Speaker For the Dead: In Context
Speaker For the Dead is a science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, released in 1986. It has won several accolades, including the 1986 Nebula award and 1987 Hugo award. As Ender’s Game had won the same awards in the previous year this meant Orson Scott Card became the first author to win both awards in two consecutive years.
he novel is set in the year 5270, 3,000 or so years after Ender’s Game, to which it forms the first of four indirect sequels. Unlike the earlier novel, Speaker For the Dead has a philosophical tone rather than focusing on hard science fiction and the warrior ethos. At the end of Ender’s Game the titular character is contacted by the last remaining member of the Bugger, or Formic, race of insectioid aliens he had unknowingly bought to the brink of destruction. Distraught at their plight he writes The Hive Queen under the pseudonym ‘Speaker For the Dead’.
By 5270 the humanist movement the book sparked has lead to Ender’s actions being widely reviled, in a interesting example of what could be called historic revisionism. Due to relativistic space travel Ender himself is still alive, although now passing as Andrew Wiggins to dissociate himself from his past as both ‘The Xenocide’ and the original Speaker For the Dead.
Chapter 1 - Pipo: An introduction to the world of Lusitania (which, given Orson Scott Card’s use of Portuguese throughout the book, is likely a reference to the Roman province which included southern Portugal). The Pequeninos (piggies) and the characters of Pipo, his son Libo, and Novinha are also introduced. Novinha discovers that the disease which killed both her parents, descolada, is present in all native life-forms. On being presented with this information Pipo rushes off to talk to the piggies, but is later found vivisected near their encampment.
Chapter 2 - Trondheim: Ender, now going by the name of Andrew Wiggins, is re-introduced. The main purpose of this chapter is to re-establish the character of Ender, including explaining how time dilation effects have caused his apparent youth.
“It frightened him to have this girl need something from him so desperately. He had spent years now without making any real connection with anyone but his sister Valentine … All the other people who had meant anything to him in his life were dead. He and Valentine had passed them by centuries ago, worlds ago."
During a discussion of the Bugger war with his students, Ender is shocked to receive news of Pipo’s death.
Chapter 3 - Libo: On Lusitania, colonists attempt to understand why Pipo has been killed. Novinha feels that the information she gave him must have lead to his death. To prevent Libo, who she loves, from seeing the information and hence dying in a similar manner to his father she erases or locks as much of it as she can. This chapter also makes reference to Marcao being bullied, something that Ender later draws on when speaking of his death.
Chapter 4 - Ender This chapter gives the reader an introduction to Jane, an Artifical Intelligence who unknown to most people resides in the ansible computer network. Jane is fascinated by the death of Pipo, and attempts to talk Ender into investigating. Revealing that Novinha, in her grief, has called for a Speaker for the Dead leads to Ender acquiescing.
Chapter 5 - Valentine: Ender’s sister Valentine, who was once the political writer Demosthenes, has stayed with her brother over the past years. Now nine months pregnant, Ender wishes to leave her to a content motherhood. The pair argue, although Ender eventually leaves for Lusitania.
Chapter 6 - Olhado: Ender spends 22 years in transit to Lusitania, although it appears to be just a single week to him. On arrival Jane informs him that the original call by Novinha has been canceled. However two of Novinha’s children have requested a Speaker to speak the death of Libo, who died in similar circumstances to his father, and Novinha’s husband Marcao. These give sufficient reason for Ender to land at the colony, which is notoriously unwelcoming to strangers.
This chapter introduces several key themes. First, there is the virulent opposition of the Catholic Church to the idea of a Speaker for the Dead, something which characterizes Ender’s time on the planet. Second, it highlights the familial strife within Novinha’s family. For instance Ela, Novinha’s daughter, regards her father as “the monstrosity … who had finally blessed his family by dropping dead.” It also introduces the Hive Queen’s certainty that she could rebuild the Bugger race on this planet, and drops hints as to the nature of the piggies' link to the trees.
Chapter 7 - The Ribeira House: Ender comes to understand the dysfunctional nature of the family, including Grego’s violent tendencies. Ela’s horror at having the Speaker appear mere weeks after she placed the call is revealed in her interactions with Ender.
Chapter 8 - Doma Ivanova: Novinha lingers at the xenobiologists station, as she does not wish to return home to her children. It is revealed that she views her loveless, abusive marriage with Marcao as a kind of punishment for her earlier mistakes. When she finally returns home, she is meets Ender. Scared that in his reading of the deaths he will discover the secrets she has kept hidden she pleads with him to leave, but Ender sees parallels between his situation and her own.
“I can say anything”, said Ivanova. “His name was Ender, and he destroyed everything he touched.” Like me, she did not say.
Chapter 9 - Congenital Defect: Ender attempts to understand the man who was Marcao, starting with the cause of his death. From the colony doctor he learns of Marcao’s genetic illness, which typically leaves its victims sterile in early life. Somehow, though, Marcao appears to have fathered six healthy children. Ender manages to extract from the good doctor that Novinha’s children were likely sired by Libo, and asks why she married instead a man she despised, rather than the one she loved.
This chapter introduces in more depth the piggie ‘religion’ and the tensions between human and Pequenino. It also shows the romance between Milo, Libo’s illegitimate son, and Ouanda, his legitimate daughter.
“If only Libo were my father, if only I were his son.” She smiled and held him; her hair took the tears from his face. “Ah, Miro, I’m glad he wasn’t your father. Because then I’d be your sister, and I could never hope to have you for myself."
Chapter 10 - Children of the Mind: The tensions between the Catholic Church and the Speakers of the Dead are explored still further. Ender views himself as being in enemy territory, while the local Biship and the leader of the monastic ‘Children of the Mind’ disagree sharply over the correct reaction to his prying. When Ender meets the Ceifeiro and his wife he compares their celibate marriage to his relationship with Valentine, and realizes how much he has given up by leaving her behind. His very human reaction endears him to them, and causes them to reveal much of the course of Novinah’s life over the past 22 years.
Chapter 11 - Jane: During the previous chapter Ender had deactivated his ‘jewel,’ preventing Jane from communicating with him. Like the sections dedicated to the Hive Queen and piggies, this chapter offers a fascinating insight into how a non-human intelligence might perceive reality. It also shows how Ender influenced Jane’s development, and her reaction to his almost unthinking actions.
All her most powerful memories of herself were in company with Ender Wiggin. She remembered creating herself in response to him. She also remembered how, in the Battle School, he had also changed in response to her. So when he reached up to his ear and turned off the interface for the first time since he had implanted it, Jane did not feel it as the meaningless switch-off of a trivial communications device. She felt it as her dearest and only friend, her lover, her husband, her brother, her father, her child– all telling her, abruptly, inexplicably, that she should cease to exist.
Chapter 12 - Files: Without Jane’s assistance, Ender is forced to turn to Olhado for assistance in basic computing tasks. He eventually gains access to some of Novinah’s locked files, which causes the two of them to clash.
“Pipo learned something from you, and whatever he learned, the piggies killed him because of it. So you locked your files away where no one could ever find it out. You even refused to marry Libo, just so he wouldn’t get access to what Pipo saw. You’ve twisted and distorted your life and the lives of everybody you loved in order to keep Libo and now Miro from learning that secret and dying."
Chapter 13 - Ela: The link between the Hive Queen and the piggies becomes clearer, with human perception of the piggie’s ‘religion’ being shown to inadequate. The Pequeninos wish to see the Speaker for the Dead, which causes Miro and Ouanda to argue, breaking the rules the xenobiologists have lived by for years. Eventually Miro convinces Ouanda to bring the speaker to the piggies.
Ela meets Ender by the river, where she berates him for breaking into her mother’s files. However the conversation soon turns to her dreams of xenobiology, and together they make the link between descolada and the piggies.
Chapter 14 - Renegades: Ouanda and Miro take Ender to speak to the piggies. Miro and Ouanda question Ender as to his motives, but he retorts by saying that they are learning about the Pequeninos, rather than from them. This highlights the on-going theme of humans regarding themselves as above other life forms, and not understanding how an alien species might view the world.
“You’re cultural supremacists to the core. You’ll perform your Questionable Activities to help out the poor little piggies, but there isn’t a chance in the world you’ll notice when they have something to teach you."
Later in this chapter humans and Pequeninos finally break down the barriers to communication that the Starways Congress had imposed, and come to understand each other’s culture. The piggies are shocked to learn that Pipo and Libo were crying when they were killed, while the humans realize that the Pequeninos use ritualistic slaughter to move tribe members on to the next stage of consciousness.
Chapter 15 - Speaking: The town mayor and Bishop discover that the Starways Congress are intending to delete all files on the colony. They find a loop-hole in that Ender’s files are stored off-world, and so decide to send all their important files to him for safe keeping. The Congress’s reaction to the news that the piggies have been rapidly advancing in technology shows humanity’s xenophobia, and ties in neatly with the themes explored in the preceding chapter.
During the speaking Ender brings to light all the strife within Novinah’s family, an act of catharsis which allows them to accept the life of their father and move on. When cornered by the mayor after speaking he realizes that Jane has set the colony on a collision course with the Starways Congress and urges the mayor to rebel against them.
“Novinha knew what she was. An adulteress, a hypocrite. She knew she was hurting Marcao, Libo, her children, Bruxinha. She knew she had killed Pipo. So she endured, even invited Marcao’s punishment. It was her penance. It was never penance enough. No matter how much Marcao might hate her, she hated herself much more."
Chapter 16 - The Fence: Miro, distraught at finding out the love of his life is also his sister, contemplates the piggies' bachelor way of life. While attempting to exit through the fence he finds his right of passage has been revoked by the Starways Congress, and that he is now a wanted fugitive. Meanwhile Ender has a private audience with the Bishop, where he reveals his father was a Catholic back when Catholics were forced to hide their religion. The two settle into an uneasy truce. Ela talks to Novinha, and the two similarly come to terms with each other.
“You’re thinking about that damnable Speaker even now, aren’t you?” … “Will he always come between us?"
“Yes,” said Ela. “Like a bridge he’ll come between us, not a wall."
Miro finds out how the piggies have been crossing the fence, by chewing a plant called capim. He starts up the fence, but it soon becomes apparent the capim has no effect on human physiology, and he is overcome by the pain. At the same time, the colony leadership are meeting with Ender. With help from Novinha he manages to explain why the Starways Congress could never allow the colonists to survive, due to the highly infectious nature of descolada. News of Miro’s situation forces the colonists to cut off the ansible link to save him, and so the rebellion officially begins.
“Remember, please, that our discovery of the ansible, of starflight, of partial gravity control, even of the weapon we used to destroy the buggers– all of them came as a direct result of our contact with the buggers. And yet in only a few generations, we took their machines, surpassed them, and destroyed them. That’s what our fence means– we’re afraid the piggies will do the same to us. And they know that’s what it means. They know it, and they hate it."
Chapter 17 - The Wives: Ender enters to forest to talk to the Mothers, in an attempt to create a treaty between the Piggies and people of Lusitania. Along the way the concept of the three lives is explained. When reaching the mothers we see a fascinating example of a matriarchal society, along with an entirely alien biology based on “sexual dimorphism carried to a ridiculous extreme.”
“They are what they are,” said Ender. “They decide what changes they’ll make, not you, not from your blindly human perspective, trying to make them have full and happy lives, just like us."
The rest of the chapter deals with reconciliation between two different species, alien in both body and thought patterns. Eventually an agreement is reached, but one which must be sealed by Ender moving Human on into the third life.
“You humans grow by making us part of you, humans and piggies and buggers, ramen together. Then we are one tribe, and our greatness is your greatness, and yours is ours.” Ender could feel Human’s body trembling with the strength of the idea. “You say to us, we must see all other tribes the same way. As one tribe, our tribe all together, so that we grow by making them grow."
Chapter 18 - The Hive Queen: The final chapter focuses on what happens next. Miro is left with permanent brain damage but quickly becomes only the second person in the world to befriend Jane, almost taking over from Ender with whom she cannot quite reconcile herself. The Hive Queen is established, meaning that the bugger race will soon be born again. Ender marries Novinha, while Valentine messages him to say that she is on her way. And, due to time dilation, when she arrives Ender will in actual fact be older than she is.
Thanks to the last five pages, you should hopefully now have a broad understanding of the events that take place in each chapter, as well as some of the key themes in Speaker For the Dead. I would urge any student to ensure that they read the books themselves; Orson Scott Card’s musings on what constitutes true alieness are something that is rarely addressed by science fiction. Indeed, it is often said that the reason Orson Scott Card wrote Ender’s Game in the first place was to give him the chance to write Speaker For the Dead.