On Mary Doria Russel’s "The Sparrow" (TQP0036)
All right, apparently this book came out in 1996, and everyone read it except for me, but the hell with you guys. I’m going to write about it anyway, because it was good, and because when I was trying to explain to my friend why it was one of the best books I’d ever read, I couldn’t. I’ve got to be able to explain it to someone.
So, The Sparrow is science fiction, but only in the way that a book about Jesuits traveling to an alien planet and talking to an alien race is science fiction–which is to say, either very much, or potentially not at all. The Sparrow falls into the latter category, primarily because the science itself is actually of little relevance to the story; you could move the whole thing back five hundred years and make it about a Jesuit mission to Fiji and you wouldn’t really lose anything.
Except, of course, you would, which is what the book is cognizant of: human beings are eager explorers, fascinated by the new, by discovery. A book that creates a world for us to explore is as much an act of exploration as it is about exploration. The nature of finding answers to our questions is at the very heart of The Sparrow, and telling the story about a Jesuit mission to an alien world creates a sympathetic wanderlust in our own hearts.
Let me actually take a moment, before I go all on with my waxy rhapsody, to talk about Russell’s techniques here. She’s got this beautiful, spare but fluid prose–a clean kind of writing that’s like drinking from a clear, cold stream. There is not one word more or less than necessary, and simply reading it is a joy in itself. The characterizations are warm and loving; they are the work of an author that loves as people those that she writes about, and her affection for them is contagious.
Russell makes expert use of the media res, as well, beginning the narrative after the disastrous mission, and then recalling the events leading up to the mission and the ruination of her main character in a narrative flashback. Bifurcating the narrative like this lends an ominous gloom to everything that happens; every moment of joy is tinged with a sorrowful sense of foreboding.
This, of course, is a very Catholic phenomena, and is essential not just to the dramatic quality of the story, but to the principle philosophy of the book as well.
It’s the Catholics that deify suffering–the Catholic view that produced so many bleeding, tortured, dying martyrs, the Catholic view that’s obsessed with the Crucifixion (rather than the Resurrection), the Catholic view that sees agony and catastrophe not simply as an unavoidable aspect of the world, but as a very necessary part of the process of spiritual enlightenment. And it is the attempt to reconcile their own loving God the Father, with the incalculable pain that He demands before his Children can know Him, that yields the mysticism characteristic of, for example, the Trappist Monks.
The Jesuits, of course, are not mystics; the Jesuits are the Church’s scientists, lawyers, theologians. The Society of Jesus works to love God through the application of rigorous intellect–to know God through understanding his world.
At it’s most basic level, The Sparrow is the story of a man whose reason abuts against a universe that steadfastly refuses to explain itself. It is about a man who believes that he has seen God, only to be destroyed by His callous indifference. Man screams his demands at the top of his voice, and God’s only response is, “Where were you when I made the crocodile?”
The Sparrow doesn’t give us any answers, beyond Matthew’s assurance that “not a sparrow falls but the Almighty sees it,” or, as Shakespeare put it, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” The universe is simply laid bare, complete in its awful, enigmatic majesty, by turns beautiful and terrible, and it is down to us to accept what is for what it is.
Huhm. This post was largely unspecific, because I don’t want to give anything away. Let me just finish up by saying…hm. It’s like The Bridge Over the San Luis Rey, but with Jesuits and aliens. It possesses precisely the same amount of warmth, love, clarity, and pain.