This is the third book in the Ender series. Some years ago I was introduced to Ender's Game, a book I had vaguely heard of but had never read, by a friend. I enjoyed it so much that I finished it the same day he loaned it to me. (I am, by nature, a quick reader, but this was extraordinary even for me.) The same friend lent me Speaker for the Dead which I read much slower because it was a different kind of book though it continued the story of Ender. But then I stopped, because I had heard that the third and fourth books in the Ender series were not as good and I wasn't willing to spend the money on something that I'd only bother reading once.
This past Christmas I got the Beyond Ender's Game boxed set as a present. It contained Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind so now I had no excuse. After rereading the first two books to refresh my memory, I dove into Xenocide. Though it is very talky, as I had been warned, I did not find that detrimental at all. I would put it on even footing with the previous two books and, if anything, the ethical dilemmas put forth in Xenocide are even greater than in the first two books.
Unlike the first two books, only half of Xenocide really centers on the events around and involving Ender. Ender himself debuts surprisingly late in the story (chapter 6 out of 18), considering that most readers would consider him the focal character. Instead the book is divided between two alternating locations and the cast of characters inhabiting them. The first is the planet Path, more specifically around the house of Han, and the second is the planet Lusitania, particularly around the human community of Milagre.
Lusitania is both changed and unchanged since the last book. Originally I thought it amusing at the end of Speaker for the Dead when the barrier between humans and the alien pequininos came down and the bishop looked to convert the pequininos to Catholicism. I really didn't think they'd take to it (if they didn't have religion before, why adopt it now?), but surprisingly they did. A good many of the pequininos are Catholics in Xenocide and a number of them are even priests. Some of the Christian rituals do not work for them due to their biology (marriage is especially a problem since the females who are able to mate never live along enough to achieve sentience), but a good many of them seem to do what they can, which has been true of a good many cultures in our own world, who adapted Christianity to fit their own local rituals.
What I really liked though, is that Orson Scott Card went beyond just converting the pequininos to Catholicism. He allowed them to misinterpret it in one of the most logical of ways (if one happens to be a pequinino). The pequininos essentially have three stages of life; the first as a non-sentient grub, the second where they walk around, forage, and perform most other activities we associate with vertebrate life (except have sex), and the third where due to the power of the descolada virus in their bodies they die and transform into sentient trees. A group of heretic pequininos come to the conclusion that the descolada virus is a manifestation of the Holy Ghost and since only they can die and attain the third stage of life they are therefore God's chosen people and not the humans. In fact, since the descolada virus is lethal to humans, the heretic pequininos are able to interpret that as God's rejection of humanity.
And the pequininos have good reason to dislike humans (and want their God to as well). At the end of Speaker for the Dead, Starways Congress had deemed the planet Lusitania a threat, not just because two of its scientists had broken laws regarding the contact with the pequininos (who have hunter-gatherer level technology vs. the more advanced humans), but because if the descolada ever left the planet it would kill humans wherever it went. The humans living on Lusitania have to take daily suppliments in their food in order to stave off the virus and the virus is forever mutating, forcing them to constantly find new ways to fight it before everyone perishes. Starways Congress intends to handle the threat by blowing up the entire planet. Either way it goes, the two species, humans with their molecular disrupter device or pequininos with the descolada, have a way to utterly annihilate the other and Ender and his family and friends, both human and non, have to try their hardest to stop them and prevent a second xenocide (the first being the one Ender himself had committed in Ender's Game).
On top of it all, the descolada itself may be yet another sentient species, however there isn't the time to discover how to communicate with it. It might be possible for humanity to neutralize the descolada, but what would that do to the pequininos, who rely on it to survive? What a quandary. The prospect of war and death are everywhere and how is it possible to choose which species should die and which should survive? There is good and bad and to found among humans and pequininos alike in this book, and that's a good thing. Both societies are complex enough that neither side is utterly at fault, nor are they innocent of guilt. And yet, there is a slight leaning towards humanity's side. Not because the humans are better, but because given the choice, if only one of the two species could to survive, it is only natural for a human, whether it is the reader or Ender, to choose his own species.
Set against the backdrop of the impending doom from space and potential war between humans and pequininos on Lusitania, is the smaller story of Ender and his family. Ender is surprisingly feeling useless in this book, which is a bit of a shock from the dynamic boy/man who I had gotten to know in the previious books. He used to always been the one with the solutions (after all he was a genius as a child), but now he's feeling a bit depressed in his old age. Roughly thirty years have passed since Speaker for the Dead and Ender is now a man in his sixties. Though married, he is childless (his Novinha already had six children with the previous love of her live so I can hardly blame her for not wanting more) and though brilliant, he is uneducated. It's been three thousand years since he left old Earth at the end of Ender's Game (due to spending so much time traveling at near light speed he's managed to avoid aging while the universe around him did) and being absent from so much technological development probably makes him something of a simpleton compared to the average computer user in the day and age that Xenocide takes place. Even in Speaker for the Dead, his inability to use "modern" technology showed, but he had Jane, an artifical intelligence that dwells in what we would call the "web," to help him. Now Jane has spent less and less time with him and Ender is trying to come to grips with the fact that his time may have passed. All he can offer are suggestions because he's not an expert in anything that Lusitania needs to save itself.
Ender's world unravels as one event after another peels away the securities in his life. His wife, who he thought he had always given his best to, leaves him and he comes to realize that it's his fault, not hers. Jane, the other entity he cares deeply for, is at risk of death (or at least the closest thing to a lobotomy a computer can have). He used to be a protector and a problem-solver and now the only influence he might have left on the world would be through his children, and though Ender has no child of his body, he has the five surviving of Novinha's that he helped raise, and though they were sired by another man, if any of them, Olhado is surely his son. And then he has the two children of his mind, living nightmares of that which he holds most dear and hated the most; a replica of his hated brother Peter and a childhood version of his beloved sister Valentine that he created while Outside, a metaphysical place where wishes can become real if desired strongly enough. Novinha's children solve the problem of war on Lusitiana, but it is the children of Ender's mind who provide the key to the safety of everyone by either stopping the fleet or getting as many people off the planet as possible before Starways Congress destroys it.
It's not very common that I see a character followed so realistically from his childhood until well into middle-age. Though Ender changes significantly between books, he is still at heart the same person. The only thing that I wish had been touched on more was his marriage to Novinha. We are told that he had thirty years of good marriage with her, at least from Ender's perspective, but because of everything happening in the book there is no room for normalcy. With everything so rapidly falling apart we never do see Novinha as a healed woman (given the wreck she was in Speaker for the Dead) and so when she storms off on Ender it's as though nothing has changed, except that she's able to hate him now. She does forgive him in the end, but it's through religion that she achieves it, and I really feel for Ender when she tells him that she won't leave the monestary of the Children of the Mind. It's only for married couples who must remain chaste while there in the service of God. Ender doesn't want a live of celibacy and though he has converted to Catholicism he does not believe whole-heartedly in it like a born-again Christian. Joining the monestary probably isn't something he could honestly do. Novinha knows him though and says she will wait for the day when he is ready to join her. Ender wishes only for the day she will return to him, but he knows her as well and that she'll never bend. I can only guess whether Ender will join her in the fourth book.
Novinha's children, being so numerous, are perhaps not as well utilized as they could have been in this story. There really wasn't the room for them without the story being centered so closely around their family. As a result, I think all of them except for Quim didn't get enough time alloted to them. Quara and Grego were largely just amplified versions of their childhood selves from Speaker for the Dead until perhaps the second half of the story when Grego gets something of a soul. I'm not sure Quara ever really gets three-dimensional; maybe two and a half, but not three. Both really needed more time alloted to them earlier on so that they appeared as more than just a pair of talking heads out to argue with each other.
Miro and Ela fared better, though that may be because they were more important characters in Speaker; Miro because he was the oldest and worked with the pequininos and Ela because she worked in the labs. I'm really not sure what Miro's purpose was supposed to be in Xenocide though. He was crippled towards the end of the last book and sent away in a starship at near light speed so that when he returned thirty years later in real time he would have only aged a couple weeks in relative time. In Speaker it was alluded to that he would be able to help Valentine, who was coming to Lusitania to join them, and that after being away for thirty years and constantly being updated, he might be able to come up with a solution to the problem of Starways Congress wanting to destroy their planet that they had missed. Valentine says she finds him helpful, but we really don't see how other than we know it must be through her dissident essays promoting rebellion against Starways Congress. As for solving the problem of being nuked out of the known universe, Miro really doesn't do anything to contribute to that at all. If it wasn't for the fact that he was a character from the previous book (which was not written with the intention of a sequel) that had to be incorporated into the story he really should have been written out entirely. Ela fairs better because she remains in comfortable territory and just seems to be a more mature version of her younger self who was already self-sufficient character. Quim turns out the best of the lost of the lot, despite being my least favorite of Novinha's children in Speaker for the Dead. As a child he was fanatical in his devotion to the church, but his fanaticism has mellowed into unshakable faith in his God. Rather than hating those who sin, he has become accepting and forgiving; both a teacher and a priest. His death is one of the book's most touching moments because he dies for his faith and even if he had known that would have happened, he still would have gone. Most people die with secrets in them and a story no one ever knew, which is the story that a speaker for the dead will bring out if asked to speak for that person. But there is no need for a speaker for Quim because he was exactly what he seemed to be and died the way he wished. His story is complete.
Olhado, who I liked the most of Novinha's children and was one of the most important of the bunch in the last book, gets surprisingly short shrift in Xenocide to the point he's almost a non-character, which is really too bad because he was the closest of the children to Ender. And the reason he's not crucial to the story anymore is odd. All of Novinha's other children became scientists, which is not surprising because of the intelligence of their parents, and that let each of them contribute to the problem of either finding a way to evacuate Lusitana in time or stopping the descolada. Olhado is a manager of a brick factory. He's the only one of the six children to have a ton of kids and possibly is the only one who even got married since we see no mention of the others having spouses (and of course Quim being a priest has none). But when Valentine visits Olhado in his home she finds out that Olhado chose to be what Ender had best taught him; how to be a father. He's possibly the only one of Novinha's children who really thinks of Ender as his father. It's too bad we don't get to see any of this relationship dynamic between Ender and Olhado because Ender spends a fair amount of time moping over not having any biological children of his own and it would have been nice to have known that all along he had a son in spirit if not by the flesh. Instead it's merely a footnote that probably could have been excised like Miro if not for the fact readers of Speaker for the Dead would have wanted to see how Olhado turned out.
None of the pequinino cast from the last book remain except for Rooter and Human, though they are trees and thus can't hold discussions with humans like pequininos in the second stage of life can. However, one interesting thing about the book is that each chapter is prefaced by a dialogue between Human and the Hive Queen (the third sentient species on Lusitiana), since pequininos in the third stage of life can telepathically talk to each other and also with the Hive Queen. They have some very amusing dialogues as they discuss their limitations, that of humans, and the circumstances under which all three races find themselves. Some of them are quite quotable and if I was so inclined I'd probably stick them in my signature files for the message boards I visit.
Then on the other side of the universe is another small colony (though not as small) called Path which is populated by Taoist Chinese who are ruled by those called the godspoken. The godspoken are born with compulsions much like obsessive-compulsive disorder (but are not) which makes them seek to be perpetually clean and forces them to perform odd rituals to purify themselves, ostensibly because the gods are guiding their behavior. What the people of Path don't know, including the godspoken themselves, is that the godspoken have been genetically altered into a race of superhuman geniuses by Starways Congress. But to prevent such geniuses from getting out of control, the OCD-like defect was introduced to keep them in line. Merging the Chinese desireability of cleanliness, hard work ethic, and the Taoist belief in that rulers govern with the mandate of Heaven, the people of Path are forged into a tool for Congress. Once properly conditioned, the godspoken can't disobey without going into conniptions brought about by the "gods."
This revelation only comes about later in the story though. The core of Path's half of the story involves the tale of Qing-jao and her father Han Fei-tzu, both of whom are godspoken. Knowing that the order to use the molecular disrupter device has been sent to the fleet attacking Lusitania, Jane cut off all ansible communication between the fleet and the rest of the Hundred Worlds. Effectively, the fleet has disappeared off the map and Starways Congress wants to know what happened. So that task is given to their pet geniuses, particularly Han Fei-tzu, the leader of Path. He in turn gives it to Qing-jao as a final test for passing into adulthood. And Qing-jao is horrified by the monument of the task. If the best minds in the Hundred Worlds can't figure out the solution, how can she? And does she even want to?
Qing-jao is a very sympathetic character in the beginning, hardly different from any other precocious young child other than being godspoken. She is able to view a moral issue from both sides and has a very human empathy for those involved with Lusitania. However, though Han Fei-tzu himself has his doubts about the gods (he'd be happy to be rid of them), he made a promise to his devout and dying wife that Qing-jao would be raised as she could have done. And so Qing-jao's way of thinking is repeated molded into serving Starways Congress because that is what the gods wished. Eventually, her devotion becomes absolute. Everything happens because the gods wish it and those who disagree are simply too stupid, uneducated, or ill-mannered to know better.
This becomes increasingly obvious as she progresses in her task. Jane initially does nothing to reveal herself to Qing-jao, knowing full well that she may die if Starways Congress ever discovers her, but as Qing-jao comes closer to the truth, even discovering that Valentine is still alive after three thousand years (and the instigator of the rebellious documents against Starways Congress), Jane is eventually forced to make herself known. She does it the instant Qing-jao learns that the godspoken were genetically engineered. But while Han Fei-tzu takes the news as a cry of freedom, because it is not really the gods demanding such humiliating rituals from them, Qing-jao has become so devout that she believes that the alterations were the working of the gods so that unbelievers have an unexplanation they can be satified with. Jane realizes that Qing-jao is beyond secular reasoning, so she offers several reasonable explanations involving both the gods and the fate of Path for why Qing-jao should not tell Congress about her existence and it causes such turmoil in Qing-jao that for a brief moment it seems like she is ready to see through another's eyes. But then the moment passes, and she's locked again into her way of thinking and she sends the information to Congress that will enable Jane's destruction. And at that point, we know she's beyond changing.
Qing-jao's life bookends Xenocide with the childhood death of her mother in the first chapter, and her own death (many years in the future) in the last. At the end of the book, Ela provides a cure for the godspoken of Path in exchange for Han Fei-tzu and Wang-mu's help in suggesting ways to save Lusitania. Qing-jao accepts the cure without complaint and allows it to spread enough though she believes it is a terrible crime, because she believes herself to be the dutiful daughter and that when all passes into Heaven her father will see that she was right and be proud that he had such a loyal child. At first she has difficulty not hearing the gods demand their rituals from her, but she comes to the conclusion that they are testing her, testing all the godspoken on Path, and that even if no other godspoken on Path pass that test, she will. And so she abandons nearly all interaction with the world to perform her ritual (tracing wood-grain lines on a floor) that biology no longer demands of her but her believes her gods do. She does this for the rest of her life and the gods never answer. At first the newly freed people of Path regard her as being mad, but as the years pass she becomes regarded as a holy woman and when she finally passes away, she is determined to be a person of such holiness that she is chosen to be the patron god of Path. She achieves the station that her father never received (people thought he might become a god after his death as well), but was it really worth it? I don't think she wanted that honor, she wanted only to serve the gods and please her father, but in the end did she really do either?
Xenocide ends with Qing-jao's death, using it as a sort of epilogue to end the story where it wasn't fully intended to end. Ender's children of the mind were created, Jane figured out how to move matter into and out of the known universe, thus eliminating the barrier of faster than light travel, and the descolada was neutralized, but the fleet is still very much on its way, and now Starways Congress is going to start shutting down the ansible network with the intent to kill Jane (though in fact she won't die because Ender discovered that her "soul" actually inhabits his body--in effect, she'd just get stupid because she'd lack computer processing power). The book got too long so Orson Scott Card had to break it into another volume finishing in Children of the Mind. Hopefully it will resolve everything adequately. There's a lot to do. The replica Peter is going to try to become Hegemon of the Hundred Worlds and stop the fleet; the pequininos, Hive Queen, and humans of Lusitania have got to evacuate in case the fleet can't be stopped; and well, there's Ender whose story is still not over even if it's now being fought through his children and for his sake I hope it ends well.