Sunday, December 9, 2012

Speaker for the Dead: A Religious Book or Just Good Science Fiction?

The sequel to Ender’s Game takes place 3,000 years later, and the hero of the first book is still alive. Thanks to the effects of space travel at the speed of light—which he must do a lot of—Ender has aged only about twenty-five years.

Oddly, and though it’s difficult to explain why, I identify with both Ender in the first book and Andrew, as he is known, in the second. To explain why, it will take a book of my own, which is why I am writing a memoir. Yes, on second thought, it’s best to leave that thorny issue aside for now.

It will be easier, much, to summarize the complex plot of Speaker for the Dead and some of what makes it interesting

After saving the human race by exterminating the “buggers,” the only alien race known in his boyhood-space-hero days, Ender became a pariah because of a 180-degree turn in public opinion. The Savior of Mankind is now called the Xenocide, race-exterminator—like Jesus Christ being seen as evil, which may be the case in some atheist circles. As a result, he now goes by the name Andrew and the human race thinks that Ender the Xenocide is long dead.

But secretly our hero has kept the “Hive Queen” of the buggers alive, and now he has a chance to create a new home for her and to resurrect her people. He has been called to serve as Speaker for the Dead on the planet Lusitania, home to another alien race, the piggies, and possibly a favorable environment for the buggers. 

The humans on Lusitania are studying the piggies very very carefully. Like 20th-century anthropologists who discovered that they could destroy cultures by examining them too closely and infecting them with modern language, attitudes, ways, and technology, the human scientists on Lusitania have erected a fence between themselves and the “piggies.” They think this is for the piggies’ own good, though as Speaker unfolds, it’s clear that the piggies don’t see it that way.

The stage is set for a series of surprises and a thoughtful meditation on such matters as race, war, and the nature of sexuality and love. On this last point, the varieties of heterosexual love in Speaker are fascinating: the celibacy of the married members of a monastic order; the love of Ender for his sister Valentine and for the holographic female who speaks with the voice of his computer (“Jane” suffers jealousy like any human lover); the self-sacrificial marriage of Novinha to Marcão; the mating habits (!) of the piggies. There is a hilarious scene in which we learn just how dominant piggie wives are—though piggie wives are not the same as piggie mothers.

I have explained the beautiful conceit of Speaker for the Dead in a previous post. It boils down to saying “what the dead one would have said, but with full candor, hiding no faults and pretending no virtues.” Ender/Andrew is called to speak for humans who have died on Lusitania, including scientists who were apparently eviscerated cruelly and without reason by the piggies.

The Catholic Church has a role in Speaker for the Dead. Under the conservative leadership of Bishop Perergino, Lusitania is a nominally Catholic settlement, and there is that celibate monastic order as well: the Filhos da Mente de Cristo, or Children of the Mind of Christ. But the Speaker, Andrew, though raised by Catholic parents, says he has no faith, and the Bishop sees him as dangerously anti-establishmentarian.

Speaker Andrew, then, is a secular figure but with religious qualities. On another planet, he has spoken the death of a saint named Angelo. He has written a book on the Hive Queen of the buggers that is regarded as holy scripture by the piggies. And his truth-telling has near-magical properties of healing.

I wonder: What percentage of science fiction books are scientific and religious, though religious in an unorthodox way? What percentage of sci-fi presumes to extrapolate today’s science while actually offering answers to today’s spiritual questions? I have not read enough sci-fi to know, although Stranger in a Strange Land, one of my teen favorites, has another non-Christian Christ figure like Ender, Valentine Michael Smith.

Does the best science fiction say, in fact, that science, not religion, is the real fiction—and that the human spirit lives? I will have to read more sci-fi to find out for myself.

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