Speaker for the Dead Introduction
In a Nutshell
Speaker for the Dead is about aliens.
Now these aren't evil aliens who want to eat you or enslave you so you have to shoot them with large guns like in Aliens the movie, nor are these friendly helpful aliens who work with humans to fight the bad guys and save the whales as in Star Trek or Star Wars. Instead, these aliens are somewhere in the middle. Not good, not bad, just different—the way people and cultures are different.
The drama of the book, therefore, isn't in defeating the aliens, or in joining with the aliens to defeat someone else, but in trying to figure out how to live with aliens who aren't like you. With the buggers in Ender's Game (the novel which comes before this one), alien contact resulted in xenocide. With Jane—the spontaneously generated artificial intelligence—alien contact with Ender results in something like love. With the piggies, contact ends up somewhere in between—not murder, not love, but a wary exchange and negotiation which begins with a scientific anthropological cataloguing and ends with a treaty. As Ender says of the piggies, "We didn't come here to attack them at the root of their lives… We came here to find a way to share a world with them." (17.176)
Aliens, then, are like people—not because they're exactly the same as humans, but because they aren't. Humans, after all, aren't all exactly the same. Ender is separated from the Catholic/Portuguese people of Lusitania by differences in religion, language, culture, and past. He has to observe and negotiate with the Lusitanians just as he does with the piggies. And for that matter, you're an alien too, observing and negotiating with Ender as you read, just like all those bugs and pigs and computers do. In Speaker for the Dead, everyone—in the book and outside—is united in their alienness, even if some are greener and more tentacly than others.
Speaker for the Dead was first published in 1986. It's a sequel to Orson Scott Card's most famous novel Ender's Game, though you don't need to have read that to make sense of this. Speaker won the two biggest fanciest sci-fi awards, the Nebula and the Hugo, in 1986 and 1987 respectively, and it was made into a graphic novel in 2010. It is followed by two direct sequels, Xenocide and Children of the Mind, so feel free to fall in love while you read—there's plenty more where this came from.
Why Should I Care?
Speaker for the Dead is all about caring. That's a Speaker for the Dead's job, after all—to professionally care. Their task, you see, is to tell the story of a person's life, and in order to tell that story, the Speaker has to understand a person completely, even more fully than the person might understand themself. Speakers are geniuses of empathy, and Ender—as the first speaker—is the king genius. "Will [Ender] always come between us?" Novinha asks her daughter, and Ela responds, "Yes… like a bridge he'll come between us, not a wall" (16.129-130). Ender is a living embodiment of empathy, so much so that even mother and daughter need him—a relative stranger—to connect them so they can care about each other.
Ender's caring is not just for the mothers and daughters in the novel though; it's for you too. As Shmoop talks about in the "What's Up With the Title?" section, "Speaker for the Dead" refers not just to Ender, but also to Card—the author—himself. Having empathy for others and telling their stories is both Ender and Card's business, and just as Ender teaches Novinha and Ela to care for one another, so Card is teaching you to care for others—both the characters in the book and, presumably, people in the real world too. In speaking for the Hive Queen, the piggies, and, especially, perhaps, for the abusive husband Marcao, Ender is teaching you (yes, you there) how to care.
Novels are often seen as engines of empathy; there are even scientific studies that suggest that reading (or at least reading certain books) makes people better able to relate to and understand others. Speaker takes that insight and runs with it. "I think you can't possibly know the truth about somebody unless you love them" (16.122), Ela says.
Understanding and love go together, and both are found in narrative; you read about the piggies and Jane and Ender and so you love them and understand them. And not only do you love and understand them, but you become them a bit, just as Novinha declares that in reading The Hive Queen, she becomes the Hive Queen (1.160-162). To tell another's story is to blur the boundaries between self and other, to obliterate difference in a wash of love.
The feeling that you can be anybody is a rush. To be Lady Gaga, just read about Lady Gaga; to be Justin Bieber, just read about Justin Bieber—to be both at once, read about both at once, and be somewhat confused, but rich and famous nonetheless. Just so, Novinha is thrilled in her sense that she is the Hive Queen. She has read the celebrity royal bug story, and she is empowered.
But, at the same time—is she really the Hive Queen? Are you? Do you really understand what it's like to be a beaten wife because Ender tells Novinha's story? Empathy is seductive, and for Ender, empathy is a kind of power. For example, when this snot-nosed kid Stryka suggests that Ender's act in destroying all the buggers was evil, Ender dismisses him because he knows Stryka better than Stryka knows himself (2.26). Ender knows everyone, but nobody knows Ender, which means Ender can judge everybody but nobody can judge Ender, even for the crime of genocide.
If the book shows why caring is beautiful and powerful, then it also—perhaps inadvertently—suggests that caring can be an excuse. To claim that you understand someone better than they understand themselves, to speak for them, is to take away their self and replace it with your own. Ender's empathy is so exhaustively total that it can feel imperialist—like he's taking everyone over with the force of his sympathy. Does he (or Card) understand Marcao and Novinha, or does his speaking impose Card's truth on them, so that they become who he and Card want them to be? Speaker for the Dead is worth caring about both because it makes you care and because it raises the uncomfortable possibility that caring can be a weapon.