears in Pipo and Libo's eyes, and Miro realises that they have only just understood that Pipo and Libo suffered when they were cut open. Ouanda staggers away to sob, while Miro asks how it's possible that Ender is the first Speaker and also the Xenocide. Ender says that regardless of how they're viewed, those figures were both human,and then tells the Little Ones that they aren't to blame for things they did in ignorance. He points out as well that it's easy for humanity to love the formics, all dead, but they fear the Little Ones, and the thought that one day humanity might come to a new world and find that someone else got there first.
"We don't want to be there first," said Human. "We want to be there too."Lines like that are really strange to reconcile with moments like those which follow--Ender agrees that it's time they tell each other everything, but then admits that he doesn't know what to ask first, and Ouanda asks what's clearly supposed to be a Wham Line sort of question, though I feel a mite cheated.
"You have no stone or metal tools," she said. "But your house is made of wood, and so are your bows and arrows."Ender earlier noted that their weapons appeared to be fallen wood, so I've been assuming that the trees used for their house were fallen as well, and wood can be shaped by scouring or what have you, but Miro boggles that no one else has ever asked this question in fifty years. Ender explains that humans fell and shape wood with cutting tools.
It took a moment for the Speaker's words to sink in. Then suddenly, all the piggies were on their feet. They began running around madly, purposelessly, sometimes bumping into each other or into trees for the log houses. Most of them were silent, but now and then one of them would wail, exactly as they cried out a few minutes ago.Miro's response to the plot twist is to be quietly amazed at his failure of inquisition. The Little Ones' response is literally to run around in a senseless mob running into objects like cartoon characters, finally showing the emotion that they've supposedly been hiding from humans since the beginning. Card could have tried much, much harder to not be constantly hitting the racist primitive tribal tropes. The Little Ones begin flinging themselves at Ender's feet, begging humanity not to cut down their fathers, offering themselves as sacrifices, until Ender points out that no human has ever cut down a Lusitanian tree. Ouanda is mostly shocked at their hypocrisy, given that they carved her father open. Ender has decided it's not time to resolve that plot point yet, and is far more curious about their carpentry techniques--they're shocked at the idea that they should "ask a brother to give himself, just so you can see it", but Leaf-Eater (who wandered off some time ago) appears and bellows orders in the Wives' Language. Ouanda tries to translate, but all she can get is something about doing what Ender says and "all of them dying", though she assures us they're not afraid. Miro is impressed:
"I've got to hand it to you--you've caused more excitement here in half an hour than I've seen in years of coming here."Of course he has, Miro, you inept pseudoscientist, but half of that is because literally everything that matters in the galaxy in the last three thousand years has revolved around him and the other half is that he's the only one who seems to have noticed that once you started revealing humanity's secrets it was ridiculous to stop halfway. Hell, Ouanda was the one who asked the Wham Question anyway.
The Little Ones gather around an ancient tree, climb up, and start singing and drumming on it with sticks. After a few minutes it tilts and half them jump off to make sure it's falling toward the clearing. The tree sheds its branches until it's a single straight pole, and then that topples over. They stroke the bark until it splits open and they carry it away in large sheets (Miro's never seen them use the bark for anything, and we won't see it again either). The ends of the fallen branches are smooth, dry, and cold. Lastly, they swarm over the naked trunk, still singing, and trace shapes over the wood, again and again, until it splits where they touch, and they pull the trunk apart into hundreds of shapes--weapons, knives, strands to make baskets, and lastly a half-dozen poles, until the whole trunk is used.
Finally Mandachuva came to him and spoke softly. "Please," he said. "It's only right that you should sing for the brother."
"I don't know how," said Miro, feeling helpless and afraid.
"He gave his life," said Mandachuva, "to answer your question."Miro at last does come forward, kneels with Human, and sings, at first hesitantly, but once he understand the point of it he grows more confident, singing thanks to the tree for its sacrifice and promising to use it for the good of the tribe, and at last repeating the same rites that he said over Libo's body.
Now, this has some emotional weight to it, and I hate to feel like I'm willfully missing the point of a story, but I can't quite get over what a bad biological plan this is.
So we're clear on this--the trees, the sapient trees that Little Ones grow into after 'death', are capable of reshaping their wood to provide tools for the tribe, that's great, but evolutionarily, why in the world would they develop so that it's all-or-nothing? They apparently can't choose to just shed a branch, or only part of their trunk, or else they would have done so just to demonstrate the principle to Miro. Given what we'll learn in a couple of chapters (that the trees are the fertile males) that shooting themselves in the foot, genetically. My first thought was that it was sort of like if the rule for organ donors was "If we're taking one kidney out, we may as well chop-shop the rest of you too", but in this case it's a little more like if humans realised we could make rope out of our hair but evolved so that the only way we could get our hair was to collapse into a pile of cold cuts. It's just a bad idea on a variety of levels.
And given that the trees can reshape their wood without killing themselves (again, this is made explicit in later chapters), I'm a bit confused as to why they would fell trees to make their houses rather than have the living trees morph and weave themselves together to form a house shape without--and this is important--committing suicide for the sake of a breakfast nook.
Next week: Ender speaks the death of Marcos Ribeira and reveals everything to everyone. I'm sure he'll be very sensitive to others' feeling and not just go for shock value. (Pfffbhahahahaaaa.)