Russel, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Fawcett, 10/1997. 408pp.
Prieeeeeests in Spaaaaaace! Mary Doria Russell's Tiptree-award winning novel takes a rather different approach to the first contact novel than we're used to: an astronomer and his Jesuit priest friend, Emilio Sandoz, discover intelligent life on other planets by decoding a signal sent from that civilization. Ok, so this part isn't so unfamiliar. The real curveball here is that they don't tell anyone but the priest's superiors. The Society of Jesus then proceeds to plan and execute a secret mission to that planet before anyone else figures out what is going on and decodes the signals from that far-off planet. As you can see, this is somewhat similar to Sagan's Contact at the beginning, and in fact The Sparrow was aimed at a mainstream audience just like Contact was. Given that this novel has received such an unbelievably positive response, I feel a little guilty taking such a nitpicking approach to it (somewhat akin to the way Tom Godwin's “The Cold Equations” was picked apart in the pages and letter columns of the The New York Review of Science Fiction a few years back). I have to say that I found it somewhat disappointing. (As far as I can tell, Claude Lalumière and I are the only people on the planet that didn't like this novel) But first, a bit more of the plot: there are two parallel stories going on here. The first is the story of the discovery of the signal and the eight-person expedition out to the planet, which turns out to be called Rakhat. The second, and in some ways more interesting, begins with Sandoz returning alone from Rakhat and the slow unraveling of the traumatic events that lead to the death of the rest of the party, his total emotional collapse and subsequent return to Earth. So, you actually know what is going to happen at the end at the beginning, with only the details of what caused the Sandoz's final breakdown to be revealed at the end of the trip-to-Rakhat thread. The science fictional parts of the novel are really some of the least interesting aspects. This is more of an exploration of faith in times of adversity: Sandoz functions very much as a Job-like figure, trying to figure out if he really believes in a god that can inflict so much suffering on him as part of any kind of “plan.” Another problem I had with the novel is that Rakhat and its culture are rather Star-Treky in their blandness and predictability. Russell's background is in anthropology and it shows in the “humanness” of the culture: they have ports and farms and brothels and class structure and all kinds of other hallmarks of human culture. It feels like she took bits and pieces from different anthropology texts and stitched it all together. Also, the ultimate explanation for Sandoz's collapse, while understandably emotionally devastating, feels a little too engineered by the author, too much deus ex machina. This could be in part because the flashback style tells us from the beginning the results of his ordeal, but not what triggered his collapse. After all that build-up, nothing Russell could have come up with would have seemed satisfying. And some of the science is pretty lame. For example, how could any organization hide the fact that they were converting an asteroid into the first-ever interstellar vehicle? On the other hand, some of the other preparations for the trip seem a little amateurish for an organization that Russell implies is ultra-competent. Like not really bringing any weapons or only bringing one lander with a low fuel capacity. How about everyone going down to the planet at the same time. Not to mention the ultra-competent engineering guy making an obvious and fatal error. The crew also seems a little unlikely--average age too high, not enough cross-competencies, too many friends from before the discovery. They are also too overwhelmingly, unrealistically lovable. These people are adolescent idealizations of friends: too kind, generous and understanding. They laugh at each other's lame jokes too much, they are too supportive of each other. They just aren't real. The only way I can explain the raft of genre awards this novel won is that it appealed to our collective inferiority complex: a good novel published outside the genre must be a great genre novel. To sum up, I have to say that, even with the flaws, this is really a pretty good novel. Russell's dramatic flair, strong storytelling skills and sympathetic hand with characterization keep you turning the pages (even, in my case, sometimes with clenched teeth). It also functions a lot better as a futuristic retelling of Job than as a regular SF novel. After all, it is the author's first novel, and one that shows potential. It is even perhaps one of the best SF novels ever written from outside the genre and, therefore, divorced from its nitpicking expectations (mea culpa). I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Children of God.