Speaker for the Dead refers to the central dude, the big kahuna, the one, the only, the star of interstellarness, Andrew Wiggins, a.k.a. Ender, a.k.a. the Xenocide. It's the name of the main character.
But "Speaker for the Dead" isn't just Ender's name; it's a profession, like Priest or Mayor or Minister of Silly Walks. Anyone who tells another's story is, or can be, a speaker for the dead.
Thus, Novinha herself wants to be a speaker for the dead. And she is the perfect one to speak for the alien piggies because, Pip tells her, "You are the one human being who is capable of understanding the alien mind because you are the alien mind…" (1.165). To be the Speaker for the Dead is to be an outcast—Novinha is the alien mind because she is alienated from the Lusitania colony. But it is also to be an interpreter, an understander, one who knows. The Speaker for the Dead is a sad isolated genius who tells the true stories of others.
Speaker for the Dead can also be seen as a reference to Orson Scott Card. After all, Card writes about the Hive Queen just as Ender does, and he tells the piggies's story just as Novinha wants to. Like Ender, he knows what everyone's thinking; and like Ender, he empathizes with them all. And as with Ender, we're supposed to walk away from Card's speaking dazed with the force of his truthfulness.
The title says that this is a book about tellers of powerful stories, and the most powerfullest teller in the room is Card himself, who speaks not just for the dead, but for every character in, and the entire universe of, the book. "Sing us a song, you're the Speaker for the Dead, sing us a song tonight. We're all in the mood for a traumatic but healing eulogy, and you've got us feeling all right."
The end of the novel is a rebirth. Most obviously, it's the rebirth of the Hive Queen. For millennia she's been hibernating in Ender's luggage; finally though, she's out and laying eggs and stopping to eat the daisies. "Life, so long waited for, and not until today could she be sure that she would be, not the last of her tribe, but the first" (18.242). She's been in a half-life, for herself and her species, but now she knows she's going on. The book about trying to live with aliens (see the "In a Nutshell" section) concludes with the alien living. That's called a happy ending, y'all.
It's also a happy ending for Ender and Novinha. The two were married a few paragraphs back (18.229), and now Novinha says that they can "start to live" (18.240). So the Hive Queen (whose story Ender wrote), Novinha (whose story Ender spoke) and Ender himself are all united; the beginning of life for one is the beginning of life for all. To start life, you need the alien to start its life—which also makes the rebirth of the Hive Queen a metaphor for marriage, where alien differences (of a sort) are joined together to make a new whole.
Less romantically, you could see the ending as a metaphor for the Ender series. Like the Hive Queen herself, Speaker for the Dead is not the last, but just the beginning. There are two more volumes in the series, which continue the story directly—Xenocide and Children of the Mind. But even after that, there have been nearly a dozen more volumes about the Ender's Game universe. The Hive Queen isn't just laying eggs, folks—she's laying books, which will scrabble chittering out into the sunlight as fast as Card can write them.
Speaker for the Dead is set in the far, far future, when humanity has spread out across the universe. Most of the novel occurs on the planet of Lusitania, but you also get to spend a little time in the city of Reykjavik on Trondheim, an icy Scandinavian kind of world.
Lusitania, the setting for almost the entire novel, is a puzzle. The human colony is isolated in a small Catholic village surrounded by a fence, with life centered around the Church and the monastery; it feels almost like a medieval hamlet. Outside, the piggies, or pequeninos, whose habits and beliefs are almost entirely unknown, live in the forest. By the river, eels mysteriously appear, without any clear method of reproduction. And then there's the Descolada, a native virus which killed many of the colonists before Novinha's parents, the colony's xenobiologists, managed to find a cure. But the disease's exact nature is still uncertain.
The Lusitanians, then, don't know their neighbors; they don't understand their landscape; they don't even know their own bodies, in which the Descolada sits, neutralized but not understood. They may live way out on a distant planet, but they're still über-yokels, who don't comprehend their own innards, much less what's out there past the fence. Much of the setting of the book is essentially a big sign saying, "Here Be Monsters. Or Eels. Or Something."
The person who solves the puzzle and draws the map is Ender. Reading the book is sketching in Lusitania; Ender ends up speaking not just Marcao, but the whole planet. You could say Lusitania is the book before you read it: unopened, uncertain, filled with questions. And as Ender reads it, it becomes not a puzzle but an explanation. Reading let's you see the world, which in this case is Lusitania.
All the epigraphs in the book are made up. That is, they refer to documents that are part of the sci-fi world of the book, rather than to documents out here, in the world where you Shmoop. There is no journal called Xenological Studies (2.6), nor is there a book called Letter to the Framlings (1.3). Do not Google them; do not ask your librarian; and if you do find copies, step away slowly, looking over your shoulder for mischievous sentient computers and/or Hive Queens.
Speaker for the Dead is a sequel to Ender's Game, and like that book, it whips right along—the prose is straightforward, the dialogue is snappy, and every mystery is carefully explained… often by Ender himself because he is just that smart. Speaker is maybe a little bit trickier than its predecessor, in part because there are references to the earlier book, and in part because there are more moving parts—Ender, Piggies, Hive Queen, all those kids of Novinha's. It sometimes feels like you need a scorecard to keep everyone straight (Card helpfully provides one at the beginning of the book if you look carefully). But even with all those characters, this is still a base camp book. Even if you don't read Ender's Game first, it shouldn't be too hard to follow this one.
The ansible—a communication device which allows instantaneous, faster-than-light communication across interstellar distances—isn't Orson Scott Card's. He stole it, as sneaky authors will do, and it was originally invented by Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1966 novel Rocannon's World. LeGuin used it in the Hainish Cycle, a group of loosely related novels set in the same universe as Rocannon's World. The Hainish Cycle included two of Le Guin's best known books, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.
The ansible can be seen, then, not just as a communication device between worlds, but as a communication device between books. It's a signal that Card is talking to Le Guin, across the space between bookshelves. (Hey, Orson? Yes, Ursula? Give me back my ansible.)
The conversation between Orson and Ursula goes in a number of ways. On the one hand, Card is expanding on Le Guin's themes. Le Guin is known for approaching science fiction from an anthropological—rather than a hard-science and physics—perspective, and her books often focus on cultural differences and cross-cultural contact. For example, The Word for World Is Forest from 1976 (part of the Hainish cycle) focuses on the effect of human imperialism and greed on a tree-dwelling alien race—an obvious parallel to the plot of Speaker for the Dead.
Le Guin was also interested in exploring different sexualities and modes of reproduction, and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is set on a world where all the people are hermaphrodites, meaning each person is both male and female. Much of the novel involves thinking through what this means for culture, sex, and life.
So part of the discussion between Ursula and Orson is sympathetic chatter. Part of it, though, is more like argument, or negotiation. In Left Hand of Darkness, the alien hermaphrodites are altered humans, and a male human has a kind of almost love affair with one. Card is much more circumspect about this kind of romance with the other. The Hive Queen is in Ender's head and under his bed, but not in it, and Jane is a love but not a lover; the question of human/piggie sexual relations isn't even on the radar. Ender says "We'll change ourselves only enough that they can bear to live with us" (17.185).
Whereas Le Guin often seemed like she was eager and willing to try to change humans as much as possible—to throw out every preconception about gender and identity and humanness and see where it took her, Card's Catholic Brazillian colony named resolutely after Brazil seems to cling determinedly to tradition.
Borrowing the ansible could be seen as traditional too; it's a part of sci-fi past that Card is retooling as his own. For Le Guin it was a way to connect to new space, to erase distance in a mystical communication with the future. For Card, on the other hand, the ansible goes both ways—onward and backward. He's listening to the future with the ear of the past.
The Descolada is the virus that infects everything on Lusitania. It turns piggies into trees, watersnakes into the weeds by the river, and humans into dead humans… until Novinha's parents find a cure. The Descolada produces miraculous strangeness and new variety, or else death, and as such, it neatly captures the novel's enthusiasm for, and wariness of, foreignness and difference.
The Descolada made the new world, and when it gets in the humans it changes them too. To deal with it, to interact with strangeness, the colonists need to work hard and with care. They need to use science, knowledge, and skill to figure it out and keep it in bounds. Otherwise they end up like Pipo's daughter Mary, "a new limb, not arm or leg, growing out of her hip, while the flesh sloughed off her feet and head, baring the bone" (1.32). That's a horror movie image of change as nightmare, and it stands in stark contrast to the still painful but joyous transformation of Human—"out of his spine a sprout burst upward, two leaves, four leaves—" (17.465). The Descolada is the alien inside as destroyer, as thing to be tamed so we can stay the same, and (since Human has to stand for humans) also as potential transformation.
The fence that separates humans and piggies symbolizes… separation. (That's the sort of insight you read Shmoop for, eh?)
Separation can be tricky, though. On the one hand, the fence keeps humans from corrupting piggies and violating the Prime Directive and making Mr. Spock mad. But on the other hand, you could see the fence as keeping the piggies in—preventing them from corrupting and hurting the humans. That's Human's view when he says, "Humans are filling up all the worlds. The humans build their stupid fence to keep us out, but that is nothing. The sky is our fence!" (14.195).
One of the reasons that Human says the fence "is nothing" is, as it turns out, that the piggies can get over the fence super easily by using an anesthetic grass. Rather than separation then, the fence shows the futility, or uselessness, of separation. What you want out gets in, just as (thanks to Miro and Ouanda) what you want in—all those technological goodies—gets out. Difference mixes; you can't control it.
At the same time though, trying to control it matters. The fence isn't about physical separation as much as it is about mental separation. For Lusitanians, it's a statement that the community has cast its lot with the sky; it's part of the Starways community. To turn off the fence means reforming the community—joining forces with its neighbors rather than with the imperialists in the sky.
Building different fences gives you different possibilities—the Bishop is eager for the chance to try to convert the piggies. But it also gives you different dangers, as Miro finds. He wants to climb the fence, and "become a renegade (16.197). And while he does become an outcast, it's not in the ways he might have expected: the fence paralyzes him, and suddenly he's an alien, unable to take part in his work or his life, cut off from his family and his former fiancé.
You can take down the fence, but there's always a new one with someone outside, it seems like. You can't have a community without someone left out.
The third life—the switch from piggie to tree—is a symbol for going to heaven. It's not especially subtle, and Human even specifically compares turning into a tree to the account of the afterlife in the Bible, saying "But the other book you gave us. It talked all the time about living after death and being born again" (17.357). And Quim, the good Catholic, compares the transformation of the piggies to Christ's return: "It wasn't death," said Quim. "It was resurrection" (17.492).
It's worth remembering here that Card is a believing Mormon. It's also worth noting that Os Venerados, Novinha's parents who are on their way to being sainted, were killed by the Desacolada, just as Human is transformed by the Desacolada. The trees, which look over and watch the piggies, could be seen as saints of a kind, offering help to those left behind just as Os Venerados may help their people, human and piggie alike.
The Trondheim to Lusitania trip takes twenty-two years, which is a long way to go without rest-stops or a McDonald's. Due to the wonders of relativistic near-light space travel though, for those in the ship it only takes a few weeks. So when Ender leaves Trondheim behind it means, from his sister's perspective, she won't see him for two decades.
The tricky space-time business does a couple of things. First, it emphasizes difference and transformation. When Ender goes to Lusitania, he's going to a new life—it's like dying and being reborn. He was a piggie; now he's a tree. It's another transformation in a novel that likes its transformations.
The time travel is also a way to emphasize Ender's coolness, and to separate him out from mere mortals. He and Valentine are thousands and thousands of years old; they're ancient and semi-immortal from the perspective of all the other people they meet, and in this way they're both literally living legends. When Ender settles down on Lusitania, it's like he's going from a god to a person—the eternal all-powerful Speaker becomes just another dude, married to Novinha.
Novinha says that if her parents were truly saints, they would come back to her from the dead (1.45)—but then she really does get this heavenly, saint-like guy who steps out of his eternal life to be with her. An improbable outcome, but that's fiction for you.