Speaker for the Dead: The Piggies

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy Orson Scott Card
Card’s book on genre writing, which I definitely recommend!

Hello again everyone! Last week I tap-danced around spoilers while attempting to give an explanation of what Orson Scott Card’s character Ender Wiggin is in Speaker for the Dead, but this week I’m not going to be able to keep that up. I want to get into what makes this book good writing, and to do that I need to actually talk about the writing in more detail. I want to talk about the design of Card’s alien race which introduced in this book and plays a role in the next book in the Ender Saga, Xenocide, but to do that I need to spoil a few important plot-related details. I could try to do this in another very round-about post, but I’ve decided not to hamstring myself. All that to say:


But even if you decide to read the rest of this post and learn a few of these details, the book is still well worth your read. The details I reveal have vast implications that only become clear if you read the book, and Card’s other characters are excellent.

Another note before we begin: the reason I want to talk about the Piggies (and Speaker for the Dead, for that matter) is because Card demonstrates very well all of the things he talks about in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, which I’ve examined thoroughly in a post series I did a while ago called Science Fiction Problems: How to Write Aliens. Check out the posts if you want to see Card’s tips and tricks, and my examples. Without further ado, let’s talk about the Piggies.

Piggies, Pequeninos, or “The Little Ones”: an Introduction

Ender’s life’s work, as I talked about in the last post, is to prevent a second xenocide from occurring. After the humans wiped out the Bugger homeworld and therefore killed every Bugger everywhere else in the galaxy, the humans started colonizing the now empty previously Bugger-inhabited worlds. During this process, the humans came across a garden world which they call Lusitania, and while it had a very limited ecosystem with surprisingly few species of flora and fauna, the colony, founded by a new wave of Catholic charters which were pushing out from the home system of Earth, was able to eke out a living fairly easily. All of this is complicated when the short, bipedal, pig-like creatures that lived in the forests of this world were found to be intelligent. For the first time since the Bugger Wars 3000 years before, humans had found a non-human sentient race.

But unlike the Buggers who were space-faring and efficient in war and inter-stellar colonization, the Piggies (called this because, well, they look like earth-pigs walking on their hind legs) were basically stone-age. Not even that, really. More like… wooden age? The Piggies didn’t event really use tools except some inexplicably sharp and durable wooden knives, and sturdy wooden clubs used in their infrequent wards with other Piggy tribes. They speak verbal language. In fact, they speak several of their own languages, and quickly learn the human languages of Stark (short for Starways Common) and Portuguese (the cultural language of the settlers of Lusitania). The Piggies love song and conversation, and ravenously seek knowledge and learning in any form they can manage, especially when they figure out that the humans have so much they could teach them. From a world-building perspective, the Piggies are basically a complete 180 from the Buggers, with one very important exception.

Formic Wars Burning Earth Vol 1 1 graphic novel cover
Another terrifying rendering of Card’s alien race. Seems like it’d be hard to feel sorry about killing those things!

The plot of Ender’s Game, centered around the looming threat of the terrible Bugger fleet which so incredibly outmatched the human starships, all stemmed from one primary theme: miscommunication. The entire Bugger war, from the initial contact in which the Buggers killed humans indiscriminately and viciously, to their wiping out most of the starfleet scrambled together by the frantic humans, to the annihilation of the Bugger homeworld, were all because humans could not talk to the Formics. The insect-like beings evolved, unsurprisingly, from a hive-like species centered around a queen, mingling the minds of the entire colony into one consciousness. They never talked to each other, and so did not have any idea how to communicate. In fact, the Formics’ mode of “communication” is basically telepathy, instant thinking to each other in such a way that made each individual drone nothing more than an extension. So the queens, controlling their drone-children from light-years away, came across the ships filled with squishy humans and thought they were basically killing communications antennae, not people. Opposite, the humans thought they were fighting a monstrous, xenocidal race of war-machines bent on destroying them. It was only through Ender, who lead the human fleet that destroyed the Bugger homeworld and killed all of their queens, that the human race eventually realized the tragic mistake, that they all killed each other only because they didn’t know how to communicate.

The Pequeninos, which is Portuguese for “little ones,” do speak, but a grave miscommunication occurs that Ender fears may result in another xenocide. As soon as the Starways Congress finds out that the Piggies are sentient, they order that the colony on Lusitania would be fenced in and isolated so that the new intelligent beings would not be contaminated culturally or technologically. They do, however, allow two scientists to directly interact with the Piggies to research them, disallowing and direct questions that might reveal information about the humans, or introduce corrupting influences. The Piggies kill two of the scientists working with them, ritualistically vivisecting them.

Essentially, Card has hit the same theme of miscommunication from an entirely new angle. Humans are in the seat of terrible power, able to completely destroy the Piggies just as the Buggers were no doubt able. And to some people, the Piggies have just announced that they are uninterested in living peacefully. After working so hard to get this second change right, for humans to redeem themselves for the mistake of the Bugger War, the pendulum has swung too far. By isolating the Piggies, their hunger for knowledge, to be uplifted from their primitive lives into the space age only grows, and the scientific community is completely incapable of learning anything meaningful about them.

Orson Scott Card Speaker for the Dead graphic novel #3 piggy and Ender
A little less terrifying. Still hard to empathize with, though.

The Piggies themselves are so integrated into their environments that they could literally not live anywhere else. They rely on the massive trees of their forests for their reproduction, just as every other species in the world of Lusitania (except the humans, of course) relies on a partnered plant species for its reproduction. The Piggies (and the Buggers, to a degree) are probably they only cases I’ve seen for legitimate monocultures, something I harped on in Part II of my series. But as I also talked about in Part II, this biology also figures directly into their culture. The Piggies revere the trees, and their terminology and turns of phrase revolve around their relationship with the forest, and not in the sort of cliche elf-y sort of way we hear so often in bad fantasy books.

And that’s enough for one post! Next week I’ll get into how the Piggies fulfill Card’s recommendations for how to write aliens quite beautifully. Until then, have you read Ender’s Game or Speaker for the Dead? What do you think of the Buggers or the Piggies? Let me know in the comments below!

Science Fiction Round-up: Video Games Driving Technology, and Cyberflippers

Hello everyone! Last week I went on about media and important differences between them (etc. etc.). It was a thorough and in-depth article, and this week I was supposed to dive right back into it.

Well, I think we need a quick break from that. So instead, this week, I’ve compiled another Science Fiction Round-up for your reading pleasure. If you’re new, this is a series of articles I’ve scrounged from my own vast surveys of SF-related news sites and blogs (because I’m into that sort of thing) and pull them together for your inspiration. I get ideas from reading these things all the time, so I thought I’d pass them on to you. You’re welcome!

As I’ve outlined before, there is a unique, chicken-and-egg relationship between science fiction and technology. Many ideas in science fiction literature comes from actual science (obviously), however, many technologies are developed after being imagined by SF writers. Similarly, a lot of technological development is spurred by video games, either because the tech is useful to the gaming industry, or as a consequence of the games themselves.

Oculus Rift: Affordable Virtual Reality (Finally)

One example of this is the ever-sought (but rarely successful) niche of Virtual Reality. It’s interesting to note just how popular the idea of virtual reality is in popular media, but how unsuccessful virtual reality products have been historically. From Morton Heilig’s Sensorama to Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (which I actually own), virtual reality products have never really taken off. But of course, a certain quality vs. cost calculation has always been it’s bane (these products are always really expensive and never deliver much).

This is all changing, however, with the Oculus Rift, widely being touted as one of the first viable attempts to mainstream virtual reality. The system is intended as a display for video games, which have been the focus and driving force behind the technology in the consumer market, whereas simulations (such as aircraft and parachuting trainers) drive it in military and corporate markets.

In any case, this is an exciting development, but it mostly feels weird to me that we are actually going to have to integrate this technology into our lives in the near future. For instance, this article deals with thoughts on how to properly gain someone’s attention politely while they are using the Oculus Rift device, since you wouldn’t want to freak them out too badly in the process.

Source: NYTimes.com

Soon You May Have An Excuse to Scarf That Snickers Bar

I can’t tell from reading this article if the creators of this project got the idea from Deus Ex: Human Revolution or not (the chicken-or-egg scenario again), but the connection is clear. In the game, protagonist Adam Jensen, a cyborg, has to eat powerbars to replenish his strength after he hits someone in the face. In the game, it’s a mechanic that keeps the player from pile-driving every single enemy. In real life, it could be a legitimate way to power internal implants. The idea is to use the resources already present in the body to generate electricity for devices in leau of a battery. In this case, the biocells take oxygen and glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream and break them down to create a charge.

cyberboost proenergy bar deus ex human revolution

It’s unlikely that the researchers responsible for the bio cells actually got the idea from Deus Ex, but the idea has been floating around in SF and video games for years. It’s interesting to see that this appears to be not only possible, but a very practical technology.

Source: The Escapist, BBC

Finally, Prosthetics for Quadruple Flipper Amputees

To end on a completely different note, apparently some Japanese researchers found it necessary to give artificial flippers to a loggerhead turtle. After being caught and mangled in a fishing net in 2008, the turtle lost its flippers. Scientists have been trying since to design prosthetic flippers to allow the critter to swim normally. It’s taken a lot of tries (this is their 27th iteration) but I think they’ve come pretty close:

I’m not quite sure about the general applications of this research, but I’m finding it hard to care. Daw.


Well, that’ll be it for this week. Next week I’ll get into the details of elements that transcend media. Until then, how much is too much for virtual reality? Since the push for mainstream VR is coming soon, do you think you’ll buy into it? Let me know in the comments below!

Science Fiction Roundup: Weird Science Edition

Hello everyone. Tis I, Erik the Reddest back on rotation and ready to go. I read a lot of science articles for research (and because I actually do find this stuff interesting), and I am constantly amazed by emergent technologies. However, sometimes I am not only awed, but totally weirded out by what I read. Quite a few strange stories have come around recently, so I thought I’d share them with you for my first post of the month to give you some inspiration for your writing.

Apparently Fish Do Have Thoughts, Just Really Simple Ones.

Fish Thought scanOh Japan. Not only does your culture consistently bewilder us Westerners, but your scientists get in on the fun too. Apparently, at the Japanese National Institute of Genetics, this means asking the question: do fish think? Well the answer, surprisingly, is yes. Not about much, mind you. Just things like “That looks good to eat.” The purpose of this research was to begin developing methods of mapping neural activity, but the whole idea for the project still brings a smile to my face.

Source: 33rd Square

Welcome to My Giggly Nightmare

Also coming out of Japan (no surprises there) is a recent project in creating realistic facial expressions for robots with the hope that they will someday be able to interact with humans on an emotional level. “Diego-san” is modeled to look and act like a one year old boy and has 27 moving parts in his face to create expressions. You tell me: creepy or adorable? I’m going with creepy.

Source: Singularity Blog

Clearly the Term “Microscope” is No Longer Good Adequate

I would have thought it was impossible to do this, but apparently IBM‘s new microscope afm hexabenzocoronene molecule imagetechnique (“Micro” seems the wrong prefix) has captured an image of a hexabenzocoronen molecule at 100x the resolution of an atom, officially confirming its shape and organization to be the same as its theoretical models. It was news to me that they could even get an image of an atom at all, but that was achieved in 2009, believe it or not. To the right is an image of the HBC molecule. Oh the world we live in…

Source: 33rd Square

Doctors Give Vet New Arms (Not Cyborg Ones)

arm transplant diagram

Speaking of things I thought were impossible, doctors recently performed an incredible feat of surgery, giving 26 year old Sergeant Brennan Marrocco two new (human) arms. I honestly thought that giving someone replacement limbs would either have to be done by cloning spare parts,or else advanced prosthetic limbs would be used. I was amazed to hear that this surgery was not only attempted, but successful. Just look at that diagram they had to connect bone, muscle, arteries, even individual nerves to make this work. Truly incredible.

Source: Singularity Blog

At Least We Don’t Have to Worry About A Strong Iranian Airforce

I thought I’d end on a humorous note, at a dictator’s expense. As much saber-rattling as Iran is known to do, they’re still (thankfully) lacking in the technology to pull off their threats for the most part. While that could quickly change if they obtain a nuclear weapon as they are keen to do by most analysts’ opinions, at the moment at least it’s clear they have no idea how to build a proper stealth bomber. Mere weeks after their triumphant space launch of a rhesus monkey into orbit that certainly didn’t die in the vacuum of space, Iran proudly displayed this little piece of engineering:

iranplane iran hoax stealth bomber Qaher-313

This is the Qaher-313. For those of you (like me) who don’t have an aerospace engineering degree, head to the linked gallery at the source and enjoy the slide-by-slide take down of exactly how ridiculous this is. It may look kind of cool at first glance, but it’s likely this is a poorly executed hoax (like the monkey) that the Iranian brass just don’t realize is embarrassingly inadequate to fool the 1st world’s educated public. A few things to note are the Mason-jar glass cockpit, the shiny plastic, and copy-cat wing designs that probably don’t actually let it fly, if it even has an engine. Check out the last few slides to see a few actual stealth bombers to get a comparison.

Source: Ars Technica

Well, that’s all for now. Lots of things to write about now, eh? Good! Now what weirded you out more, or just made you laugh? Let me know in the comments below!

How NOT to Write: Problematic points of view

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!


“Point of view” (POV) is a powerful thing.  It obviously determines how we interact with the world around us, and how other people approach us.  It is a basic part of all knowledge and experience.  Even the great sage Obi-wan Kenobi observed to Luke Skywalker that much of what we believe about the world “depend[s] greatly on our own point of view.”  While I strong disagree with Old Ben about our POV determining truth, I agree that is too important to be overlooked.  It is ironic then that one of the most common problems I see in my courses deals with authorial POV.

POV would seem to be a simple thing in the academic context.  Generally, an author writes from his or her own perspective and that is that.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the goal of formal, academic prose is to communicate ideas as clearly and accurately as possible.  So, the author speaks to his or her audience, coaxing them down an intellectual path to (hopefully) reach the intended conclusion.  Good academic writers can get most people from point A to point B.  The best can make them enjoy the trip.  So what problem could there be?

It comes when we forget to read from someone else’s perspective.  What makes perfect sense to us doesn’t always seem so clear to someone else.  Take the following examples*, if you will:

  • (On a World War II poster) Save soap and waste paper!–So how much paper should we throw away, on average?
  • People across the country were shocked when Teddy Roosevelt had an African American for dinner.–I can see the book title now:  The Presidential Cannibal
  • The ship was christened by Mrs. Coolidge.  The lines of her bottom were admired by an applauding crowd.–I imagine that would provoke her husband and our 30th president, “Silent Cal” into a few choice words.
Right.  What all these examples have in common is the fact that whoever wrote them forgot to look at what he/she had written from the perspective of the reader as well as from that of the author.  After all, I’m sure that the author knew that the “her” in that last example referred to the ship and not Mrs. Coolidge.  Can’t everyone else see that?!

No, they can’t.  They can only see what we put on the page, and they will read into it the most obvious interpretation they can (and even a few that they can’t).

The only way we can hope to prevent this is to read our work from as many different angles as possible.  Leave time between drafts to relax and pursue other interests.  This lets your brain “reset” itself, and you’ll be better able to see what you actually put on the page…as opposed to what you wanted to put there and so now expect to see.

In fiction, POV is incredibly useful.  If you keep the distinction between author and reader in mind, you can have all sorts of fun manipulating your audience and make them like it.  I myself am only just now beginning to play around with it on my current project–a  series of first person novellas telling how a diverse group of people all arrive at the same place.    Whatever you might think of his later movies, M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense is a brilliant POV thriller where they audience does not even realize it has been tricked until the very end.  Winton’s POV in 1984 is another brilliant example.

When not mining them for ideas, we can apply the same advice on POVs to our fiction that I make my students apply to their formal prose.  It is never enough to stop with just the author’s POV.  The first step is to go beyond and anticipate the reader’s.  The next (and perhaps the most fruitful) is to get to know your reader so well that you can control their POV.  When you can do both at once, the possibilities are endless.

Next Week…a fresh perspective from July’s featured author on Fridays!  I’ll be around in my Sunday feature, “Meditations with C. S. Lewis,” and I’ll be back on Fridays in August.  Here’s hoping I can think of something new by then….


*These aren’t original to me.  I believe I first read them in David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, though I’m sure they weren’t original to him either.

More in the How NOT to Write series:

The Best of Erik Marsh: The Information Dump

Erik is under the weather and at the mercy of multiple assignments.  We hope you enjoy revisiting the article below, hand picked as his favorite.  It was originally published 3-16-2011.

-Lantern Hollow

If you haven’t already, check out Dr. William’s fantastic poetical compendium, Stars Through the Clouds!

In this post:

  • Information Dumping is the bad habit of dropping large amounts of exposition on your reader
  • This is very ineffective writing and can be avoided
  • In some cases, the writer has a character explain plot points at length to other characters who already know about them. This is unrealistic and cliche, and can be avoided by making sure that there are characters present that actually need the explanation, and by making the scene less like a monologue.
  • Another bad habit is the use of extended internal monologues in which a character explains a great deal of plot points to himself. This cuts off the story and confuses the reader, and is usually entirely inappropriate for the character. This can be fixed by integrating the thoughts into action and keeping the exposition at a minimum.
Info Dumptruck information dump stick figure
Drawing courtesy of Melissa Rogers

Hello everyone! This week I’m getting back to my Science Fiction Problems series with a more basic problem that many forms of fiction, and narratives in general, tend to run into. You may not have heard it addressed before, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it: the infamous Information Dump. A prime source of boredom and confusion, this nasty little habit seems to rear its head more readily in the pages of Science Fiction, and so today I will do my best to arm you with the tools you need to defeat it

Information Dumps are common in science fiction usually because, depending on how hard the science is, science fiction tends to need a bit more explanation, especially when it is written for people who are not familiar with the jargan and terms of the discipline involved. Also, the author has usually put a great deal of thought into their story’s technologies, so they’re understandably excited to show off. This innocent intent leads to breaks in the story, overdone exposition, and generally annoyed and/or confused audience. All that said, you can’t just not give the reader that information, or else they won’t understand your intricately crafted futuristic world!

Fear not! Here are a couple of the biggest ways people attempt to handle their information in science fiction, and my tips about how to manage it effectively.

The Impromptu Seminar (a.k.a.: “As you all know…”)

Tsk tsk- this one has to be the worst, and is definitely my biggest pet-peeve. We’ve all seen this technique before, usually at the beginning of a story, but frequently somewhere later after a big realization or event has happened- one character starts talking, making some kind of big presentation to the rest, and spends the next 5 pages explaining the interractions of humankind with the dreaded aliens, how the rapidly-evolving virus will destroy all life in the universe, or various other plot points that everyone in the room already knows about, usually because they were there. Everyone nods and makes glib little comments, accepting the absurdity of the situation and moving on to tackle the problem.

No exposition should ever begin with “As we all know.”  If the characters already know what they are being told, then

info dump information dump cognitive overload humor funny
If you overload your reader, they will become confused, frustrated, and distracted- not good if you want them to keep reading

the presentation is a waste of their time. This method of portraying important information is a rather weak attempt, artificially constructing an unrealistic situation in which the author can shoehorn exposition so that he can get on with the action. It is both cliche and obvious, and while many readers won’t mind overly much, this technique will still generate quite a few groans, and may turn some off to the rest of your story.

Solution: Careful Scene Writing. The goal here is to present all necessary information in the most effective way possible while not halting the story and keeping the reader interested and entertained. The Impromptu Seminar technique scrapes by with the first and may manage with the second, but only if the reader has not seen this done 4000 times before. If you feel that this sort of situation is appropriate and necessary (which does happen), have a character or two there who legitimately need to hear the explanation- don’t invent anyone strictly for that scene alone that won’t be seen ever again, but have someone there to whom this is actually new. If your heroes are about to rescue the king from a fortified lair, it would be reasonable to have some extra troops present for the planning session. Regardless, make sure that this is not a monologue unless it really should be, and have an ample amount of dialog between characters so that it does not feel like a lecture.

Spontaneous Navel-Gazing

The weight of your hero’s burden upon his mind has become too great, and he has finally snapped, becoming prone to extended periods of talking to himself and staring blankly into space. Well, not really- but that’s how it might seem if you try to explain too much through the thoughts of a character. This method is similar to the Impromptu Seminar technique in that the character is explaining information to another character (himself) who already knows it. If you think about it (heh), people don’t generally go into very much detail while thinking about things they already know, usually sticking to new ideas that are related to the problem they’re pondering. So, if you have your character inexplicably running through the entire history of the United Space Confederacy in his head while sorting his laundry, you’re going to make your readers think that either A.) He’s finally lost it or B.) You couldn’t figure out anywhere else to put this information. You will also disorient the reader with long, uninterrupted thoughts such as these, so that by the time the character’s done thinking, everyone’s forgotten what he was doing.

no dumping sign $500 fine
Now there's an idea- extra revenue for the Grammar Police, perhaps?

Solution: Proper Integration. This method only works in short bursts, and even then it’s likely that you could find a better way. However, there are times when a character would certainly be deep in thought about recent events or even contemplating very intricate issues (we all do that sometimes), and it can be done well. The trick is to integrate this process without trapping the reader inside the character’s head (unless that is the desired effect), and allowing the thoughts to mesh with the actions of the scene. Use your better judgement here, and tread carefully. Would Captain Marsus really be thinking so hard about the dreaded Zagriphth Plague and its impact on world politics, all in the midst of a full-scale bar brawl? Maybe he would, but it would certainly have to be consistent with his character, and you’d need to have him landing a few punches and dodging a few bar stools here and there so that it doesn’t seem like he’s mindlessly standing in the middle of the room.

These are only a few of the patterns I’ve seen in science fiction, and next week I’ll cover a few others as well as their antidotes. With a watchful attitude, this menace (like the apostrophe crisis already discussed by Stephanie, among other grammatical issues) will be defeated, and your story will stand above the amateur ramblings of the unenlightened.

So, what are some expositional faux pas you’ve encountered in your science fiction? Leave your comments below!