Matt's Reviews > The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
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's review
Jun 02, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction
Recommended for: Fans of soft sci-fi
Read in June, 2008

I've hit page 199 of 'The Sparrow' and the viscosity of the text is increasing.

By page 12, I had a lot of hope for this book. By page 88 I was really into the book, and thinking there was a good chance this was a 4 or 5 star book. At this point though, I'm not sure I can summon enough conviction up to finish it.

Russell takes a gamble with her story of telling it from the beginning and end toward the middle, and relies extremely heavily on foreshadowing. It’s high risk technique with a big payoff, and while it is somewhat effective at first in generating interest in the story, after about 130 pages of foreshadowing gloom and horror, it gets really tiring. It's like taking a bad page from some of the worst of Kurt Vonnegut's literary tics, only where Vonnegut comes off as pretentious or even pandering, Russell is coming off as being a bit of an amateur. Even worse, making the first third of your story foreshadowing with nothing happening is I think promising a payoff that is so large that I don't see at this point how she can deliver a sufficiently big twist or epiphany to justify it.

There are a lot of things to like about this book - its witty intelligent dialogue, its ambition, and its quality prose. But the chief merit of the book so far is the sensitivity to human culture that Mary Doria Russell brings to her work. Her skill and knowledge as an anthropologist shows, and in particular she envisions the social fabric of the world of 2016 in a way that is believable and seems to be almost prescient.

The same easy believability cannot be said for almost any other aspect of her work. Her characters are all little more than caricatures, with the sort of exaggerated easily identifiable physical features that you’d expect of characters in a comic book or role-playing game. The physicist is 6’6” and scarecrow thin. The mathematician is a petite and impossibly beautiful ex-prostitute. The pilot is impossibly ugly and speaks such an exaggerated Texan slang that the portrayal is embarrassingly close to racism. The main character Emilio is a roguishly charming and impossibly handsome Jesuit priest. He’s essentially an agnostic that wants to believe, who hubristically seizes on the mission to another world as a way to reconcile his own lack of faith in his God. His chief sounding board, and seemingly the author’s chief voice, is Anne – a 64 year old silver haired but still sexually precocious doctor and hostess who is always ready with wit and wine. Both characters seem to be someone’s fantasy rather than real people, and tellingly Anne’s husband George is the least well drawn and least independent of the central characters.

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief. While I can easily believe the social developments that appear to have happened by 2016, it’s simply ludicrous to believe that by 2016 we will have sufficient in space infrastructure and technical process that a private organization will be able to mount an interstellar mission. It seems highly unlikely that a technological civilization would be found orbiting our nearest neighbor. It seems even more unlikely that news of the discovery of said alien civilization would create only a small and passing sensation in the press, or that any of the major world governments would simply allow such a singularly important event as contact with an alien species to be unregulated. I mean, I would think contact with a new sentient species would be perceived as a matter of the utmost delicacy, given that the potential extinction of either species is on the line should matters go wrong. But as Russell would have it, the discovery of mankind’s first extraterrestrial neighbor generates somewhat less interest than the Y2K bug.

Equally bad, it seems impossible to me that supposedly excellent scientists would fail to develop contact protocols and would arrive at a distant planet inhabited by a sentient species with no clear idea what they intend to do. This last one is for me the near mortal blow to the story. Not only are no contact protocols developed, and no plans made, and no experiments scheduled, and no egos bruised fighting over whose theoretical models should be attempted first, but upon reaching the planet, the team takes essentially no environmental precautions and stupidly starts sampling everything that looks remotely edible. This, quite unsurprisingly, leads to the death of one of the crew. This is a severe problem because we've been foreshadowing a tragedy the whole time and the author - somewhat unsuccessfully - has been trying to make the characters very sympathetic, congenial and witty so that this tragedy will produce some sort of big emotional payoff when its elements are finally revealed. In what amounts to the prologue chapter, Russell voices what appears to be something of a thesis statement. Through the thoughts of one of her most sympathetic characters she writes:

"The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time."

But at this point I've not been seeing a lot of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions. I'm seeing characters behaving like such complete buffoons that the vibe I'm getting is more slasher film than tragedy, and if they keep acting so foolishly I'm going to be rooting for their gruesome deaths before it’s all over.


Well, I'm finally done with 'The Sparrow'. For all that foreshadowing, Russell ends up spoiling most of the 'twists' either explicitly or by inference long before the story is complete. There isn't a really big epiphany at the end, and the last thing she chooses to resolve seems almost anticlimactic to the point of unbelievably.

Judged as a science fiction book or a non-science fiction book, this is a book with major flaws.

As a non-science fiction book, it's very difficult or impossible to have sympathy for the characters because their mistakes are in many cases so egregious and have so predictable of consequences. Some of the 'Mary Sue'-isms which would be forgivable in a sci-fi book are made to grate precisely because the author builds up how hyper-competent the people are, and then makes them jump through hoops of stupidity so as to achieve her tragic story goals. The slasher movie vibe was palpable. Ultimately, it's difficult to believe that anyone considers Emilio that saintly. Speaking as a religious person myself, I never got the impression that Emilio was acting with divine guidance and never understood why anyone would have seen him as such. His faith was childish in all the worst ways rather than all the better ones. He seemed infected with Hubris, projecting his hopes, desires, and needs on to God, and then blaming God when his Emilio's plans didn't work out. He never struck me as someone who walked with God or who had some spiritual gift the some real people have. And, I found it difficult to believe that Emilio, who has lived such a hard brutal life, if he had any faith, would let simple Latin male machismo get in the way.

As a science fiction book, the story fails for several reasons, not the least of which is none of the participants seems to be particularly skilled in hard sciences. The biology of the story was utterly unbelievable. You can't move from one end of the country to the other, much less to a foreign country, without spending at least the first six weeks sick as your body builds immunity to local pathogens and your digestive tract accommodates new flora. Yet, these people go to a whole new world and don't show the slightest concern for the fact that they'll be encountering microorganisms wholly unlike anything they've ever encountered, or that they'll be exposing the new world to the same. Old world explorers didn't have a clue about the consequences of exposing the New World population to small pox, but modern explorers have no such ignorance. The events of this story are scientific irresponsibility to the point of being criminal.

I could have rated this story just two stars or even less, based on the flaws and the fact that I nearly put this story down unfinished twice. But I think some consideration has to be given to the ambition, seriousness, and thoughtfulness of the author. This story gives me a lot more to chew over and has a lot better prose than most stories I'd just give two stars. So I'm tentatively giving the story three stars, even if it wasn't as enjoyable as most stories I'd actually say of, "I liked it."

This is Mary Doria Russell's first novel, and it shows. I can only hope that she has a long and productive career, because the talent is there to produce a true masterwork that puts her in the first rank among science fiction authors. However, this wasn't it.
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Comments (showing 1-25)

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message 25: by Lisa (last edited Sep 28, 2008 09:35AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Gonzales-Goodman I read this book when I was 19. I was working a boring summer job and had much time to commit towards reading. My sister lent me this. I could not put it down and finished it in 3 days. This book is great because it shows the correlation between imperialism by accident and imposing one's culture onto another. Sometimes the truth in this book is hard to swallow. As humans those in this book have arrogance that their culture is right. Although I believe it is okay to look over ethnocentrism to make sure others aren't being harmed. I believe the treatment of the Runi in this book and how the humans deals with it on the new found planet can vary in opinion from reader to reader.

This book touches on the spiritual, the thought of questioning faith or even just what we think the truth is.

This book is an exciting read and inspiring to any writer out there, including myself.

message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Great review Matt.

I've started this book twice, and just couldn't get into it, but it is something I would like to read someday.

message 23: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Lisa: I'm not entirely sure what you are trying to tell me. What correlation are you talking about? What imperialism are you talking about? I don't think the humans got the best of the exchange. And what truth is hard to swallow? I'm afraid I didn't see alot of assumptions of cultural superiority on the part of the humans, and the one time that they made a decision to act superior it was a decision to not murder a sentient being. Is that arrogance?

There was plenty of arrogance on the part of the scientific team, but none of it struck me as a sense of cultural superiority. What particular scene are you thinking of?

I'm not as generous as you. The more I chew over the story, the more it feels like a completely blown oppurtunity. I thought the writer did a poor job of creating a believable sentient species. It seemed to me that if there was any of what you call 'ethnocentricism' (these are different species, not different cultural groups), it was in the author subconsciously thinking anything with fur must behave like animals.

message 22: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt D_Davis: I found it to be very annoying and ultimately very hard to plow through. It wasn't bad enough to completely dismiss, but it was bad enough to leave me almost angry with the author for having wrecked the story so badly. The beginning promised so much, but ultimately there was nothing there.

I don't know that I wasn't too generous to give it 3 stars. If parts of it hadn't been so good, it would be much easier to just blast it and be done with it.

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

If it were 100 pages shorter I'd just plow through it. But as it is, it is a little too long for me to devote time to simply because there are so many other, better, books I want to read.

I wish novellas were more popular in genre fiction.

message 20: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Loved your review, Matt. It did a nice job of tempering my views on the book. I agree with most all of your criticisms (even the part about the characters being archetypes, although I felt that Russell eventually overcame that), but I find myself loving the book anyway. I connected emotionally to the book, and that made it better for me than I expected, so good that I find myself giving five stars (but I just finished it in the shadow of my mother's death, so that could change). Anyway, I continue to love your reviews. Cheers.

message 19: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Brad: I'm sorry to here about your mother's passing.

I very much wanted to like this book. It was a thoughtful book by an author with complex sympathies and very good prose, but I was never able to create the emotional connections the author wanted me to make.

I don't want to spit or stomp on your feelings though. I like your review, even though I agree with none of it, at least in the sense that your experience doesn't reflect mine. I am glad though you enjoyed the book. It's a book that deserves enjoying.

Suevw I so agree with many of your points - I kept hoping she would include more believable or at least challenging SCIENCE in her story. I'd almost got mad when some of the situations were made into a chance for the charcters to tell jokes. Made trite of what could have been a great story otherwise.

message 17: by Gay (last edited Feb 13, 2010 12:11PM) (new)

Gay This book is best when read with the sequel, Children of God. As a first time writer, Russell devotes too much time and too many pages to developing the characters, plot, and setting. But, having said that, the entire story, both books, raises a lot of questions that would make a good book club discussion. "Meaning well but doing badly," "If there is a God, then why ..." "The dangers that come with language translation," to name a few topics. By placing the situation off the planet Earth, Russell removed some of the emotional baggage we might feel if it were in the US with Western Europeans coming to the New World and corrupting the lives of the Native Americans. I had assumed it was a science fiction book but once I got over that assumption and past the Catholic connection, I found a lot to think about.

Amber It's Anne btw, not Grace ;-) (the silver-haired 64-year old character)

message 15: by Swallowfeather (new)

Swallowfeather Interesting perspective. Obviously you're quite right about the science. I read the book when I was somewhat younger and didn't even notice the holes in the science or the precautions taken (or not taken.) Somehow this doesn't destroy the value of the book for me, though. What she's really interested in exploring is human (or sentient) nature, the possibility of God, and the meaning of life, and I find her explorations of them to be fascinating. I'm really not a hard SF reader and never will be.

Even more interesting is your take on Emilio. I'm religious also, and this makes me want to re-read the book and consider the question again. The first time I read it I didn't really consider whether he was saintly. (In my not-very-good memory, I remember the impression of him being spoken of, not as a saint, but as someone who might be being made into a saint, which seems to me quite different.) In the sequel I did think of him as saintly. Maybe as a Protestant I'm just uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the concept of sainthood and tend to take it down to a definition that seems approachable to me:"someone who is living an intense relationship with God that is the focus of their life." Given that definition I feel that Emilio fits, especially in the sequel, Children of God.

Scott I don't need to review this book now, I can just point to your review. Excellent.

Ktwarren22 I read it in 9th grade. It challenged me and changed who I was as a reader. Her characters are flawed and memorable and I love them.

Claude i totally agree. i really wanted to like it but found some of the characters and dialog too schlocky. i might give it another shot someday but around a hundred pages in I had to put it down. Too many other books to read.

Yannis At first I was like "wtf dude, judging a book you haven't even read half of it?" but then I realised this review mirrors my opinion almost 100%.

Canyon I agree with every part of your review, although I'm a bit confused by the score you gave, as you didn't list any positives that I could find, and yet gave it a three. If possible, I would have assigned maybe not a negative, because she really did try, but certainly a zero. You're right; there's nothing other than Russell's world to prove that Emilio is a super-holy man, and all the characters are just hollow, Mary-Sue stereotypes. I kept flipping to the back and looking at the author bio and thinking, "Wow, you really just wrote what you wanted to be, didn't you?" This was so tiresome to read, and the philosophizing was so childish that I truly can't believe I sat through the whole thing.

Matt Canyon: I addressed this very question in the review.

Yes, three stars is generous. I waffled between 2 and 3. Truth is, I got nearly 200 pages into this book before getting tired of the story. That's a better record than many books I read these days. As I said, if parts of it weren't so good, it would be far easier to just trash the whole book on the basis of the bad parts.

There is only so much I can do with 5 stars. Scale of 1 to 10, I would have probably given a 4.

My average book rating is sub 3 stars. The 1 star books are truly putrid. Far worse than this.

Fatman "You can't move from one end of the country to the other, much less to a foreign country, without spending at least the first six weeks sick as your body builds immunity to local pathogens and your digestive tract accommodates new flora."

This bit is nonsense, otherwise a finely written review. I don't agree with all of it, but definitely see where you're coming from.

Matt Fatman: One man's nonsense is another man's life experience. I've lived in six states and two countries. You?

Fatman According to your calculation, and assuming 6 weeks on each end of the trip (leaving and coming back), I would have spent all of 2014 (so far) bedridden and puking my guts out. In fact, I'd still have 8 weeks to go until I recovered fully. Not a pleasant notion.

Erich Wendt Right on.

Wick Welker Agreed

Portia I am having a great deal of trouble finishing the book. The characters are flat and I can not relate to flat characters.

Matt Portia wrote: "I am having a great deal of trouble finishing the book. The characters are flat and I can not relate to flat characters."

I'm ok with flat characters, provided they are likable, but then a story with flat characters isn't about the characters, but rather about events or ideas. There are lots of things that a story can explore other than the nature of or the emotional lives of its characters.

But this story not only fails to do that, ultimately the characters are both flat and very unlikable.

message 1: by Josh (new) - rated it 1 star

Josh The question I kept asking myself was, "Is there ENOUGH alien gay rape in this book?" The answer was yes, there was.

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