My travels in outer space with The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This is my favorite Sesame Street song of all time. I could not get enough of it when I was a kid. Susan gives a lot soul to the thought that kids will one day live in space. Somewhat apropos for this review.

I think the fact that the first couple of chapters in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell take place in Italy and Puerto Rico made it easier to get into this science fiction tale. True, the action is set in 2059 and 2019 respectively, but the familiar setting made it all feel quite ‘normal’ at first. The basic plot is this: After radio transmissions are discovered to be emanating from the Alpha Centauri star system, a group of Jesuit priests convince their hierarchy to fund an exploratory trip to find the sentient beings sending the signals. I’m no expert on Jesuit exploration throughout history, but if I believe this text, their intent seems to be more about seeking knowledge then it is about converting anyone–anything–to Christianity.

While the rest of the world loses interest in the alien radio signals and/or takes years debating what to do with the knowledge, the Jesuits use their vast financial and intellectual resources to to mount a secret trip of their own.  But wait how is that possible? Well, the novel, which was published in 1996 posits that in the year 2019 there will be a whole lot of technology that makes such a trip possible. The main thing being that asteroids which had been mined for various natural resources could be used like a spaceship to fly the couple of light years it takes to get to the source of the signal.

Like all good expedition stories, and I guess all good expeditions, this one has a cast of characters who have a complementary set of skills and make a fairly well-rounded team. They have a linguist, a medical doctor, scientists, a musicologist, and they are all smart as whips and can do just about anything. About 4 or 5 of them are priests with two women and additional two men.

On many levels I liked this book a lot. As someone who mainly reads things based in facts as we know them today, I enjoyed letting myself into other times and other worlds. I enjoyed the optimism of a future that may have included the reintroduction of indentured servitude but didn’t seem to have anything to say about the doom and gloom of global warming (the number one angst-inducing, underlying current in my psyche). I also enjoyed reading about likable characters who use their abilities to get something done. I love it when people use their talents to achieve things, whether it is baking a pie, organizing a drawer, or travelling through space.

It was also fun to read about the world they encountered when they make it to Rakhat. Ah yes, Rakhat–thankfully the book is relatively low on made up words and language. Didn’t make my eyes cross.

And that is where I will end the recap. Enough to give you a flavor without giving away too much or taxing my limited abilities to describe plots.  But, I do have plenty more to say about the book. There was so much to stimulate thought and conversation. Here are some of my hot button topics:

  • It is amazing that in 1996 an author thought that indentured servitude would make a comeback so that it would be old hat by 2019. Ditto for asteroid mining. I wonder what I would think 23 years into the future could be like?
  • It was nice to see the part of the Catholic church that is interested in expanding, rather than closing, minds. On the other hand, I found all of the ‘God’s will’ stuff to be a little tedious at times. It’s not entirely heavy handed in that regard, but it does seem to be wanting to work out theological issues about belief about which I am pretty apathetic.
  • Not that I have read much sci-fi, but it would be nice for someone to come up with a future or alien world that doesn’t cleave so much to our understanding of gender roles. The aliens in this book kind of challenge it but the human characters don’t so much, and the way the author explains the alien gender issues seems so rooted in the past–as in our present. Why do the child-bearing aliens have to be considered the females? It is interesting how our imaginations can turn asteroids into spaceships but can’t comprehend a future that is more fundamentally different.
  • Kudos to Russell for understanding the importance and prevalence of electronic tablets. I know other science fictions, like Star Trek, have also predicted this as well. It was also kind of interesting to see how she wrote about the Web from her 1996-vantage point. She definitely sees it as a useful tool, but one doesn’t get the feeling she entirely understood how important the web would become. And I think it is accurate to say that she didn’t realize that all those tablets would use the Web as their content server.
  • I had a few quibbles with the plausibility of certain situations, but nothing that I can even remember and nothing that detracted from the overall enjoyment of the book.

I really liked the characters, but I would have liked to have seen them encounter more things and do more things on Rakhat, and maybe see a bit more about how the rest of humanity responded to their expedition. But it didn’t seem incomplete, just kind of left me wishing for more.

The next, and final statement is kind of spoilery, so caveat lector

As much as I wanted them to explore more, I liked the fact that the author wasn’t afraid to kill most of the human explorers off. Just think of all the explorers throughout history who have died mid-exploration. Their discoveries, and those of explorers after them, eventually fill in the blanks for us looking back at the past–or indeed form part of our overall frame of reference and how we understand the world, but if we break down those discoveries into their component parts, we come to individual humans who die in the middle of what they were doing. Their stories interrupted.  You see what I mean about this book being a good conversation starter?

, but was also gratified that the author wasn’t afraid to, well this really is going to be spoiler-y, kill so many of them off.

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