The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Villard, 1996) 408 pages

TS Russell

This is another book I heard about through that Great Courses course about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. This book came out of the class on how religions are portrayed in science fiction. However, a lot of it has more to do with alien “first contact” and the events that follow, although there’s plenty exploring the relationship of God to man (and alien) to satisfy a church deacon.

Wolfe sort of warns you about the odd aspects of this book, both as science fiction and as literature, meaning that it’s not a particularly easy read. But, as Wolfe promised, the payoff is substantial if a bit tame in comparison to what goes on across the planet we live on—aliens aren’t torturing women in Africa or the Middle East in the name of religion. We are. And we are all humans.

Anyway, this book takes place along two timelines: the first contact event in 2019 (almost 35 years in the future when the book was written) and a kind of religious trial when the sole survivor of the initial expedition, Jesuit priest Father Emilio Sandoz is fetched back to earth in 2059. Due to the relativistic effects of star travel, Sandoz is much “younger” than his colleagues who have spent the entire time of his trip on earth and aged at the ordinary rate.

Not that it much matters. When the second expedition from earth reaches the planet of Rakhat and the two odd races of creatures that dwell there, they find Father Sandoz with his hands horribly mutilated and working in a brothel as a prostitute. Moreover, the crazy priest kills the one being on the planet that actually cares about him: a young child in no way involved in the priest’s condition.

So Sandoz is taken back to earth to face charges about his circumstance when found, as well as questions about exactly what happened to the other seven people who left earth with him. These good people, all chosen by the church, half of them Jesuits, ride an asteroid to incredible speeds (the details of this asteroid mass-burning for speed are not presented) to reach the stars. We know there are intelligent beings on a planet out there because a radio telescope has received charming music of classical quality coming from one of the three suns of Alpha Centauri.

Before going on, let me just say that there are no real spoilers to risk in revealing the plot; no cliffhangers to be uncovered; no plot twists to expose; no doubt as to Sandoz’s guilt or innocence. It’s all there on the book flap, and the real tension is in his former friends grappling with what transformed Sandoz from a gentle priest helping poor children in Puerto Rico into a homicidal maniac. Whatever it was, due to Sandoz’s role in society, there is not convenient villain to blame, like violent video games or our current understanding that many priests are capable of evil deeds because they are all human beings, and human beings are capable of all manner of evil deeds. This book was written before the recent church scandals that have swept away the naïve picture of the always innocent, and in some ways childish, individuals who are drawn to the priesthood.

The first question a reader might ask is this: What the heck is a Jesuit priest doing on an expedition to encounter the first aliens detected by humanity? (And these aliens are tantalizingly close: literally right next door on Alpha Centauri.) Well, in this future, based on trends of the late 80s and early 90s, only Japan has enough money to accomplish great things. In fact, they run Arecibo, the big radio telescope that receives radio broadcasts of truly wonderful music that entices humanity to get to know the obviously sensitive beings that created such marvelous tunes. (This future 2019, imagined in the early 1990s, has no Facebook, no social media, no slavish following of reality show stars, smartphone isolation, or…Hey! Can we go back?…I’m not serious: see Walter’s First Law of Reality: When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.)

Outside of the rich Japanese, only the Holy Mother Church, not yet unburdened of years of bingo earnings by victims of abuse, has the wherewithal to mount an expedition to the aliens before the world’s governments can scrape together some cash to do the same. In the spirit of exploration, humans just jump right in instead of thinking to send a query to these other beings asking if their arrival would be a welcome one.

The priest’s presence has a lot to do with the author’s background. Russell is a cultural anthropologist, and her specialty is paleoanthropology,the study of how ancient societies lived in prehistoric times. Her studies and experiences inform the text, and make for a different kind of science fiction experience.

Readers can be forgiven if they see Sandoz and company’s encounter with the aliens as a thinly veiled retelling of what happened when the first Jesuits encountered the bloody altars on top of the pyramids of the Aztecs. The moral outrage at all this ripping of beating hearts out of the chests of sacrificial victims must have been absolutely justified to the priests who had conveniently forgotten how their minions made the streets of the Holy Land run with blood during the Crusades. But, obviously, those guys over there are savages, and we aren’t.

(As a footnote, I am not one of those people who tend to think that the Jesuits invented the Aztecs’ brutality in order to justify their own inhuman treatment of the natives after the conquest—which recent DNA studies have shown to be even worse than researchers had imagined. Aztec DNA is immediately polluted with the imported European kind, which probably had the benefit of allowing many of them to survive European diseases. But it seems that a whole generation of women in the cities interbred with no one but the conquerors. More to my point, a recent construction project in Mexico City unearthed an enormous wall consisting of layers of human skulls mud-bricked into a hundred-foot-long rampart, right at the foot of the main pyramid in the center of town. So yeah, those Aztec rulers were some evil folks. Although they say that those invited to for a brief visit to the altar on top of the pyramid were happy to be picked to keep the sun shining, and they had some really good drugs…and never ignore the effects of peer pressure, whether civilian or religious. Those who tremble before Jesus will happily skewer you outside the abortion clinic.)

The question asked about the Aztecs is the same as that asked in this book: could the same God that nurtures us good people also rule over these unrefined heathens? How can a just God, supposed ruler of the universe, allow such inequity to continue?

It’s a fair question. Unfortunately, in this book as in real life, there aren’t any easy answers. The main offense the visitors from earth commit is to treat the downtrodden peasants of Rakhat with as much dignity as their overlords. This offense cannot be forgiven, especially because being invited to dine with the overlords is an experience as fraught as being invited to enjoy the view from the top of the Aztec’s big pyramid. You don’t mess with other people’s food supply.

I will reveal why the book is called The Sparrow: it’s on page 401, almost at the very end of the book. “Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” his judges cite: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.

This book is an interesting peek into the mind of priest who can no longer believe in a just God. If you don’t expect more than that, you won’t be disappointed.


Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein

Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein (Putnam, 2015) 486 pages

SR Sanford and Ctein

Okay, John Sandford is a name I recognize, but I had never come across Ctein before. And is it pronounced “Stein,” but spelled with a Cyrillic “s”? I think so, but my brain keeps seeing it as “K-tine,” which I’m sure is not correct. In any case, they did a good job of hiding the “co-author” seams of this project, and I know that’s not easy.

I also realized that I haven’t done many science fiction books lately. I seem to have had a long run of fascinating AI and modern biology books lately. But I just finished this one and I’m reading another (and what a book that is: but you’ll have to wait a bit), so we’ll address the overall imbalance a bit.

There is a spectrum of science fiction stories that runs from soft sci-fi to hard. In soft science fiction, Harry gets in his rocket and takes off for Saturn and it just gets there because, you know, the whole point is not the hardware, but what happens between Sally and the alien she told Harry meant nothing to her. In hard science fiction, Harry spends 200 pages telling you how the Saturn rocket was designed, built, and functions because, you know, the whole point is not the Harry-Sally-alien three-way, but the hardware.

On this line from hard to soft, Saturn Run is so hard that it could have been carved out of a diamond by an industrial laser (which actually happens to create a vinyl record needle in the book). There is even a ten-page “authors’ note” starting on page 477 that not only gives readers the science behind the spaceship in the book, the USSS Nixon, but tells how computer simulations were used to make the trajectories and timelines for voyages from earth to Saturn realistic and correct. We have come a long way from simple Hohmann transfer orbits that we calculated with slide rules(!) at NYU back during the lunar program.

We know that getting there is half the fun, and in this case two third of the book involves getting to Saturn. This is where (in 2066) a surfer/slacker/war-hero-post-traumatic-stress/rich guy (page 19) has accidentally discovered an alien space outpost among the rings. The Chinese find out and re-purpose an expedition to Mars to get there first, but the Americans invent a new rocket system called VASIMR (explained on page 172 and again on page 481) and strap it to a modified space station to beat the Chinese to Saturn. Now, there seems to be no other reason for the president of the USA (a Hispanic woman in 2066) to try and beat the Chinese to any possible goodies other than “those guys didn’t invite us along.”

Almost every problem the crew faces along the way is the same as any isolated community in the Arctic or out-of-the-way place faces. So we have issues with testing explosions (page 129), sex problems (pages 150, 207, and 219), and possible sabotage (page 189). (As a computer and network guy, I have to tell you that there is a simple solution to the computer issues mentioned on page 190.)

The earth people are a diverse group, but not really deep. Isolation is always an issue, and I liked the diversity of the crew. They are handled as deftly as the crew in the classic Forbidden Planet movie.

So I liked the book a lot, but it did weasel quite a bit on the one thing that anyone who reads about alien first contact cares about: the aliens. There are none! And of course the artificially intelligent machine that greets the visitors speaks better English than the characters do. The machine is conveniently programmed to reveal nothing at all about alien species, which turn out to be quite numerous in this section of the galaxy. (This knowledge, which should be met with stunning amazement, is shrugged off in favor of a “what neat stuff can you give us?” approach to interstellar relations.)

Instead of real aliens, all the travelers encounter is a kind of alien vending machine or arcade game that grants points for Earth trinkets like old music (Motorhead and Bach are apparently favorites in this arm of the galaxy (page 332)). You trade the points for other stuff (will Lemmy get a cut?), but we never see any alien-wares because the Chinese manage to blow up a piece of the vending machine while trying to get it to go “tilt” or whatever and get Earth banned from interstellar trade for 144 years (I am not making this up: its’ on page 368). But it was an interesting approach to the issues.

I was a bit distressed about one aspect of the book, however. And I don’t feel bad about telling you about this aspect of the book, because it’s out there in reviews already and the end is still a surprise, even if you know this. The whole Chinese-American competition reminded me of the old days after WW II when the USA used to go to international trade talks and say “all we want is a fair advantage” over other countries. After all, the USA won World War II and every other industrial country in the world had to rebuild by buying American, so what was the use of complaining? This strategy kept Americans busy and employed in manufacturing for more than twenty years, but no one explained to the USA trade negotiators that the words “fair” and “advantage” meant very different things and did not belong together in the same phrase, like the oxymorons “working vacation” or “jumbo shrimp.” Other countries wasted no time pointing this out.

In this book, however, the irony of the “we come in peace for all mankind” USSS Nixon crew espousing a blatantly jingoistic attitude is lost on the characters.

The problem is this: the Americans have essentially found eight quarters in the coin return slot of the alien vending machine (yes, I know many machines today do not have coin return slots, but look it up). The Americans split in a hurry before the Chinese find out that the Americans have all the quarters.

I’m not too sure why the Americans of 2066 are so unwilling to share with the Chinese. It may be because of Korea and Vietnam, but we always tell countries that we want to forgive and forget and not to hold grudges. I’m also not sure why the Russians and south Asian Indians seem to have vanished as powers by 2066, which is only 50 years in the future.

In any case, the Chinese solution about the eight quarters, once they find out (“The loose change?” says the vending machine. “The Americans said they’d take care of that…”) is rejected. The Chinese plan is to split the two bucks four ways: two quarters for the USA, two for China, and the other four to be parceled out to other countries. For some reason, the characters all scoff at this crazy Chinese sharing thing, and readers, I take it, are expected to smile and go along with this (I assume there are no plans for a Chinese edition).

Much is made about the presence of a covert Chinese political officer on board, although most of the complaining is done by the American NSA/CIA agent aboard the American ship! The Chinese operative is a bloodthirsty and soulless monster, but I suspect readers are expected to cheer when the spy on the Nixon feeding information to the Chinese is killed in an “accident” (wink, wink) by the American “political officer” at the end of the book.

I think this aspect of the book would not bother me as much if there were some concrete reason for not wanting any quarters to end up in Chinese hands. But the only reason seems to be “well, we’re Americans and we want a fair advantage…” And that did not work well for me.