Tuesday, April 19, 2011

1998 Clarke and 1997 BSFA – THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

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.

Grade: A-


  1. This is one of my favorite SF novels and I've always wondered why it's not more popular. Certainly the pacing is a bit slow to start but Russell is taking time to craft real people that you actually care about. There's a bit more substance to them than you typically get in SF. The writing is solid and the ideas, though maybe not cutting edge, are well executed throughout.

  2. Yeah, books like this really highlight how much a little more character work can bring to a novel, even when its "fiction of ideas."

    Something I meant to ask in the review: if anyone out there has read "Children of God," is it worth reading? I hear mixed things.

  3. it is a double-edged sword. and "mainstream" sci-fi book tends to be dismissed by genre diehards as pandering or "not really sci-fi" or for doing something that "real sci-fi fans" have seen before and winning unjust praise.

    the career of china mieville has been interesting to watch -- he definitely started as a genre writer, and i doubt he will leave that section of the bookstore any time soon, but he gets a lot of mainstream attention and i wouldn't be surprised if he is cross-referenced into the "literary fiction" sections soon (as the sparrow is often also shelved in sci-fi).

  4. @Ryan: I've been putting off Children of God because I'm not sure I want to see Sandoz go through the wringer again and I suspect the sequel will not measure up. It's in my to-read pile but every time it works it's way to the top I just shift it to the bottom again.