Hello again, everyone. Erik the Reddest here for the next part in my series about Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the second book of his Ender saga. I’ve spent the last couple weeks giving some additional counter examples to my HHH post based on my original example of Ender Wiggin. This week, I’ll be taking a closer look at how Card designed his aliens in this book, compared to a few of the more important pointers he gives in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Once again:
WARNING: SPOILERS IMMINANT
It Would Be Rather Pointless If He Didn’t Actually Write This Way
I find it extremely interesting that there are so many “How to Write” books written and readily available to be snapped up and learned from, and just as many different, valid methods to the process. There are, however, a few constants in these books: you generally only want to really focus on the ones written by people whose writing you respect. If the book was written by either nameless authors contracted by the publisher, or someone who you’ve never read anything from, you’re not likely to connect with their advice, and they’re probably just regurgitating general academic conventions or mimicking the actual masters of the craft. You’re much better served to seek out books written by authors of books that really floored you, that did something you truly didn’t expect.
To me, Card was that author, and Card’s book on writing was like a window opened to let fresh air into a musty room. So much of the generic advice like “write what you know!” that I found in other handbooks and guides didn’t really make sense until I had a context to put it in. Card’s methods, for the writing process in general and the SF and Fantasy genres in specific, were both grounded in a book I had actually read in which he demonstrated these things. While it was important that Card actually did what he talked about, it was more important to see that it worked.
Much of his advice can be narrowed to one basic admonition: don’t be lazy, implications matter. This expresses itself in many ways, but three that I’ll talk about today: Creature Design, Culture, and Environment. The trick? All three of these elements are separate, but thoroughly entangled ideas. And Card demonstrates these three considerations expertly in the Piggies, the alien race introduced in Speaker for the Dead.
Creature Design: Clearly Evolved, but How?
Scary and weird and completely nonsensical
As I said in Part I of my series on writing aliens, I don’t believe that macro-evolution occurs in our world. This doesn’t mean, however, that it could occur in a story, and it remains a very logical and effective means for brainstorming ideas for exotic and interesting aliens. It isn’t enough anymore for aliens to just be scary or strange. They need to make sense for modern audiences to accept them. If a creature simply doesn’t seem like it could exist (never mind whether or not it does, or should, for that matter), you lose your audience. Simple as that. And evolution is a convenient logical construction that makes the process fairly simple. You ask yourself: what sort of creatures could live here, based on the idea that life adapts to its conditions for optimal survival? So, you either decide what sort of place it is and figure out what lives there, or the other way around, starting with who you want to live there.
But Card’s Piggies turn that all on its head, to great effect. After clearly establishing what evolution dictates should be on Lusitania, Card gives us a world that doesn’t make sense. Where myriad diversity should have created a complex ecosystem, the number of species runs in single digits. Water snakes seem to spontaneously generate out of the riverbank. The large cattle are all female, but consistently give birth. And the one sentient race of creatures on the planet appear to all be male.
Card’s design for the Piggies is deliberately inter-related with his plot, his world, design, and the mystery of the rest of his world which is unraveled during the course of the story. The Piggies themselves are innocuous (I mean come on, what could be less threatening than a little pig-man?), mythical, and mysterious right down to the biological level. While they have some physical features that make immediate sense, like their opposable digits which generally accompany intelligent life, they are very specialized for their tree-dwelling culture. One Earth, or on another similarly diversely populated planet, we wouldn’t give that element a second glance. But on Lusitania, it doesn’t make sense.
If monkeys developed their climbing ability as a way to stay away from predators, why did the Piggies? For that matter, what about the strange multiple languages that they speak, especially the mysterious Father Tongue, which involves a ritual dance and beating of sticks and singing? Card’s design of the Piggies goes to show that you can’t just arbitrarily stick feelers and bug-eyes on people and call ‘em aliens. I mean, you can, and lots of people would agree with you (heck, the feelers would be enough for that), but they wouldn’t be very good, would they? Unless you consider the implications carefully. Every decision Card made about how the Piggies look and act revolves around their connection to everything else in his story.
That’s it for this week! Next week I’ll get into the other two areas that Card’s Piggies demonstrate. Until then, have you read Speaker for the Dead or Xenocide? If so, what do you think of Card’s aliens? Let me know in the comments below.