Friday, November 21, 2008

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is a 1996 philosophically- and spiritually-oriented "literary" science fiction novel by paleoanthropologist Mary Doria Russell. Here, Father Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of a Jesuit-sponsored expedition to an alien planet to make first contact. When he returns, he is maimed, in emotional shambles, and accused of terrible crimes.
The setting and framework of The Sparrow are a highly conducive environment for Russell to explore some serious theological and moral principles and implications. Unfortunately, the whole thing is poorly executed and Russell more or less punts on any kind of deep analysis.

Russell begins upon Sandoz's return to Earth, and from there goes back and forth between then (2060) and the origins of the expedition (forty years prior). Working from the ends, Russell fills in what happened in between. While this was probably the best way to structure the story, Russell does it poorly. The Sparrow leans heavily on suspense to keep the reader's interest, and Russell manufactures this artificially by waiting as long as possible to tell the reader what he or she really wants to know – What happened to Sandoz? How did he come to be in this situation? How did everyone else die? By the end of the novel, there's entirely too much skipping around, which significantly lessens the novel's suspense and makes it entirely too long. And too many of the payoff events, the dramatic climaxes the reader has been waiting 400 pages for, are told secondhand, neutering the drama. Thusly the payoff is extremely disappointing.

Russell's writing is amateurish in many ways, beyond her mishandling of the narrative. Her physical descriptions of characters are often clumsy. She is prone to using big and uncommon words seemingly just for the sake of using them. The dialogue is another egregious offender. The Sparrow is fifty to a hundred pages too long, and a major reason for this is because Russell spends the first half of the novel trying to endear her characters to the reader, mainly by repeatedly having one of them make a corny joke or an obviously fanboyish movie quote, and then having everyone else crack up. It doesn't particularly work. They die, the reader knows they're going to die, and it really isn't that big of a deal. Her characters' chemistry together is decent enough, but they just aren't fleshed out well enough for it to matter.

What Russell does well is the alien culture. With her anthropological background, this isn't surprising. The aliens' culture is different and interesting, even if she doesn't do a lot with it.

Russell drops the ball with her portrayals of the priests. There are a lot of Jesuits, but there isn't much God anywhere to be found. Russell's priests are, on the whole, a bunch of agnostics and deists. For Russell and her characters, just believing that God exists is a big accomplishment and noteworthy spiritual breakthrough. This is hardly an accurate representation of modern Catholicism. Nowhere in the book does any Catholic say one word about evangelizing the aliens. That's remarkable beyond words.

The long and short of it is The Sparrow is a badly-missed opportunity. It was a good idea, pregnant with potential, but it just doesn't work on too many levels to make it worthwhile reading.


P.S. - "A Spanish-speaking Jesuit priest travels to another planet as part of an expedition to make first contact with an alien race, and subsequently suffers a crisis of faith" - that's right, we're talking about James Blish's 1958 novel A Case of Conscience. This shared premise is so specific that it seems unbelievable that Russell didn't steal it (which she maintains). Indeed, it is curious she would choose a Jesuit as her protagonist given her profound ignorance of Catholicism. In any event, Blish's novel is superior in many ways - the science is better, the concept is better, the understanding is better, and the execution is better.