Speaker for the Dead
By Orson Scott Card
Published by Audio Renaissance (aka Macmillan Audio)
Read by David Birney, Stefan Rudnicki, and an uncredited woman?
Having gone through three versions of Ender’s Game (audio-play, movie and the book) I decided it was time to move on to the next book in the series. So… Three thousand years later we pick up with Ender who is now in his thirties. Huh? Well, he’s been travelling a lot through space at relativistic speeds so while three millennia have passed for those folks who stayed put on a single planet, only a decade or so has passed for Ender and his sister, Valentine.
I thought that was an extreme case of relativity, but when I considered how many stellar systems we have found planets in and so far have only found one planet that might be the right size at the right distance from its primary, it might be that is actually a little too short a time to have passed. Story-wise, however, the culture does not seem to have advanced more than a century or so, maybe less. Religion, for example, seems to be remarkably static, far more so than it has been so far in human history. Once again, perhaps I am being too critical, since for the purposes of the story it is easier to say “These people are Lutherans, and these others are Roman Catholic” and that pretty much sets the stage and if there are differences that have occurred you can make them minimal and the reader will have a general notion as to what their religion is like.
Or perhaps I am not being critical enough? Wait for it…
Do you like thick, slow-action books, packed to the dust jacket with religious and philosophical meandering, this book is for you. If you are looking for the same action-packed writing as in the first volume, Ender’s Game, don’t even bother.
It is not a bad story, but neither is it a great one. There is a bit of rewriting, or retconing of the initial story, although mostly regarding just where the fantasy game that figured so heavily in the first book came from. In the first book it seemed as though the Bugger/Formics Hive Queen had somehow tapped into the game and used it to lead Ender to the last Queen, in suspended animation. Now we learn that Jane, a non-corporeal intelligence that lives in the instantaneous communications network and all the computers there of, managed the advanced situations in the game and that the Formics merely used the images Ender saw as a signal to him.
Jane is an interesting character, though in this book she seems more there to cause trouble than anything else. It is explained that some of what she does is to give Ender, the people of the planet, Lusitania, and the natives (called Piggies… I should mention this is something that leaves a very bad taste to me. In the first book humans are fighting the “Buggers” and now they are studying the “Piggies.” I find both names as official species designations insulting not only to the creatures they refer to, but to me. They are just more obscene pejoratives of the sort bigots give to people other than themselves. To make them the only names for those species, I find sickening. In later books Card changed the Buggers to “Formics” but I cannot help but wonder if that was because it sounded like a racial slur or because it sounded like a different sort of obscene reference. Yes, people have frequently referred to their war enemies by demeaning names, but even so we know their real names. That no one in either the first two books thinks there is anything wrong with “Buggers” or “Piggies: (aka Pequeninos, which means “little pigs). It just rubbed me the wrong way and tainted the rest of the two books.
Anyway, Ender, some three thousand years later is living on a planet that was settled by people from… well I forget now, Norway or Iceland, I think. His sister, Valentine is there too and has recently gotten married to one of the colonists and is expecting a child. A call comes from a colony founded by Brazilians (Lusitania) for the services of a Speaker for the Dead (Ender is just such a Speaker) even though the Catholic Church, which leases that planet does not approve of the Speakers. He goes for a number of reasons; first because he is still looking for a new home for the Buggers and because the Piggies are there.
Silly me, I would have thought the last place a new Formics colony should be established would be on a world that is both human colony and home to a non-human sapient species, but that, at least, I was able to put aside. It turns out the PIggies have killed, by vivisection, one of the men who had been studying them (the reason a Speaker is wanted) and, naturally the reason why is meant to be a mystery to be solved as well. By the time Ender shows up another researcher has been killed in the same grisly manner. Also the woman who first asked for his services has changed her mind, but, no matter, because two of her children have requested Speakers for other reasons in the meantime.
That’s all I’m going to reveal at this point, but I will warn you not to be expecting any plot twists and surprise endings. I can’t guess the culprit of a Whodunit to save my life, but I saw almost everything and why before I had half-finished the story. It is easy to see coming.
So with all that in mind, you may like Card’s messages about humanity and what life should be like and you may enjoy this story. As I said above, it’s not a bad story, but it certainly was not to my taste.
First of all, I can’t be sure because I do not have a physical copy to compare it to, but while this is offered as an unabridged audiobook, strictly speaking it is not quite that. What we have is a hybrid of a radio-play and an audio book. The narrative sections are read (by one of three readers) and the dialogue is sometimes performed. To make this work, that means some of the dialogue tags (he said, she declared, it opined, etc.) were dropped. The way I see it, “unabridged” means nothing is left out, not even the dialogue tags. (NB: I might be mistaken in this accusation. There was a lack of consistency in how dialogues were handled. Some were performed by two readers and others were read by a single person. There were no dialogue tags when two people were reading lines back and forth)
I’ve come across several bloggers who have written about dialogue tags, making rules to limit their usage and also what to do and not do. (I was going to link to some, but there are too many to choose from. Any search with “dialogue tags” in it should yield them up for you too) I both agree and disagree with nearly all of them. Tags can be over used, yes, and one should try not to tack on adverbs to every tag and if you can drop a tag once in a while when it is obvious who is speaking, that’s fine too. But there’s a lot of argument that one should never use “he said” or “she said” and yet one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett uses almost no tags except “said.” Let’s face it dialogue tags are usually transparent to the reader. They go by unnoticed on the conscious level, but I maintain that subconsciously they are all noticed and that they can be used to properly set mood, attitude and character.
When you drop all the tags and let an actor read the lines you are trusting that actor to transmit the emotional content of the line as it was intended. I’m not sure if that trust is always well-placed in an audiobook especially if there is no tag to gauge the performance by. Let’s face it. The average play script might give stage directions but rarely tells an actor how to deliver his or her lines. That is up to the actor and the director. And that is why Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet differs from that of Kenneth Branagh or Mel Gibson. Dialogue tags, regardless of whether you like the way they are used are there for a reason and should not be dropped from an audiobook. Want to call it an audioplay (or radio-play) then fine. Present it as such. (Okay, I’ll stop ranting about that now.)
Another note: as far as I can tell, this is the same edition that was previously issued by Fantastic Audio, an imprint of Audio Literature. I haven’t been able to tell if they were bought up by, merged with or just changed their name to Audio Renaissance and then to Macmillan Audio, but while I listened to the 2005 edition, it is the same as the 2002 edition, but I don’t know why the female reader was not credited. She certainly did a lot of reading and was no worse than the two credited men.
My biggest complaint about this audiobook is that it has more than one reader. Any one of the three would have been fine, but the constant bouncing back and forth between them was jarring and unaesthetic. In fact, I will go so far as to call it amateurish. The book has three talented and professional readers and it is a slick production, but you cannot, well, okay, I cannot, settle back and enjoy the book because every time I start to get used to one reader’s vocal mannerisms and interpretations, it changes. If you want more than one reader, then make it an audio-play with a full cast. That worked well enough with the audioplay edition of Ender’s Game and also with Pullman’s His Dark Materials that I review a few years ago. But this just did not work.
Will I finish listening to the rest of the series? Maybe, but I’ll have to take a while to get the taste of this production out of my mouth first.