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The Sparrow (1996)
di Mary Doria Russell
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This is a hard book for me to rate. One the one hand, it has some serious flaws. But on the other, I quite liked the story and the ending. I'm going with thee stars, though, in the world were GR has factional stars, it's three-and-a-half -- though, not enough of a three-and-a-half to round up to four.
It's a first contact story, and the mission is undertaken by the Jesuits, though only part of the team sent are Jesuits. The rest, the other five, are not even religious, let alone Catholic.
One one lives (not a spoiler, this is establish right at the start). And he is a wreck of a man by the time he gets back to earth. The plot, in as much as there is one, is coaxing the story of what happened to him and the others out of him. Deeply traumatized and physically disfigured, this takes some doing.
And I thought that part of the narrative was quite well done. Doria carefully constructed the combination of what happened to the team, and what was done to him in particular, in combination with his personality and cultural upbringing.
Things fall down for me in some of the more, let's call them common-sense aspects of the story. The alien civilization is detected via its radio broadcasts of music. As the characters note, this implies a lot: electricity, metallurgy, leisure time for making music, and so on. But, when they arrive at Alpha Centauri, they don't make any attempt to survey the planet to look for cities or, well, anything. They just land and start wandering around.
And I'm okay with landing and wandering around. It's probably safer than landing right next to a city and hoping the aliens don't kill you out of fear, surprise, or general xenophobia. But if initially avoiding contact was the plan, then you'd still expect them to look around to find a place empty of obvious habitation.
None of the main characters ever get angry with each other. It's weird. Not after months cooped up on the ship getting there. Not someone after someone strands them by not thinking something through. And there are some strong personalities among them. But, they all just get along and have only nice, rational disagreements that are quickly resolved. It's a lovely idea, but people don't actually work that way.
Still, the good outweighed the bad for me, as I suppose a three-plus star rating shows. It's hardly the only book to examine first contact through a religious lens, though I can't recall anything that did it with Jesuits. So, if you're looking for a rather different first contact story, this should fit the bill.
A truly remarkable book.
I think the main reason this book isn't a five star book is that I wasn't in the right mindset for it, so I read it in dribs and drabs, and got annoyed with the pacing and did peek ahead at the ending.
So I didn't get the impact that I should have. But I have personal things going on right now where a heavy, philosophical, dark book was not what I should have been reading. But my book club picked it so I forced myself to finish it.
That said - this book was brilliant. I loved that Russell created such a complex, dynamic society on Rakhat that actually made sense from a sociological, anthropological, and evolutionary standpoint. The ending, despite the foreshadowing, was just as bad if not worse as anything that I thought would happen. And I loved the philosophical tidbits that Russell peppered the book with.
I only wish I could read this book for the first time again - at the point when I could truly appreciate and enjoy it.
With the author clearly and explicitly basing a character on herself, this novel ran the risk of turning into a Mary Sue (where the author-character saves the day), but it avoided that fate. I had personal skepticism about some things, like an AI expert creating a system based on a linguist: there was nothing novel regarding Father Sandoz's language-learning experiences, and there is a monolingual field methodology that linguists use. Also, we need to distinguish between polyglotism -- learning and speaking multiple languages -- and the scientific study of language. Not all linguists are polyglots and vice versa. I was also skeptical of the Jesuits sending their own mission (historically I believe they just rode along with whoever was going), and especially sending this "found family" including some 60-year-olds. I got tired of the dinner party dialogue -- chianti in space? Really? But the section that takes place on the planet Rakhat is pretty well done. It's interesting to note how Doria Russell makes it quickly spiral downward at the end: a chain of catastrophes/calamities.
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The Sparrow is a novel about a remarkable man, a living saint, a life-long celibate and Jesuit priest, who undergoes an experience so harrowing and profound that it makes him question the existence of God. This experience--the first contact between human beings and intelligent extraterrestrial life--begins with a small mistake and ends in a horrible catastrophe.
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Sistema Decimale Melvil (DDC)813.54 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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But the second half of the book - - well, I found that to be completely fascinating - - it overcame all of the problems I had in the beginning. In reality, it was a 2 star first half and a 5 star second half yielding a 3.5 rating that I'm rounding to a 4.
The book switches back and forth between the past and the present day. In the present day, we meet a Jesuit priest who has just returned from a harrowing visit to another planet. He is the only one of his party to make it home. He is traumatized, and most of the suspense of the book hinges on the question of what could have possibly happened to this man. Russell is very good about doling out tidbits of information that make you want more. I definitely wanted to know what happened to this man and why.
The part of the book that fell very flat for me and where I thought the pacing was terrible was the earth based past where the team is being assembled for the trip to the far off planet. The pacing was just off. I think Russell was trying to reveal these characters to the reader so we would care about them, but I felt like she could have done better here. It was really slow. It had its technical moments. Yeah, I wasn't feeling it at all.
Fortunately, I stayed open minded, and when the team of earthlings finally landed on a new planet and began to try to understand the inhabitants - - at that point, I finally became engaged. I'm so surprised because it truly is fantasy, and I'm not usually one for that, but here, in the latter part of the book, I felt like the details actually worked. They made me more interested in the other planet and didn't bore me.
All in all, I was glad I read the book. I will probably try the sequel at some point as that takes place more on the other planet and that was the world that captured my imagination. ( )