Speaker of the Dead – Orson Scott Card

There’s a quote I like, and I like it for all the wrong reasons.

Here is an answer to intelligent life on other planets. If there were such, who would redeem them?

-W. Gary Crampton

That’s pretty stupid, and it seems to ask the wrong question in pursuit of a pretty important answer. To call the conclusion it draws ‘wrong’ would be to give some undue disfavor to the very idea of ‘wrongness’. I like this quote in much the same way as some people like bad movies. I would think that there is really no damn way that anyone can find any value in that quote, which seems to want to mix the oil of science with the water of religion.

I first encountered that quote in Carl Sagan’s the Demon Haunted World, but by the time I finished Orson Scott Card’s Speaker of the Dead I was convinced that I had read it as some kind of chapter epigraph in this book. Maybe I had – I didn’t bother to look it up afterwords. The quote actually seems to mesh pretty well with this story here.

Speaker for the Dead follows Ender, the now grown protagonist of Ender’s Game, who works as a Speaker for the Dead, an ecclesiastical figure that is a cross between a priest and a detective. Having gone to a distant planet to speak over the death of an unliked and abusive father of a family, he finds himself investigating the mysterious death of a science researcher who had recently made some discovery about the sentient species of the planet.

The two story threads seem to have nothing at all in common, and yet they really do come together in a magnificent way. That being said, I wasn’t all that convinced of the story at the beginning, and found it both a bit boring and difficult to read. Card needs to set up a whole lot to get his fictional world to work, and I am not sure he did so with the greatest amount of grace imaginable. Throughout my reading of the first quarter of this novel I was convinced I wasn’t going to like it – and indeed I wasn’t

But I think the story behind this novel is possibly a little more interesting than that. Card wanted to write and publish this novel, but seeing it rejected constantly spurred him to write Ender’s Game, which was published without problems. That makes enough sense, as Ender’s Game really is the better novel, despite the fact that this one is clearly the more mature and thoughtful of the two. I think this may also help to explain the problem mentioned in the previous paragraph – clearly there was far too much world-building to be done to be left to the introductory section of a book. Frankly, although this may just be a bias from the order in which I did read these books, I am not really sure I see how this could ever have gotten published without Ender’s Game preceding it.

There is another difference between the two works. Ender’s Game could have been written by anyone, but Speaker for the Dead is clearly the work of a deeply religious person. I don’t say that to suggest a problem of any kind, but religion is a flavor that not everyone can really get behind. I am not sure I would have a problem with the religion of this story in itself, but Card really does lay it on thick. Returning to the quote from the beginning, my thoughts on it likely mirror Carl Sagan’s – if you are thinking about redemption you are really looking at the problem from a very strange perspective indeed. But Card’s story does work, and Ender really does function as something of a redeeming figure for two races of sentient alien life. But while Crampton wrongly assumes that life everywhere needs redemption of some kind, Card sets up a universe where we see what kind of redemption is needed and why. It becomes something that certainly does make sense in the context of this book.

Mind you, I still think Crampton’s quote is ridiculous, and even worthy of the mockery I still give it.  But I can see how someone else may have found value in it when justified in a certain context.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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