Review | Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (PART 1 of 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the tenth in Stephen Olson’s series of posts reviewing, contemplating, considering, and discussing his experience with Orson Scott Card’s award winning Ender’s Game novels. You can find his other posts on the Ender’s Game series here.

I first read Speaker for the Dead right after the first time I read Ender’s Game, when I was in 6th grade.  My mom warned me that Speaker for the Dead would be a lot different, but I really wanted more of Ender’s Game.  As always seems to be the case, my mom was right.  Speaker for the Dead was not at all the follow-up to Ender’s Game that I had hoped for, but I still liked it.

Speaker for the Dead takes place some three thousand years in the future, on a planet where mankind has discovered intelligent life for the second time ever, this time a species far behind humanity in development.  Given the regrettable way that things turned out the first time we found sentient life, the Starways Congress gives very strict rules for interaction with this new species, colloquially called piggies for their appearance.  Despite the noninterference rules, things go horribly wrong.  Ender, who has traveled at light-speed from planet to planet for many years, still struggles with his responsibility for what he did as a child and decides he must see the newly found life for himself.  And from there we drop into a world full of deep philosophical questions and moral dilemmas.

Speaker for the Dead was not something I could appreciate very well when I first read it.  When I read a book, I look for characters I can relate to.  I always have.  Back then, I did not realize how key this was to how I read, but it was.  So when I jumped into this book, I struggled with the characters.  Ender, who I felt like I understood so well in the previous book, had grown into a thirty-five year old man.  Many of the other key characters were that same age or older.  Their world simply had no place for me, and I felt adrift for large portions of the book.

Conveniently enough, the older generation (these days, my generation) of characters in Speaker for the Dead did not round out the entire cast.  One of the most important characters has six children, and the children were my lifeline in that first reading.  The two oldest children, in their late teens and already starting to fill important adults roles in the community, I saw as role-models.  Even more than Ender in the original, they taught me that young people can really accomplish important tasks and that helped define my own late adolescence (although I still haven’t accomplished nearly as much as them (at least not yet, anyway)).

Another child, Estevao, has the Portuguese version of my first name, so I felt an immediate connection as soon as I saw the chart of key characters at the start of the book.  Of course, Estevao ended up being my least favorite character due to his religious objection to pretty much anything useful that other characters do.  Still another of the children was the same age as me when I read this, so I felt a kinship there, too.  Fortunately, he turned out to be a really interesting character to me, partly because he has robotic eyes due to an accident and partly because of his hobbies of computers and video games.

At first, I didn’t think much of the aliens.  You’d think that the aliens would be the most important thing to a twelve-year-old, but in the beginning we just see them from the very focused  perspective of the scientists observing them.  Also, talking pig-like aliens just didn’t seem very exciting.  As the story progresses, though, and we learn more,  I became more interested in the aliens.  One or two alien characters in particular tended to be engaging.

My biggest problem with the book was all of the dialogue.  Very few actual events seem to happen because everyone spends all of their time talking.  When characters stop talking, they think instead.  They analyze and wonder and theorize.  So many times I just wanted to tell the characters to get on with it already.  For a large part of the book, several key events seemed rather imminent, and waiting for characters to get to those events felt excruciating because each character involved had to think about how they felt, discuss it with another character or two, and then think about it some more.

Those of you who have read Speaker for the Dead have probably noticed by now that I’ve described a very deep novel in very simplistic terms.  Since I wrote my first article for Attack of the Books!, one of the most common questions I get is why I dislike Speaker for the Dead and its direct sequels so much.  The simple answer is that I don’t.  I love these books.  A lot.

The more complicated answer is at the heart of this article: I first experienced Speaker for the Dead under the wrong set of circumstances.  In rereading many of the books, it has surprised me how much I missed.  It was a few years later that I learned better how to read analytically and how to reflect on the meaning of what I read, so I really wouldn’t trust any of my literary opinions from that time.

Another common question I get anytime I talk about the Ender’s Game series is also about Speaker for the Dead.  Many people ask if I enjoy it, because they don’t or the friend who recommended Ender’s Game didn’t.  The simple answer is the same: that I love it.  And the more complicated answer is what you see here. I didn’t always love it, and that first experience still colors my perception to this day.

If you want to read an exciting story about aliens and space and such, this is not that story.  I hope this review makes it clear.  But stay tuned for next week when I review the far better experience I have had with Speaker for the Dead since then.

(For the record, I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible for younger readers to enjoy or appreciate this book.  I still did enjoy it, and I’ve talked to people who read it at a younger age and clearly understood it much better than I did.)

Parental Advisory

  • Language: The worst of it is in Portuguese.  Don’t use Google translate.
  • Adult themes: Some disturbing imagery.  And a reminder, don’t use Google translate.

Stephen Olson teaches math at North Layton Junior High.  When not teaching math, he polices the halls and library of his school, ensuring that students partake of only the best reading material.  On the rare occasions he finds himself away from school, Stephen reads, writes, and writes about reading. You can follow him on Twitter @MathTeacherGuy or email him at mathteacherguyATgmailDOTcom.

Does Speaker for the Dead sound interesting? Do the author a favor and pick up a copy from Amazon. It puts bread on their table and helps them keep writing great fiction.

[amazon-product alink=”0000FF” bordercolor=”000000″ height=”240″]0812550757[/amazon-product]

About Stephen

Stephen Olson teaches math at North Layton Junior High. When not teaching math, he polices the halls and library of his school, ensuring that students partake of only the best reading material. On the rare occasions he finds himself away from school, Stephen reads, writes, and writes about reading. You can follow him on Twitter


  1. Great review! It’s an excellent example of why rereading works at different stages in our lives can be such an exciting experience. You latch onto different parts each time you delve in, and it’s almost like a different story altogether.

  2. It’s true. While I rarely reread novels (there are just too many good ones and life is so short!), The Hobbit is one that I’ve reread multiple times, and each time is worth it. I suspect I’ll be picking up Enders’ Game and Speaker for the Dead in the future, as well.


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  3. […] far as I’m concerned, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead are works of art.  Every time I read those books, I feel like I understand humanity better than I […]