Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: The Sparrow

The Sparrow
I read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow with my good friend Sudha for our long-distance book club.  The book was a fabulous selection as there is so much going on, and there is so much in it to discuss!

In The Sparrow, a scientist checking radio waves across the universe comes across a clip of music which he determines is from another planet.  Within weeks, the Jesuits have found a way to send him, a few priests, and an assortment of other friends out to the planet Rakhat.  But all there does not go well, and as the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks, we realize just how complicated the mission to Rakhat was.

And that is all I'm going to say because this is a book you should discover for yourself!  It's fantastic and there is so much going on I don't know how you could read it and not continue to think about it for weeks afterward.

And now, my discussion with Sudha about this book.  I'm in green and Sudha is in blue.  Apologies- it's quite long, but I don't think there are any major spoilers.

1.  What about this book surprised you the most?

This whole book surprised me in so many ways!  I think when I started reading, I went into it with the impression that it would be much more a treatise on colonization and its negative effects than it was.  There was nothing about colonization in the book at all.  Truly, the whole mission was a "fact-finding" one, which makes me wonder if, perhaps, we would take some lessons from the past and apply them if space exploration were ever to happen.  There were cultural differences (massive ones, obviously!), but I never had the sense that the author was making any sort of comment on, "Humans came here, tried to change everything, and messed up the entire world."  It was ironic, in a way, that the people on the mission tried so hard to understand the new culture and integrate into it, and that events still played out the way that they did.  In a way, it was more heart-breaking that way because they were trying so hard to be good and kind and do everything the right way, but as they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

I was surprised by the lack of discussion on the physics of interstellar travel. I am a reader of science fiction (like Alastair Reynolds, Dan Simmons, Stainslaw Lem, Vernor Vinge) and I truly love the genre, but sometimes, the details of speed of light and space bending calculations really bog down the plot. I am not put off by learning about the theories around space travel, I just don't like it when the author really wants to show off his/her research and it gets in the way of their story construction. Mary Doria Russell does not fall into this trap. Her characters and her story are her priorities and it shows.

Aarti, I would agree with you that she doesn't hit us over the head with the colonialism concept, but I don't think that she didn't make it one of her main messages. Colonialism and its effects are one of the main themes in this book. Rather than focusing on a more imperialist approach, Russell focuses on the unknown, unforseeable consequences of two cultures colliding. Even if one of the cultures does its best to avoid the chaotic collision, not everything can be controlled. The characters learn this as the story moves forward into tragedy and salvation.

I can see that, but I still wouldn't call that "colonization."  I suppose that's where I think the irony comes from- that they tried so hard not to colonize, and then in the end, things got so screwed up, regardless of all their efforts.

Another thing that surprised me:  How much humor was in the book!  There were parts that were very, very funny.  And considering how heavy the book is, thematically, this really surprised me.  An unfortunate surprise- the climax was utterly and supremely anti-climactic for me.  After so much build-up, I was surprised at just how quickly it seemed to be glanced over.


2.  What do you think the underlying message of The Sparrow is?

I know this is a really hard question to answer, and that we've touched on it a bit.  I think there were many pieces that fit into a puzzle for me, but now that I've put the puzzle together, I can't tell what it's supposed to be.  Is this a book about religious faith and its fallacies?  Is it about believing in destiny and giving up free will?  Cultural differences?  A person's ability to empathize being a negative trait?  How interacting with other cultures always leads to both positive and negative events?  I don't know.  

I do think the characters who had the most religious faith in this book were the ones who suffered the most- but even as I say that, I don't think that the book was written to convey that "Religious Conviction = Bad" or anything as simple as that.  Rather, I thought Russell was exploring the idea that believing in God, and believing that God has a path for you, is dangerous because it takes away your ability to decide for yourself and act on your decisions.  So many times, the group decided to just do things because it seemed that "God led them" to certain places or to certain characters, and so then they just started down a slippery slope of trusting that everything was happening for a reason- and that the reason was a good, divine reason.  So in some ways, I thought that the book was teaching about how people should be careful of blindly following a faith.  But at the same time, the main cause of all their troubles- the act that created the whole climax, as it were- was completely unrelated to religion, so I am not entirely sure my theory is correct.

I also feel like forgiveness is a big theme in this book- forgiving yourself, and forgiving others, and realizing that your perception of events (even if based on facts) can often be skewed based on your own convictions.  There is always another side to every story, and I think The Sparrow really emphasizes that.  That someone can be a good person but still do horrible things.  And that you don't need to understand that, but you should be open to the possibility, always, that you are wrong.  In that way, it sort of ties into the religion thing I mention above- that really, people should always be questioning and rethinking their assumptions.

I don't know if it is a message, necessarily, but I think one of the main themes of The Sparrow is human interaction. Russell does a great job fleshing out her characters as well as fully exploring the relationships between all of them. Human love, friendship, and teamwork (that word sucks, but oh well) are all so crucial to the plot and are so important to the characters. We start by learning how they all meet, from Jimmy to Sophia, to Anne/George and Emilio, to Emilo and DW/rest of the Jesuits. Those bonds and that love and trust between all of them allow for the mission to go forward. Those bonds survive every obstacle that comes their way, including death. At the end, when no one is left except for Emilio, he still loves his fellow crew members and maintains those bonds in his tortured memory.

3. Visually, and per the blurb in the back of most editions, this book does not resemble most current science fiction in the market. How does
The Sparrow help redefine the mostly technology/physics heavy plots of "traditional" sci fi space operas?

Like I mentioned earlier, I have read many sci fi books and am a fan of the genre. However, some of them start to blur together in my mind, since even the really excellent novels can follow a rote formula of: taking place several centuries from now, having lots of technological descriptions, an overlord to be over thrown, and an underdog who will do the overthrowing. The Sparrow is interesting because it doesn't take place that far in the future, focuses more on character development, and has a complex plot centered around those well articulated characters.

The following statements might be a little controversial, but this is an issue close to my heart. Here it is: I like that this writer is female. Yes, there are female authors of excellent, "traditional" sci fi, such as CS Friedman and Pamela Sargent, but Russell's new approach to the genre may redefine it a little more, making it more accessible for women to read. Let me explain. I think that many people think of science fiction as being a male only genre, to be created by and enjoyed by members of the male gender. Whenever I describe a good sci fi novel to a girlfriend who isn't into the genre already, I hear things like "Science fiction? Like Star Wars? I don't know about that. It's so techy and boring." Well ladies, its not techy and boring. At least, not all of it. In addition, science fiction fans need to bring attention to female authors and not slot a sci fi book written by a woman as automatically sub par. And let us stop defining what we read by what gender we identify with, mmmk? Thanks.

Rant over! For now.

This was pretty much my first foray into science fiction (besides Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy), so I am not sure if I can adequately answer this question.  However, I would say that this book is not at all the way I expect science fiction to be.  Russell almost ignores the technology stuff, and the science stuff, and focuses instead on character development and interactions and consequences.  In some ways, I wish more fantasy and science fiction would tell the "after" story- how people are affected by epic voyages or by huge, epic wars or whatever the theme may be, because it seems like there would always be so much backlash and so many aftershocks.  I like that Russell really focused on that, the part that is often just touched on in epilogues or passed over completely.

4. One of the interesting developments of Russell's future world is the reintroduction of mainstream indentured servitude. Do you think this is a possible development of our real future?

Given that we live in a world where affluent companies outsource their manufacturing to poorer countries with no child labor laws and very little oversight into worker's rights, I think Russell's concept of future indentured servitude is entirely possible. It is chilling to think of, yes, especially when Russell talks about how common the practice is in the future, and that only the gifted and intelligent disposessed have the possibility of making this sort of contract. War, famine, and natural disasters create so many orphans. Without a safety net for those children left behind by those disasters, Russell's scenario is completely realistic.

I don't know if it's completely realistic in 2060, when the story is taking place, and I'm not sure it's possible in such an extreme version as Russell points out.  I can certainly see human trafficking becoming bigger and more terrifying in the future.  But I can't quite imagine every country in the world having this version of indentured servitude and it being alright.  I feel like there would be bans or embargoes and probably all sorts of Greenpeace-type organizations fighting against it.  That said, though, I think Russell was trying to make a point, and it was one that came across loud and clear.


  1. I think I may have heard about thsi one before, and it does sound like something I would love to read

  2. What an interesting book.Not a genre I would normally be interested in but this book seems to have many layers.

  3. I admit to skimming, but only because I have that book here in my 'read soon' pile. I will have to come back and read this in more detail afterwards :)

  4. I've had this book on my bedside table for the last month while I've been trying to decide whether to read it or not. On one hand, everyone seems to LOVE it; but I've heard there are some gruesome parts to it, and I am pretty squeamish. So I can't decide. I do like the culture clash thing a lot, in sci-fi books.

  5. Jenny, this book does have its moments of pain and gruesomeness, but they do not take away from the beauty of the story. Just be mentally prepared, and enjoy the book!

  6. I have had this book, and it's sequel, The Children of God, on my shelf for a very long time. It's so, so good to read this very in-depth and thought provoking review. Love the joint review format, and love that you two got so enveloped in the messages and themes of the book. I think it's interesting that some of the book deals with being a blind follower in your faith. Often, the message given by the church is that you shouldn't think for yourself, or make your own plans. I guess they seem to think that God will do all this for you and lead you in every way and situation. I disagree with this. I think that people are basically responsible for their own decisions and actions, and though I do lean on God and his teachings for guidance and support, I think that mostly, I just try to do what I know in my heart to be right. I think it's interesting that the book tackles these kinds of questions and also that it speaks of indentured servitude, which is a subject that I have recently read about. Fabulous review Aarti and Sudha! I found it very informative and interesting!! Now I just have to read the book!

  7. Blodeuedd- It's very psychological, so it's a good one to sink your teeth into.

    Vivienne- It's not one I think many people think they're interested in, but it seems to appeal to people across the board, so give it a chance!

    Amy- Ooh, I hope you DO read it soon!

    Jenny- The gruesome parts are mostly blurred over- it's far more about the effects of those events occurring.

    Sudha- agreed.

    Heather- I have the sequel, too, but haven't read it yet (Sudha has). I think there were SO many interesting themes in this book, and I feel you'd really enjoy it. I'd love to discuss it with you!

  8. This book sounds really fascinating and I have had it recommended to me by someone else - so I am getting that "everyone is whispering the same book title" feeling... must seek it out. Thank you for sharing this excellent post


  9. Having co-hosted a read-along of The Sparrow a couple of months ago, I am very happy to see it making appearances on the blogs! (And I'm trying to leave comments on every review I find.)

    I love that you did this as a buddy read and posted your full discussion, because this novel does offer a lot to talk about, and you addressed most of its virtues (as far as I'm concerned, it has very few flaws!). Thanks for the thoughtful and enthusiastic review!

  10. Anonymous5/11/2010

    This sounds fantastic! Science and religion, great combo!

  11. Thank both of you ladies for a spectacular review and discussion. I'm been trying to find a beginner sci-fi to introduce me to the genre, and this sounds like one I might be able to get through. I'm also in a book discussion group that is looking to expand into genre reading, and this sounds like a great candidate for the sci-fi category. I really appreciate your indepth review that did not include spoilers. I know how hard that is to do, and am very grateful for it.

  12. I read this some years ago, and found it a slightly challenging read but also very different - it's not typical SF at all! It's one that will definitely bear re-reading as it is complex. However I'm ashamed to say I can't remember much about the actual story - so I probably do need to re-read it.

  13. A friend of mine reviewed this book years ago. I bought a used copy, and I've had it on my shelf ever since. Thank you for inspiring me to read it soon. It sounds like a utterly unique novel.

  14. Hannah- I love that feeling! I get it so often with blogs.

    Florinda- Thank you :-)

    chasingbawa- It IS a great combination, for sure! At least, in this book, it is!

    Tina- It's definitely more literary than sci fi, and I think it would be an EXCELLENT book club selection. So much fodder for discussion!

    Annabel- I often can't remember stories afterward. That's why I started this blog, actually! To remind myself in later years of what I read.

    Steph- It is very unique, and I hope you read it soon!

  15. I've read this book more than ten years ago and I yes, it is an excellent book. Heavy, for sure but excellent indeed. I understand fully well the nature of Fr. Emilio's search for the aliens and the questions he raised during the entire novel. It's been so long I think I need to reread this again.

    I have also read the sequel, by the way. It's Fr. Emilio's trip back to the alien world if I remember it correctly.

  16. I rarely if ever read science fiction. This sounds like a good one for me to cut my teeth on. IT sounds like there are many layers. I really enjoyed the discussion the two of you had. It seems you got quite a lot out of the book.

  17. Aarti -
    I just put the book on my nightstand (because of you - it has been calling my name for some time now but I have been putting it off) and am going to start it... and will come back to delve into your discussion.

    I just found out that the second book in the series - Children of God was the runner up for the Hugo in 1999 - which says something.

    Thanks for putting a fire under it!

  18. Anonymous5/12/2010

    I'm so happy to see The Sparrow being discussed on blogs, as it is my favorite book EVER. I am such an evangelist for this novel, and I just think there is so much here, so much to discuss and think about and turn over in your mind. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  19. This was already on my TBR list, but your review has made me move it up the list.

    Thank you so much for posting the full discussion - it really does help to make the book more of interest to me.

  20. Kathleen-
    Sci-fi is a rich genre, full of excellent stories and cherished characters! I hope more books like Russel's will encourage readers to try science fiction. It is a lovely category of books. Glad you enjoyed the review, and I hope you get to read the book!

  21. Like Florinda said, you address most of this book's many virtues well.

    If you and your readers are interested in reading more thought-provoking SF by women, you should put a novel by Joan Slonczewski on your list. Many of the things I like about MDR's fiction are also in hers.

  22. Anonymous5/17/2010

    I didn't want to read too much of your post, because after reading the answers to the first question I knew I had to try and find a copy of this book to read it for myself.

  23. Did you not read my review of The Sparrow?! I raved. Now you know to take my recommendations more seriously.


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