book-reviews

Speaker for the Dead

by Orson Scott Card

Rating: ★★★★

It has been so long since I read this book -- nigh on a year, in fact -- that I cannot honestly separate its events from the other Ender Wiggins series books I read. I remember approving in general of how the continuance from Ender's Game was handled, with Ender and his sister surviving as travellers, skipping through the years by constantly hopping from one planet to another, sheltered by their protector, the intelligence awakened in the communications network between the stars.

The titular concept, of a speaker for the dead, is a futuristic response to an all too contemporary problem. For the religious, a priest or vicar sometimes steps up to the challenge, learning enough of an outline of the life their service concludes that someone unfamiliar with the deceased will get a sketch of their reality -- dutifully blurred by taste and the narrative flow of the sermon. For the rest, the best that can be hoped for is that there is a particularly expressive relative or friend around to compose a eulogy. In most cases there is not, and a life's passing goes unscrutinised.

Perhaps it is some biographical impulse that makes me frown at that concept, perhaps just an egotistical twist on existential dread which makes me fear that once I am gone there will be no effort made to review and remember my life. Whatever cause, I feel I would welcome the rise of a class of professional Speakers, to attend the secular funeral and give a full and true account of a life. It would be a terrifying prospect for a career, to be telling the nearest and dearest about their recently passed friend -- perhaps this is why nobody has done it yet. Also, Ender's role as a speaker for the dead on a greater scale -- the alien and the tyrant -- is a dressing on this which shades personal biography into history, and I feel this ties the concept to something slightly more gaudy: the tales of the lives of the rich and famous are an art form of which we do not need any more.

Moving the series to a new setting, a fragile contact with a seemingly-primitive alien race, and mixing in murder mystery, Speaker for the Dead starts what could easily have been a single story out along a new dimension. Less suited to the demographic which would love Ender's Game, but perhaps good for those just beginning to be interested by politics and philosophy.