Tuesday, October 4, 2011

10-4-11 The Sparrow, a book review

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: a review, some 15 years late, for Courtney, whom I hope will still speak to me hereafter.

Russell, an academic in biological anthropology, wrote this, her first novel in 1996, and, as she is 20 years my senior, the book at least gives me hope that it's not too late for me, if I get off my keister soon, to get around to writing my own. It also gives me hope because this first novel, which has won quite a few awards, is really not very good.

The dialogue and character development, such that is was, put me off entirely. I'll get to some of those specifics in a minute.

First: this review is filled with spoilers. If you hope to someday read the book, because my taste is in question or because the premise of Jesuits in Space, piloting an asteroid, to make first contact with an alien planet from which chorale music has been identified is simply too outstanding to miss, I'd suggest not caring a bit about what I think of the novel, stop reading here, and go get it yourself.

Honestly, I am about as far from a scientific-orientation as they come, and the whole thing left me feeling vaguely unable to suspend that much disbelief in the premise that in the not too distant future not only will giant asteroids of useful shapes and sizes be procurable from private companies who mine them, but the Jesuits would mount billions of dollars in a secret mission in which a group of friends, only one of whom is a Jesuit, get to ride along because they "fit the bill" in terms of experience and eagerness to make first contact.

The narrative is split into two time frames: the early section when the aliens are discovered (circa 2020) and a later section, 2060, or 40 earth years later although seemingly only 6 to the lone traveler who returns thanks to "time diltation" (the accuracy of which I cannot speak to). This lone survivor, the mutilated, brooding, Thornbirds-like priest, Emilio Sandoz, returns with charges of murder and prostitution leveled against him, scandalizing the Jesuit order and causing an world-wide uproar.

The entire story, both the "then" and the "now" there is the prospect of the dark secret that brought the priest to this state, the latter narrative as he is held in recovery and then disposition to the Vatican's representatives who are trying to get him to tell them everything.

"God is in the why" we are told repeatedly. But the why never really emerges. I was left utterly bereft of any climactic moment in the book. I turned the last page, aghast at the wimpy ending. The first half of the book was so painfully slow to build, I was quite sure the true story would be riveting. Not so.

We are introduced to Jimmy, who is the first to hear the chorale music and, genius that he is, recognize it. Of course, he calls his de facto family first before anyone, you know, official, so they can hear it too. Jimmy's description was so wooden that the first image that popped into my head was of Linguini in Ratatouille and I could not get it out, no matter how hard I tried. That Sophia, also a genius, looks a lot like Linguini's love interest doesn't help.

Primary character Emilio, is another genius, a linguistic genius in fact, who, despite being a Jesuit priest, admits he was just going through the motions of being a believer until this discovery. At this point, he finds God, and sees signs everywhere -- turtles on the fencepost --  in the way in which the whole mission comes together. Emilio is in love with Sophia, as is Jimmy. At some point, Emilio sacrificially gives up his imagined life with her and "gives" her to Jimmy, they marry, and conceive a child, all on the alien planet Rakhat where they are stranded.

Anne and George, the elderly couple who have taken in all the youngsters on earth as their own go along on this mission with the blessing of the Vatican. Anne and George are the party hosts on earth, and there's just so many moments where the whole crew sits around engaging in "witty" banter and cracking one another up (and nothing is all that funny) you kind of learn to dislike them intently. Or maybe its just me.

Oh, there's the Father Superior appointed to the mission, D.W., who was the one who drafted Emilio as a tough kid on the Puerto Rican streets into the order, and is also, oh yeah, gay but celibate and very, very Texan.

Honestly, when Anne and D.W., who is mysteriously dying on the alien planet, get torn apart by the predator species on the planet, we don't even get the satisfaction of witnessing it. Many pivotal moments are relegated to lame after-the-fact retellings. It just left me cold. We know from the first chapter everyone dies on the mission except Emilio. I just expected to care at some point.

The "mistakes" made on the alien planet, I assume as a nod to the disastrous first contact of the Jesuits with natives in the "New World" have nothing to do with immunities between vastly different species from different planets. As it turns out, they didn't think showing the herbivores with whom they make first contact how to plant a garden instead of having to nomadically gather their food, won't make much of a difference. Really? Oh, and they get permanently stuck on the planet because the geniuses didn't really pay quite enough attention on the fuel situation. REALLY?!?

Add to this the fact that party encounters the herbivores and spends years there and never, not once, is there a single mention of Christ. These are the JESUITS. REALLY REALLY??!!??

And, I suppose, I couldn't get past the entire premise that Emilio seems so mystified at his suffering -- that this must lead either to atheism, in which the joke is on him for his silliness, or to a God whom he cannot worship. I'm not sure where Emilio was in his history classes with the Jesuits, but clearly he was absent on the days when they covered martyrdom. Now, to be fair, he witnessed terrible things. Russell pulls out all the stops here, making the predator race (responsible for the chorale music) one that eats the babies of the herbivores to keep their population in line and, to live, he must eat them, too. He is witness to the deaths of everyone of his party, although so many of them are dispatched almost "off screen" it loses an emotional punch. He unwittingly agrees to having both his hands and the last surviving member of the party's hands mutilated, watches that man die from the same procedure, and is then sold to the poet who creates the amazing chorale music, which, surprise! is filled with lyrics about sexual conquests, including the gang rape Emilio is subjected to for months afterwards before the second expedition arrives. I'm not trying to make light of a man's own personal holocaust. I'm trying to understand a character who isn't dimensional enough to convey much faith at all, in the blessed moments or the horrific, throughout the entire novel.

I went back and reviewed my Kindle highlights -- every one of them have to do with the passages on finding meaning, of finding God in the midst of doubt. Russell sets these up seemingly to knock them down, in fact in her "Readers Guide" she says the moral of the story may well be "Even if you do the best you can, you still get screwed." I think my jaw dropped at that line.

One last complaint: in the final pages of the novel Emilio is handed Aeshchylus' Agamemnon, purportedly in the original Greek, and is shown as passage which, as a genius linguist, he translates into English on the spot. How interesting that his translation makes the same mistake in translation that Robert F. Kennedy did when he read the same lines in reference to the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King. I'm not sure why this stuck with me, but it seemed to seal the belief that I need to start writing again and soon.

So, like Bob and Sammi often tell me when they are watching a sci-fi show and I am guffawing at the plot holes, I should probably just shut up and enjoy the story. And I wish I could. There were moments were I was drawn in by the possibilities of the narrative, but it fell so short of my hopes. . . . I guess I'm just a little bitter. And, of course,  jealous. :)


  1. First, I would never hate you for your honest opinion. I admit, I didn't expect you to dislike it so much. I feel bad that you may feel like you wasted your money and your time. If it has inspired you to write, then I am happy I recommended it. I think I liked it because I did go along for the sci-fi ride across space (says this fan of Battlestar Gallactica and Firefly) as it were, and the struggle with faith seemed honest to me. What would discovering life on another planet do to Christians' perception of God and our faith? It was a question I thought was worth exploring. I guess Contact did a better job. I enjoyed the scientific parts, such as they were, and I didn't feel that it was anticlimactic. In my defense, I took a class called the Search for Extraterrestrial Life in college, and I loved it. I do agree with you about the discrepancy with the Jesuit beliefs and no mention of Christ. I was left contemplating a lot when I finished the book. I guess I thought you would do the same thing. I guess I didn't expect that the things you would contemplate would be of this nature.

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  3. ok, reposted with an eye toward editing. . .

    It is definitely a question worth exploring. I've never had any kind of issue with the very real probability that life exists on other planets, as I have no idea how this would ever affect God's abiding love for his creation, here or anywhere else. That Christ's atoning sacrifice was necessary for the creation that was man on Earth says nothing to what other created places would require from their Creator. The contemplation of good and evil across the universes is fascinating. I kept waiting for it to bloom in the novel and was disappointed that it side-stepped so many of the crucial questions I would expect a first contact Jesuit delegation to address immediately, long before the planting of gardens would upset the ecological balance of the culture. The closest we got was the passage from Mark on what he hoped to ask the Jana'ata as he approached the city.

    It did make me think. I just found myself getting more and more contrary in my reaction about the absence of what should have been so fundamental to the premise of the narrative.

    And I just couldn't get past that dialogue. :/

    I never feel any recommended book is a waste -- even the stuff I pick apart sharpens me! :)