Friday, December 20, 2013

Cultural conflict?

I've just finished reading Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead".  This is the second book in the Ender Wiggins series.  In the first book, "Ender's Game", Ender is tricked into using is exceptional skills to direct the military forces of the humans to destroy the home planet of the Buggers, an insect-like race of sentient beings.  It turns out that the Buggers were really only trying to get by, and the conflict that put them up against the humans was a cost of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

In this second book Ender is engaged in a second encounter, this time with a race of beings very different from humans, but also less threatening.  The book is well written and has plenty of plot twists and interesting characters to keep your interest, but at the root of it is another example of human society coming into conflict with an "other" that they don't understand.  These are a forest-dwelling group of furry creatures with dramatic sexual dimorphism and a completely different sort of life cycle.  The central government of the new human race has strict limits on the sorts of contact the humans can have with these new creatures (who speak several languages, including the human ones), so that there is very limited understanding at the point where Ender shows up and engages them fully (he's a special guy).  In short order he fathoms the Piggies (as they are called by the humans), meets with the different groups, comes to understand the life cycle issues, and forms a style and level of communication with them that is between equals (which takes some doing, as the Piggies are actually superior to humans in many ways).  In summary, Ender saves the day.  I want him on my Team!

My point of all this is that here is another example of the fascination people have with the idea of the Otherness of cultures that are different than ours.  There are things that happen with the Piggies that are deeply disturbing to the people, but only because they don't understand what is going on.  In some senses it is very much like the cases I wrote about earlier.

Has anybody read this book?  Are you ready to try out cultural relativism again?


  1. So Ender was still around? I thought the next book started 200 years or so after the first one ended. Anyway I only read the first one. (I also read only the first of Card's Seventh Son books -- is there a trend here?) Have you read any Octavia Butler? Her main focus in her books was on cross cultural interaction: human vs human and human vs alien. It might seem a natural theme for a black woman writing science fiction in the 70's and 80's. They have been recently published in Kindle format.

  2. Actually this book takes place 3,000 years later in linear time, whatever that is. Ender's travels at light speed keep him young - in his frame of reference he is only in his late 20's now, while the history of his triumph over the buggers is ancient at this point. Still known, but ancient.

    No, I have not heard of Octavia Butler, but I am always on the lookout for new authors. Thanks for the tip!