Let's wrap this first sucker up.
(Content: sexism, murder. Fun content: balloons, the human nervous system.)
Speaker for the Dead: p. 20--30
It takes three days for Novinha to take the test to become the new xenobiologist of Milagre, and because she is 13 years old and a main character in a Card novel, she passes with a score better than most graduate students. Obviously reasonable. She starts spending most of her time in the Zenador's Station, because they have all the cool data, and Libo finds her cold condescension aggravating, especially since they're the same age and presumably both ubergeniuses but she has an adult job and he's still just apprenticing.
He was not prone to taking umbrage openly. But Pipo knew his son and saw him burn. After a while even Novinha, insensitive as she was, began to realize that she was provoking Libo more than any normal young man could possibly endure. But instead of easing up on him, she began to regard it as a challenge. How could she force some response from this unnaturally calm, gentle-spirited, beautiful boy?
Well done, Card. Managed to make it to page 20 before describing a barely-pubescent boy as 'beautiful' in an explicitly romantic/sexual context. (Of course it's romantic/sexual, and yes of course Libo and Novinha will hook up within the next few years/pages. What kind of book do you think this is?) Novinha snipes at him one day when she learns that Pipo and Libo have never met a female Little One and don't know anything about how the species reproduces. (They described the concepts of male and female, and all of the Little Ones have identified themselves as male.) Libo is quiet for a while before responding at all, and then they have this back and forth of "Obviously you should just do this" and "Well, no, that won't work because X" until finally X is "Because trying to tell them what we want their hair for would risk giving away scientific secrets that could change the course of their society and ruin everything".
Once she realized that they were excellent at their science, and that she knew almost nothing of it, she dropped her aggressive stance and went almost to the opposite extreme. [....] Politeness gradually gave way to familiarity. Pipo and Libo began to converse openly in front of her, airing their speculations about why the pequininos had developed some of their strange behaviours, what meaning lay behind some of their strange statements, why they remained so maddeningly impenetrable.Libo and Novinha become BFFs, making inside jokes based on their unique scientific information that no one else except Pipo could possibly understand. And it's sort of sweet, but I also wonder why, with the galactic instant internet that's been in place for over 3000 years, none of them have, say, friends on other planets. A hundred worlds with a total human population in the tens or hundreds of billions--shouldn't the galaxy be full of lonely supergenius teenagers looking for someone else smart enough to get them and make complicated xenobiology jokes?
Basically what I'm saying is that Card was very impressive to foresee political blogs but this is the part where he clearly did not see tumblr incoming.
So then there's a misogynistic interlude in which Libo riffs off the Little Ones' habit of naming trees and starts naming their office furniture. Actual quote: "Don't sit on Chair! It's her time of the month again." And Novinha does the same, obviously, she writes "a series of mock reports on an imaginary pequenino woman called Reverend Mother, who was hilariously bitchy and demanding."
Now, maybe, maybe, these arrogant teenagers mocking the primitive aliens' noted reverence for their unseen female population are still going to accurately collect and assess and analyse all of their information, and aren't going to let their superiority affect their objective rational Sciencemastery at all. But maybe--probably--they won't, and if that happens there will be no one to catch them, no one to call them out, because they are utterly isolated from the rest of their community and the only people who are even aware of the mockery going on in the privacy of the Zenador's Station are the three of them who are complicit in it. Where is the oversight? For that matter, where are the experts from the rest of the galaxy making trips to Lusitania to attempt to add insight or oversight to their work? (Travel might be stupidly expensive, but that won't stop Ender from jetting in shortly, and no one thinks it's weird to request a Speaker to come in.)
This here is exactly how science and academia get bigotry in them and become part of the larger system of oppression--it's just a joke, and then it isn't.
But when they do ruin everything one day, it's not because of that, of course. It starts with Rooter, alien teenage supergenius, who demands to know who it is that the humans go to war with, since he knows they only have one city. Pipo reassures him that the humans would never kill the Little Ones, and some time later Rooter remarks--joking, but he's smart enough to know that jokes are always about the implicit truth--that the only reason Pipo is still alive is that "your women are too stupid to know that he is wise".
The weird hybrid of bloodlust and misogyny continues, until Libo finds a safe answer.
"Most women don't know him," he said.
"Then how will they know if he should die?" asked Rooter. Then, suddenly, he went very still and spoke very loudly. "You are cabras!" [....] He pointed at Libo and then at Pipo. "Your women don't choose your honor, you do! Like in battle, but all the time!"'Cabra' means 'goat', and they seem to be the bison or antelopes of Lusitania. Pipo tries to explain that couples make decisions together, but the Little Ones continue shouting in distress and then haul Rooter away into the forest and forbid the humans to follow. Pipo and Libo book it and try to figure out what happened, starting with Rooter calling human women weak and stupid.
"That's because he's never met Mayor Bosquinha. Or your mother, for that matter." Libo laughed, because his mother, Conceição, ruled the archives as if it were an ancient estação in the wild mato--if you entered her domain, you were utterly subject to her law.Paraphrasing Card: "Gosh, I sure do have some strong female characters offscreen. Hoo boy, if you could only see them! Now then, back to making sexist jokes about primitive tribal cultures." Also, our characterisation of Conceição now consists of knowing that she doesn't believe children are full people, she doesn't understand her husband's quiet brilliant insights into human nature, and she's iron-fistedly domineering about her library. Top notch, Card.
The forest is loud with drumming that night, and Pipo and Libo wonder if they haven't accidentally introduced the concept of sexual equality to the Little Ones--meaning, of course, not that the revered females might have broken free of wherever they're hidden away, but that the males might have thrown off their shackles and be fighting for liberation. I have literally no idea what these 'shackles' might consist of, but a whole lot of ideas about why the males might be keeping the females locked up and never let them meet the outsiders. Sigh.
In the morning they find a patch of freshly cleared earth, and Rooter's corpse with a tree growing out of his chest. It's gruesomely detailed--every organ and tissue and sinew has been carefully extracted (though not detached) and laid out in a pattern around his body. (I keep picturing this amazing but terrifying image of the human nervous system extracted from the rest of the body.) From the blood spread, they determine that he had to have been alive when they started to eviscerate him. Libo has the understandable reaction that, if the non-interference law means letting this happen to a person, then the law is ignorant and wrong.
Pipo and Libo debate which of them said something to trigger this sudden violence, and Novinha interrupts:
"Do you think their world revolves around you? As you said, the piggies did it, for whatever reason they have. It's plain enough this isn't the first time--they were too deft at the vivisection for this to be the first time."
Pipo took it with black humor. "We're losing our wits, Libo. Novinha isn't supposed to know anything about xenology."Well done, Sherlock. So they file their report, and the committees agree that since the Little Ones are going to meet human women sooner or later it would have been stupid for Pipo to lie about our genders, so nothing could have been done differently. Life and research go on, although Libo is traumatised and doesn't return to the field for weeks--he grew up hearing about the Little Ones and had known Rooter by proxy for years. I like this; for once someone's empathy for aliens seems realistic, rather than nonexistent or 'Oh my god this fanfic has changed society's entire outlook on our near-extermination'.
Libo and Novinha continue to bond more intensely, treating the Zenador's Station as their only sanctum now that the Little Ones seem just as mysterious and dangerous as other people always have. Pipo and Libo apparently can't get over the feeling that one of them must have ruined everything, so Libo and Novinha are each other's only non-stressful companions. Pipo goes Shakespearian, comparing the station to the island in The Tempest:
...with Pipo a loving but ever remote Prospero. Pipo wondered: Are the pequininos like Ariel, leading the young lovers to happiness, or are they little Calibans, scarcely under control and chafing to do murder?Or both! I vote for 'both'.
The Little Ones don't talk about Rooter's death, and the humans don't bring it up either, lest they give away more information or trigger more violence, and so the years kind of stumble on. By age 17, Libo and Novinha often talk about what they'll be doing together twenty years from now, and this sort of saddens me. Don't get me wrong, I love the fantasy of people finding each other early in life and first love being truest and forever love, but I am also creeped out by the idea of people attaching to each other out of desperation and never having any consideration of other options, especially when they seem to literally have no other friends or anyone--once in a while even they are going to fight, and who are they going to talk to about those issues? It is good to have your magical one true love to whom you can tell anything, but it is not sufficient.
Also, the romance quotient in the room is reading a solid zero. I'm going to assume that's because I'm not supposed to be emotionally invested in their relationship and rather just take it as future backstory.
Pipo never bothered to ask them about their marriage plans. After all, he thought, they studied biology from morning to night. Eventually it would occur to them to explore stable and socially acceptable reproductive strategies.Ha ha! Social pressure to conform to traditional religious institutions regardless of whether they're appropriate to your personal goals, relationship, and preferences sure is adorable. (Libo and Novinha apparently hypothesise endlessly on how the Little Ones reproduce, given that they only see self-identified males with no apparent mating equipment. Again, Pipo finds this delightful. Is this supposed to be a parallel to recommended 'courtship' practices in conservative American Christianity, with the constant chaperone?)
And then one day Novinha is examining plant cells and she finds the Descolada agent sitting in them, the same body that swept through the colony as a plague stopped only at the cost of her parents' lives. She starts searching specifically for that and finds Descolada in every kind of cell from every kind of species she's catalogued. She shows Pipo, who starts running the same tests himself and asks her to explain how it functions. I don't know enough about biology to comment:
"...It attacks the genetic molecules, starting at one end and unzipping the two strands of the molecule right down the middle. [....] In humans, the DNA tries to recombine, but random proteins insert themselves so that cell after cell goes crazy. Sometimes they go into mitosis, like cancer, and sometimes they die."Pipo says unnecessarily vague things about how 'it's the same thing' among the cells, then grabs his coat to run outside, telling Novinha that when Libo arrives he should look at the simulation and see if he can figure it out before Pipo returns, because it's "the big one. The answer to everything." He says he has to go ask the Little Ones if his theory is right, and if he's not back in an hour he must have broken his leg in the forest.
Pipo would not survive in a horror movie, either.
Libo's committee meeting runs long, and then he gets groceries (where does this tiny walled colony get its food), so he doesn't arrive at the station until after dark, and Pipo hasn't returned. They go looking for him, preparing for a long scouring of the forest, but very quickly they find him dead in the snow, eviscerated like Rooter without the tree in his chest.
This is just... I don't even know what to say. Is there anyone who doesn't find it howlingly infuriating when a character figures out a vital secret but then refuses to tell anyone else for no good reason and then walks voluntarily into incredible danger? Like--Pipo, you know this is a subject they kill people over and you know they're super casual about "So, will your women decide to murder the hell out of you soon?" This isn't hard. Write something down and take precautions. (This would work better if he really was trying to take precautions, specifically of the 'Don't let my son come with me into this dangerous situation' variety, but that's not how the situation is sold.)
So let's hypothesise wildly based on the hints dropped. The plague that takes apart your DNA is a vital part of this planet's life. The Little Ones consider themselves all male and no one ever sees a female. The females apparently evaluate the males and decide when the wisest ones should die, and they are specifically killed in a particular ceremonial and surgical manner. Conclusion: death is part of their reproductive cycle, male Little Ones die in order to open up access to their DNA, and only the best are chosen to die in this particular way and contribute to future generations. I'm trying to decide if it's more likely that the trees are simply ceremonial or if female Little Ones actually are trees because the whole ecosystem is interlinked somehow. Anyway, that's why Rooter was so concerned about the humans having another village to go to war with--because war and associated death is ceremonial (or somehow mandatory) as part of their reproductive cycle.
Not sure how long I'm going to have to wait to have my guesses confirmed or rejected (I know it won't be within the next twenty pages) but I'm going to be unimpressed if Pipo worked it out in thirty seconds but his genius proteges don't catch on for decades and need Ender's help to solve the mystery. Seriously, Pipo, write a note or something. Don't just Fermat us. That's a jackass move.
Speaking of jackass moves, come back next week when we catch up with Ender and endure some just really spectacularly bad theological strawmen! And, if you can't wait for that, look for the return of Erika the blogqueen later this week! It is about to be a new year and we are GEARING UP.