(Content: ableism, partner abuse, racism. Fun content: y'all like point-form lists, right?)
Speaker for the Dead: p. ix--xxii
So... Speaker for the Dead, eh? What was up with that? It takes some careful planning to create a story where all of the problems exist solely because people would literally rather die than ask a direct question. As I belaboured back in chapter fourteen, Ender was in a much better position to play an antagonist who proves to be a friend than he was to be the hero, yet he's presented to us as the hero because he's the only one who isn't afraid of the truth. This needs explaining, and in the spirit of Speaker for the Dead, I'm going to argue that we can figure out what caused this atrocity by tracing back its evolutionary history to
Speaker for the Dead is a sequel, but it didn't begin life that way--and you don't have to read it that way, either. 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 back in 1983, there would never have been a novel version of Ender's Game at all.Interesting premise. Let's summarise Speaker for the Dead by chapter:
- Pipo rescues young Novinha from sadness by taking her in as his daughter (in a weirdly romantic relationship with her pseudo-brother), then is horribly murdered by the mysterious primitive aliens.
- Ender Wiggin is super-smart and philosophical and a three-thousand-year-old war hero, and people have very strong opinions on the morality of being an alien because his ultra-brilliant sister wrote an essay about fjords a couple of months ago. He also owes a mysterious debt to someone.
- Novinha hides all the science that somehow led to Pipo's confrontation and death, and also breaks up with her pseudo-brother to protect him, but also summons Ender Wiggin to cross the galaxy to solve the mystery that she believes must never be solved.
- Ender Wiggin's girlfriend is the internet and he's super rich and he carries the last survivor of his accidental genocide.
- Ender Wiggin breaks up with his newlywed pregnant sister to cross the galaxy in a private star cruiser in hopes of protecting aliens. His best student figures out the truth and devotes her life to serving his sister's family.
- Novinha's children are terrible. Ender arrives and immediately astonishes the mayor with his knowledge and history, learns that Libo died after all, scares children because the Bishop has told them he's the devil, and befriends one of Novinha's kids.
- Novinha's children are terrible. Ender enters their home, subdues them by physical force or argument, refuses to leave, and tells them how foolish they are for not understanding their little brother. Novinha's dead husband used to beat her.
- Novinha comes home. Ender tells her he knows everything, she's a terrible mother, and he will redeem her.
- Ender's literal internet girlfriend Jane reveals that all of Novinha's kids were fathered by Libo. Libo's kids, Miro and Ouanda, are bad at science.
- Ender befriends the local monastic sect because he was besties with their founder two thousand years earlier. Jane distracts Ender, so he switches her off for a bit.
- Being cut off from Ender for an afternoon utterly devastates Jane and she spends the equivalent of 50,000 years in recovery, then sparks an interstellar police action.
- Ender is super rich, Novinha is obsessed with him, and her children are fractionally less terrible now that they're obsessed with him as well.
- The aliens demand to meet with Ender because he is everything. Ela reveals to Ender that she's secretly been doing real science for years.
- Miro and Ouanda take Ender to meet the aliens. Ender tells them that they're terrible scientists, and the aliens then reveal everything to him because he's so important.
- The government locks down the planetary computers, but they save some vital information because Ender is special. Ender makes the entire colony sympathise with a dead abuser by explaining that he couldn't have kids and his wife cheated on him.
- Everyone tells each other everything now that Ender is there. Miro wants to run away to the forest to marry his sister, but grievously injures himself instead through terrible science. The colony rebels because Ender is so special that he can completely prevent any consequences to rebellion for the next thirty years.
- The aliens tell Ender everything else they haven't said. Ender teaches them how not to be terrible warmongering savages, signs a contract, and ritually murder-metamorphoses an alien volunteer to seal the deal.
- Miro is permanent disabled and shoved in temporal storage for later. Ender gets the girl, brings civilisation to the primitive aliens, learns that his sister is uprooting her family to come meet him, and revives the last survivor of his war crime, clearing his conscience.
Now, on the one hand, this synopsis does make it clear that there wouldn't be much of this book left without Ender there. On the other hand, without Ender's Game as background, Ender literally never earns anything--he's just a brilliant rich straight white male ex-soldier poet-priest whose very presence elicits awe even from people who claim to hate him. I'm curious if anyone has read Speaker and not Ender's Game, and whether they found Ender remotely sufferable. I find him aggravating and I've read about all the harsh childhood and suffering and abuse that is supposed to have turned him into who he is in this book. (I've even read Ender in Exile, y'all. Never let it be said I'm not dedicated.)
Back to the introduction. Card explains that the 'speaker for the dead' concept is the result of his dislike for eulogies that erase anything uncomfortable about the dead person and therefore make them less like real people in memory. He insists that the only story worth telling (despite it being unknowable) is the story of what the person meant to do with their life. I'm a little unclear on how this is possible--surely, if the true story is unknowable, then the speaker has to take a guess at it, and in doing so they still erase the real person in favour of an explanation that makes sense to them and is therefore "much easier to live with", which is exactly the problem he has with 'normal' eulogies?
This really gets to the heart of the problem, because Card insists that intentions are all that matter to morality, but even he admits that we can never really know what a person's intentions were. In that case, the logical conclusion seems to be that we can never know how moral a person is, and maybe then we end up at the traditional Christian 'judge not', but Ender's assertion seems instead to be that everyone has good intentions all the time and therefore they are ultimately good even if shallow outsiders think they're 'bad' just because they do stuff like start bar fights and abuse their families.
The next point is interesting:
So when I thought of the idea of an alien species which, in order to reproduce, had to slaughter each other in terrible intertribal wars, it was only natural that I decided the story should be told from the viewpoint of a human scientist studying them. Only gradually, over several years, did I develop the idea of the piggies and their strange lifecycle, and the intertribal war receded in importance--so much so that I didn't need to make it an issue in Speaker for the Dead at all.
This explains a fair bit--the wars (which play some kind of vital role in Little One society by allowing males to go tree without having to be selected by the females, circumventing their usual honor-related system) seem like they should be a bigger deal, and everything that happened to Pipo and Libo would make more sense if the Little Ones specifically required speedy, violent death, but that wasn't the story Card wanted to tell. He also couldn't quite bear to get rid of it (and it does allow for that
great scene where civilised white Ender teaches primitive little Human about non-aggression treaties and peaceful alliances), so it stayed in some vestigial form, an offshoot that evolution doesn't really need but hasn't had cause to eliminate either.
Originally the role was the Singer of Death, but Card's wife pointed out that all of his acclaimed works had some kind of music thing going on, so he ditched that and attached instead to the only one that didn't: the short story of Ender's Game.
What if Ender Wiggin comes to an alien world as a Speaker of Death, and accidently gets caught up in the mystery of why these piggies are slaughtering each other? It had a delicious symmetry to it--the man who, as a child, destroyed one alien species now has a chance to save another.
On the one hand, I think Card made the smart choice here by having the ultimate threat be 'scared humans with guns' rather than having to understand why the primitive aliens keep slaughtering each other when it's actually harmless. On the other hand, the story we have got is basically 'humans colonise a planet wrong, so Ender teaches them to colonise it right and the primitive natives are much better off, and this makes other humans angry'. At no point do we seem to have any hope of 'humans discover the aliens are actually handling their own affairs just fine and if they'd stop trying to force the aliens into human institutions we'd all float on okay'. One way or another, regardless of whether the endless reproducto-war is centre stage or an afterthought, we're pretty sure that Ender needs to save these people from their ignorance.
Card set up the deal for Speaker of Death in 1983, only to find:
...that the book was unwritable. In order to make the Ender Wiggin of Speaker make any kind of sense, I had to have this really long, kind of boring opening chapter that brought him from the end of the Bugger War to the beginning of the story of Speaker some three thousand years later! It was outrageous. I couldn't write it.
Card then details the short conversation that abruptly led to him having a contract to do a novel of Game before Speaker, but I'm left confused. That's quite literally what this book does for the first few chapters: show us Ender of three thousand years later, rich and respected and forgotten, and tell us all about his childhood achievements. What made the original 'outrageous' draft so different? (Card acknowledges that Ender Wiggin wasn't really a full character until he fleshed out Ender's Game, which is a fair point and presumably made a difference in trying to approach Speaker, but that's not a problem with the story of Speaker, that's a reminder that you have to know your characters before you can write them, or you'll be visibly flailing to figure out their deal on the page.)
With Ender's Game written, he approaches Speaker again, starting with Ender arriving on Lusitania to speak the death of "an old lout named Marcão", but two hundred pages in found it hollow, even after adding Novinha, Pipo, and Libo. Card was on a trip with a friend and former student, Gregg Keizer, who took some time to read the manuscript of Speaker.
He had many good ideas. Of course, most of them dealt with small fixes for problems in the manuscript as it now stood. One comment he made, however, illuminated everything for me. "I couldn't tell Novinha's kids apart," he said. "I couldn't remember which was which."This, Card tells us, was the key. Novinha's kids were "nothing but placeholders", like a younger sister in another novel whom he would forget existed for hundreds of pages at a time until he finally decided to retcon her into dying in infancy, because I guess the death of a baby sister is exactly the same as her never existing? But he couldn't just cut her kids:
Because I wanted Novinha to be voluntarily isolated, I had to have her be otherwise acceptable to her neighbors. In a Catholic colony like Lusitania, this meant Novinha needed to have a bunch of kids.Wait, what? There's an entire sect of teacher-administrators on this planet whose whole deal is that they are married without children. (I'm not entirely sure what to make of the assertion that Novinha is and had to be voluntarily isolated, given that we're told she was isolated from a young age because no one took the time to understand her and for the rest of her life no one tried to stop Marcos from beating her--Card's insistence that Novinha literally signed up for physical abuse still horrifies me.)
Once you've read Speaker, of course, you'll wonder what the story would be without Novinha's children, and the answer is, It wouldn't be much!
Novinha's children, in order of relevance:
- Miro: informed almost-protagonist, fails to get useful information, gets permanently injured trying to run away to marry his sister, gets put in storage so people don't have to deal with him being all physically disabled at them.
- (Honorable mention because she's not Novinha's kid: Ouanda: like Miro, but female and therefore less important. Does basically nothing of consequence; exists mostly to assist Ender, be told she's screwing up, and create angst for Miro.)
- Ela: runs the actual household and does the actual science. Gives Ender vital information a few times and tells everyone that all of their problems are Novinha's fault.
- Olhado: gives Ender vital information several times and likes him first. Records key incidents with his cyborg eyes because a pocket camera just wouldn't feel sci fi enough.
- Grego: poster child for broken household, violent, needs proper physical discipline from a strong man.
- Quim: religious zealot, shows that even Ender's least-rational fanatical enemies like his work.
- Quara: like Grego, but female and therefore less important. Quiet, needs signs of affection from a strong man.
Card goes on to complain that genre heroes never seem to have parents and we never see them grow up and become parents either, and he's not wrong about that. Showing protagonists as part of a larger family makes a big difference and we could do with more.
The romantic hero is unconnected. He belongs to no community; he is wandering from place to place, doing good (as he sees it), but then moving on. This is the life of the adolescent, full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay and bear the consequences of error. [....] Only when the loneliness becomes unbearable do adolescents root themselves [....] many fail at adulthood and constantly reach backward for the freedom and passion of adolescence. But those who achieve it are the ones who create civilization.
Card decided that, if he couldn't write a parent's perspective, he could at least write the perspective of an adult who feels responsibility to a family, and thus this book was an opportunity to show"the miracle of a family in transformation". This, at least, explains a little more of why Novinha is such a non-entity in her family. Card had already decided that the caring adult was Ender, and Novinha was 'voluntarily isolated', so there was no hope of her actually doing anything for her kids.
This undertaking, Card wants us to know, was haaaaard:
Most novels get by with showing the relationships between two or, at the most, three characters. This is because the difficulty of creating a character increases with each new major character that is added to the tale.
Characters A and B just have an A-B relationship, he explains, but add C and you've got A-B, A-C, B-C, and A-B-C. And we change all the time depending on who we're dealing with, so A might be a very different person with B than with C, and so each one is multiplied and it's so hard.
What happens, then, when you start with a family with a mother, a dead father, and six troubled children, and then add a stranger who intrudes into the family and transforms every one of them?
In this book? Apparently you reduce half of them to caricatures and ignore the relationships that aren't with Mighty Whitey. Quick, someone tell me how Ela's relationship to Miro changes as a result of the transformative impact of Ender's presence on both of them over the course of the story. (I'm pretty sure they talk to each other... once in the whole novel? Was it once?)
I sat there with Gregg, assigning some immediate and obvious trait to each of the children that would help the reader keep track of them. Oh, yes, Olhado is the one with the metal eyes; Quara is the one who says outrageous things after long silences; Grego is the violent one; Quim is the religious fanatic; Ela is the weary mother-figure; Miro is the eldest son, the hero in the others' eyes. These "hooks" could only serve to introduce the children--I'd have to develop them far beyond that point--but having found those hooks, I had a plan that would let me proceed with confidence.
I'm not sure I have anything left to say about how far these characters have been developed beyond the lines above that I haven't already said over the last six months and three weeks. Perhaps it will suffice that ppfffbbfbttthaaaaahaaaahahahahaha.
Card notes as well that Jane wasn't in any of the original outlines for Speaker; Ender's computer uplink wasn't sentient (I guess he personally hacked all the things?), but Card started the idea and just enjoye it too much, finding that she brought Ender to life. This is one of those moments where someone almost has an epiphany and then just barely misses it and runs in the opposite direction: Jane made Ender more interesting because Jane is interesting and Ender's just got a lot of backstory. Sure, Jane's computer powers are a plot device, but no less than Ender's magical intuition. Jane could have made a fascinating protagonist, knowing everything and incapable of doing anything without human assistance.
She did apparently get spun off to play a major role in the third book, which came out of nowhere when Card's agent told him she had sold the 'Ender trilogy' to an English publisher. Card immediately realised that, in the same way that he had turned the Speaker idea into a book by jamming Ender into it, he could turn his concept for another story, 'Philotes', into the third book (Xenocide) by the same process.
Just in case anyone got their hopes up, I'm not reading Xenocide.
Besides--and here you are about to learn something truly vile about me--having a third book would mean that I didn't have to figure out some way to resolve the two loose threads that I knew would be dangling at the end of Speaker: what happens to the hive queen? And what happens to the fleet that Starways Congress sends?
Gotta say, not sure that's more vile than the stuff you happily publish about them disgusting homosexuals, Card. I mean, sure, self-deprecation can be comedy gold, but it kind of plays better when you're not actually terrible?
There's more rambling that doesn't strike me as vital to our purposes, except that Card loops back to the same thing he said in the last intro, that the story in the book is the result of the reader interpreting and transforming with their mind the materials that the author has put there. "I hope my tale is true enough and flexible enough that you can make it into a world worth living in."
Flexible, you say? Flexible. Okay then. Let's bend it.
What would Speaker for the Dead become if we cut Ender out of the story and split his part among other people?
- Chapters 2, 4, and 5 get ditched entirely, along with their obsession with sniping at Calvinist theology that matters so little for the rest of the book.
- Chapters 6 through 8 can get enormously condensed, because we don't need any time to fawn over the pageantry surrounding Ender's arrival or his invasion of the Ribeira house.
- Chapter 9: Someone else has to be doing the actual investigation. I nominate Ela, the only person on the planet who actually does her job (unlike Novinha the UnScientist, or Miro and Ouanda the Missionaries). The only thing Ela needs to discover in order to set everything off is that she and her siblings were fathered by Libo, not Marcos. There are a score of ways this could happen, since she's a biologist. For whatever reason (her insistence on studying Descolada in case it comes back, for example, or her desire to ensure that none of her siblings are going to die from Marcos' disease) she realises that Libo was their father, and this begins unravelling everything she thought she knew about her family history. Much like Ender, once she knows Novinha didn't hate Libo, she has to figure out why else she would try to cut him out, and steadily comes back to the way Descolada files have been locked away.
- Chapter 10 can get cut. So can 11, if scientists elsewhere in the galaxy catch Miro and Ouanda's meddling with the aliens without needing Jane's help, because at least one other scientist also does their job.
- The rest of Ender's meddling is substantially reworked. I'm going to suggest that Ela tries to engage Miro with some of the things she's discovered, but he is too removed from the family and focused on his work to particularly care. Ela argues that he's just repeating what their mother did, hiding in science because she rejected her family, he says it's not his responsibility to fix her mistakes (he considers his future family with Ouanda to be the only one he needs to care about), and we get into those same issues Card was talking about with adolescent heroes never dealing with consequences or families, and the way adulthood means dealing with the situation you are in rather than running off to somewhere fresh. Miro considers literally moving into the woods with Ouanda and cutting humanity off, since no one else can come through the fence without their clearance.
- There is still a need for the critical point where Ela confronts people with the truth--the colony knows it will be locked down, and Miro resolves to run away, but Ela drags him and Ouanda and Novinha together (maybe others? Ye Must Love Reapers?) to reveal all that she knows. Miro and Ouanda have the stark choice to either flee or to try to understand and fix things like responsible adults.
- Miro, who is his mother's repetition, stays with her and tries to hash things out about why she did everything she did (they both broke so many rules of good science for bad reasons) while Ela and Ouanda go into the woods to resolve the science mystery. (They agree that if Ouanda comes back with answers, they will rebel to defend the Little Ones, but if they get ritually murdered like Pipo and Libo, Miro will go to stand trial without her to protect the colony.) As in the book, they know the government has left them with all-or-nothing options and so they, like Ender, toss aside their not-even-half-assed attempts at secrecy, but keep to other anthropological good practice like 'Don't remake other societies in your own image'. They're also damned sure going to tell the Wives that they think they could, with permission, save the lives of the Mothers with a scalpel, some thread, and a mashed yam, rather than let the males keep that fact to themselves.
- I don't particularly care if one of them has to carve Human open to seal the contract or not.
- In a final optional twist, Novinha realises her childhood dream of becoming a Speaker for the Dead to help humanity understand the Little Ones, but not before she (with Bruxinha's permission, if she mentions Libo's infidelity with her) Speaks the death of Marcos herself.
At this point, we've covered the same ground in substantially less time and with fewer asides to talk about how much Calvinists suck and partner abusers are sometimes just misunderstood, which should leave some room to deal with the arrival of the deadly Evacuation Fleet, rather than leaving that for another book.
So now we've got Card's own account of why the hell Ender was in this book: he didn't actually realise he needed to write the other characters until someone read his manuscript and told him to write the other characters. He was more prepared to write an entire 'prequel' novel about Ender's childhood than he was to figure out what anyone on Lusitania was thinking or doing. They didn't matter until they were set pieces, the boy with cyborg eyes and the girl who doesn't talk and the young woman trying to be sister and mother and scientist all at once. He got halfway through the first draft before he acknowledged that they needed some attention. He already knew which character he identified with: the white guy from another land.
And that, as best I can tell, is what the hell was up with that. /speakerpulpit