(1996) Mary Doria Russell, Black Swan, £6.99, pbk, 503pp, ISBN 0-552-99777-3
This blast from the recent past has only just been given to me by a friend saying it was 'Jesuits in space' and 'hard SF, space opera'. Well let me say up front that this book is not what I would call hard SF, space opera, though these certainly are these elements central to the plot but largely very much in the background. What this is, is a rather remarkable new wave SF offering, from the US writer Mary Russell: indeed, it was her debut novel.
The year is 2059 and an astronaut who was part of humanity's first interstellar space mission is released from hospital back into the care of his fellows in the Jesuit Priesthood. It is soon clear that something terrible happened during the first contact mission to a nearby star system. The priest is still convalescing from terrible illnesses and prolonged malnourishment, let alone the toll the lengthy return journey took. What is not at all clear is what exactly happened.
This then is one-half of the story. The other half of the story is interwoven in near-alternate chapters. This strand begins in 2019 with astronomers at Arecibo detecting a radio signal from space. (Arecibo in case you did not know it is a large radio telescope cum planetary radar that was used years ago to refine the Earth-Moon and Earth-Venus distance. You may know it from the James Bond film Golden Eye.) Governments are unwilling to meet the expense of a mission to the aliens' system, but the Jesuit priesthood with generous sponsor support is, and so off they go…
As said this is new wave SF and so the plot, which is slow-burn, is very much character-driven. This will delight those into, so-called, 'literary SF', and indeed The Sparrow has won and been short-listed to a number of SF awards winning an Arthur C. Clarke (book), James Tiptree, Jr., Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis and the British Science Fiction Association Award in 1988. Those more firmly rooted in hard SF and space opera may find the book light on sensawunda (sense-of-wonder) and, dare I say it, a little boring: much time is spent working out characters' natures and motivations as well as some Jesuit philosophising. Here the author comes into her own with remarkable depictions of personalities and their interactions. Far less accomplished is her ability to handle plot progression, and in addition it takes ages for things to happen. Part of this problem is that she is seems concerned with writing style leaving it to the reader to work out sentences implications and then half a page later telling us, though by then we had already worked it out. I found this frustrating. Having said that The Sparrow does have its moments and there is an interesting take on the aliens' evolution (with what we ecologists call the Red Queen evolutionary effect).
At this novel's heart is the human, and in particular Christian, story of priests comprehending that God must have chosen (sentient) children elsewhere, not to mention (especially with the sequel) the age-old paradox of pain and suffering in a Universe purportedly created by a 'loving' God. Looking into the author's background, we see that she was raised as a Catholic but left it in her teenage years. Yet obviously there are aspects of her religious heritage she values and, apparently, she later struggled with the question of how much religion she should pass on to her then young son? Personally, I would have liked it more if instead of the new wave dimensions we had had more religious exposition, especially as the Jesuits seem scientifically literate and so at odds with many Darwin-denying, geological-history rejecting, US Christian fundamentalists. But then, hey, authors write what they write, and readers differ in what they like, so who cares about my predilections. Indeed, aside from a sequel to this book, the author's few other works have been one set in World War II, an international political, light thriller, and a western: she is a writer unconfined by genre. As such one has to admire her, though such diversity is not conducive to building up a reader following.
Returning to The Sparrow, this is one offering that will be lapped up by fans of new wave SF. In addition, those heavily into first contact stories may want it for their collection.
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