Manny's Reviews > The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
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Jun 29, 09

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bookshelves: science-fiction, linguistics-and-philosophy
Read in June, 2009

This is the third SF story I've read where a Jesuit priest goes on an expedition to another planet and suffers a spiritual crisis as a result. It's almost becoming a sub-genre. I don't want to call Emilio a whiner or anything - obviously, what happens to him is truly horrible. But, much as I hate to say it, his tragedy seemed lightweight compared to the other two, and I felt disappointed. I was expecting something a little more cosmic in scale.

Of the three stories, the one I found most effective was Arthur C. Clarke's classic short, The Star. They set course for a supernova remnant and find a half-melted planet on the outskirts of what used to be its solar system. There's a deeply buried time-capsule planted by the alien civilization which was destroyed by the explosion. The aliens evidently had plenty of warning, but no chance to escape. This was all they could do. The priest spends a lot of time looking at the records and artifacts, and is greatly moved by them.

They also let the humans get a precise fix on the date of the explosion, which was previously just guessed to within a few centuries. The Jesuit does the calculations, and makes a horrifying discovery. The light from the supernova would have arrived on Earth in 1 A.D. At the end of the story, he is wringing his hands. How could God have destroyed this innocent alien race, just to provide a beacon to shine over Bethlehem?

OK, I found that suitably impressive. And, even though it's poorly written, James Blish's A Case of Conscience is also grandiose enough to justify the SF setting, rather than making it a historical novel set in the colonial era. There's this planet populated by a race of lizard-like aliens. At first, they seem harmless enough. They're kind, peaceful and very civilized. But, if you're prepared to accept the author's loopy theology, the mere fact that they have this perfect society without any belief in God is an affront to the teachings of the Church. Then the aliens also provide living proof of the correctness of evolution, since their young visibly recapitulate all the evolutionary stages after they've hatched. Thus (and I must admit that the details of the argument were a little obscure to me), it follows that the whole planet was created by Satan in order to tempt mankind. There is an apocalyptic showdown, the details of which I shan't reveal, but, even if the book is crap, at least it's crap on a motorcycle.

So, two hard acts to follow. At one point, I wondered if Mary Doria Russell was trying to update the Blish formula, and produce a better-packaged version of it. That might be worth doing. The closer I got to the ending, the harder I found it to see what the payoff could be, and when I got there it thought it was dismayingly prosaic. Did we need to go to Alpha Centauri for this?

Well... I don't want to knock the book too hard. I liked the main characters, even if they were sometimes just too damn nice to be credible, and it was a page-turner. The linguistics and anthropology were well done, and it was uplifting at times. I didn't think it lived up to the advance billing. But I enjoyed it enough that I'll probably read the sequel, which I'm told is better. Stay tuned.


PS This is incredibly geeky, and I know it has nothing to do with the actual story, but I need to share my thought. The asteroid accelerates at 1 g for a year, reaching about 0.93 of the speed of light, or so she claims. Then it decelerates by the same amount for another year, to slow down. To get back home, same procedure again.

Now... whatever can its power source be? Even if you had an anti-matter drive working with perfect efficiency at turning matter into kinetic energy, you'd still use up most of the asteroid as fuel, with all sorts of structural implications. Remember that structural stability was important. And how would you store that quantity of anti-matter? Recall that this is being done a few decades into the future.

Look, she started it. This is what's wrong with an SF scenario. If it had been a historical novel set in e.g. the sixteenth century Amazon rain forest, you wouldn't have to worry about my silly objections. It's bad enough keeping track of the theology, without getting involved in physics too.


PPS And continuing my geeky thought: if the engines are powerful enough to accelerate the asteroid at 1 g, it follows that they could lift it against Earth's gravity. Wow. Those are some engines. I estimate their thrust at around 2 Supermen or 0.8 Powerpuff Girl (say, Buttercup when she's feeling a bit wussy). And we're going to have invented them within the next ten years.

Sorry, sorry, sorry... all totally below the belt, I know. But I'm still blaming her for starting this. She tries to give it a hard-science gloss, but she didn't use enough undercoat.

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Reading Progress

06/25 page 25
5.8% 2 comments
06/25 page 45
10.44% "How vultures get paid. What a nasty word for "knowledge engineer"!"
06/26 page 85
19.72% "Piano duet" 7 comments
06/26 page 160
37.12% "En route to Alpha Centauri"
06/27 page 215
49.88% "The meaning of hasta'akala. The language is maybe loosely based on Hawaiian?"
06/27 page 242
56.15% "Learning the language" 12 comments
06/28 page 278
64.5% "Kitheri receives the crystal flask."
06/28 page 308
71.46% "An important miscalculation."
06/28 page 332
77.03% "The relationship between the Runa and the Jana'ata"
02/09 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-41 of 41) (41 new)

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Kristine Is this your first time reading this?

Manny Yes, got it as a birthday present a couple of weeks ago...

message 3: by Kristine (last edited Jun 25, 2009 08:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kristine I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I liked the sequel too although I had to wait a while before reading it. It was one of the few times I wasn't sure I wanted to know what happened next.

message 4: by Robert (new)

Robert No, no, no! A Case of Conscience is just fabalula!

The theological crisis is about whether the Devil can create anything or not: conventional theology has it that since the Devil is an angel, it has no power of creation, therefore, either the protagonist is a Heretic or the planet was not real (the Devil can create illusions). Hence the completely awesome resolution which I won't reveal here! Blish was a grand master of endings.

Then there are all the peripheral ideas, heaps of them, another staple of his work. This is one of the Blish novels that is readily available and I strongly recommend it.

Manny Yes, there was definitely some cutting-edge theology in Blish's book, but you must admit that the writing kind of sucked. I was annoyed, because it had potential, and as I said I kept hoping that this was a new and improved version. Alas...

Jackie "the Librarian" I loved The Sparrow, but I felt that the big revelation was hinted at for so long, and made such a big deal of, there was no way it could live up to all the hype. Yes, it was horrible, but not a surprise.

Of course, it may be more shocking for an older generation.

message 7: by Robert (new)

Robert Manny, I'm never entirely sure what you mean when you complain of poor writing in Blish...any chance of an example?

Manny Unfortunately, my copy of Case of Conscience is in California. Well... I mean it's obviously hastily written (particularly the second half), the tempo is uneven, the characters, except Ruiz-Sanchez are poorly drawn.

Though, for that matter, I didn't think the writing in The Sparrow was that great either. Too many clichés, several of the characters never became more than stereotypes (what do we ever get to know about Robichaux, except that he's French?), and I think it could comfortably have been edited down to three quarters of its length.

message 9: by Robert (new)

Robert Hmmm...from memory I was OK with the characterisation of the original group who report on the planet and the alien who comes to Earth.

message 10: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad I've got to say that my original glowing opinion of The Sparrow has dampened with distance. I remember the things that annoyed me better than I remember the things I enjoyed, and I think my initial dazzlement at her use of anthropology has worn off. I don't even remember what I wrote in my review (I am not going to check, either), but I am thinking more and more that I need to re-read The Sparrow and reform my opinion. As I read your review, Manny, I found myself thinking. "Yeah...I agree with that" and my five star rating just can't be if I find myself agreeing with you. I think I will still like the book, but not as much as I thought I would when I put it down.

Jennifer (aka EM) Hmmmm ... I started off so enthusiastic about this book, based on the synopsis and reviews.

I must say, on a purely superficial level, I was disappointed to find that the paperback edition is of very poor quality -- with that low-grade newsprint that bleeds through both sides of the page and blurry text.

This may drop to the bottom of my to-read pile.

Manny I'm afraid that my opinion of it slowly declined from about p. 100 onwards. It started out very well, but didn't fully deliver. Though I still thought it was worth reading.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

I thought the anthropology and linguistics were really well-done, but the characters left me cold. I can see why she made everyone so pretty and perfect-perfect, to make their inevitable doom more exciting or something, but it's less fun to read.

I did get off on a tangent of reading a bunch of non-fiction books about predators after this, the best of which was Monster of God . Heavy on anecdote, lighter on science, excellent digression into how great Romanian cheese is.

Manny I liked the anthropology and linguistics too, but even there I thought there were some loose ends. Why does she spend so much time on this business of visible and non-visible declensions in Ruanja? I thought that was going to be important to the plot (some revelation concerning how they talk about God, most likely), but in fact she just seemed to forget about it. Maybe she changed her mind half-way through?

message 15: by Manny (last edited Jun 29, 2009 02:33PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Manny Not an insect, but otherwise correct. By the way, I think that might be a spoiler :)

Stephen I'm sorry. How do I indicate such a thing?

Manny Well, some people start by writing SPOILER in caps or bold or whatever...

message 18: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy I thought maybe the asteroid could pick up interstellar hydrogen if it were traveling that fast... unfortunately, I calculate that even with a 100km x 100km intake, you can only gather about 17kg an hour of atomic hydrogen. Probably not enough to accelerate a 100km x 100km intake, I'm afraid...

message 19: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Manny, have you read Hyperion? Another SF story of a Jesuit priest on a mission to a distant planet to contact a lost people group, resulting of course in spiritual crisis ...

... I wonder if authors just so like using the phrase "Society of Jesus" that they find excuses to send Jesuit priests on doomed missions.

message 20: by Misha (new) - added it

Misha Oh! I read that Arthur C. Clarke story in my early teens when I was just discovering SF literature. It gave me that lovely, shivering, sensawundah so distinctive to SF. I had long since forgotten the name of the story or the author (not really knowing who Clarke was at the time). Thank you for reminding me!

Manny Ian wrote: "Manny, have you read Hyperion?"

People keep recommending it to me, but I still haven't got around to it! It sounds good...

Misha wrote: "Oh! I read that Arthur C. Clarke story in my early teens when I was just discovering SF literature. It gave me that lovely, shivering, sensawundah so distinctive to SF."

Hey, nicely put! That's just how I felt too.

message 22: by Swallowfeather (new)

Swallowfeather I'm kind of curious what you liked about the Arthur C. Clarke story. I mean, OK, it was totally original which is a huge value in SF, and I'm sure Clarke is awesome in general, but I have to admit I hated it. Maybe b/c I'm religious. But see, I'm no stranger to the "Why did God do/permit this evil horrible thing?" question, but... I just have to admit, I completely hated the notion of writing a story around that question that made up a *completely new, imaginary* evil-horrible thing that had *no real reason to have happened.* When there are *loads* of real-life cases to base that question on. It just doesn't seem like the topic for an SF story!

Hm. Brain-flash, if you can call it that. I just realized the story makes perfect sense if you assume the non-existence of God. (Silly me not to have seen that, this is SF after all.) Massive coincidence, stupid, stupid Jesuit. Is that the correct interpretation? I'm not sure it makes me like the story, though it does make it less of an exercise in irrelevance.

Oh and, you are obviously right in the geeky bits about Russell's science holes. I had forgotten how soon in time this stuff is supposed to have happened, that actually makes it seem quite ridiculous even to me who know nothing about the subject. I still really like the book though.

message 23: by Swallowfeather (new)

Swallowfeather Sorry to be so garrulous but I just realized something else. I think people who read this story as SF tend to be the ones who like it less. I'm starting to conclude that the truth is, it's not good SF ("we had to go to Alpha Centauri for this?")--but it is a good story, and those of us to whom the Alpha Centauri part was incidental, just a way of creating the sense of distance and discovery that the notion of the "New World" once gave, liked it for that reason. Does this make any sense?

message 24: by Deb (new) - rated it 5 stars

Deb I like your review. Just wanted to comment so that you know even in 2013 people are still reading your review. I haven't finished the book--just started--so I have nothing substantive to say. Thanks for the titles of the other books, too.

Manny Thank you Deb! And that reminds me, I still haven't read the sequel...

message 26: by Deb (new) - rated it 5 stars

Deb I read the sequel right away. Not as good as The Sparrow--maybe because the reader doesn't have the same enjoyment of a whole new and unique story, but it does offer resolution.

Veeral I just read this book and I agree with your observations, Manny. There came a point for me in this book when I stopped treating this as science fiction and continued as if this was a historical fiction written in the future.

And that exact point came when they decided to grow earth plants on that planet in unconfined conditions. Surely, as scientists 10 years in the future (from now) they should have been aware of the ecological disasters that could occur if someone tries to introduce a new (here, a totally alien) species of flora in a different environment. Australia with its Cane toad and European rabbits is the prime example of that. There are even some invasive plant species that are wrecking havoc in Australia.

Russell did give an excuse that the plants would die in a year if they were not taken care of, but I didn't buy it. That was based on their Earth observations. How could they really tell what would happen to them in an altogether alien environment?

Manny I wonder if she considered the idea of writing it as a straight historical novel? Though many people seem to like the science-fiction scenario...

message 29: by Veeral (last edited Apr 22, 2013 02:13AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Veeral Manny wrote: "I wonder if she considered the idea of writing it as a straight historical novel? Though many people seem to like the science-fiction scenario..."

In the Reader's Guide at the end of her book, Russell did in fact said that she initially aimed to write a "first contact" novel set up on Earth itself, but that was not possible.

Quote - "There was a great deal of historical revisionism going on as we examined the mistakes made by Europeans when they first encountered foreign cultures in the Americas and elsewhere. It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight. That’s when I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-educated, and well-meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries—a position of radical ignorance. Unfortunately, there’s no place on Earth today where "first contact" is possible—you can find MTV, CNN, and McDonald’s everywhere you go. The only way to create a "first contact" story like this was to go off-planet."

message 30: by Manny (last edited Apr 22, 2013 02:12AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Manny Thanks! I don't think my edition had the Reader's Guide. Interesting, and explains several things.

Onefinemess The fact that there is a Reader's Guide at all kind of puts me off. "Hey, my book is brilliant, it makes your brains work, here are some things to think about while you ponder my brilliant work, just in case you were too dense to have your own thoughts."

Manny Now that you mention it, it does seem rather hubristic...

message 33: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike I had forgotten about Clarke's "The Star" when I wrote my review (posted only a couple of minutes ago) thanks for putting it your excellent essay. I agree with you (and many others) that A Case for Conscience is uneven and in places very jittery, but I loved it when I was young and still have great fondness for it and Blish today. Sometimes they just strike you a certain way.

re: PS - I ignored the hard science questions since she was clearly assuming some kind of "total conversion drive" (like the monster marauding macaroni in the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine") which she wasn't going to explain. (Hence the need for a "big enough" asteroid: throw the mass into the drive and awaaaay we go!)

Heck if we could have that kind of a drive only a few decades in the future, I would do my utmost to be alive on that day. (I hope to be alive then, anyway.)

re: PPS - I never thought of what 1g of thrust represented in superhero or cartoon terms. Superman would be just a bit over since his ability to "fly" is really just his ability to run & leap opposing Earth normal gravity. I wonder what 1g would be compared to Ultraman. He rises slowly off the ground (no jumping or leg kicks) even when burdened by some massive monster....

Thank you for asking the hard questions that inquiring minds want to see!

message 34: by [deleted user] (new)

I think you could make a case for the Arthur C.Clarke story being a particularly underhand kind of atheist propaganda. Underhand, because it arguably libels God without making it clear that that's what it's doing. (I speak as an agnostic with no axe to grind either way.)

Manny I dunno... it's just a dramatic example of the Problem of Evil, which people have been debating for some time...

Carmen Did we need to go to Alpha Centauri for this?

No, and that was one of my main complaints.

Manny Glad to hear you agree, Carmen! Someone should make a list of Annoying SF Novels That Might As Well Have Been Set on Earth...

message 38: by Wastrel (new) - added it

Wastrel Manny wrote: "Glad to hear you agree, Carmen! Someone should make a list of Annoying SF Novels That Might As Well Have Been Set on Earth..."

Sure, as soon as someone makes a list of Annoying Literary Novels That Might As Well Have Been Set In Space...

...and most importantly of all, the list of Novels That Could Perfectly Well Have Had Dragons In Them So Why Didn't They?

Manny Wastrel wrote: "Manny wrote: "most importantly of all, the list of Novels That Could Perfectly Well Have Had Dragons In Them So Why Didn't They?"

I remember being disappointed at age 10 that The Lord of the Rings had no dragon. Smaug was my favorite character from The Hobbit, and the Balrog, the closest equivalent in LOTR, had way too little screen time. It is by no means the only case that springs to mind. For example, Bared to You would be a much better novel if Eva had arrived for work at the beginning of chapter 2 and found Gideon Cross being eaten by a dragon. I have written to Ms Sylvia Day and suggested that she might like to consider bringing out a revised edition.

message 40: by Robert (new)

Robert Manny wrote: "Wastrel wrote: "Manny wrote: "most importantly of all, the list of Novels That Could Perfectly Well Have Had Dragons In Them So Why Didn't They?"

I remember being disappointed at age 10 that The L..."

Flagon, in direct opposition to your view, likes the fact that there are no Dragons in LoTR because Tolkien's Dragons are all Pesky and contribute to the over-all poor public perception of Dragons. Generally speaking Flagon is not a Tolkien fan for this reason.

message 41: by Miriam (last edited Mar 08, 2016 04:23PM) (new)

Miriam She tries to give it a hard-science gloss, but she didn't use enough undercoat.

Maybe she needed a better primer.

By the way, Manny, it's interesting that I just noticed this review after your MZB thread revived -- Bradley's Darkover Landfall is also a priest having a crisis on another planet.

Wastrel wrote: "...and most importantly of all, the list of Novels That Could Perfectly Well Have Had Dragons In Them So Why Didn't They?"

Have you read Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw? I think she may have been asking this very question.

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