Category Archives: empathy

Books about the theme of empathy.

Review 149: Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card

In his introduction to the book, Card says that the main reason he wrote his most famous book – Ender’s Game – was so that he would one day be able to write this. I think this is something that probably happens a lot to authors. They get a Big Idea in their head, something with great depth and complexity and meaning, and quickly discover that they don’t actually know what they’re writing about yet. There’s too much to say, there’s too much that even the author doesn’t know yet, and to go forward from that state of ignorance will result in what is, ultimately, an inferior narrative.

Andrew Wiggin, the Speaker for the Dead, comes to the human colony Lusitania in order to speak the death of a local man, Marcão. While given the same reverence and privileges as priests, Speakers are not the same. Their job is to learn about the dead, to understand who they were and who they wanted to be, and then tell the truth as plainly and as clearly as possible. They do not give eulogies, where they try to paint the dead in as good a light as possible. They reveal who this person was, and in the process try to help those left behind understand them. It’s a calling that requires an insightful mind, great empathy for others, and the ability to tell the truth despite how hard that truth may be to hear.

As a Speaker for the Dead, Andrew Wiggin is very good at his job. It was he who was the first Speaker, who wrote a text that is as revered as the Bible – The Hive Queen and the Hegemon – in order to understand how humankind could kill the only other intelligent species it had ever encountered. The book reveals who the Buggers were and why they attacked humanity. It tells how their understanding of what it means to be intelligent led to a century of warfare and, ultimately, their own destruction. The book also reveals humanity, the dreams and fears that it faced when it met the Buggers. And it tries to understand why humans were so afraid that they took one of their own – a little boy named Ender – and turned him into the greatest monster in human history. The Xenocide. The one who destroyed an entire alien race.

This book changed the way humankind saw the universe, and themselves. With the Buggers gone, but their technology still available, humans expanded out to a hundred worlds. Though their starships could only go just under the speed of light, the ansible provided instant communication between the stars. It formed a communications network that held the Starways Congress together and allowed humanity to become a multi-system species.

Ender – Andrew – is ultimately responsible for all of this, and is therefore the linchpin of this entire universe. In order to write this book, to understand the culture and the history and the politics that would be necessary to write Speaker for the Dead, Card first had to understand who Ender was. So, with the blessing of his publishers, he was able to turn Ender’s Game into a full-length novel. Once that was done, he was able to turn back to this book and craft it into what it has become.

Question: Will the aliens wear hats that are sillier than ours? No? Good.

The colony of Lusitania is a small place, a group of Catholic settlers who live in a small and insular town. They have all the troubles that any new world would have, except for two that make it truly unique. The first is the descolada, a virus that nearly destroyed the colony and, thousands of years before, life on the planet. This illness literally unzips and recombines your DNA, ravaging your body utterly. If not for the dying work of the colony’s two great xenobiologists, everyone would have died. As it turned out, Gusto and Cida were the last to die, leaving their sad, strange daughter Novinha behind.

Even that wouldn’t be enough to make Lusitania a truly remarkable place. No, for that, we must introduce the Piggies – the third intelligent life form known to exist in the universe. They’re small, look like little pig-men, and are indisputably intelligent. They learn quickly, even despite the law forbidding xenologists from influencing their development, and present humanity with an important chance: the last time we encountered an alien intelligence, we obliterated it. Let’s not do that again.

This becomes harder, however, when the Piggies kill two of the xenologists in what appear to be a horrifyingly painful method. Now it looks like humanity may have to revert to type again, and that there truly is no way that humans can share the same space with other intelligences.

Into all this steps Ender. His years of lightspeed travel have kept him young while three thousand years have passed, and he has wandered from world to world to speak for the dead. Now he is on Lusitania to speak for Marcão, an investigation that will lead him to uncover secrets kept for decades, and to once again change the way humans understand their universe.

There’s really so much to say about this book that it’s hard to decide what to leave out and what to keep in. For one thing, Card is trying to write a very different kind of science fiction story. In his introduction, he says that a lot of fiction is adolescent in nature, science fiction especially. It’s about adventure, about people seeing a way out of their conventional lives and going off alone. It’s about being freed from responsibility and living a fast and crazy life. When that loneliness of adventure finally becomes too much, the hero settles down, but that’s usually the last chapter of the book, if ever.

Isolation. Not just for murderous adolescent geniuses.

Card wanted to go the opposite way, to take a lonely adventurer and show him trying desperately to become responsible, to become a member of a community. In class, where I’m teaching Ender’s Game, we’ve identified isolation as being one of the overriding themes of the novel. Ender is constantly taken away from those he loves or held apart from others. In the end, he becomes a solo wanderer. Even more than that, he is made into a monster, a name on par with Lucifer itself. He is virtually thrown out of humanity, and it is only because no one knows who he really is that he can travel unmolested.

So we’re seeing Ender in that stage where the loneliness and the wandering have become an unbearable burden to him, and all he wants is a place to belong. But as a Speaker, as a man speaking a death that could completely upend the lives of everyone in the colony, he has his work cut out for him.

There is also the element of redemption. In his years of travel, Ender has carried a very special package with him – the cocoon of the last Bugger hive queen. In exchange for her story, he promised that he would find a home for her, a place for her to rebuild her vast family. And on Lusitania, there is that chance. But first he has to save the Piggies, to prevent them from suffering the fate of the Buggers at the hand of a fearful and suspicious Humanity. If Ender can do this, perhaps he can make up for the horror that he unknowingly perpetrated.

There’s a lot going on in this book, to say the least. It’s a great book, better in many ways than Ender’s Game. It is more complex and adult and difficult, with moments of true emotion, a well-built socio-political system befitting a species that spans hundreds of worlds, and addressing the needs for changes in culture, politics and even language that would arise from the need to define relationships between worlds and between species.

Ender would have been a natural for the Indigo Tribe. You listening, Geoff Johns?

Fundamentally, though, this book is about what the Speaker for the Dead does best – understanding. It’s about how we deal with The Other, even when that Other is completely alien to us. Humans and Buggers, Humans and Piggies – hell, Humans and Humans, we have a hard time understanding people who are not like us. We find it very difficult to look at the world from their point of view and to see the world through their eyes. Understanding what they love and fear, what they value and honor, or what they abhor – and more importantly, understanding what they see in you and how they understand you – is the best and surest road to making peace with those who are different from yourself. And that’s a lesson that is valuable for all of us.

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“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.”
– Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the Dead

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Filed under children, colonization, death, disease, empathy, family, friendship, morality, murder, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sins, society, space travel, teenagers, women

Review 93: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I have kind of a weird confession to make. It’s not really a confession as such, since you only confess things that you’re ashamed of or that you feel you have done wrong. But this is something that I believe people may find a little odd, so I suppose it’s the best word under the circumstances.

I don’t kill cockroaches.

Fortunately, I live up on the tenth floor in a nice modern apartment building, so they’re not really a problem for me. But even in my old place, where they’d turn up from time to time, or walking about in the city, where you’re bound to see them, especially after dark, I feel no desire to do what everyone else seems to do – freak out and jump on them with both feet. After all, why should I? They’re just being what they are. They’re just doing what millions of years of evolution have programmed them to do. They don’t act out of malice or with the intention of trying to harm me, so I say live and let live.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – I don’t let roaches stay. I’ll capture them, take them out to the riverbank or somewhere and let them go. I’ll put down deterrents to roaches around the house. I may be kindly-disposed towards all living things [1], but I’m not an idiot. My point is, I feel a certain empathy towards those little guys, just trying to make their way in a hostile, anti-cockroach world.

And that’s how I know I’m not an android.

When we talk about things like computer intelligence, one of the questions that comes up is how we would tell an artificial intelligence apart from the real thing? For a computer-bound AI, there’s the Turing Test – a conversation with a human wherein the human cannot tell that she’s talking to a computer. And that’s good, as far as that goes. But what if we start putting them into physical bodies? What if we make these AIs in our image? Fleshy, sweaty, hairy robots that look and behave just like humans do? How, then, would we be able to tell the difference between a made being and a natural-born human?

Philip K. Dick’s answer is empathy, and it is at the core of this book.

Dick is kind of like science fiction’s mad mystic. He explores the hidden inner worlds of the people involved in the story, peeling apart issues of identity and psychology and reality itself, forcing the reader to ask him or herself what’s really going on.

In other words, reading his work can be something of a head trip.

This novel introduces us to a near-future America, one which is greatly different from the one we know today. After a devastating nuclear war that wiped out countless species of plants and animals, the planet is being slowly emptied out. Those who are young, healthy and fertile are allowed to emigrate to off-world colonies. With them go the androids as servants, workers and slaves. Some people stay on Earth for reasons of their own. J.R. Isadore, for example, is a “special,” one who doesn’t make the genetic grade to leave the planet. Rick Deckard, on the other hand, is a bounty hunter, a man whose duty is to hunt down and destroy androids that come to Earth. Deckard has been handed a special assignment – six androids of the latest model, Nexus-6, have landed nearby. They’re strong, intelligent, almost indistinguishable from humans, and Deckard has to “retire” them all before they get away.

Like many people, I first encountered this story in the movie Blade Runner, which followed much the same path. And, probably like a lot of people who saw the movie first, I was a bit thrown by the difference between the two. Rick Deckard in the book is not the morose lone wolf that he is in the movie. He has a wife here, and an electric sheep that he keeps on the roof (though he’d never admit to his neighbors that it was electric.) He has an interest in animals – the keeping of which is a mark of true status in a world where so many species have gone extinct. He’s a more interesting character, with more depth and inner conflict than we see in the film. On the other hand, Roy Baty, Deckard’s adversary, is far less interesting. He’s intelligent and cruel, yes, but with so much less visceral power than Rutger Hauer gave him.

The major themes are different as well. In the movie, one of the overriding themes is the desire to live, the instinctive need that humans have to keep surviving even for just one more second. It’s what keeps Deckard hanging on the edge of the roof when Roy’s already broken his fingers. It’s what sends Roy to Tyrell’s home in the middle of the night with murder on his mind. The replicants in the film, despite being made beings, want what we want: more life.

The book follows a different path, though. The book looks at the difference between human and android, the Born and the Made, especially where it comes to that elusive quality of empathy. It is a capacity that only humans are supposed to possess, and indeed there is a whole religion founded around it – Mercerism. By using “Empathy Boxes,” a person can become one with the iconic Wilbur Mercer, and share the joys and pains of everyone else connected to him at the same time. Life in all its forms becomes utterly sacred, and the destruction of a living thing is one of the greatest sins one can commit.

The androids, on the other hand, know nothing of empathy. They would gladly give up one of their own to die in their place. In one rather vivid scene, the android Pris starts snipping the legs off a spider, an act so monstrous that it drives J.R. Isadore to betray her and the other androids, people he believes are his only friends. The androids can pretend to feel empathy, but a simple test of involuntary physical responses show that they cannot truly feel it.

So, in a world where life has been scythed clean, respect for life is the highest virtue. The androids have no respect for life, and must therefore be kept off the planet, eliminated if they set foot on it. But what happens when they get more complex? What happens when the androids are so good, the humans begin to empathize with them? How can you destroy something when you can imagine its pain as your own? And if you can refrain from killing a lowly cockroach because you have empathy for it, how can you then turn around and kill thinking, self-aware android?

It’s the kind of logical and moral conundrum that Dick excels at. The capacity for empathy cannot be what makes one creature worthy of protection and another not. After all, cockroaches don’t feel empathy any more than androids do, yet they would be cherished in this world. It must then be the ability to generate empathy in others that is important, and in this book we see the androids cross that line. Deckard realizes that he’s beginning to feel for the things he has to kill, and cannot reconcile that feeling with his job.

The theme of Born versus Made is reflected all through the book, especially where animals show up. There are animals that are presented as real, which later turn out to be androids. Others which the characters think are androids, but turn out to be real. Some characters can’t even say with certainty whether they are not androids. All throughout the book, people find themselves in the position where they can’t tell the difference between biological life and constructed life, which then raises a whole new question – if you can’t tell the difference, then is there any difference at all?

It’s the kind of question best discussed over a cup of coffee at Denny’s with your friends in college.

Even today, people look down on science fiction as being less substantial than “real” fiction. Stories of androids and bounty hunters and off-world colonies, they think, can’t compete with tales of single mothers raising kids in the inner cities or soldiers fighting and dying in a pointless war. To those who think there’s nothing to grab on to in science fiction, I submit this book. It’ll stay in your head, keep you up at night, and make you ask the kinds of questions that you’ll never be able to answer.

If that’s not quality writing, then I don’t know what is.

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“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”
– Mercer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
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[1] Well, almost all living things. There’s still Ann Coulter….

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick official site
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Amazon.com

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Filed under empathy, made into movies, Philip K Dick, robots, science fiction