Author: Mary Doria Russell
Details: (c) Mary Doria Russell 1996; Pub Black Swan 1997; ISBN 0-552-99777-3
Verdict: The sparrow provides an interesting take on the first contact theme and an exploration of religious ideas, but it's let down rather by weak writing.
Reasons for reading it: Various people have raved about it. The major reason I wanted to read it is that R Mark Solomon spoke highly of it, when he was giving a talk to an interfaith group in Dundee. R Solomon is a great man in many ways, and also my teacher, and I would have to pay attention to a novel recommendation, especially when he was talking about how reading SF can give important insights into religion and cited this as an example.
But wychwood also recommended the book in a discussion on my journal ages ago, and coalescent raves about it. ozarque speaks highly of the book, both for its handling of linguistics and its handling of religion. (rysmiel has been pretty negative about the book, but I decided that shouldn't put me off when balanced against so many strong positives.)
How it came into my hands: The extremely successful charity shop raid in Ely a couple of weeks ago.
I didn't adore The Sparrow. Several things about it annoyed me a lot, particularly the prose; it reads like a bad bestseller. The subject matter isn't at all appropriate for that genre, but the excessive amounts of explanation, particularly of emotions, and the banal phrasing throughout really let it down. Poignant moments are spoilt by starting sentences with Heartbreakingly, [etc]. Yes, it's extremely accessible and easy to read, but the flat language weighs it down and the detailed elucidation of really obvious things is annoying rather than helpful.
It appears that nobody has introduced Russell to the concept of 'show, don't tell'. The way the narrative jumps about arbitrarily between viewpoint characters feels lazy, I think partly because the characters aren't solid enough for me to really enjoy being inside their heads. Also because it adds to the air of explaining things that really would have been better implied or even left to the imagination.
This excessive explanation makes the characterization look worse than it actually is, I think, but it isn't good. The characters are stock types to a great extent. There is some emotional insight, but it's sort of descriptions of the emotional states themselves tacked on to characters who don't seem real as people. And there's very little real moral complexity; the sympathetic characters are just too perfect. Although they do have some flaws, they are stupid flaws, the personality equivalent of 'she missed being stunningly beautiful only because her teeth were slightly crooked'. I can accept that part of the point of the plot is that Sandoz is supposed to be something approaching a saint, but most of the 'ordinary' people he interacts with are too wonderful to be true as well.
I was particularly annoyed by the character of Sofia Mendes, to the extent that every mention of her set my teeth on edge. She is so very much the archetypal beautiful Jewess, (though Russell would of course never refer to her as by such an insulting term), a survivor of terrible persecution who is resilient, proud and intelligent. She also fits too many female stereotypes, needing a lot of rescuing even though her character would seem to make her pretty independent at least superficially, and playing a narrative role as the prize for a good man, and doing excessively romantic hearts-and-flowers fecundity to boot. Her Sephardi ancestry, so painstakingly described, just adds an air of 'all this, and exotic too!' The other characters rely a bit on national types as well, in lieu of three-dimensional personalities.
The way the storyline deals with finding ET life and sending a space probe to an alien planet and the experiences of humans landing on that planet is rather good in spite of these flaws, though it's simply one better than average example of something that has been done a lot before. The aliens are genuinely alien, not just humans with green skin and pointy ears. In this context, and The Sparrow also takes great pains to deal with the practical difficulties of finding aliens without resorting to too much handwaving. It's also nice that the aliens are indivduals and live in a stratified and divided society, rather than just having 'racial' characteristics.
The language stuff is particularly well handled; hard work, superlative skill and good luck are needed to establish any communication at all, and even then communication is not at all straightforward, which I think is a nice touch. (It does rather spoil the achievement with too many sarky remarks about Star Trek; it's as if the narrative is self-consciously comparing itself to the worst SciFi trash and expecting you to be impressed because it's not trashy. It comes back to the problems rysmiel mentioned about presenting SF to a mainstream audience.) In this context, I think providing actual direct point of view for the aliens, Supaari in particular, is an extremely bad idea and very much weakens the book. Leaving the aliens as only partly understood, the way they are seen by the contact party, would have worked much better, and there would have been other ways to provide the detail of how alien society works.
And then there's the religious stuff, which is very much the point of The Sparrow. The portrait of religion, particularly the Jesuits, is very interesting. The moral complexity is there on an institutional level which is missing on a character level; the Jesuit organization is portrayed as being extremely powerful and manipulative and you can see both how the people believe that what they're doing is right and how abhorrent the methods are. It's a bit weird to have a detailed and vivid depiction of religion without much effective characterization of the people who follow the religion, but that's what The Sparrow seems to achieve.
I wondered why on earth the book won the Tiptree award, as it doesn't seem to have any particular insights into gender. Yeah, Ruanja society has most of the childrearing done by males while females act as traders, but that's hardly radical! On reflection I think it must have been chosen because of the way it explores celibacy and bodily integrity from a male point of view. This is unquestionably interestingly done.
The exploration of suffering and evil I'm really seesawing about. Sometimes I can see the power of it, and sometimes I'm just fed up with the whole setup. I think part of what weakens it for me is that the characters aren't sufficiently plausible, and again, a description of emotional responses to terrible experiences, however vivid, doesn't work if the reader doesn't believe in the person who is having the emotional responses. And the narrative is somewhat aware that Sandoz is hardly the first good, religious person in history to be horribly tortured and lose everything he cares about, but by trying to build up the horror of his experiences, it sometimes does end up appearing to claim that what he went through is on a different scale from anyone else's experiences. I definitely like the way that The Sparrow poses questions and dismisses the pat answers about the meaning of suffering, doesn't try to replace them with better "answers" of its own. There's just an exploration of what it means to be religious if you face reality honestly, whether from courage or because, like Sandoz, you're forced to face it.
The Sparrow has moments of greatness, I think, despite having an awful of lot of technical problems. I can see why it provokes strong feelings in readers, but as a work of art it falls quite a way short.