Speaker for the Dead

I’m going to hear about this one, I’m sure, so let me just get the scary bits out in the open right away.  This is a book review of sorts–a very favorable one–of a science fiction novel.  It was written by a Mormon.  It takes evolution for granted.  The Christian characters in the book are all Roman Catholic, and some of them are portrayed quite sympathetically.  Adultery and domestic violence are major plot elements, although the action is implied, not described.  Author Orson Scott Card does his utmost to help the reader sympathize with both the physically abusive husband and his unfaithful wife, an emotionally abusive and neglectful mother — and Card knows what he’s doing.  If your heart’s not carved of granite, you’ll sympathize.  Pietists who don’t know how to read stories will find the experience traumatic and probably ought to steer clear.  Or then again, maybe not.  Not all trauma is bad; a knifing and a surgery are both traumatic, but they sew you up at the end of the surgery.

Ahem.  Anyway, the book is Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card.  It’s the second in a cycle of four stories (in order: Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind), but it stands alone well enough.  You can read Ender’s Game first if you want to, but you don’t really have to.  Late in the cycle, the peculiarities of Card’s LDS theology really come out into the limelight in some infelicitous ways, but Speaker is mostly free of that.  You ought to read it.

Moreover, you ought to read it for its epistemology.

The epistemology is personal, powerful, and simple enough: a person you don’t love is a person you don’t know, and can’t know.  As with most philosophical concepts, it is far easier to grasp fleshed out in story form than it would be in abstract discussion.  If it turns out that you don’t like the epistemology after all, it’s still a very good story.  You won’t have wasted your time.

If you want the abstract discussion, N. T. Wright’s Christian Hope in a Postmodern World makes the same epistemological point pretty concisely.  If you want it fleshed out philosophically and attended by (lots and lots of) footnotes, you can read Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology by Esther Lightcap Meeks.  Wright’s presentation is personable and accessible; Meeks is tougher to handle because she’s writing to fellow philosophers, but she’s very good at what she does.  But Speaker for the Dead is cheaper, and a lot more fun.  Just sayin’.


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