Monday, April 1, 2013

Space Seed: THE SPARROW, by Mary Doria Russell

It's a surprise, following my reading to D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, to find another book equally saturated with sex, but here it is, Mary Doria Russell's debut science fiction novel, The Sparrow.

I came to the book because in the wake of a friend asking about it, I saw the book described in terms of the theological question, "Why does God allows evil?" The book does not, in fact, confront that issue. Rather, though the main character, Fr. Emilio Sandoz, lone survivor of a mission to another world, angrily asks about the will of God, the question is misplaced, and I don't know whether the author or the character is more mistaken about the book's point. The long-suffering priest isn't really asking about why God allows suffering; after all, he didn't need to go to Alpha Centauri to pose that question. Instead, he's really asking about his own attempts to divine the will of God, and in the end, his complaint is less about what happened to his friends than about why all these horrors happened to him, making this, ultimately, a book about placing oneself at the center of the universe. I don't think the author realizes this.

The book's premise is that, following a coherent signal of music from another world, the Jesuits launch a mission at breakneck speed, sending a group of colleagues (all tangled in a web of healthy desire) and other specialists toward the source of the interstellar singing. These events are told in the past tense, as, 40 years in the future, when the book begins, we've already seen Fr. Sandoz come back alone and mutilated, the focus of an investigation that's less about why everyone's dead (no one really seems concerned about that) than about the state of affairs in play when the good padre was located by another Earth team.

The book has the strengths and weaknesses of typical genre writing. Characters are clearly delineated with rapid gestures; the plot is briskly explained; there's a nice use, from the beginning, of suspenseful beats; the writing is efficient. The book truly is a page-turner: the prose isn't either clunky or dense enough to slow you down; you definitely want to know what happened next . . . until rather late in the book, when you'd rather not know, because you've already been told that everyone's going to be killed. Even so, Russell shifts perspective from a moment-by-moment approach to one in which events are reconstructed, thus sparing you some of the worst moments, filtering them through the reactions of the characters. Point of view is, in fact, a weak area, or at least an area over which she demonstrates inadequate control. She opts for a multi-person omniscient POV, so we can slip into anyone's thoughts; it's the most difficult POV to pull off, the POV favored by Tolstoy and Morrison, and it requires a deft touch. Russell awkwardly and abruptly drops out of one person into another, nevertheless leaving us in the dark about the thinking of even the main character at many times, so the technique functions to alternately enhance and prohibit understanding.

Since she wants to use suspense to drive the plot, Russell leaves characters unaware of things they ought to notice, things that we notice. It's, again, a standard approach in genre fiction, the withholding of information until it's too late. Some of it works well, but sometimes, you see the seams. The science came across, to this non-scientist, adequately handled, but you have to roll your eyes at the notion that first contact is planned by people who haven't any clue as to what they're doing, the whole thing reminiscent of Reed Richards et al sneaking into the spaceport to steal a rocket ship because they just can't wait. I suppose some analogy to the Jesuit missions among the Native Americans is intended, but, really, those folks went with as much knowledge as possible rather than as little as possible. Once you get past the goofiness of the premise, Russell's on safer ground with human interactions and cultural differences. She's an anthropologist, and this is her territory. Characters are a bit too jokey and casual, dropping way too many current references for my taste; they should be much more terrified than they appear to be. However, Russell's easy way with characters and dialogue does make it easy to connect with most of the people, even when they stay two-dimensional, so their loss hits us hard.

Sex and desire are the source of conflict and the subject of much reflection and outright discussion. The characters are far more forthright in discussing these matters than any humans I know, and, early in the book, it seems that this particular angle is overworked. However, human sexuality is a crucial theme that Russell is working, and though the Jesuit interrogators seem a bit more dense than they need to be, the theme is brought to fruition, resulting in a thoughtful connection of the personal and the cultural.

The book received an extraordinary amount of praise when it came out. I think it does pretty well what a lot of other genre fiction doesn't do well, to wit, approaching its subject in a literate, thoughtful way . . . and without flubbing the third act.