Thursday, January 5, 2012

Of Jesuit Priests and Aliens

Today's book post features Mary Doria Russell's first novel, The Sparrow.  This book was first handed to me with the comment, "Here, you like science fiction; this book will change your life."  Naturally, my expectations were set very high after an assertion like that.  I can easily assure you that the novel more than lived up to its praise. The book is, to say the least, profound, a description I do not use lightly.

The Basics
Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Print.

Originally published in 1996, The Sparrow was Russell's first novel.  Russell has studied a variety of disciplines in anthropology and holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan.  This, as well as her Catholic upbringing, can easily be seen as an influence and aide in her writing.  The Sparrow follows the journey of Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest.  In 2019, the Jesuit order organizes an expedition to Rakhat, a planet discovered through the SETI program.  In 2059, Father Sandoz returns as the only survivor of the mission and relates the story through his memories.

The Book
Part of the draw of science fiction (and fantasy, which I typically prefer anyway) for me is that many novels of the genre have to invest a significant amount of energy in world building.  There's just something about discovering a new world and culture that infinitely engages my interest. Russell's book certainly does that, since she has to create the world of Rakhat in a way that her readers can successfully suspend any disbelief in alien cultures and become absorbed in her story.  I was instantly drawn in by Russell's abilities in this area.  She creates a vision of Rakhat that goes far beyond the surface level expectations readers might have of an alien culture.  Russell creates two alien species - the Runa and the Jana'ata - and crafts a culture for each, complete with social interactions, technologies, societal problems, traditions, language etc. (Always fun!) Readers discover these traits along with the Jesuit missionaries while simultaneously witnessing the Jesuits discover how to live with the natives on a planet with vastly different plant and animal life than Earth.

I also really liked Russell's prose.  It easily draws readers into the story, instantly engaging the audience.  There are no awkward turns of phrase or poorly constructed passages to jolt readers from their reading experience, either, which is a plus (and totally necessary, given how many times I had to set the book down to escape its intensity).  She develops the story so smoothly that you barely notice that the pages are flying by as quickly as they are until you're halfway through the book and it's midnight.

It's a good thing that the book is a quick read, too, because I'm not sure I could have read it had it been slow or had difficult prose. The Sparrow is easily one of the most intense books I've ever read.  It was at once incredibly fascinating and horribly disturbing.  I'm a chronic re-reader of books, constantly revisiting old favorites, but I can quite confidentially state that I will never reread this novel.  And not because it isn't a fantastically good book, because it is!  But believe me, once is more than enough to allow this book to indelibly mark my memory.  I haven't been so affected by a novel since I read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.  I greatly enjoyed reading The Sparrow, but boy did it make me squirm! (Let's be honest, like The Handmaid's Tale, The Sparrow just plain scared the pants off me and not in a Steven King way, either). Unless you just really loathe science fiction and/or alien races, you really need to read this book.

The Extras
  • As always, I must strongly recommend that you pay a visit to the author's website, where you can learn more about the author and her novels.
  • The FAQ page for The Sparrow on Russell's website is also pretty interesting, especially her explanations of Sandoz's hands and her approach to language creation.
  • An interesting interview with the author can be found over on the Bookslut book blog.
  • And let's not forget that there's a sequel: The Children of God.


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