Thursday, July 19, 2007

Mary Doria Russell "The Sparrow": a CFI Austin book group discussion

4 people attended the CFI Austin Science And Religion In Fiction book group discussion of Mary Doria Russell's book "The Sparrow". 3 out of 4 gave the book a thumbs-up, 1 thumbs-down.

The book presents a wide range of views from atheism to belief

One thing everybody liked about the book was that Mary Doria Russell presented the views of both believers and nonbelievers. The proportions, however, were disappointingly unequal. The only atheist on the mission, George, didn't get much air time. He was more like a token atheist. He was a very nice person, but he didn't say much throughout the book. Russell did better with other characters, who possessed various degrees of belief and nonbelief. Even the believers had complex views about religion; no one was dogmatic. For example, Emilio joined the Jesuit order for practical reasons, not because he was pious. But then he came to believe when the moment of faith washed over him. One reader said it was interesting to read about it, because he never experienced anything like that. Another reader said she wished more Christians read this book, because the author treated the material thoughtfully. Since Mary Doria Russell in her lifetime went from being Catholic to being atheist, and then to Jewish, we guessed she's obviously has thought about stuff a lot, and it shows in the book.

Overall, the readers agreed, "The Sparrow" may be more interesting to believers who may be grappling with questions of faith, than to nonbelievers. For the latter, Emilio's endless questioning of what part God had or didn't have in the events can get tedious after a while. A non-theist would see those questions as based on a false premise.

Other things people liked about the story

  • Witty prose, lots of humor;

  • Remarkably vivid characters, each of them a full-fledged human being, which is rare in science fiction. Often, the characters in science fiction books are hardly more than stick figures who are there to spout author's ideas, or pawns to play out a conflict the author has set up. Not so in the "Sparrow", where each character is a multi-dimensional individual.

  • There were interesting insights in what it means to be a Jesuit;

  • There were lots of interesting tidbits and subthemes in the story, such as predator / prey races or the brain-picking AI "vultures".

I found "The Sparrow" an enjoyable read because it has several very likeable characters, easy to identify and empathize with. But that does not preclude the novel from addressing the dark sides of the human nature. I think the reason why this book spoke to me so strongly is because it asks a question "why do bad things happen to good people", and portrays a group of brilliant people who despite their best intentions make horrible, vast, destructive mistakes. It shows how even the best knowledge can lead to erroneous conclusions; it raises all the hard questions and interesting ethical dilemmas; if anything, it points to randomness and unpredictability of the world, not leaving a place in it for any intelligent supernatural force. At least those were my conclusions. However, our main character at the end of the sequel reaches a different conclusion.

This is not to say that there weren't serious criticisms of the book voiced by the members of the group.

It's not really science fiction

One reader was especially disappointed that the book, despite its science-fictional furnishings, turned out to be not really science fiction. "I'm a sucker for first contact stories," he said, "but it seems like a sham in this book. Instead, the story is all about Emilio's search for discovery. It's a background to ask, is there God, etc.? I was so tired by the end of the book of his inner dialogue about what part God played in the events and in Emilio's personal suffering. Yes, there were rocketships, but the book could have been set in 1700 and the mission could be going to Polynesian islands. So science fiction was just a framework on which to hang the morality flag."

Some plot twists are based on characters acting like idiots

Another flaw of the book is that some critical plot points stretch the reader's credibility a bit too much.

Attention! Spoilers!

Such as: Sophia "borrows" the lander (a rocket that they use to go back and forth between the planet and the ship in the orbit) and uses up most of the fuel, not leaving enough for the mission to get off the planet. A reader called this plot twist ludicrous. "When I drive, I pay attention to how much fuel there is," said a reader. "And when the lander is the only way to get off the planet, when the fuel is your lifeblood, it's just not credible that Sophia would have not checked the fuel levels in advance. It's not like 'ohmigosh, I forgot!'"

It was also hard to believe that the locals were not very impressed to meet the visitors from the stars. "They treat them so blase," said a reader. "We're gonna kill them all, and give one guy as a gift to head honcho. Huh? Maybe, but it seems so unrealistic. It's like, visitors from the stars arrive at the White House lawn, and we just capture them and give them away as presents."

It was also not very believable that the people back on Earth jumped to an easy conclusion that Emilio worked as a prostitute. Did it not occur to them that the most obvious explanation may not be correct when you are dealing with an alien society? Why didn't they interpret Emilio's actions with a more open mind?

End of spoilers

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