The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

January 5, 2010 at 1:14 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Religion has always had an interesting relationship to science fiction. Most often it appears as a straw man for the enlightened protagonist to beat down. Even in work like Dune and the Hyperion books, which are more sympathetic than average, cynicism is the order of the day. The Sparrow is therefore incredibly unusual in that it is science fiction about religious people dealing with religious questions.

The setup goes something like this. The SETI program detects signals from intelligent life on Alpha Centauri. While the world’s governments argue about what to do, the Jesuits privately fund an interstellar spacecraft and make first contact. Right at the beginning of the book we discover that the mission was a horrifying failure, and the rest of the book is split between the mission’s sole survivor trying to deal emotionally with what happened and flashbacks that tell the story of the mission.

While it’s refreshing to read a book which doesn’t really have an axe to grind when it comes to religion, I am a little skeptical when it comes to the way the Jesuits are portrayed. They seem more like what outsiders would want the Jesuits to be rather than what they actually are. I confess I don’t know any Jesuits and am not terribly familiar with them so I’m only guessing, but..the novel portrays Jesuits as smart and very thoughtful people, which I can readily believe, but also utterly tolerant of other beliefs and religions. They don’t say outright that theirs is not the only truth, but they seem to act that way. They’ll tell you about Jesus if you ask but they would never–heaven forbid!–mention him to you otherwise. To do so might make you feel uncomfortable! This is how non-religious people prefer religious people to behave since even a moment’s awkwardness is too high a price to pay for having someone tell you about nonsense. To someone who strongly believes in Christianity like, oh, a Jesuit, the calculation looks more like moment’s awkwardness vs. doomed to hell and so there’s a different answer.

Oh well. This isn’t a huge problem, except when it comes time to plan the mission. It’s odd that a novel about the planning and execution of a Jesuit space mission should be so vague about why the Jesuits are making the trip at all. Since these Jesuits seem more or less uninterested in winning people to the faith, it’s no surprise they aren’t going as missionaries. Instead they claim to be going for the sake of knowledge. But knowledge to what end? This is the Society of Jesus, not the Royal Society. It would make sense if they were hoping to find further evidence for their faith there, perhaps an Aslan-like Christ-analogue, much as the Mormons funded anthropological studies of native Americans expecting to find evidence that corroborated the book of Mormon. However that is never mentioned. There’s the slightest hint that the fact finding mission will pave the way for future missionaries but this is never stated clearly.

At any rate, the fact is everything about the way the mission is planned requires disbelief to be suspended in massive doses. The Jesuits pay a fortune to sponsor an apparently purely scientific mission and then partly staff it with people who are not only not Jesuits but in several cases not even Christian. Well, it’s true it’s just a scientific mission, but then why send any Jesuits? Surely there are more qualified scientists and engineers? But actually the non-Jesuit crew members turn out to be generally quite a bit less qualified than the Jesuits: the fundamental qualification for going seems to be previously having been friends with the main character.

I know I just got through a lot of nitpicking. I could keep going with complaints about certain details of the mission when it arrives and lands on the alien planet. But in spite of these issues, I still enjoyed the book a great deal. The book is primarily concerned with three things: the friendship of the crew, the anthropology of the aliens, and, most importantly, the problem of evil. The personalities of the various crew members were so engaging that even as I wholeheartedly disbelieved in the plot contrivances that were sending them on the mission, I still enjoyed watching them tackle it. The alien culture is interesting and on the whole struck me as very effectively constructed. Finally, since I really liked the characters and was interested in their mission to understand the alien society, the failure of the mission and the subsequent soul-searching about how God could allow it to happen was poignant and interesting.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the author fails to provide a solution for the problem of evil, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem worth studying. The Sparrow has a lot of faults, and its subject matter won’t be of interest to many genre readers, but if you’re still interested after reading this review I definitely recommend it.

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  1. […] C Clarke’s “The Star”, Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow (which I reviewed here in January), and Ted Chiang’s stories “Tower of Babylon”, “Hell is the […]

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