Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow must be the single most tragic science fiction story I’ve ever read. It compares to the most tragic stories I’ve ever read, full stop, except that non-fiction must trump fiction when it comes to tragedy. The Sparrow won the Clarke award back in 1998, so I feel like sufficient time has passed when it comes to spoilers. However, if needed: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

This tale hit me on emotional, intellectual, and visceral levels. As I was reading it my critic brain ran a constant parallel track, noting “I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE,” observing structure, and cataloging flaws in the world-building. But you know what? None of that mattered. In the end, it all paid off. The result was awful, and tragic, and moving, and worth overlooking any flaws that came before. 

The narrative unfolds in two parallel tracks, one starting at the beginning and building to the climax, and one starting at the end, detailing the aftermath and slowly building to the point where you find out what the climax was. There’s a hole in the story, and everything works up to filling it. I wondered if the climax could possibly be worth the build-up, but as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it was.

The beginning thread tells how a group of friends come to be the core of a Jesuit mission to a new planet. The main character is Father Emilio Sandoz. He convinces two retired folks he’s good friends with to join him working in the slums of Puerto Rico. They befriend a young astronomer at Aricebo telescope and also a young woman who writes AI expert systems to replace human workers--she worked on modeling Sandoz’s linguistic skills, and was in the process of modeling the astronomer. The story spends a lot of time on backstory and character development before we get to the actual space mission, and that’s important. I’ll have more to say about how the characterization works in this book in another essay. 

Eventually the astronomer discovers a SETI signal that can’t be denied, and from the Jesuit point of view it seems that God has arranged things very neatly in terms of the friends and their skill sets and what they can bring to a mission. The Society throws together a mission very quickly made up of four Jesuits (Sandoz as the linguist), and the four non-Jesuits (the retired couple, the astronomer and the AI specialist). A lot about the design of this mission strains credulity. There is an unfortunate resonance with Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast wherein a similarly composite family group starts exploring the universe with a minimum of preparation. Basically, everything happens much too easily to get the group where they’re going--but that actually reinforces the theme. At its core this book is about religion and perceptions of God. The Jesuits firmly believe that they are doing God’s work, and the fact that everything lines up so neatly over and over reinforces this viewpoint. 

Once they make planetfall things go slowly and irrevocably wrong. And we’ve known that since the beginning of the book, because we are first introduced to Father Sandoz as the sole survivor of this mission. He is horribly mutilated in mind, body, and spirit. He was tortured, found in a brothel, and he killed a child who sought to rescue him. He spent four months alone in a ship on the way back, and is being cared for by a Society of Jesuits that has been decimated in the aftermath of the revelations about the mission. The entire book is colored by the knowledge that all the central characters will die, except Sandoz who will be shattered. It’s like watching a closed room murder mystery unfold, except that instead of finding the killer you’re waiting to find out how they die. The build-up of suspense is slow and terrible. 

Ultimately many things happen, both good and bad. The mission makes a lot of mistakes that could have been minor but end up being major because there’s so much they don’t understand. It’s easy to condemn them for being idiots, although at every step they make decisions that make sense on certain levels. (Let me reiterate that the mission design is by far the weakest part of this story.) Some people die randomly, some for specific reasons. At the very end, alone and wounded, Sandoz is despairing, but has a moment of pure transcendence where it appears that it was all worth it, that he will be able to enact and communicate God’s will--and at that moment he is violated horribly, then repeatedly, and left with nothing. It’s in the aftermath of that horrible climax that we meet him. 

Never has a book that so entirely bound up with religion spoken to me so eloquently of the benefits of atheism. If not for his transcendent experience of the godhood, Sandoz’s fate would have been merely awful, instead of gut-wrenchingly tragic. I feel like the repetition of ‘Deus vult’ made the mission more complacent than they should have been, and that it made their fate much more horrific. Perhaps this is merely another dramatization of the ‘why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ question, but it is one of the most moving meditations on the question that I have ever read. 

I especially appreciate the fact that some of the characters die for no perceptible reason. It’s a criticism that I’ve often harbored about novels--in real life people just die. There’s no reason, there’s nothing they could have done about it, there’s no heroism or failing. ::rant:: I’ve sometimes felt that the over-the-top heroics of adventure protagonists serve as an implicit condemnation of people who die because of circumstances outside of their control. How many burning, exploding, collapsing buildings have action heroes escaped from, carrying their love interest in tow? It almost seems to say that if you were a real hero in your own life, you could have escaped from (say) the burning towers of the World Trade Center. But 2,000 people just died, horribly, trapped, because most of the time in real life, it doesn’t matter what you do, there are some situations you just can’t escape.::end rant:: 

And that brings us back to God--are the people who die senselessly disfavored by God? Are their deaths part of a larger narrative, and if so, is the result worth it? Do their deaths have more or less meaning if the result is triumph or tragedy? Again, atheism seems almost comforting, in that we have no one to blame or plead with--things happen, and all we can control is ourselves.

The Sparrow is harrowing, all the more so because of the contrast between the tragedy and the liveliness of the characters. In the early days of the story they are a fun bunch of people to get to know--witty, charming, and generally interesting. There are jokes and anecdotes--even in the aftermath a dark sense of humor helps Sandoz and his caretakers. Humor is one of the best buffers we have between ourselves and tragedy, and having that buffer yanked entirely away at the climax is yet another completely effective stab to the gut. Nonetheless, of all the books I’ve read this year, this was the hardest to put down. It is lovely to read, and the characters are easy to like, which makes reading about their dooms all the worse. By the end you’re so wound up for the blow that it takes only the lightest touch to make the tragedy come crashing down on you, and Russell delivers that touch elegantly, never belaboring the scenes. 

Obviously I was enormously impressed by this book. You’ll note that I haven’t spoken much about the aliens with whom the mission makes contact. That’s partly for reasons of length, and partly because they are much more in the background compared to the human characters. They have their reasons for acting, and we get some passages from their POV--but we mostly see the author’s hand guiding everything to set up the tragedy to come. For me the story is worth it, but I suspect that people from cultures that have been on the receiving end of colonization may not be so sanguine about the balance. The Jesuit mission is explicitly non-missionary; they want to avoid the pitfalls of colonialism, and want to learn more than convert. No one in the piece is an easy Bad Guy--no evil aliens, no Spanish Inquisition. But people with a different narrative of history than my own may have a much different perception of the book.


Mary Doria Russell said...

I almost never respond to public considerations of my work, but you put so much thought and emotion into your essay, I felt compelled to tell you that I appreciate it.

Since you mention how little of the story is seen from the contactees' POV: the cultures and personalities of the contactees are more fully developed in in the sequel to The Sparrow. In Children of God, I tried to turn the story inside out and considered the events of first contact on the planet visited by the Jesuit party.

It's lovely to discover that The Sparrow still has the power to move readers two decades after it was written. Thank you for spreading the word. --Mary Doria Russell

Karen Burnham said...

Mary, thank you for your kind words! I had been torn about reading the sequel; I felt that it might be too hard to top the experience I had reading The Sparrow. However, knowing that it delves further into the alien POV makes me much more likely to pick it up. Thanks so much for writing!

Steve Fridsma said...

"Children of God" is immensely satisfying. BTW, I stayed up until 4:15 am to finish The Sparrow in one sitting and I immediately emailed Mary my thoughts and my congratulations, and imagine my surprise that she had responded to me by the time I dragged my bleary-eyed self to my desk at work mid-morning. These are books I buy copies of just to lend to people. Thanks you, Mary, for being willing to dialogue with readers and post on forums like this.