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Recent Reading - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - Mo's Journal
November 22nd, 2007
11:07 am


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Recent Reading - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
I just read this for my book club. It's about 10 years old and got a lot of attention at the time it was written, apparently. According to the cover, the New York Times Book Review called it "a startling, engrossing and moral work of fiction." First I'll do a brief review without spoilers beyond what you'd know from reading a jacket blurb. Then I have some detailed quibbles with spoilers, behind the cut.

The Sparrow is a science fiction novel of the First Contact genre, with an interesting twist: in this case the mission to a new planet and the first contact with aliens is conducted by the Society of Jesus. I've always been interested in the Jesuits, so that element grabbed me right away. The central figure is a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz. The only survivor of the Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, he comes back physically, spiritually, and emotionally broken. He is also accused of terrible crimes while on Rakhat and his order intends to have hearings to determine his guilt or innocence as soon as he is well enough to cooperate with his defense.

The novel is told in several time sequences. The "present day" segments are in the year 2060, after Emilio's return. They alternate with the beginning of the story, when the planet Rakhat is first found to be inhabited by sentient beings, in 2019. In addition, there are flashback scenes in which you learn about the pasts of many of the characters. Russell uses the back-and-forth time sequencing technique very well. As readers we know that the mission ends in disaster, and that knowledge gives poignancy to a lot of the hopes and dreams of those going on the mission.

The mission consists almost entirely of Emilio and his friends. An unlikely bunch, they include: a priest who is also a PhD linguist with an almost superhuman ability to acquire new languages (Emilio himself), an anthropologist-cum-ER-doc-cum-expert-cook, an engineer, an astronomer, an AI programmer, and a fighter-pilot-cum-priest. That almost all the skills necessary for this mission are present in this one social circle leads Emilio to believe that the mission is divinely inspired. As things go terribly wrong, the effects of the mission on Emilio's belief system are much of the novel's emotional and spiritual content.

I quite liked the book. I found it moved well and I really wanted to know what happens next. The characters are all kind of types, to some extent, but Emilio himself seems to rise above that and feel like a fully realized individual. And he was one I cared about and wanted to see end up whole.

There were a number of things in the book, though, that I did not find credible. For those who've read it and are interested, I've put some of them behind the cut.

- I could not believe the way Emilio is demonized by his Order and the idea that they will put him on trial. Other than Brother Edward, they all have to be won over in order to see him as other than a prostitute. Here's one of their own who has clearly been through a terrible ordeal. He comes back in terrible shape in a lot of ways. He's been tortured it seems and also has injuries consistent with rape. And in the book they talk about Jesuits on this planet having been raped and tortured and killed on missions, but they don't think it's even possible for him? It's too weird. The whole idea that everyone else died but he survived and they think he's the Happy Hooker? What the fuck did they think he was being paid with? I just found that too bizarre.

- The AI vulture thing. I was really intrigued by it when she introduced the idea and thought that the vultures would have some sort of pill or machine that extracted the info on how people make decisions. And then it turns out they just interview them thoroughly.

That doesn't work. One of the reasons that AI has not met the potential people thought it had in the 1970s is that you can't figure out how experts make decisions in a field by interviewing them, because they don't know how they do it. Where there has been progress, it's generally been by looking at large volumes of expert decisions and writing algorithms that come up with the same results, even though the programmer doesn't know if s/he's using the same methods. Also the greatest advances have been by people who are dual specialists - they are trained in informatics but also in the subject specialty. And even with all that, we still have not generally seen AI systems that are good enough to really replace knowledge workers. I think it may happen in the future, but it's quite clear it won't happen the way she portrays it. And knowing that she was so off base on something I know a little about, it made me doubt a lot of the science I knew nothing about as well.

- The system by which Sofia is bought by a broker and then works off her indenture without vacations or rewards. I found this really not possible - economically and otherwise. I don't think looking for genius orphans would really be a profitable business, first of all. And I couldn't believe the way it worked. Her broker says they used to do them as life long contracts but the people stopped working to potential because they had nothing to work for. But there's no reason that wouldn't happen with the replacement system - until she comes up with her gamble, she's working for him for the same number of years whether she does well or badly. I can't believe he wouldn't give her that vacation on the beach Emilio suggests when she does well - why not have some rewards to keep her motivated? And the whole bracelet thing seemed over the top. I can absolutely believe in a system where education is funded and then you have to work it off as a loan - in fact, I've used that system (I sponsored someone's MBA that way at the Fed - he was an indentured servant to the FRBNY for 5 years after graduation, but since indentured servitude is illegal it was structured as a loan that is forgiven at the rate of 1/60 every month). And there are other similar models that would work, like sports multi-year contracts (do they still do that?) or the studio system that used to be in Hollywood. But in all those cases the stick is that you can't work in the field if you break the contract or that you have to pay the money back if you break it. The way she wrote it wasn't credible to me.

- And if I do accept the above as real, then it makes no sense for Sofia to refer to it as "intellectual prostitution" and say she prefers it to the other kind. It's an important plot point - she is talking about her experience but Emilio thinks she's talking generally. And if she had had a pimp she was beholden to, it sort of makes sense. But she went from no one in charge and no one protecting her to the broker's management and physical protection, so it's not analogous at all. In general I thought her personality and the aftereffects of the child prostitution were very unrealistic. I've written some about teenage prostitution and in doing so I talked to people who had worked in sex trade as kids and read a whole lot of first person accounts, too. I didn't feel like MDR did that.

- I absolutely truly ultimately completely cannot believe that in any century - and certainly not in the not-too-distant future - the Jesuits would send that particular configuration on a mission: four priests, a married couple, a single man and a single woman. All priests? Sure. Half priests and half married couples? Sure. Not that set up.

- DW's kind of easy don't ask don't tell approach to his homosexuality in a Catholic Church that's trying to root out gay priests seemed like too much wishful thinking to me. Also, just the general lack of homophobia in her version of the Catholic Church. All this outrage at Emilio supposedly being a prostitute and no mention of it being homosexual sex?

- The idea that the Jana'ata wanted to have sex with humans - that enough of them wanted this for Emilio to be passed around like that - was hard to swallow. The humans look like strange animals to them. They do have a tradition of interspecies sex, but with a species much more like theirs. We can always fall back on "they're aliens; they're strange" but it felt more to me like MDR had a fetish for alien non-con. Maybe I've spent too much time in fanfic circles, but they certainly overlap with sci-fi circles a lot.

- The weird combination of friends that just happens to be exactly what's needed for the mission. Emilio sees this as divine intent and the author goes to great lengths to talk about how unusual it is, with her turtles-on-fenceposts metaphor. But it felt more deus ex machina than divine to me, like she couldn't come up with a reasonable way for these people to all meet.

- The killing of Aksana. I thought as we moved towards finding out what happened that it was going to be a case of Emilio having killed her to save her from something - being tortured to death or some such. I could get his feeling that he needed to just kill the next person who came for him, but I found it hard to believe that he would be in a state where he didn't realize it was Aksana, or at least a child. I'm not saying that couldn't happen - I didn't feel she made it believable in how she wrote it.

- Some of the dialogue where she explains things to the reader through her characters by having them say things they really would never say to each other. There were a bunch of places where she does this, having characters explain things to each other that they already both know, just because MDR felt her readership would not know and needs to. In a third person narrative, that's a good place to tell the reader directly, because the dialogue isn't credible. It particularly struck me when Emilio finds out that Sofia is Sephardic. I forget who tells him - maybe George? - but whoever it is says she's Sephardic and then Emilio, says "Oh? One of the descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492?" and George or whoever goes on to tell Emilio more about that. It just reeked of "I'm telling you through my characters even though they wouldn't explain this to each other."

That is a long list of plot points and devices I didn't find credible! Still, I really did enjoy the book and didn't find that those elements ruined it for me. Part of my brain was saying "Well that would never happen" when I got to those bits, but most of it was saying "Yeah, but what happens next?" I found the ending quite satisfying and somewhat uplifting, and at the same time I'm interested in reading the sequel. So I guess it's fair to say I found The Sparrow a good read.


(6 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:November 22nd, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
That's a pretty good rundown of why I totally detested this book. Although then I went on to read the sequel and detested it too. Go figure.

Of course my review was more along the lines--that would never happen, these people are all fake and it's all totally unbelievable, plus the circle of friends dialog was so synthetically perky it annoyed me no end.

But it does have some good elements. I also think the whole alien non-con fetish thing did it in for me, it just seemed way too weird. Added to all the other unlikely things, it just began to seem like a farrago of distasteful nonsense. Thus the book gets a big black X from me.

[User Picture]
Date:November 22nd, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
I also think the whole alien non-con fetish thing did it in for me, it just seemed way too weird.

:-). Not that there's anything wrong with having an alien interspecies non-con fetish, but I think it is the author's responsibility to make the story credible to those who don't have the same erotic wiring.
[User Picture]
Date:November 22nd, 2007 06:36 pm (UTC)
it just seemed as though she thought everyone would think that aliens would always want to force rape on other species, and it didn't strike me as the least bit credible, on top of all the other stuff.

But, judging by all the rave reviews, I'm fairly alone in this opinion.
[User Picture]
Date:November 22nd, 2007 06:42 pm (UTC)
Maybe more people are into that concept than one might think.

I do think it has a serious function in the book. It ties into the tales they tell of Jesuit missions on this planet where the priests were sodomized and tortured. It sort of functions as "fate worse than death." And it also has a kind of ironic quality, given that it says Emilio's only experiences of sex had been about power and dominance. So once he gives up the possibility of mutually satisfying sex with Sofia, there's something especially poignant about him finding himself on the other end of sex as dominance.
[User Picture]
Date:November 22nd, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)
I loved the book and the sequel. I can really get into the mwhole moral question thing so it definitely worked for me.
[User Picture]
Date:November 22nd, 2007 05:47 pm (UTC)
The theme of how to (or whether to) believe in a benevolent G-d in the face of inhumanity and great suffering is a good one. It's a very common one in Holocaust novels, so I've read lots of books that deal with that theme, but generally so much better than MDR did.
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