Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mary Doria Russell/THE SPARROW

Contact, especially first contact, with off-world beings: can there be a more natural topic for science fiction? A more popular, even common one?

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.)
Supposing all this, what might happen in all the years -- decades -- of the story's timeline to satisfy a reader's need for dramatic satisfaction?

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.


Pamala Knight said...

Thanks for the review. I haven't read this but am adding it to the TBR pile.

JES said...

Thanks, Pamala -- I think you'll like it!

moonrat said...

RAR!!! I just left a long and thoughtful comment and blogger deleted it. I am VERY ANGRY!!! Maybe later when I'm less angry I'll come back and repost.

moonrat said...

Ok, I'm calmer now.

The gist of my comment was, I agree with the "problems" you cite in your review, but have found that in the ten years that have passed since I first read it, this book has shifted from an "I liked it, pretty much, except for stuff" to "that was a great book." I think for me a lot of scifi requires suspending disbelief to make a point/"say something." I'm always originally hampered by the suspending disbelief part, and then later inevitably find that I liked the "saying something" so much that I no longer care.

JES said...

Moonie: that's almost exactly my experience with SF/F, too. I think spec-fiction readers have to enter into an implicit disbelief-suspension contract with the authors, or they'll never get past a book or two of the genre.

(I remember being surprised when I learned -- many years after I'd read it myself -- how much a certain hard core of LotR readers HATED the Tom Bombadil character. While I could understand some of their objections, I couldn't get past the "Well, yeah, BUT..." response. Like: Come on, look at the whole thing!)

I find in writing Book Book reviews that I tend to review only books that I'd recommend to others. I do worry about being too much the cheerleader, though; maybe I was just trying too hard here to come up with something, anything which gave me pause.

P.S. I'm dazzled it took you only 5 minutes to recover from that Blogger hiccup. Ah, the nimbleness of youth.

moonrat said...

if by "nimble" you mean "slightly ADHD," then yes, i'll subscribe.

Jennifer Ambrose said...

1. Moonie, same thing happened to me with your money book review and I have STILL not recovered enough to rewrite my reply.

2. Tom Bombadil is an ABOMINATION.

3. This book is interesting. Just last night, Husband and I were talking about how faith might be altered by alien contact. Might be a Sign I should check this book out!

JES said...

Jennifer, re: Tom Bombadil -- I rest my case. Heh.

If how faith might be affected by alien contact is of the least interest to you, then yeah, I'd say to take a look at The Sparrow. Apparently even Jesuits themselves think highly of the way the book treats the theme (and how it treats Jesuits, for that matter, although Russell freely admits she didn't know any Jesuits when she wrote it). It's hard to give specific examples without spoilers, but I'll say that various characters' faiths are tested, abandoned, and/or discovered in the experience.