Ok, it’s a sci-fi showdown and I’m going to submit an unpopular opinion:
I think Speaker for the Dead is better than Ender’s Game.
Which isn’t to say that Ender’s Game isn’t a brilliant work of genius, because it is. But there’s something special about Speaker, quieter, more subtle, yet also more complex. It’s the one I reread more often. The broken spine lines on the back of my copy are proof of that. Maybe it’s the scope of it. Maybe it’s because we see what kind of man Ender grows up to be. Or maybe, because to me, Speaker for the Dead is a much sadder story than Ender’s Game.
If you’re unfamiliar with these titles, then I’m going to have ask that you stop what you’re doing and at the very least go pick up Ender’s Game. Get it from the library. Borrow it from a friend. Purchase an inexpensive paperback or kindle copy here. However you must, just read it. You can’t really understand modern science fiction without reading this classic by Orson Scott Card.
Until then, here’s the quick summary: A kid named Ender is recruited to a battle-school to train him as a solider in the war against the “buggers,” an insectoid alien race that humanity once fought decades before in outer space. The buggers were defeated in a major battle, but the world had since been preparing for their eventual return to the solar system. Ender is the product of this history; a family’s “third” child in a population controlled earth, he’s essentially forced to become a child soldier.
He fights virtual and real battles against his peers, who are also (for the most part) other small, disenfranchised boys. Ender knows he’s being used, but he’s ambivalent about that, feeling a sense of duty to protect the one person he loves, his sister. This plot summary may sound trite, but it’s the less tangible things that drive story: the moral and ethical battle that Ender fights with himself; the isolation of a genius amongst friends; the breakup of his family and exile from his home; and the conversation between the adults that control him. This is about a Machiavellian willingness to exploit child soldiers for their plastic minds and excellence at the video-game-like controls of modern warfare; unapologetically sacrificing them for the greater good.
And then there’s Speaker for the Dead, the book that seems to throw everyone off because it’s so unlike its predecessor in the series. I read Ender’s Game in eighth grade and had no idea it was actually the first book in a four-part series (not including all the spin-off stories that came later). A friend mentioned to me that the story of Ender’s Game actually continued on, and he valiantly attempted to summarize Speaker for me, but I didn’t understand how the two books were related and so never followed up to find this second book.
Years later, another friend and I were talking sci-fi and when he heard I hadn’t read the rest of the Ender’s Game series, he brought them to school the very next day and said, “Here, you need to read these.” (What a good guy. Wish I knew what happened to him. He has no Internet presence that I can find, even though he was very computer savvy. I suspect he haunts the deeper parts of the internet where I wouldn’t even know where to look.)
I inhaled those books during a family vacation, but it was Speaker that stood out to me out of all of them.
Speaker follows up on Ender’s Game, except Ender is now a grown man in a future thousands of years beyond his original time. By traveling at near light-speed, hopping from interstellar colony to colony, he and his sister have managed to stay relatively young through the magic of time compression. He is called to a planet to speak for the dead, the religion he has secretly founded and participated in over the last millennia. This planet where he is summoned coincidentally features the only known intelligent life besides humans and the buggers: the piggies. A few human colonists have been studying the piggies and trying to understand this organism’s strange relationship with the planet’s ecology.
I think I enjoyed the mystery of the piggies and the planet more than anything else about this book. Unlike Ender’s Game, which is set in a claustrophobic space-station for most of the book, Speaker takes place on the wide terrain of strange planet, featuring a unique, alien biology. Few books really get me excited by strange ideas, usually because they’re not as special as they’d like to believe or complex enough to hold my attention for very long, but Speaker bucks that trend completely.
We’re also introduced to a whole new set of people; two suffering families, interwoven and broken, whom I came to care about more than even Ender himself. Normally, I think like many people, I hate when authors introduce new characters into a series. I typically only want to hear about the original hero, no new ones! But if you push past the first thirtyish pages of Speaker, you get past that hesitancy to accept new lives into the storyline and subsequently find yourself so firmly in their camp, it’s almost hard to accept Ender butting into what really becomes their narrative.
So no, Speaker doesn’t show Ender playing more video games. It goes beyond that. He grows up and grows out of that life. We get to benefit from that change and are shown something so much richer than what could otherwise been done with Ender as the focus of the story alone.
The next book in the series is also pretty good, Xenocide. I especially liked the storyline that takes place on the planet, Path, but it still doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of Speaker and Ender’s Game. The whole series is good but by the end I admittedly found myself reading just to learn the answer to the final mystery – only to be disappointed by its lackluster conclusion (sort of the same way that I finished the Harry Potter books: in a panicky rush, but somehow uncaring by the end of each one).
So there you go. A couple reasons why I think Speaker for the Dead is excellent and maybe a richer story than the also excellent Ender’s Game. Read them both – all the way through.
And if you have read both, what do you think? Does Speaker measure up to Ender’s Game? Is it better? Worse? I sometimes wonder if there’s anyone out there who likes Speaker as much I do. Am I crazy? I don’t really care if people agree with more or not, but I think Speaker deserves a little more love and attention. So here it is, one blog-post on the Internet on the side of Speaker for the Dead.