Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Empathy for Aliens

Speaker for the Dead 

Speaker for the Dead (Ender's Saga, #2)
"The tribe is whatever we believe it is. If we say the tribe is all the Little Ones in the forest, and all the trees, then that is what the tribe is. Even though some of the oldest trees here came from warriors of two different tribes, fallen in battle. We become one tribe because we say we're one tribe."Ender marveled at his mind, this small raman [member of another sentient species]. How few humans were able to grasp this idea, or let it extend beyond the narrow confines of their tribe, their family, their nation.”   ― Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead

I have read many science fiction books whose narrative includes aliens as major characters. Often the plot hinges on differences between humans and aliens -- for those who enjoy science fiction this is one of the reasons. The aliens may be good or evil, but often they are misunderstood and this leads to plot complications and results in an interesting story. With Speaker for the Dead the reader is presented with humans studying "pequeninos", strange aliens known as "piggies". In this case these aren't evil aliens who want to eat you or enslave you so you have to shoot them with large guns like in Ender's Game (the novel for which this is a sequel), nor are these friendly helpful aliens who work with humans to fight the bad guys like some in Star Trek or Star Wars. Instead, these aliens are just different, very different in a way that appears to be similar to the difference between human cultures.

This is presented in a realistic way in that there is fear and even hatred among the humans that is attributable to the unknown nature of the aliens. Through their study they slowly begin to realize "you can't really know them until you stop hating them." The drama in the narrative arises from the humans' attempts to figure out how to live with aliens who aren't like you. With the buggers in Ender's Game alien contact resulted in xenocide. In this story there is an artificial intelligence element, "Jane", a spontaneously generated artificial intelligence that results in alien contact with Ender becoming something that approximates love. Thus in this narrative contact ends up becoming a wary exchange and negotiation which begins with a scientific anthropological cataloging 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." The journey to reach that understanding is strewn with difficulties and tragedy that provides for suspense as the reader begins to learn the reasons for certain events.

The title of the book is the name for what Ender has become, for after having wiped out the "buggers" in Ender's Game he has traveled the universe for thousands of years participating when requested in memorials for the dead. A Speaker for the Dead's job is to professionally care. They 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 oneself. 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.

This novel embodies aliens that are stranger than most I've ever read about, it has suspense resulting from human contact with these aliens, and it explores the nature of death and the way two exceedingly different cultures deal with the experience of death. The novel also explores Ender's relations with other humans and the difficulty he has in maintaining long term relationships due to the itinerant nature of his vocation.  It is the focus on the nature of death and Ender's role as Speaker for the Dead that makes this novel exceptional among the many works of science fiction I have read.

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R.T. said...

Your review is interesting and persuasive. However odd it must seem, I'm in the mood to read about death, so your highlighted book seems to come along at the right time. Thanks!

Mudpuddle said...

interesting post; i haven't read a lot of Card, maybe one long ago, but this one sounds appealing... i'll probably give it a try if the library has it... tx....

James said...

This might be a good book to explore the topic of death through a different perspective.

James said...

This is only the second novel of Card's that I have read (Ender's Game was the first). I was more impressed by this one and will probably read more of his work.

Brian Joseph said...

I have not read this one but it sounds so good. I have not read anything by Orson Scott Card. I think that I will start at the beginning of this series and read Ender's Game. I remember when the first book came out and that it was popular. I was such a long time ago but it seems like yesterday :)

James said...

This novel and Ender's Game share the same protagonist but at very different points in his life. Ender's Game is a coming of age novel where you experience the rapid education and achievements of young Ender Wiggin. The later novel is set three millennia further into the future and Ender is a mature man. Although, due to the vagaries of space travel, he is only in his mid-thirties. The novels may be read in sequence but that is not required to enjoy the second one. Here is a link to my comments on Ender's Game: http://frugalchariot.blogspot.com/2010/09/enders-game-by-orson-scott-card-i-told.html