EPS Review #38 - The Sparrow

By Mary Doria Russell, 1996

The Jesuits go to Alpha Centauri. Thinking it over, I realise that many sci fi books have religious content: CSLewis's Perelandra trilogy is an obvious example, and rather good to boot. If I recall correctly A Stranger in a Strange Land was about some building on Mars that convinced you of God's existence. One of my current favorite sci fi authors, Iain M Banks, doesn't invoke God ever (some order of monks chain themselves to little rails in their monastery, which is just satire), though I suppose the AI Minds indirectly raise the issue of where consciousness leads. In Banks' books it mostly leads to diverting mayhem. The Hyperion novels by Dan Simmons make fine use of Christianity -- cruciform viral parasites that cause human resurrection -- while at the same time having excellent hard sci fi shoot-em-ups and bad AIs. The third book of that series was weak, just an extended chase, but I thought the fourth tied things up really well.

So, how does The Sparrow do? It is grippingly written. As in Contact, we detect alien life through the radar dish at Arecibo, only this time it's closer and less advanced. In fact, they sing really prettily. The Jesuits are the first to act on the information, and send a crew to our sentient neighbors. But Something Really Really Bad happens to these missionaries, and only the priest Emilio Sandoz survives (well, until the sequel -- watch out for those Kirkus reviews, which give away everything). Finding out what the catastrophe was is the motive force of the plot, though you soon realise that whatever it is won't measure up to the delectable suspense (reminding me of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow). As we meet the crew, we observe that they suffer from Heinlein Syndrome: excessive perfection. They are all super smart, super empathic, quirky in a good way, and of course, ethnically, gender and age diverse. It's nice when a book doesn't shy away from brainy topics (linguistics), but Russell often descends into collegiate yet saccharine banter, which by around page 300 was causing me to grit my teeth.

"I wonder," said Sofia very softly, "if a blind Runao would always use the nonvisual declension."
"Now that is an interesting question," Emilio said, inclining his head with respect, and she was tartly pleased to have reestablished claim to adequate intelligence.

Gah! There is even sticking-out of tongues. So in the face of this, and the feeling that we are enduring a parable, enjoyment has to come from the quality of the imagined other world, which is not exceptional. There is also a plot event (they run out of gas for their space shuttle) which is pretty contrived. I think this is of a parcel with Russell's just-do-it, overachieving, nuanceless nature, as seen in her bio and Topics for Discussion at the end of the book. I am not likely to read the sequel.

Kevin wrote: I really enjoy your reviews, actually. This one I disagreed with, surprisingly enough (I had read it and the sequel previously). Must be the PK (preacher's kid) syndrome that I often like some kind of tie in with old-guard religions, despite my vehement disgust with them. Anyway, I really liked the hideous hand crippling--reminded me of high heel shoes and foot binding, actually. And I just loved the concept of concept of cows (having lived with them) being sentient!

Anyway, I admit I have very unrefined tastes (I like most pop-culture things, for example). My criteria for good vs. bad is if I finish the book or not.