Speaker for the Dead: p. 199--219
Chapter Thirteen: Ela
We open with A Day In The Life Of The Worst Scientists.
MIRO: The piggies call themselves males, but we're only taking their word for it.
OUANDA: Why would they lie?Good goddamn question, Ouanda. I mean, I realise this is part of the Science Mystery and all, but here on Earth basically every culture has had some type of recognition of gender identity distinct from obvious biological sex indicators. People who can't imagine how asking someone about their gender and getting an answer that doesn't jive with the assumptions about their physiology have no business being anthropologists, let alone alien anthropologists. And in the meantime, back here on Earth, if for some reason you need to ask someone what their gender is, decent folks follow the same rule as census-takers: call people what they tell you they are. Transphobes will of course have you believe that the only reason anyone would identify with a gender other than that assigned to them at birth is to evilly infiltrate another gender and, I don't know, shut down the planetary shields or something. Look, don't ask me; it's their bigoted fantasy.
But of course, as a young man in a Card novel, Miro's primary concern is that when he looks around he's not seeing the legions of penises he expects, but he has a theory. A few days earlier he saw Pots caressing the bumps on Leaf-eater's chest (which Ouanda insists are obviously vestigial nipples) and Leaf-eater was apparently really enjoying, and--I am not making this up--his chest was incredibly moist. He figures that if none of the Little Ones are fathers, their wives obviously aren't doing anything sexual with them, because--lest we forget--Miro is the Worst Scientist and can't imagine people having sex that doesn't result in children unless it's moist man-on-man action in the woods.
The only reason that this 'confusion' is possible, and the only reason this aspect of the Science Mystery has been dragged out this long, is that we've never actually been told how Pipo (or his predecessor) explained the concepts of 'male' and 'female' to the Little Ones. He obviously didn't reference genitals, since the Little Ones lack humanoid parts like that. Did he actually use the small-gamete/large-gamete dichotomy that would be most appropriate to essential Earth biology? (If so, how did he avoid describing human reproduction, since Rooter was apparently shocked to discover we were 'like cabras' in that respect?) Did he use stereotypical roles like 'males fight and defend, females nurture and clean'? Did he inquire how they define their identities, to determine if they even have genders/sexes that can map to human norms, or did he say "Hey, I bet you're all dudes, am I right?" If we knew how that conversation went down, we'd have found whatever the loopholes were a long time ago. (Hey, if they have comprehensive notes on everything, shouldn't there be some record of that conversation on gender in the old notes? Isn't that something that Miro might want to read and reread exhaustively as he tries to puzzle out the Enigma of the Absent Dicks?)
We leave the recording of Miro and Ouanda to find the actual Miro and Ouanda in the Little Ones' village, where everyone is extremely still and quiet as Human approaches them accusingly. The back-and-forth is really boring unless you never get tired of "But by my exact words I wasn't lying", so I'll summarise: they want Miro and Ouanda to bring Ender to them, and they are angry that they implied he wouldn't come when they know that he does want to, because they heard it from Rooter, who heard it from the Hive Queen. Miro cannot believe the lengths these people will go to, insisting that their silly tree-worshiping-religion somehow lets them contact obviously-dead people, just because they have rituals where they commune with the trees that grew out of the corpses of their ancestors (with an unexplained reproductive system) and these rituals keep giving them accurate information out of nowhere.
(Miro continues to think occasionally about the efforts they've had to go into to keep from giving away information, which confuses me enormously because: they've been intentionally interfering for several years now, so why do they care about secrecy? They've decided that the Little Ones must know some things but no others? They've established themselves as arbiters of Little One technology? It's so weird.)
Anyway, Miro and Ouanda have continued to disagree on whether they should bring Ender, and now the Little Ones are demanding he come. Ouanda says no, but Human is a tribal primitive, so he takes a callback quote out of context and 'accidentally' produces wisdom:
"Pipo told us that women do not say. Pipo told us that human men and women decide together. So you can't say no unless he says no, too." He looked at Miro. "Do you say no?"For the record, Pipo said this in regards to human reproduction, which the Little Ones for some Mysterious reason associate with ritual killings, so if Miro and Ouanda had actually done their research, this would be skeleton-freezingly terrifying. Miro stays silent, until Ouanda can't bear the tension anymore and declares that he says 'yes', which gives Human the all-important opportunity to tell a woman she's terrible.
"He says yes, but for you he stays silent. You say no,but you don't stay silent for him." Human scooped thick mucus out of his mouth with one finger and flipped it onto the ground. "You are nothing."Then he backflips out (I kid you not) and the Little Ones leave en masse, pausing only for a brief confrontation between Leaf-eater and Human, which Miro and Ouanda interpret to mean that if they don't bring Ender by the end of the day, Human 'loses' and will probably get sapling-murdered. They argue more, Ouanda says that Miro should have followed her lead because Libo's rules say they must never present disagreement and--she cuts herself off before she can say she's in charge, but Miro figures it out anyway, and chastises her for thinking of him as her apprentice and blaming him for a 'yes' that she ascribed to him. They continue to be terrible to each other (Ouanda implies that she is "zenador by blood right", and Miro twists that to mean that he is an abusive alcoholic by blood right) and it occurs to me that I have no idea why these two are attracted to each other. Miro's personality consists mostly of hating his parents and being an inept, horny scientist; Ouanda's barely had anything going on that wasn't "let's meddle in alien societies as much as we can before people catch on". I understand that shared secrets and isolation from the rest of the world can lead to intense relationships between people, but shouldn't they at least have, like, one virtue each?
After more passive- and active-aggressive accusations, they apologise to each other (...aw?) and agree that if they get Ender to the Little Ones before sundown, Human probably won't get eviscerated. Is the plot on? Are things going to start happening now?
Before plot can accidentally happen, we skip to Ela sitting on a rock in the river just barely inside the colony's fence, waiting for Ender. No one comes near the fence unless they have to, so it's apparently a great secret meeting place and not, for example, a hangout for horny teenagers. (Where the hell are all the other teenagers on this planet, anyway? Miro obviously doesn't have friends, because of the Ribeira Isolation Field, but surely Ouanda should know other people?
Ender arrives, rowing flawlessly up the river because of course he's good at everything (he says on Trondheim it would be worse to be unable to walk than row) and Ela takes a moment to appreciate his White Beefcake Shoulders in the creepiest possible way.
The skin of his back was shockingly white; even the few Lusos who were light-complected enough to be called loiros were much darker-skinned. His whiteness made him seem weak and slight. But then she saw how quickly the boat moved against the current [...] how tightly wrapped in skin his muscles were. She felt a moment's stab of grief, and then realized that it was grief for her father, despite the depth of her hatred for him [...] she grieved for the strength of his shoulders and back, for the sweat that made his brown skin dazzle like glass in the sunlight.It should, by rights, be possible to find a way to talk about aesthetics and phenotypes without sounding weirdly racist, but Card struggles to find that ground.
Ela reports that Novinha and Olhado are still furious with Ender for his deception. She keeps levelling accusations even though she means to express appreciation and sympathy, so Ender continues with his whole I'm Just Being Honest defence, the standard excuse of malevolent narcissists.
"I'm a speaker for the dead. I tell the truth, when I speak at all, and I don't keep away from other people's secrets."Ela reveals that, despite being the apprentice xenobiologist, she's locked out of her mother's files as well, and Novinha has held her back from completing the guild tests to graduate from apprentice, because that would mean she could bypass the locks too, because, lest we forget, privacy law in this galaxy was invented by a literal clown who had just marathoned the complete written works of Franz Kafka. Ela thinks she's being ungrateful; Ender (badly, all of their communications are inexplicably backhanded and hostile) praises her for holding the family together for so long while her parents were busy being terrible.
Then it's time for some casual ableism as Ela says her mother is "crazy" and Ender says that "whatever else Novinha is, Ela, she is not crazy", because heavens forbid anyone entertain the shocking idea that a person raised in a series of deprived and abusive environments be accused to having suffered any kind of psychological damage when all of her decisions can just be explained by her choosing to be an arrogant megalomaniac. I mean to say: it's one thing to say 'don't dismiss a person by accusing them of a compromised mental state' and another to say 'don't imply that this person has anything so distasteful as a mental disability.
(I'm reminded of an incident in high school--I don't remember what the class was talking about, but a fat girl made some comment about a type of negative treatment she got because she was fat, and a well-meaning classmate responded by expanding on the main point being made and then finished by saying to the first girl "Also, you're not fat". Now, what she meant was obviously "You don't deserve that kind of terrible negative treatment, please have positive self-image", but what she said was "I will deny the reality that we are both aware of because I can't conceive of a world where your body fat isn't considered deserving of hatred and shame". Cognitive dissonance: it's what's for brunch.)
Ela instead insists her mother is "boba", which I'm having trouble getting a good translation for, but is obviously a synonym or euphemism for 'crazy', so Ender asks for the evidence. Ela reveals that Novinha has somehow locked away all of the Descolada files. All of them. ALL OF THEM. Did they never send their information on Descolada out to the rest of the galaxy, even while people were dying by the hundreds forty years ago? In all the time since then, has no one ever had any interest in studying those files? Xenologers across the galaxy are hanging off Pipo/Libo/Miro/Ouanda's every word, but no one's ever had any further interest in understanding how or why Descolada works, even as a thought exercise? (Ela rightly points out that Descolada adapted to affect humans in less than a decade, and there's no reason it couldn't adapt again. Also, apparently it never goes away--if you get it in your body, you have to take supplements for the rest of your life or start growing extra arms out of your nose.) It's ever-clearer to me why science hasn't advanced in three thousand years.
Second, Novinha forbids Ela to do any theoretical research, like developing evolutionary models. The reason for this isn't clear to me, since she doesn't actually know what the 'secret' of Descolada is and so has no apparent reason to forbid this theorising. Lastly, she won't exchange any information with the xenologers, and even deletes any data they send her. Ela chalks this up to her hatred of Libo, and explains that this means the xenobiologists have no materials to work with except those they enclosed within the fence decades ago: grasses, a herd of cabra, river plants, and water snakes. No trees, since that would obviously also solve the Science Mystery (which, again, has already been solved by Pipo and now Jane, and made irrelevant by Miro and Ouanda's meddling).
There is a long aside about how much Novinha hated Libo, how she stopped feeding Miro when he became apprentice xenologer: every night, he would come home, sit at the table, she'd take away his plate and cutlery, and he would sit there staring at her in silence until Marcos shouted at him to leave, gleeful that his wife finally hated Miro as much as he did. She started feeding him again when Libo died. That night, Ela heard Libo sobbing and vomiting in the bathroom (not clear if this was guilt-based purging because he ate the food provided by his Devil Mother, or general distress), and she says she should have gone to comfort him. Ender agrees.
The Speaker agreed with her that she had made a mistake that night, and she knew when he said the words that it was true, that his judgment was correct. And yet she felt strangely healed, as if simply speaking her mistake were enough to purge some of the pain of it. For the first time, then, she caught a glimpse of what the power of speaking might be. It wasn't a matter of confession, penance, and absolution, like the priests offered. It was something else entirely. Telling the story of who she was, and then realizing that she was no longer the same person [....] she had become someone else, someone less afraid, someone more compassionate.The nicest thing I can say about this is that it's a step up from the Ender's Game incident of "Ender had a conversation with Dink Meeker and it made him wise and more likely to question things, although we'll never actually see him do so for the rest of the book". Instead of that forward-looking tell-and-then-never-show, we've got a retrospective I-used-to-be-a-worse-person, and assurances that this confession-and-judgment is somehow radically different from confession-and-forgiveness. I do think that reflection and admission of guilt can be very important and healing, but the fact that it can only happen with Ender's magical aura is... predictably tiresome, and vice-versa.
"Miro says the framling xenologers are always pestering him and Ouanda for more information, more data, and yet the law forbids them from learning anything more. And yet not a single framling xenobiologist has ever asked us for any information. They all just study the biosphere on their own planets and don't ask Mother a single question."Trillions of people in the galaxy and not one scientist is remotely curious about the biology of the only world with known sapient aliens. Who's running science in this place? God, I bet the ansibles are all wood-fired.
The next plot twist Ela brings up is another chunk of the Science Mystery: there's a herd of cabras inside the colony fence, and her observations have found that they've all given birth in the last five years and they're all "female", not "male" and not "hermaphrodites", so I guess this is the part where I just give up on any hope that the biology of the universe is ever going to be remotely not-Earth-like. The vagina is a galactic constant. (Didn't expect to say that a second time today.) The offspring aren't identical to the parents, from which Ela determines that they must be managing a genetic exchange in the herd anyway, and I'm a pedant so I'm back to wondering how we define biological sex in Card's universe. Ender, Genius of Ages, just makes a joke about "theological implications". Ela goes on about the water snakes, which hatch, grow, and breed on land before they ever get into the river, and then never come back out again--she questions why they're so completely adapted for the water if it's not related to any part of their life cycle before the end. The only eggs she's ever found in the water are just gametes, not embryos. She almost but doesn't quite get to the point of suggesting that the riverside grass, "grama", is actually their larval form or something.
Finally, she gets around to saying that the biodiversity is unnaturally small: there's only one kind of bird they've seen, one kind of fly, one kind of cabra, one kind of tree, one kind of prairie grass, no predators (although the cabra do have predator-avoidance instincts). Ender guesses that the only explanation is that some disaster wiped out all but a handful of highly adaptive species, and Ela says it has to have been a disease, specifically Descolada, because something like a meteor would have killed the big animals and left all the tiny creatures. I'm wondering what Card thinks happens to prey animals if their predator vanish for a hundred thousand years like Ela is guessing--shouldn't they have multiplied until their food supply was stretched thin and starvation put a limit on it? This is standard Malthusian economics.
Anyway, Ender and Ela together realise that Novinha locked away all the Descolada files and all of her other Secret Files at the same time (no one caught onto that before?) and thus must have determined that the Descolada is somehow key to the Science Mystery too. I... legitimately hadn't realised that they hadn't caught onto that yet. The Descolada files and some other files are all locked away by the same secret-keeping person and no one suspected a connection? Forget Sherlock; someone get me Irene Adler, I need a critical thinker who gets things done.
Ender says, at Ela's urging, that he'll speak Marcos' death as soon as possible, but he can't possibly do so until he meets the Little Ones. Ela says that's impossible; Ender says "That's why it's going to be hard", (phrasing, boom). Ela says she wants every secret revealed as soon as possible; Ender says that she doesn't know how big it's going to be and he fears she will feel he has betrayed her in the end, like Olhado does. She assures Ender that they are BFFFFs and he should go fix/reveal everything. (There's literally nothing stopping him from telling her or anyone else what he's learned about Novinha and Libo's affair, unless he thinks that she would somehow ruin his plans. I'll be watching to see if there's an explanation for that or if he's just waiting to spring it on the whole town at once.)
And then Ela skips afternoon work and goes home to start making dinner alone and feel cheerful for the rest of the day, and Miro shows up in a panic trying to find the Speaker. He won't say what for, and Ela admits to having talked with him by the river but won't say why, and I can't decide if this is a realistic portrayal of people who have been raised in an isolated and secretive household, or if it's just more 'People don't tell each other things in order to prolong the plot'. Miro runs off again, puzzled as to why Ender wouldn't answer his ear-bling-email, and Ela starts having panicked mental images of finding Ender splayed open dead just like Pipo and Libo. I would hope she's right, except that would just drag things out even more.
Jane, you're still my favourite character, but I don't think I'm going to forgive you for making us sit through all of this.
Next week: Miro and Ouanda reveal their meddling and I probably spend half the post discussing technological revolution and its effect on human societies.