Thursday, December 23, 2010

Not One Sparrow Shall Fall...

You may not know Mary Doria Russell, or her book The Sparrow. It was released in 1996 and it received strong reviews and a few rewards, but its mix of heavy theology, deep tragedy and science fiction doesn’t lend itself to a wide readership. If you are a person who is fascinated by questions of faith and encounters with extra-terrestrial life, I can’t recommend the book highly enough. The closest cultural reference I can think of is the film Contact, except that the ending makes more sense and it ends like an Italian Opera. I’m really not spoiling anything; at least, no more than Russell spoils herself.

A humble, muted cover, but it does a good job of announcing the Novel's theological nature. 

The book progresses along two narratives and they both revolve around the life of Emilio Sandoz. The first begins in 2059 introduces Sandoz as a man who has been mentally and physically broken by his journey to another world. The second thread begins in 2019, and gives us the history leading up to said mission, and eventually, choice details from the mission itself. As you would expect, these two threads alternate, with a cadre of priests trying to tease details out of the tortured Sandoz. It’s interesting to note that in the readers guide included in my copy, Russell acknowledges the hardest part of writing the story was the pacing, which I think is the novel’s greatest weakness, but more on that in a bit.

The greatest strength of the novel is Russell’s varied experiences in science, anthropology and biology. It’s a pleasure to read books written by intelligent people, particularly when those intelligent people are willing to grapple with lots of different issues in the same book. Despite having a vocabulary that includes words like “australopithecine,” Russell’s prose is aggressively readable and usually quite clean. She is not a wordsmith by trade however, and that is evident in a few descriptions that come across as bombastic while others are rather unclear, but on the whole the book is very accessible. I also liked the fact that Russell doesn’t over-emphasize the fantastic technology used in her book. She strikes a nice balance between existing technology, like SETI satellite arrays to speculative stuff like AI vultures and mass driver propulsion systems. Technobabble rarely, if ever, takes a front seat in the narrative, allowing readers to focus on the interpersonal, and inter-species issues that arise from the book.

Russell’s most fascinating thought experiment is the idea of dual sentient habitation.  Rakhat is inhabited by two intelligent species of animals; the  Runa, peaceful but simple minded herbivores, and the Jana’ata, cunning, carnivorous creatures who have successfully domesticated the more plentiful Runa. Inventing a planet with just one new species is an impressive feat of world building; doing two at once is extremely impressive. Russell also demonstrates the world she developed impressively by giving us access to the alien’s perspectives on a couple occasions.

The heart of the book lies with the humans though. Emilio Sandoz is intelligent, conflicted, charming and passionate, and he goes through several appreciable stages of change throughout the novel. The leading lady, Sofia Mendes, is one of the best modern female characters you will find outside of Stieg Larson’s Millennium Trilogy. Another interesting revelation the reader’s guide revealed, is that Emilio and Sofia were “their own characters” while Russell borrowed the voices of real people for many of the other characters. I initially liked Anne, a character Russell implies is based on herself, but she becomes steadily less interesting as the plot progressed. Other characters had their share of faults as well. DW and George weren’t flat, but blandly affable, and many of the other characters on the mission essentially  serve as Red Shirts; dying to demonstrate the dangers of the hostile world. In the present day story arc, John Candotti, Sandoz’s advocate and friend, steals the show, along with Father Voelker, a poisonous prick of a character.

Despite the successes of characters and her dual species thought experiment, Russell falls short in her goal to explore the idea of first contact with a foreign culture given the benefit of hindsight. The missionaries to Rakhat take very few precautions regarding disease and infection as they interact with the Runa. Another issue that makes the book feel rather dated is that none of the bright, forward ever considers the possibility of large scale human colonization on Rakhat. Given the dire-straights of our current ecological situations, such considerations would be inescapable. These issues are never addressed in any great detail, and the novel dates itself as a result.

As I mentioned earlier, my biggest problem with the novel is the pacing, particularly toward the end of the novel, though discussing why will involve a long list of spoilers. Russell kills Anne and DW in one sudden, swift stroke and while their deaths are handled carefully and given some pause for reflection, the plot defenestrates itself as far as pacing is concerned. Everybody else except Sandoz is killed off as a campaign of widespread infanticide sweeps across the planet. Russell doesn’t give the reader any time to come to grips with the deaths of Sofia and Jimmy, which strikes me as a cop-out, given how emotionally complicated their relationship with Sandoz was. Russell is just getting warmed up though. Immediately after the genocide, Sandoz is tortured to the point of losing the use of his hands, and brutally raped. Finally, because all that isn’t enough, he accidentally kills one of the alien children he had befriended. He is then sent back to Earth alone. Which invites a problematic, question: If Sandoz had lost the use of his hands, how the hell did he feed himself during the several years he was flying back home?

That’s the only obvious logical fallacy the book suffers from, though seeing how this is a book about Jesuits flying to an alien world before anybody else, there are a couple moments in the plot that taxed my suspension of disbelief. The book actually tries to turn these long odds to its advantage by having characters reflect upon spiritual significance of the improbability of their situation. It’s a gambit that half pays off. Judging from the title, which is a reference to Matthew 10:29-31, the book seems to imply that God is at work in the novel. Russell never comes out and says it, in fact, she seems to imply that Sandoz may not believe in God at the end of his experiences, or that he may believe in God and hate him. Readers get no firm theological explanation for the travesties that Sandoz suffers, but I think that's one of the strengths of the book. That’s essentially the point of the novel; to raise questions about faith, and make the reader realize there is no easy answer where religion is concerned. I like a book that asks questions rather than forcing answers down the reader’s throat, especially when the book is a work of science fiction, and the answers to questions are loaded with dogma.

If you’re the type who doesn’t mind a little God, or even the possibility of little God in your science fiction, give The Sparrow a read. I have yet to read the sequel, but if I do, I'll let you know if its any good.

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