Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review and Analysis: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

       I began my Amazon and Goodreads reviews of this book by stating: “This is what science fiction ought to be," and I concluded the reviews with the statements: "Strongly recommended for the thoughtful reader, including readers of mainstream and literary fiction. Not recommended for fans of hard SF or space opera.”  I read one negative review by someone who had to be one of the latter.  The spiritual quest that forms the central theme of the book obviously left this person cold, and certain scientific facts such as a possibly flawed portrayal of the red star called Alpha Centauri C or Proxima (Centauri) drove this reviewer to express great scorn.  This person obviously is somewhat lacking in the ability to see beyond mundane SF and to suspend disbelief!
I could write a thesis about this book, but I'll restrict the present discussion to two aspects, beginning with the technique.
The plot is really quite simple: The SETI project picks up beautiful godlike music from the Alpha Centauri system and the Jesuit order mounts an expedition to find the planet at the urging of Fr. Emilio Sandoz.  The group of close friends who form the mission crew arrive at Rakhat and make first contact with the Runa, learning later that the planet harbors a second ILF called the Jana’ata.  They remain woefully clueless about the culture and the relationship between the two species until it’s too late. 
The POV does not conform to the rule of consistency (it changes from one character to another under the overall umbrella of an omnipotent narrator) and yet the action moves forward with a seamless relentlessness in a subtle give-and-take between past and present.  I can imagine the author outlining the plot and then manipulating the alternate sections in order to produce the wonderful suspense.  The odd thing is, you know from the beginning that the mission ended badly; you're introduced immediately to the appalling aftermath.  And yet you don't know why the project ended in this way; you learn first in little morsels, bits of the future, dropped at intervals into the plot.  I found it impossible to predict what was going to happen next.  I correctly anticipated only one thing, something I think I can say without playing the spoiler: I assumed all along that there would be another expedition to Rakhat and that it would form the subject matter of the second volume, The Children of God.  And I believe I was correct in that.
As a conlanger, I have to make a quick remark about the use of language in the first contact.  Emilio Sandoz is a skilled linguist, responsible for communicating with the extraterrestrials.  I don’t know how much work the author did on the two alien languages, but we have at least naming languages here, and a few rules of word formation are stated.  If I ever read the book again, I’ll make a list of the words.  But likely somebody else in the conlanging community has already done that.
The book is much more than its technique, of course.  I’m not going to touch on the subtleties of characterization here, even though that’s what the book is about.  Instead, I’m going to talk about the theme by comparing the book to my own writings.  That may seem a bit audacious, because, while I think I’m a good writer, I definitely lack Mary Doria Russell’s intense ability to focus.  However, two people whose opinions I respect have commented that my books reminded them of The Sparrow, and that’s what impelled me to read it.
And we do write on similar themes.  I've written three first-contact stories.  In the novella "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder" (which is quite focused, actually) the first contact with a very bizarre species has an outcome every bit as disastrous as in The Sparrow.  Both books present a flawed contact between two cultures that are incompatible, although in my book it's the humans and not the ILFs who precipitate the tragedy.  In The Sparrow an innocent human cultural practice disrupts the status quo of the alien culture (I won't spoil it by saying what it is), while in my book it is a human psychological breakdown that does the harm.
My two-volume novel The Termite Queen deals with a first contact between Earthers and the intelligent termite species called the Shshi. However, neither TQ nor “Monster” deals with THE first contact, the very first time humans encountered aliens.  That event happened in the 28th century, when Earthers met Prf. A'a'ma's bird people, and it forms the topic of my big old floppy WIP The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars.  Since then Earth has formed amicable relationships not only with the Krisí’i’aidá but with the Te Quornaz and the Pozú, and they know of the existence of many other intelligent lifeforms.  Meeting the termite people is unique only in the difficulty of communication. 
Both TQ and The Sparrow have anthropologists and linguists for main characters, a circumstance that would not be unusual for any first contact situation.  However, I had the feeling all the way through The Sparrow that this crew was fragile, undertrained, and clueless about what they were getting into.  When you assume God is underpinning your mission – that a sort of divine fate is at work and God will keep his eye on you and protect you as he does the sparrow – you're very likely to get into trouble.  The Termite Queen crew is not like that.  Earthers have had too much experience with aliens.  Space travel is ubiquitous, a joint undertaking by several alien species, organized on a regional galactic scale.  Both the crews and the scientists have wide experience with off-world missions.  Of course, that doesn't keep them from making mistakes, but it does make them well qualified to take on a first-contact project.
The Sparrow was published in 1996, so the year 2019, when the book starts, was 23 years in the future.  That can seem like a long time, but that date is now only seven years off and obviously we aren’t going to be mining asteroids and using them for space travel by that date.  This is why I place my stories in a time way beyond any possibility that a person of today might still be alive to know what actually developed, and I leave the period between the present and at least a hundred years off purposely vague.  The only thing I mention happening in the 21st century is a cycle of disastrous religious wars, and the way things are going on Earth, that certainly is within the realm of possibility.
But Russell isn't out to write future history as I am, so the connection between the present moment and what happens when we get where we are going is less important than the events themselves. Her purpose is to explore the relationship between God and human beings – does God exist?  Does he interact with his creation?  Should we hold God responsible for the evils that happen in our world or on other worlds?
Now, while some of these questions come up in The Termite Queen, answering them is not my purpose.  In my future, society has developed a humanist culture and those questions are already answered.  God has moved into the realm of myth, from which you can draw wisdom but which gives you no absolutes because the nature of god or even whether a god exists can’t be known (Mythmaker Precept No. l).  People might study god(s) and beliefs academically but ordained clerics and  religious institutions no longer exist, and people generally don't concern themselves the role of gods in their lives.
     That being said, the end of both books has spiritual implications and is strangely similar: the achievement of at least partial redemption.  The whole final section of The Termite Queen is called “Absolution.”  In The Sparrow Sandoz gains forgiveness and absolution through speaking and through words – Absolvo te, says Father Candotti in the traditional language of Catholic confession.  Griffen Gwidian gains forgiveness through personal atonement, although words would have been enough had circumstances been different.  Kaitrin’s absolution comes from a symbolic release of guilt – the “dark bird” that flies away and settles on a scapegoat. 
The strange thing about The Sparrow is that even among these Jesuits, these most Christian of men, nothing is said about the central doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement for the sins of humanity.  The emphasis is on God the Father, not God the Son.  My humanist book ends with a resolution that is more conventionally Christian than the end of The Sparrow, albeit portrayed in a context that is completely alien.   
So I would conclude by saying, yes, there are similarities between my Termite Queen and Russell’s The Sparrow, and they lie not merely in plot points (the first contact, the off-world expedition and the preparations for it, the linguistic-anthropologist characters, the use of constructed language).  There are also thematic similarities.  I would hope that some of you who like The Sparrow would also be moved to try reading my books as well.


  1. I am glad to see confirmed in your review the similarities I'd noticed between your TQ and Doria Russell's The Sparrow. Both works, in my opinion, fall securely within the realm of literary Sci-Fi. I think you'll enjoy Doria Russell's sequel, The Children of God, which is every bit as intense -- and offers a satisfying conclusion to Sandoz's saga.

    And I'd add that *both* The Termite Queen and The Sparrow are what sic-fi ought to be.

    A very fine post!

    1. Gee, you read this quick! And thanks as always for the positive comments! I've ordered The Children of God, and also the first Thursday Next book, The Eyre Affair. I'm going to read it first, as a change of pace. Someone else (before I met Mary Pierce) recommended Jasper Fforde to me a long time ago, but I never got around to reading him. Expect to find it a lot of fun.

  2. You should definitely read The Children of God, I'm glad to see you've ordered it. Less well written, but extremely interesting in the way it approaches issues of faith, is James Blish's A Case of Conscience.

    Dwelling on the accuracy of star portrayal in The Sparrow is such a misreading of the text I don't know where to start with it. Whoever wrote that review was focussing on entirely the wrong aspects of the novel. The title alone should have been a clue, a reference to the idea that god observes even a sparrow's fall. I agree with your interpretation, of the book as a form of inquiry into the nature of god's relationship with the world (a relationship I don't believe in, but that's neither here nor there).

    1. Thanks for taking time to read my post, Max! I appreciate it!
      I've read the Blish book - own a copy, actually. But I read it back in the '70s when I was spending more time reading than I have in recent years, and I could not tell you one thing about it, unfortunately.
      People who prefer hard science fiction, space opera, and shallow adventure tales will never "get" The Sparrow. My opinion is, they should study science and not even venture into fiction.
      I don't believe in that relationship of god with the world, either (as anyone knows who is reading my series of Mythmaker posts), but speculation on the subject can still be illuminating. And my books often deal with myth, and I consider the Christian myth and its positive points to be just as fair game as the Iliad and the labors of Hercules.

  3. I don't know if you realized this but soon after writing The Sparrow, Russell converted to Judaism after about 20 years of atheism. I think this may be the main reason she does not address 'god the son' in her novel. I found that Sandoz's character had trouble accepting the farther stretches involved in Christianity and perhaps that is symbolic of Russell's own personal struggle of the same nature. Maybe she could find no reasoning or explanation behind a son of God while the rest of the Jewish teachings and old testament were explicable to her. However this would also conflict with the end idea I found of the unknowable being an essential part of life, faith and meaning. Overall I have not really worked through my ideas but maybe they will offer you an alternate perspective!

    1. Yes, I knew she converted to Judaism and that was another reason her books interested me. because I developed a huge interest in Judaism a few years ago. As a spiritual humanist, I don't subscribe to any dogmatic faith, but I found that Judaism had more qualities that I could support than most religions do.. Thanks for visiting!