Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I remember the buzz in the science fiction groups when The Sparrow first came out. It populated almost everyone's best list for awhile (and the ones who didn't love it felt that the acclaim came at the expense of the genre's roots, which is silly enough to make me wonder if I am not in fact misremembering things), and among that crowd, it's not hard to see what the appeal was. The book is genial, lightly philosophical, hard-ish on the science, and tends to be empowering of women, introverts, and technical people. But as a plotted novel, Russell kind of botches the delivery, and I suspect that anyone's enjoyment of it is going to depend an awful lot on what they are reading for (even more than is usually the case).

The story is set in the near future (that is, 1996's near future, which is getting very close to the present), and it's set in motion when an astronomer at the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico picks up an unexpected signal. The politics of the times, the brevity and intermittancy of the message itself, and the protagonists' personal and professional networks, all have plausibly coincided in such a way that the is revelation is confined to a very small team at first, long enough that they can begin the project themselves, under the discreet hand of the Roman Catholic church (Jesuits, so, you know, the good discreet Catholics), before the public really gets wind of it.  The team determines that it's in fact a snippet of an extraterrestial broadcast. Music, Hot Hits from the next star over. Could this be investigated further? Well, the church is genuinely interested, and consider it within the Society's historical context of mission and scholarship.  Our primary character, Father Emilio Sandoz, is a preeminent linguist, and makes a compelling case for a cultural and scientific effort.  Could we actually get there and check it out?  Surprisingly yes: 2019 technology sometimes moves asteroids during mining (chucking mass out the back), and a sealed rock could in fact keep up 1g by doing this for a couple decades.  The team already includes a pilot, an astronomer, and a polymath, and holy shit, this is all really happening. 

The discovery aspects of the book are done pleasantly well.  It reads like sf "competence porn" that for once isn't driven by male ego.  Russell makes a lot out of the collaborative process, doesn't discount luck (enough things have come together that the Catholics, and Emilio particularly, can't help but see it as God's plan), and keeps a group dynamic based on open communication.  So much of the planning and travel--it must be at least half the book--takes place over intelligent dinner party conversations, where people laugh a lot, and reveal themselves over that extra glass of wine.  The individuals are diverse, likeable and interesting enough (Anne Edwards, the middle-aged den mother of the group, appears to be a real Mary Sue character here, the writer herself herding them along), and these kinds of scenes continue even through the voyage to the planet eventually known as Rakhat, where contact with the alien species is first made.

And even if it takes a while to get there, the events on the planet are interesting.  Finally, the long-developed situation starts changing, and it's the best part of the book.  The characters misjudge the nature of Rakhat's intelligent species (who are about as responsible with civilization as humans are, even if they're much better stewards of their planet).  There are two of them, nearly indistinguishable, and of course people always overestimate the Eloi at first.  Russell's understanding of ecological relationships drives the plot here, as well as inevitable cultural ignorance, and it's quite cleverly done. 

It's a perfectly cromulent way to develop the story, but these parts are all told in flashback, and it's explicit from page one that something went terribly wrong on Rakhat.  Emilio Sandoz is the only member of the team to return, and he's disfigured, cynical, sick, and with what little knowledge that's revealed, disgraced.  His illness seems alien or supernatural (it's not, although he's been plenty traumatized), and the investigatory committee is hungry for his side of the story (although they have years worth of reports, and the popular conclusions that they have allowed are fairly ridiculous assumptions--I'll try not to spoil it). 

Sending the mission off the rails and breaking Sandoz's faith would have worked fine as a linear progression, but this extended flashback business was not the right way to manage the contrasts.  In effect, Russell has decided to set up two kinds of novels and make them sit awkwardly side by side.  For a mission that has succeeded on a foundation of open communication within a group, the author is keeping information from the reader here only to delay Emilio's big reveal.  Since none of the church officials we meet really do much to move the plot that way, I didn't really care about any of them, and yet they occupy a substantial chunk of the text.  Russell wants The Sparrow to be a voyage of discovery and a tense character drama at the same time, but in the discovery part, the characters aren't behaving dramatically, and in fact, any sustained personal tension would have been inimical to the kind of story that's working itself out.  Most of them don't even change in any meaningful way.  And the one guy who does have an arc--Sandoz--is also the hardest character for the reader to approach.  He starts off a somewhat enigmatic man--withholding his inner self from others as a sort of self-enforced humility--and keeps this level of remove throughout the story, a trait which grows sort of beatific as his faith deepens.  When he's recovered afterwards, he's closed off for less subtle reasons.  We spend the whole novel revisiting him in his broken state, but it doesn't become meaningful until the end, after all of his relationships are established, and we finally understand what caused it.  Probably Emilio's more genuine opening after the trauma is the point of these sections, but even though it feels good to point him in a direction of recovery or redemption, it's still a tremendous anticlimax, and it would have made a better epilogue than ongoing plot.


switters said...

She had me at Jesuits in space. But if the spoiler is that Ignazio Loiolakoa was an alien, I cry, "Too far!"

Inkberrow said...

What does the title signify, anyway?

It's also important not to underestimate the Eloi, nor to overestimate the Jesuits, however tempting especially the latter might be. I hope part of Sandoz' disgrace was an attempt at interbreeding, like the fellow in "Lost Horizon".

Keifus said...

Sandoz is discovered by a later party in the harem of the local aristocrat, and is accused of becoming a prostitute to them. Which is exactly what one would think when you find a colleague chained, maimed, locked in a room, and half-crazy. It was pretty clear from the beginning that this was a false impression, but the author sure did draw it out.

These aliens (and fine, here is the spoiler) are in fact two co-evolved species, one derived from some ancient predator animal and the other from its ancient prey. Although they resemble one another, and both are intelligent, the prey type is both evolved and bred to subservience to the predator. The expedition gets to know the Eloi first, and find them pleasant but ultimately unimaginative, and are anxious to know what's going on down in the city, where it's increasingly clear the radio signals must have came from. The predators do not view the interlopers as interesting equals, however, but immediately make assumptions based on their own culture and genetic role, namely, "this is sure an interesting type of prey offering to be my subject, let's see if I can fuck/kill/display it."

We can probably see how similar unquestioned cultural assumptions have applied to, say, exploration of the New World.

(I will say that it's an interesting to work it out in terms of ecological pressures, as Russell does. Here's two in a row, however, where consent and coersion are fictionalized as hardwired things--here an inevitable tragedy to someone who doesn't have subservience baked into his DNA. It's a fine way to comment on those themes, but I've been encountering more of this lately than I wanted.)

Finally, these aliens resemble mammals, and I pictured them as big lemurs, sort of. Revealing St. Ignatius as one of them wouldn't have made a damn lick of sense, because everyone knows that he was in fact a secret lizard man, and they've been with us all along. (Or perhaps I have said too much.)

Keifus said...

The title refers to the falling sparrow verse from the bible, that little dead birdie that God would not fail to notice. (I think she called it out at the end, but it's been a while and I could be wrong. I needed a little more convincing on the metaphor, myself.)

Inkberrow said...

So does the sparrow signify the ebb and flow of life on one measly planet or another, as against the backdrop of the entire universe?

Or is it evocative of a proper moral/ethical attitude of reverence and care for all forms of life which we humans should adopt?

Keifus said...

Very close to the end of the book, some time after his deposition, Emilio Sandoz is having this coversation with one of his interlocutors (I went back and skimmed it this morning, and I'm paraphrasing from memory now):

PRIEST: Maybe you've been looking at this wrong, 'Milio. Maybe God doesn't have have a plan against you any more than he had one for you in the first place. The Jews sometimes consider that God needed to draw himself back from creation in order to give it room to exist, but he still lovingly watches it all unwind.

SANDOZ: Kind of like the falling sparrow in Matthew. It doesn't happen without God's knowing it.

P: Yeah. He's a lover of life.

S: But a player of pawns.

P: More like he carefully watches his own creation, but he wrote the rules such that it must go forward on its own.

S: And the sparrow still falls. He lovingly watches the joyous little sparrow die. Sounds like bullshit.

P: Just sayin'.

S: Well, I guess I'll think about it.

It's possible the links were not in the original. Sandoz, who again, was the only character with much of an arc, had come to believe that these discoveries were divinely inspired, but well, the author says, maybe God doesn't interfere in that way after all. And that non-interference can be as tragic as creation is incredible.

I don't personally think that as a central metaphor, it succeeds in locking the story all together. Maybe if she'd led the reader (as she led the characters) to believe for awhile that the whole thing really might be going according to God's plan (i.e., if she let things go really well before she shows them all knocked down)? Or gave this alternate viewpoint to a character earlier in the book, so that the story felt more like a conversation about divine intent all along? But instead it feels kind of like a late comment.

Keifus said...

(That got a little animated on my part--sorry, it's been a while. I wanted to add, however, that claiming the "God backs off" thing as a Jewish viewpoint was something the character said. Given a religion that starts with being chosen people, and follows up with a hundred stories of God chatting it up and occasionally smiting, that is a pretty surprising attribution to me.)

Inkberrow said...

"Animated" compared with months of unpardonable quiescence, yes!

Interesting take. From the Christian orthodox view too, the Old Testament features an angry, interventionist and often homicidal God, who then morphs to passivity in the wake of the New Covenant and the advent of his intercessor Son.