[2013 addendum/disclaimer: Please see my review of Ender's Game for an important message regarding controversy surrounding this author. Thank you.]
Speaker for the Dead is a much different novel than its predecessor, Ender's Game. A story of guilt, atonement and redemption, it is written with much care, intelligence and compassion, but also with a nearly biblical gravitas that blankets the proceedings. This is a deliberately difficult and challenging novel, with nary a hint of the first book's action. And though it's laudable that Card chose to fashion a sequel in such a way that it was anything but a rehash, many readers will probably be put off by its serious tone and its cast, nearly all of whom wallow in misery. Yet these are characters whose lives have been touched by grief, and patient readers will see through to the heart at the core of the tale. Card's work is informed by a love for his fellow man, and it's all too evident in the pages of Speaker.
Set over 3000 years after the events in Game, the story has Ender — only in his mid-30's due to the relativistic effects of a lifetime of interstellar travel — leading a nearly monastic life as a Speaker for the Dead, voyaging from colony to colony and performing a eulogistic ceremony in which he "speaks the truth" about the lives of the recently deceased. It's a task he set himself as penance for the destruction of the bugger species. Indeed, after discovering the bugger cocoon, which he now carries with him everywhere, and authoring the Hive Queen and the Hegemon — the book in which he "spoke" for the misunderstood buggers — the name of Ender, once praised as the savior of humanity, has gone down in history as the most evil of all people, the Xenocide who coldly wiped out an entire race. But no one whom Ender encounters now suspects he is the Ender of old. He is now just Andrew Wiggin, Speaker. Inspired by Ender's book, speakers are now everywhere amongst the worlds governed by the Starways Congress.
Ender is summoned to the colony world of Lusitania, whose population are exclusively Catholics of Portuguese descent. (The role of religion, both as a political force governing cultures and as a moral force governing people, is central to this novel's theme.) Lusitania is home to the first sentient alien species discovered since the buggers, curious aboriginal porcine hominids who have, like the buggers, been given a childlike nickname by their human observers: the piggies.
The piggies — normally docile and good-natured beasts whose social structure has captured the professional curiosity of Pipo and his son Libo, the Zenadors (xenologists, basically alien athropologists) who study them — have shocked everyone by killing both men in a ritualistic disembowling. Sometimes they do this with one of their own, planting a tree in the remains. But neither human victim has a tree planted, and no one can fathom why they might have been killed. The Lusitania colony keeps itself within sturdy electric fences and no one but the Zenadors care to go out.
One person does know why Pipo and Libo were killed. Novinha, an orphaned girl who worked with the two Zenadors, eventually becoming Libo's lover. But even she doesn't know any details; only that Pipo's death came when he found something in her notes linking the piggies in some way to the Descolada, a fearsome disease that attacks its hosts right at the genetic level. Novinha's parents discovered a treatment for the Descolada, but at the cost of their own lives.
Card draws clear parallels between Novinha and Ender. Novinha was orphaned at a young age, Ender taken away from his parents. Both were brilliant children who excelled in their fields. And, like Ender, Novinha is wracked with guilt and self-recrimination over deaths she feels responsible for. Like Ender (who was deceived), she blames herself unfairly but has not, like Ender, found a healthy outlet for dealing with her guilt, entering into a loveless marriage with an abusive cretin.
Ender's arrival on Lusitania immediately creates tension. He is held in disdain by the colony's religious authorities, who consider "speaking" an appalling heathen practice at best. What's more, Novinha is deeply hostile to him, since she cancelled her request for a speaker after Ender set off on his voyage, and has only grown more bitter in the passing years. But Ender is compelled to put things right here, and there are a number of mysteries to solve. Why were Pipo and Libo killed? What secrets is Novinha hiding? Are the current Zenadors, Miro and Ouanda, at risk of a similar fate, and have they been directly influencing the development of piggie culture in violation of all laws? And finally, is it possible that Ender has found a world where the new Hive Queen, whose cocoon is in his safekeeping, can hatch, safely giving the bugger species a second chance to live among other species in a cooperative way?
There's an impressive amount of depth to this story, and on these grounds alone I think it's worthy of its awards sweep (Card was the first, and to date only, writer to score the Best Novel Hugo and Nebula two years running). But it has been unjustly dismissed by many readers who have a hard time getting through its multicharacter story and, I admit, often heavy themes. Ender's Game was a character study couched in an exciting space opera, and its themes were propelled by both action and attention to Ender's development. It riveted you because whatever the decisions Ender was making, he wasn't in control of his fate, and that made its climax all the more wrenching. Speaker for the Dead, on the other hand, focuses on characters whom fate, it seems, has long since dealt with, and dealt with harshly. It's a story about picking up the pieces. But it is also a story that confronts issues of duty and accountability, to oneself as well as others. Yes, there are times when the pacing is slow, and when it seems there's just no more sadness you can take. But I think that sophisticated readers willing to set aside preconceived notions will find in Speaker for the Dead one of SF's most mature and heartfelt expressions of humanism.
Followed by Xenocide.