!/4 way through THE SPARROW and am already blown away

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!/4 way through THE SPARROW and am already blown away

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Nov 22, 2011, 4:47pm

I haven't read a SF novel I liked as well as Mary Doria Russell's THE SPARROW since I read Vernor Vinge's FIRE UPON THE DEEP, which was rather a long time ago. Sometimes early enthusiasm turns sour, but I don't think that will happen with this novel.

The line where she hooked me:

"Have you ever thought about a Twelve Step program for people who talk too much? You could call it On and On Anon."

Nov 22, 2011, 4:59pm

Hate to say it, but that's kind of an old joke. :)

Nov 22, 2011, 5:06pm

What if you hated Fire Upon The Deep?

Nov 22, 2011, 5:16pm

see, see peeps love this book and this book gets these raves. I just don't know why. I finished it in early Sept. While reading it I tore out a few tufts of my remaining hair. This is what I wrote when I was done ...

God is a concept by which we measure our pain. Bad things happen to good people. That pretty much summarizes a review of this book for me.

I recalled hearing nothing but praise for this book over the years so when I happened upon a copy I gladly checked it out of the library to read. It is a longish novel, a bit over 400 pages. About 50-60 pages in I was seriously considering stopping. I kept on though. I was unhappy about the method of telling the story as well as the writing style in some places. The pace of the story was uneven and seemed very repetitive to me. About halfway through the book the story picked up enough to save itself and to hold my interest to the end. I cannot say I really liked this novel. I am not sure I would recommend it to a friend. I would say I was disappointed considering the praise I read of the novel. I also think this will be stuck in my brain for quite a long time.

and a couple months later the book is still stuck in my brain.

Nov 22, 2011, 6:42pm

I loved this novel. The guy at our local bookstore gives me books on occasion because he thinks I need to read them, and this was one of them.

I liked the characters. I thought the moral quandaries they faced were challenging enough to keep me very interested throughout. I liked her writing.

Like my friend, I ended up giving it to a lot of people.

BTW the last thing he gave me was The Watchman's Rattle, which I just started.

Nov 22, 2011, 6:47pm

It's been so many years since I read it. I do have a favorable recollection of it, I've got a copy around the house somewhere, and I should probably give it a re-read sometime.

Nov 22, 2011, 8:46pm

>7 mart1n:
It's not just you, don't worry! Or maybe there's something wrong with both of us. Anyway... I read it not long after it came out; just didn't get what all the fuss was about. Dunno if my agnostic upbringing means that I failed to get the significance of all of the religious nonsense. Such is.

Nov 22, 2011, 9:39pm

7: Actually I found knowing a lot about the religion made the book worse. Definitely one of my list of 10 worst novels that I had to read all the way through.

Nov 22, 2011, 10:17pm

Did not much care for it.

Nov 23, 2011, 3:40am

Loved it. I liked the style and I think it had both some original ideas and some complexity.

Nov 23, 2011, 9:32am

And the characters are those you'd love to mingle with in real life.

Nov 23, 2011, 9:40am

I am now halfway through it and wondering which way it is going to jump, plotwise. I agree that it got out of the gate slowly -- the first 50 pages are hard to get through.

I like Russell's scholarship and command of a wide range of subjects.

No idea so far what the title signifies, unless it is an ironic reference to that song lyric "His eye is on the sparrow."

This is a book club selection for me. The club consists of widely read people with diverse tastes -- reasonable grownups all. In a year, we have NEVER been unanimous in liking or disliking a book. No surprise there. A story is not completed until it is read, and each reader completes it in his/her own way.

Nov 23, 2011, 9:40am

It still made me laugh. :-)

Nov 23, 2011, 9:41am

Good point.

Nov 23, 2011, 10:48am

Someone made a comment here in the past that Russell purposely downplayed the science fiction in the story.

I do think this is a science fiction story for people who don't read science fiction.

If I recall, the only science fiction element I noticed in the story was the use of tablet computers. Everything else about society is exactly the same as society was when the story was written and even the society in the future has bread trucks driving around the Vatican. I don't even think there's a cell phone in the story.

There is however one huge science fiction element, and that of course is the development of asteroid miners and the means to propel one to the stars. I just found it unbelievable that we are supposed to imagine this massive advance in space tech and everyone on earth still talks, acts and thinks like they did 15-20 years ago.

basically this is like writing a story about early european explorers coming to America, and getting scalped.

Aside from that, I found the psychological journey of the main character unbelievable.

Nov 23, 2011, 6:19pm

Absolutely loved this book and its sequel! My whole book club did. Only sad thing is that she doesn't write S.F. anymore.

Nov 26, 2011, 1:50pm

"basically this is like writing a story about early european explorers coming to America, and getting scalped."

That is an apt comparison. In a bigger sense, it is about the journey from innocence to experience, and there is nothing new on the face of the earth when it comes to basic plots.

I finished THE SPARROW. While I liked it very much on the whole, I had issues with the ending. It did not resolve anything -- just pointed forward to the sequel that was obviously coming.

What I liked about the book: Russell's willingness to "swing for the fences." This is a big book in terms of ideas, and I admire an author who works to the edge of her abilities.

Imagining the inventions that might be part of a future world is easier than imagining the societal and personal changes that go with them.

For example, in Edward Bellamy's 1887 best-seller looking forward to 2000, LOOKING BACKWARD, he imagined the credit card -- quite a leap in 1887. He also envisioned something called cable "telephone" for delivery of music. Yet it was a much harder task to envision the ways these inventions would change people.


Nov 27, 2011, 5:46am

I remember being very surprised, when reading the little interview section at the end of the book, to find out the author was actually a religious person. I thought the book was actually very anti-religious, strongly attacked the idea of a universal concept of good and evil and showed how useless and inapplicable our religious concepts would be to an alien culture. Do religious people interpret it differently?

Nov 28, 2011, 8:48am

I didn't see the book as anti-religious, if only because Russell was so thoughtful and sensitive about religious questions. She did not dodge the reality of evil -- the alien planet is no better than earth in that way. It is an open question whether the faith of the main character, Sandoz, will mature and survive in spite of the horrors he went through.

Nov 28, 2011, 9:10am

It's a very Jesuitical book. If someone equals Christian thought with Pat Robertson, they're not going to think there's much Christian thought in The Sparrow.

Nov 29, 2011, 10:24am

>20 anglemark:. Quite true. People who want their religion simple and devoid of thought would reject The Sparrow.

Nov 29, 2011, 4:05pm

I consider myself to be religious, and was more religious when I read it. I loved it.

Dez 1, 2011, 9:51am

>22 Arctic-Stranger:

There is a lot of food for thought in this novel. Russell does not preach or present dogma. She braves the deepest questions surrounding religion.

I had issues with the ending but on the whole liked it a lot.

Dez 2, 2011, 9:32am

"Fantasy is spirituality's playground." I play around with that idea in my blog today. Mention The Sparrow in passing.


Fev 9, 2012, 9:25am

This is perhaps my favorite novel from any period or in any genre. The characters are lovable, the dialogue brilliant, the themes profound.

RBeffa's comment that this is SF for those who don't read SF makes sense, as Russell isn't primarily a SF author. After The Sparrow and Children of God, she turned to historical fiction and has stayed there. (Her most recent novel, Doc, about Doc Holliday et al, is marvelous.)

Editado: Fev 10, 2012, 9:39am

"The Sparrow." Amazing book. It troubled my sleep for weeks. The sequel "Children of God" would be almost as compelling, if you did not expect the unexpected when reading it. Mind blowing fiction.

Russell was interviewed on an NPR show that was called "Speaking of Faith" in 2009. It is worth a listen to the podcast http://www.airsla.org/speakfaith.asp entitled "The Novelist Is God."

Absolutely fascinating. In my favorite quote from that broadcast, Russell said that "God is an artist, time is his paintbrush and the universe is his canvas." Russell is an anthropologist and she acknowledged that she converted to judaism while writing "The Sparrow."

Editado: Fev 10, 2012, 9:49am

Pennwriter: The Sparrow as a Christian Symbol represents and symbolizes the concern of God for the most insignificant living things.

Matthew 10:29 (NKJV)

“Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will.”

Editado: Set 2, 2012, 7:25pm

Such a great story. I would have liked to see even a bit more character development, because I felt the writer was capable of making an even more "literary" novel with the material - though it's still way ahead of most scifi in that dept. The characters are a bit stereotypical in spots, the dialogue a bit didactic at times, but I found it an inspired & thoughtful take on the "first contact" problem - and I really enjoyed it. I don't think the sequel would stand on it's own, but it was an interesting & enjoyable read, as well... overall, I'd say both books were told in a strong and engaging narrative voice, and presented issues in a way that really made me think, long after I put the books down.

Set 3, 2012, 2:46pm

I wouldn't call the sequel enjoyable - it dealt with mostly horrific matters. But it was necessary to complete the story. Yes, it certainly makes you think.

Maio 4, 2014, 1:54pm

I am halfway through this book and I love it. I don't want to read the rest of this thread for fear of spoilers, but I'm definitely coming back here later to see what everyone else thinks. So far, it doesn't really feel like SF to me. Did anyone else think this too? I admit, I mostly read fantasy. I estimate that about 5-10% of my books are SF. Still, I've come to expect a certain style and this seems a little different. I'm not entirely sure how to explain it, but I think it is because so much attention is given to the characters. How they meet, what they're like, how they come to go on this mission. How they see religion and how they experience it. Anne and George are absolute favorites so far, which is bittersweet since you know from the very beginning that only Emilio has come back.

Thinking about other SF I've read, it seems it's either what I call old-fashioned SF in my head: the kind that is very taken with The Idea around which the book revolves, and that has a story almost as an afterthought and characters only because you cannot really have a story without them. I'm sure I'm not doing them justice, but for me, a book has to have good characters to be enjoyable, so this is really not my kind of thing. Or they have The Idea, but also have given thought to story and character. Those ones are always written in a quite rational voice, factual. I'm thinking John Wyndham, Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card.

The sparrow to me reads like a 'normal' book, only it happens to be SF. And don't ask me what I mean with normal book...

Maio 4, 2014, 4:34pm

I don't know, but I think you have to be of a specific age and mindset to get blown away by this book; if you're not, the flaws overwhelm its charms.

Best read when you're a college student interested in dorm philosophy bull sessions perhaps.

Editado: Maio 5, 2014, 2:52am

>31 MartinWisse: *sighs* You're overgeneralizing. I haven't finished yet, but I really like it and I'm definitely not a college student. In my experience, flaws that cannot be overcome by one person are negligible for another, and that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with age.

Maio 4, 2014, 6:36pm

>32 zjakkelien: agreed. I was well past college when I read The Sparrow and I enjoyed it enormously for its heart and humour; it struck me as a novel of characters rather than big ideas. I've also enjoyed all her historical novels (currently reading Doc).

Maio 4, 2014, 10:17pm

>31 MartinWisse: Well, I did read it for a college course, but while I was in my 50's. I was totally blown away, and chastised the prof for assigning it while we were working on our final papers.
While it hangs on a skeleton of standard science fiction elements, it's quite a complex novel.

Maio 5, 2014, 11:15pm

I read it when I was 15 or so and loved it. That's now half a life time ago, so it must have left an impression! I can understand why some might not take to it.

>30 zjakkelien: Anne's one of my all time favorite characters.

Maio 6, 2014, 1:52pm

I finished it yesterday evening. I won't say I was blown away completely. but I did think it was very good. I don't really think it was SF, though. Sure, it has its SF elements, but calling it SF feels a bit like calling every book that has a relationship in it romance. The book is about Emilio, and his spiritual journey, which happens to be told through an SF setting.

And it's told very well, I think.

Editado: Maio 6, 2014, 2:21pm

I loved the book too, and I read it in my 40s, not in college. It is SF in that it explores human-centered themes through an extraterrestrial setting, using the device of first contact with aliens. I think what you mean is that it is more character-driven and better written than a lot of SF, but that doesn't make it not SF. Look at Margaret Atwood or Ursula K. Le Guin, who have both written very literary science fiction, but they still have spaceships or alien planets or futuristic technologies in them to drive the themes.

Maio 6, 2014, 6:30pm

My problem with it as science fiction is that the near future setting is just really badly done. She has technology that would be impossible at the time of the story. She also ignores all the effects of church politics and theological development in the late 20th century on the Jesuits. She never mentions the Berrigans or the Maryknoll Sisters. She doesn't discuss, positively or negatively, the ideas of liberation theology or the post-colonial critique of missionaries. The guys in the book are in seminary now, not hundreds of years from now. These are still hot button issues.

For those of you not familiar with Jesuit history, she's really just re-writing the Jesuit Relations from the 1600s and putting it in space with aliens. The Iroquois have become the carnivores and the Hurons the prey people. There's nothing wrong with doing that, but for it to be good science fiction she has to explain why early 21st century Jesuits are acting like their 17th century counterparts instead of like people from the late 20th century.

Maio 6, 2014, 7:29pm

Ha ha, I guess in this case ignorance of Catholic issues served me well, although the historical analogies are quite clear. I keep meaning to go read your review, aulsmith...

Maio 7, 2014, 7:45am

39: Don't say much more than I said here.

Maio 13, 2014, 11:25am

The Sparrow is one of my favorite novels that I've read in the last few years. I posted a full review some time ago. Here it is again:



Maio 19, 2014, 11:14am

I'm interested to know what people felt were it's flaws.

For my part, it's one of my favorite science fiction novels. I find, however, that audiobooks—I read it on audiobook, three times—sometimes make a book "better". Or, to put a positive spin on it, I sometimes fail to fully buy into characters in print. I feel the author's hand too much, perhaps. But a well-performed audiobook can make a character come alive for me. With that in mind, I don't think I'll ever forget Emilio Sandoz.

I am currently stuck 3/4 of the way through the sequel. It did not have the same magic for me.

Maio 19, 2014, 1:11pm

Yes, the sequel is much tougher emotionally and then it does bog down a bit.

Editado: Maio 21, 2014, 10:12am

It bogs down, and the characters are either monsters or "not themselves." And the characters you care about the most aren't together.

I need to try it again. I listened to it, rather than reading it. It's easier to get bogged down when something is many hours long.

Maio 19, 2014, 2:30pm

Too bad. I was wondering whether to read the sequel, because for me, the book is finished enough as it is. This is not encouraging...

As for flaws, I don't think it is flawed, but I can imagine that people who care for the specifics of SF would not like the way she ignores some technical issues.

Thinking about it, for me the most real thing in the book was Emilio Sandoz and perhaps a few of the other human characters. The alien world felt a bit artificial to me. That's part of the reason I said before that it's not really SF to me: the parts that would make it SF are not as important to the book as Emilio's development is. I got the feeling that the whole book changes style as soon as it focuses on the aliens. Not a bad style necessarily, but not as in depth and fleshed out as it was before. I don't really care very much, though because I liked the book.

Maio 21, 2014, 7:22am

For me, most of its flaws are sfnal.

The first is with the world-building. When it was written it was set in the near future (i.e. about now). The characters are Jesuits in seminary now. They are planning to be missionaries. For better or worse, there are three major philosophical issues for Jesuits/Catholic missionaries in the late 20th/early 21st centuries. One is the Berrigan's critique of the Jesuit charism. Two is liberation theology. The third is the post-colonial critique of missionary work and the efforts of the Maryknollers to deal with the critique. Setting something in the near future, you would expect that people affected by these issues would still be dealing with them by rejecting them, being formed by them, or still wrestling with them. However, she ignores them entirely. Liberation theology or the problems of the Maryknollers are never even mentioned, though they have direct bearing on some of the activities in the book.

The second is technical. She has the Jesuits developing extremely complex technology, much of which we don't have a handle on even now, in secret by about 2020. It's completely unbelievable. An sf writer usually gets one pass on believability but with the world-building, she's asking for two.

Then there is the hurt/comfort problem. I can tell from most of the reviews that most people are okay with the violence done to Emilio and feel it formed his character. I thought a lot of it was gratuitous and there just so we could engage in his suffering and the comfort (or not) that his comrades were able to provide. The reviews of the sequel tend to confirm my idea that the author is more into writing hurt/comfort than actually delving into characters.

Finally is that it won the Tiptree, and I don't think it has that much interesting to say about gender. This isn't the book's fault, but, since I was going to Wiscon the year it won, I felt obligated to read it. I'm always much more pissed off at a flawed book I have to read, rather than one I can abandon.

Editado: Maio 21, 2014, 10:13am

>45 zjakkelien:

The initial parts of the story work; you learn why exactly they did what they did to his hands, and so forth. But it gets bogged down. It's hard to describe how without giving key elements away.

Sandoz is the center of the thing, I agree.

I share a general dislike with science fiction that doesn't take itself seriously--where space, or whatever, is just a backdrop for a story that could be told almost the same on a cattle ranch or at an office. I can see where someone would see that here, what with the aliens being--in some ways--too human. But it works for me. Certain elements, such as the transmissions being choral pieces, and why, strike me as relatively original, and spun out well.

I hear you on the specifically Jesuit issues. Much could be explained by putting it further forward in time--when some of today's noodling goes stale compared to the far more vigorous ideas of the far more vigorous order of centuries past. More of a problem, perhaps, is that it imagines a world where the Catholic church and the Jesuits are both powerful and rich--even if they have to sell off some artwork. Set so near in the future, that seems unlikely. I believe in miracles, but both the order and the church are going to get a lot smaller before they get larger again. I like the conceit, however. Wouldn't it be interesting if the Jesuits really could mount a space mission?

I don't recall what technologies she says the Jesuits invent. What were they? Clearly she imagines space travel has made a rather significant leap, if drug cartels are hollowing out asteroids, and so forth. (I disliked that. I can't imagine that every being cost-effective. But journeying to another star in such an asteriod is quite believable.)

As for the hurt, some blogger made the point that it's not a Catholic novel, ultimately. It's a Jewish novel about Catholics--in keeping with the author, a convert from one to the other. Sandoz and the others talk a lot about God, but there's precious little mention of Christ and no sense that they live in a spiritual universe that includes the incarnation. And it's a post-Holocaust novel. One might say the author's focus is on Job, not Christ.

Maio 21, 2014, 6:32pm

timspalding said I don't recall what technologies she says the Jesuits invent.

First we can't get to the asteroids and back, let alone hollow them out. Then, we are no where near solving the closed environment ecosystem problems that would be involved in an interstellar ship. And then there's the stardrive ...

If it had been set 200 years in the future, I would have had a lot less problems with it.

The Catholic vs. Jewish thing is interesting.

Hurt/comfort is a label that emerged from fan fiction. They are stories where the constant trials of the main character drag on and on and get worse and worse until, finally, you're left with the impression that that is the point of the book: to let the reader experience the pain and suffering without having to experience the pain and suffering. There are mainstream examples. Hunchback of Notre Dame (don't have time to find the touchstone) and Keys of the Kingdom come to mind. The can have a certain charm, but since I was already annoyed, I wasn't willing to see much beyond the suffering.

Maio 21, 2014, 10:01pm

First we can't get to the asteroids and back, let alone hollow them out. Then, we are no where near solving the closed environment ecosystem problems that would be involved in an interstellar ship. And then there's the stardrive ...

Right. But none of these were invented by the Jesuits.

Maio 21, 2014, 10:24pm

49: Hmm, maybe I'm mis-remembering. I thought they were the first people to build an interstellar ship, by taking a hollowed-out asteroid and sticking their own star drive on it and then, presumably, incorporating their own closed environment ecosystem (frankly I don't think she even thought of this as a problem, but the space travel that was available could have been based on asteroid mining or Earth resupply rather than using a closed system.)

Editado: Maio 22, 2014, 8:23am

No, there's definitely something to your point. But I would quibble. Strictly speaking, they don't invent anything. They combine elements that were already there--including, one supposes, the environment system. The general sense is that the thing itself hadn't been done because it was risky and effectively pointless.

While I agree the whole thing is too soon in the future, I expect our exploration of the stars will follow the same basic trajectory--it'll be possible long before it's done. That's essentially what's happened with planetary exploration. We have the technology to go to Mars--not in-hand but close to hand. And we certainly have the resources. Indeed, at a low end cost of $6b., even the Jesuits have the resources to do it!(1) Why haven't we? (And why hasn't the church, which, in aggregate, could do it if it really wanted to?) Because it would be a risky and costly science experiment alone. Obviously the church has no interest in that. I suspect the calculus would change--even for the church--if Mars were suddenly discovered to have intelligent life. That's the scenario envisioned here.

1. Especially if they can liquidate the endowment of Notre Dame. They don't actually have the legal ability to do this, unfortunately.

Maio 22, 2014, 9:14am

Quibbling back: They do it in secret. Wouldn't you want to check with the people using the technology that it works as advertised? Wouldn't a lot of checking like that give the game away?

Intelligent life or something really useful are key motivators. People are leery of risking other people's life (even those of volunteers) to collect more rocks from Mars.

Maio 22, 2014, 11:27am

As a Catholic school survivor I would say that the Jesuits idea of spaceship propulsion is to gather together large amounts of young boys and beat the crap out of them until they run close to light speed.

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