The Sparrow

by Maria Doria Russell

Published 1996 408 pages

Not sure what to make of this book: a science-fiction story about a priest undergoing a crisis of faith on an alien planet. A compelling premise, but maybe just lofty enough that it couldn't possibly come up with a thematically satisfying outcome. A lot of the book pertains to the influence God really has on our lives: is He putting the proverbial turtles on fenceposts, or has he withdrawn to spectate His creation?

Spoilers ahead.

Thematic complaints

Our protagonist, Emilio, believes—at the outset, at least—in the former organisation of Things: that the strings of his life are being purposefully manipulated by God, that aliens have been deliberately exposed to him, that he is put on the first-contact crew to make contact with alien life, that the mission goes successfully but for the grace of God; and when his fate takes a turn for the worse, he struggles to cope with the notion that his loving God has played an active role in what proves to be his eventual humiliation and downfall. Emilio’s not the only character in our book wrestling with the existence of suffering in a world well-ordered by God, but he’s the one that grapples with it the longest.

I’m not sure that I buy the dualism that the book presents as dogma throughout:

Maybe I’m misreading this, but for a book so bound up in theology, this feels extremely simplistic—to the point that, when a third option is presented near the end of the book as a means of mediating that tension, it’s almost wholly unsatisfying:

“There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”

It’s so unsatisfying, in fact, that I feel that I must be missing something crucial. I’ve read through the Reader’s Guide at the end of the book, and I’ve skimmed the Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion, but I can’t find a deeper intention than “people can be seduced by the notion that their actions have God’s fingerprints on them”. It’s just… frustrating.

Like—what was even the central conflict here? Is the struggle to come to terms with an indifferent God engaging enough to constitute a good science fiction story? The aliens didn’t even have anything to do with it: they were just tools to implement Emilio’s suffering. Why did any of this need to happen?

Formal complaints

There’s a thread of inconsistency running through the centre of the details that make up the colour of the world, which kept throwing me off—not to the point of derailing the narrative; just enough to be distracting. Doria goes to lengths to rationalise the world: science, and the scientific method, is alive and well here—but decisions seem to be made in the absence of it, as the plot requires. Why elaborate the mission in such detail only to put all of our main characters—none of whom have any experience with outer space—on the crew? Why go to such lengths to describe the transport to Rakhat only for our characters to lOsE tRaCk of how much fuel they have?

For a book that makes suffering its central topic, it's also remarkably callous about the way that it kills off characters. They mostly die suddenly and with little fanfare; their deaths don't have any lasting repercussions; the remaining characters generally have a rough night following the death of their friend but recover almost instantly as the book skips months forward. The first death probably feels the cheapest, since the character has barely had enough time to register with the reader before they die with neither explanation nor consequence.

The pacing was also a bit off for me, building exponentially to the climax—but that's probably a preference thing, and I think that a lot of people probably enjoy all of the setup. The characters also have a tendency to quip like Marvel superheroes, but I think we probably had different standards for dialog in the 1990s.

But I’m not sure that I even really buy the necessity of travelling to an alien world (from a structural perspective), except for to cut off our main characters. The aliens are, for all intents and purposes, furries from a different country, alike to our protagonists in every way but physically and linguistically. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Ted Chiang, by machines that run on air pressure and aliens that perceive all of time simultaneously (”Story of Your Life” came out only two years after The Sparrow!). I’m not such a stickler that I need all aliens to feature some mind-bending quirk, but for a book about making first contact, I was expecting something a little bit more exciting than “basically us, but they don’t speak English”. Even Avatar made the air on Pandora non-breathable; The Sparrow's heroes can actually farm Earth food in Rakhati soil.

The contrivance of the ruling class using the subjugated class not only for labour but for food was a fun twist, but smacked of A Modest Proposal, and so didn’t come as much of a shock (not to mention a little heavy-handed in 2022, but no points deducted here because Doria probably couldn't have seen all this *waves hands* coming).

The biggest reason that I could come up with for setting the story on a faraway planet is to avoid writing tired "savage"-type tropes about people with whom Westerners share little culture but significant humanity. You could probably replace Rakhat with a remote part of the world where an elusive character (representing Supaari) has set up a massive cult—or, hell, do away with other people entirely and send the heroes on an ill-fated Arctic expedition (à la Purple Cloud)—and you'd still tell the same story with little loss in resolution.

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