There’s an oft-heard cry among fans of science fiction novels – “when will mainstream literature accept us?” I think there’s a legitimate beef there, but I also think it’s interesting that the science fiction establishment is quick to reject a science fiction novel from an sf-outsider that *is* quickly accepted by much of the literary mainstream. This book, a first novel, is a good example – since its release it’s been a mainstay of “literature” shelves in bookstores and it’s made the circuit of mainstream book clubs. And, it’s quite good. Yet, it did not get as much attention from sf circles. Russell won a Hugo for best new writer, and she got the BSFA, but this novel didn’t receive a Hugo or Nebula nomination. Its biggest win was the Clarke, which already had a reputation for favoring mainstream writers since its first presentation to Margaret Atwood. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but sometimes I do feel like the lack of communication goes both ways.
The novel follows a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz who returns from a church-sponsored first contact mission in disgrace in 2059. We then flash back to the discovery of the aliens in 2019 (who broadcast beautiful songs over radio waves from just a few light years away), and the assembly of Sandoz’s first contact team, which comes to include other priests, an elderly couple who are close friends of Sandoz, and a beautiful AI programmer with whom Sandoz is smitten, despite his vow of chastity. They travel in a retrofitted asteroid to the planet of Rakhat and meet the planet’s two sentient species, the pastoral Runa and the more sophisticated Jana’ata. Meanwhile, in “present day” sections we see Sandoz on trial, and we learn just how horribly wrong everything went on Rakhat.
The Sparrow’s sf credentials should not be in doubt. In fact, the proceedings feel pretty retro. The religious themes are clearly reminiscent of Blish’s A Case of Conscious, the first contact scenario and space travel have a few elements of Clarke, and the attention to the ethnographic detail of the aliens is straight out of LeGuin. Russell handles all of this elements with great skill, and overall, her prose is pleasant and readable. And she shines with her handling of the characters, especially Sandoz and the considerable development of his faith throughout the novel. I’m not a religious person, but I found the priest’s religious struggles moving and intellectually satisfying.
I’d say the novel’s one major flaw is in its pacing. The early chapters unfold very slowly, and it takes more than half of the novel to get Sandoz to Rakhat. Russell lays down some important character groundwork in these chapters, but she also treads some water. The final chapters unfold very quickly, and some very important events get only brief overviews during the trial.
SF fans might complain, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, that this novel doesn’t really cover any new ground, but I don’t think every novel needs to have a Vingean “New Idea.” In fact, I’m beginning to think that obsession with Ideas is the central problem with modern sf. I prefer the sort of grounded character work presented here. Forever Peace has more flashes of brilliance, but this is a better novel, taken as a whole.