No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 01, 1997

The Sparrow -- Mary Doria Russell

This is one of the books I read in one sitting (well, almost), finish, and immediately start reading again to enjoy the benefits of omniscience. Twice. I know it has flaws: I don't care: I really do like it. (And the flaws I think it has are not identical to those mentioned by others). On the other hand, on both rereadings there was one section that I really did want to skip.

I have immense problems talking about this book to someone who hasn't read it because there is so much to say that hinges on knowing what happens. Anyway, underlined quotations are from that review.

The one question that I did have to wrestle with is, Does this book have to be SF? That is, could it happen without the interplanetary stuff and the aliens? It depends where you think the focus of the novel lies. If it's the crisis of faith (this is called understatement) then I suspect that missionaries have suffered similarly since someone first had the idea that those strangers over the river would be happier if they were shown the error of their religious ways. Although Sandoz is not a missionary in the traditional sense, everything he does is imbued with his faith: it is why he is.

I started off trying to imagine how this novel would work as a historical piece on, for example, the Jesuit missions to Native Americans. They did that same sort of thing: the Jesuits would beg their way onto a ship (on occasion funding their own expedition) and go and talk to the natives. How sound their conversion techniques were is apparently still under discussion. There's a vehement little book in the local library which accuses the Society of Jesus of presenting a very biased view of Christian faith in order to score as many converts as possible (in India, for example, they imported elements of Buddhism wholesale in order to convince the natives that it was really one and the same thing). Anyway, a lot of them met grisly ends, for much the same reason as things go wrong in The Sparrow: lack of comprehension of an alien society.

On the other hand, a first-contact-with-natives novel wouldn't bring out the same sense of a truly alien society, of reaching out over vast distances to something miraculous, or the idea of 'God's other children'. Or the sense of separation from everything safe and normal. Yes, it would be quite a different novel without the science fiction: I don't think it would be anything quite as special, although Russell can certainly write brilliantly. Her characters have wit and humour, exhibit grace under pressure, and lose their tempers in a hardly-sweet-at-all fashion.

By the bye, all through my first reading, I was haunted by a sense of resemblance to Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond novels: that same sense of face being maintained at all costs, that same elegance of thought and act … then I got to the end and found an acknowledgement to Dunnett in the bibliography (and what sort of novel has a bibliography, for heavens' sake?!)

It is essential to the plot that the expedition sneaks off: that 'backyard spaceship' is the only way the mission could happen. We're looking at a fragmented society where a major mission would take years to plan: in addition, the mission needs to be mounted by the Society of Jesus rather than a secular organisation, otherwise the first contact would be quite differently, and more soberly, managed and there would be little chance of things going (initially) so well, or (later) so catastrophically wrong. There's no way that any nation would meekly hand over a spaceship to a religious organisation: think of the outrage from the secular parts of that society, and the outright hostility from other religious groups.

And there's also the point that a large part of the problems in the later timestream (the novel consists of two strands: the Jesuits nursing Sandoz back to health and trying to find out what really happened, in 2060, and flashbacks to the mission and the events leading up to it, beginning in 2019) are caused by the publication of the mission's existence. It's a sort of betrayal: the man who originally sorts out their form of travel then goes public with the news, even as his company is helping to bring back Sandoz. Inevitably, the story at that stage is one-sided: Sandoz becomes a 'global villain'.

And, of course, there are precautions that would be taken by a 'proper' mission that are simply skipped by our intrepid band. Speaking of whom, yes, they are ridiculously nice (with one possible exception). On the other hand, that is precisely why Sandoz is friends with them all. They are the people to whom he is closest: his surrogate family.

My Significant Other read this novel before me: he pointed out that the chance of aliens being humanoid and human-like is actually pretty low. Yes, I responded, still halfway through the book, but they have to be similar enough that their differences come as a shock. And anyway I bet there's a good reason for them being that similar …

There is.

There are a couple of other flaws, to my mind. For one thing, there is a point at which Sandoz should have died, but didn't. I find I can't explain the others without giving away part of the plot … they are both to do with 'X should have realised / noticed / told someone …'

Several people have wondered why The Sparrow won the James Tiptree Award: I found this explanation somewhere on the Web. It was written before the actual award was made: I don't know if the decision was ever discussed in more detail.

"So, if the Tiptree Award is given each year for the writer who deals most effectively with an exploration or expansion of gender roles, why did Russell win? Granted, she wrote a compelling, original novel, but what about gender roles and sex? Or, maybe the question should be phrased differently. What about no sex?

I don't know for sure why this award went to Russell - and we may not know until the award ceremony next month - but this is my guess. Russell didn't explore gay or lesbian issues or do much new in the way of stripping away sexual stereotypes. But what she did was bring to light a discussion of celibacy which, considering the relentlessly bisexual recent trends in science fiction, is award-winning indeed."

The religious aspects are fascinating: there are several echoes of Christ and his betrayal, and more fundamental stuff about sacrifice. Sandoz is celibate: he has, in a sense, sacrificed the sexual part of himself ad majorem Dei gloriam - for the greater glory of God. However, he is not the only person who has sacrificed something: those on Rakhat have also had to give up parts of themselves, though for quite different (and, in a sense, even more fundamental) reasons. Sandoz' crisis of faith is really the only sensible reaction to what has happened to him: there is a sense of a cruel Miltonian God, in a sort of Garden-of-Eden scenario, blessing and then punishing. I'm not that qualified to discuss the theological implications – and there are a great deal, ranging from 'so who is made in God's image then?' to 'Does Sandoz have any impact on the spiritual life of those on Rakhat?' – but a heck of a lot of Biblical quotations kept springing to mind. (Gardens – now there's a thing …)

As a non-Christian I found the theology fascinating and not a little frightening: the things Sandoz does, and lives through, because of his faith. While it is distinctly a religious novel, it can certainly be read without needing to believe in God. All that matters is that we accept that Sandoz believes. (And so do the rest: all of them have pretty strong faith, or at least religion, which is probably why they are all so very nice to one another most of the time).

This is also a novel about language and how it defines a society. My notes (which I can't expand without giving things away, but I do want to raise these points somehow) go thus:

No word for 'I' (but neither have the Japanese): the thing with the hands and how it is described: to have a word for 'poaching' implies that there can be a legitimate use: the difference between being able to read a language and understanding it when it is spoken.

Just in case you all had the idea that this was a serious, philosophical book: it's also great fun. Sandoz and his colleagues assign arbitrary names to the fauna of Rakhat, with the result that Anne, having a conversation, is distracted by 'the howling of Dominicans in the forest'.