After all, the possibilities positively teem for both readers and writers, ranging from tabloid-level stimulation (wacky extraterrestrial anatomy! exotic customs! alien sex!) to the philosophical (or perhaps the merely anthropocentric: what will They think of us? will we live up to our own best selves, or our worst?)... I don't know: maybe eventually we'll all sit around Star Wars-style bars, bumping elbows and kreejaxes alike indiscriminately and without much thought. But the excitement and fear of our first time, the challenges to science and the spirit which we (and They) would have to face and overcome -- can you say "built-in drama"?
Nowhere does this inherently fraught sense gong more sonorously and portentously than in the prospect of collision between theology and alien contact. What we believe about the purpose of life, its meaning, and what happens afterward seems so bound up with the life we know, right? So what happens to those beliefs when they bump up against life we don't know?
Mary Doria Russell brings all these forms of drama to bear in her 1996 novel The Sparrow. Suppose, she says:
- We first learn of the existence of aliens not via physical evidence -- a drop-in visit to our place or theirs -- but via sounds, music, transmitted from a nearby star.
- Those who make this discovery are not scientists, but a small, tight group of friends -- smart friends, at that, of diverse social, intellectual, and professional backgrounds, and good people all.
- One of these friends, the protagonist, has a direct pipeline to a source of almost unlimited wealth; this source -- the Roman Catholic order known as the Jesuits -- has critical reasons both to confirm the discovery and (at least initially) to keep it a secret.
- The discovery occurs just far enough into our own future that our world seems familiar, while allowing the possibility of a crude sort of interstellar travel to be fashioned, ad hoc, from technology we ourselves don't quite yet have a handle on.
- Only one human survives the encounter -- barely. And until he can provide a full report to the mission's sponsors, few if any humans will be prepared to regard him with anything but a mixture of pity and disgust. (No tickertape parade for this one; he wouldn't accept one if offered.)
Russell's answer to that last question is both emotionally and intellectually moving. She draws us in with interesting premises, true. But, more importantly, she draws us in with characters to care about: complex, very different from one another (even just the humans!), sources of vicarious pain and wonder, confusion and laugh-out-loud dialogue. She uses language just interesting enough to propel us from first page to last, while occasionally bringing us up short with responses like, "Whoa. Look what she did there!"
I found two problems:
First, I had difficulty completely accepting the ease with which even the Catholic Church (with its huge given resources: money of course, but also an almost military tradition of obedience) could pull off a secret mission like this one.
Second, structurally, the story arc felt slightly unbalanced to me. I didn't mark a place where things changed, but from initial discovery to actual encounter, events seemed to unfold in relative languor... and thereafter a wholelottastuff had to happenallatonce. Russell seemed (to me) equally good at both sorts of development, and thus the imbalance didn't seem fatal. (It may simply have been several firsts coming together: Russell's first book, my first encounter with anything she's written...) But I did notice it.
I noticed, too, that Russell -- again, maybe just in this book alone -- violated a hundred times one of the cardinal rules of writing fiction: show, don't tell. When a character's memory causes great pain, she doesn't simply describe what the character experienced, and then show us the evidence of horror and/or misery in his eyes and gestures, on his face and posture, through his words and silences. She tells us explicitly what he's thinking, and why, and what thoughts that thinking leads him to, and so on. On the other hand, I must add: I envied her ability to do this well -- readably, interestingly. I thought that she thus deepened my experience, my appreciation, of the characters: I don't believe I'd have become so attached to them otherwise.
Overall, I give The Sparrow maybe a 95 on a 100-point scale. (When I finished, I didn't hesitate even a moment to get the sequel, 1998's Children of God.) If I could do as well with a first novel (or a second, or third, or fourth...), I might be tempted to dance a little jig. But you know what? As in The Sparrow's story, the music I'd be dancing to might not be quite the music which the listeners thought they were hearing.