Thursday, 8 August 2013

Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow/Children of God

When someone tells you that you'd just love a book, it's almost worth reading it, just to figure out what that tells you about the person making the recommendation. You'll learn a little about them, and perhaps a little about how they see you as well. If you ask an old acquaintance what they think of you, any answer is filtered through layers of politeness and face-saving on both sides; let them recommend a book, and you might be surprised at the kind of person they think you are.

So I dipped into the e-book sample of The Sparrow wondering quite what I might be getting myself in for. Jesuits in space is a pitch which only really bad writing would drive me away from, but I've a tonne of books I've told myself I have to read, and the bad writing bar is getting higher these days. The writing wasn't stellar, but the set up was intriguing, and it certainly didn't read badly. What the heck, I thought. In for a penny. 

I find myself wishing that I had blogged The Sparrow on its own, since I'm not sure the two books can be weighed together well in a single post, but for better or worse I just kept going into the sequel as soon as I'd finished with the first book. This wasn't because the first book ends on some transparent sequel hook or cliffhanger; more that I was curious to see what Russell could do next with her invented world of Rakhat. It turns out that she could do quite a lot with the new world, but that she'd somewhat played out the old one. You probably have to read both books for the sake of completeness, but the first one is unquestionably the better book. Don't just take my word for it; look at the awards. The Sparrow got five or six, including the Tiptree. Children of God made a couple of short and long lists, but that was the height of it.

The Sparrow is a simple book with a tricky structure, jumping back and forth between the preparation for a trip to Alpha Centauri, the trip itself, and the post mortem when only one mutilated survivor - Jesuit Emilio Sandoz - gets back. Right from the get go, we know the trip was a disaster, and the narrative is about slowly teasing out how the characters got schwacked. It fills the book with foreboding to tell so much of it in flashback, and in a way the pay-off feels almost rushed, as thought Russell has spent so long dancing around the problem that when it comes to the punchline, she's bored with it and dashes it off as quickly as she can. While this doesn't feel entirely fair to the characters, it's also true that what they're going through wouldn't be much fun to dwell on. We've spent a long time working round the edges of it, and the weight is already established; perhaps we don't really need the details.

I was startled to see that the book was written in the 1990s, when people seemed pretty optimistic about what technology might get done in the future; the book imagines a mission to Alpha Centauri being practicable in the 2020s, based on a thriving asteroid mining industry in our own solar system; that seems ludicrous today, but such is the peril of SF; the future is never what you think it's going to be. Asteroid mining is probably still just as far away now in 2013 as it seemed in 1995. Mind you, if you want to go looking for things which don't seem terribly credible, I think most people would jump on the notion of the Jesuits being able to bankroll humanity's first ever mission to another star; in contrast, it seems almost visionary to predict in 1995 that the second mission would be viable because of the opportunities for reality TV.

What's a little harder to buy is the notion that the mission planners would just choose to send a bunch of friends who happened to know each other from working together in Puerto Rico. That all feels like Robert Heinlein, as does the preoccupation with the way in which slower than light travel dislocates the travellers in time just as much as in space; one of the first half way decent SF books I ever read, as an eleven year old, was Heinlein's Time for the Stars. Although it's done well, it's table-setting; what Russell is really interested in is cooking her characters, and it's telling that she's worked in historical fiction since. She's interested in what people do when you put them under pressure, and in The Sparrow, I think she was looking for another way to look at the historical work of Jesuit missionaries and the problems of faith, free will and guilt; SF just happened to provide her with a way of isolating the issues a bit so that they could be weighed up without historical baggage.

I think that Russell just about pulled it off. It's a first novel, full of characters who are just a little bit - or a lottle bit - too good to be true. Normally that would annoy me, but given the way in which organised religion has become a punching bag, it was nice to read a book in which religious figures are doing their best and getting it right at least some of the time. It's all a little convenient in the way in which every possible viewpoint has been carefully lined up with a sympathetic character to put the case, but it all made a very agreeable change from the strident anti-religiosity which has become the norm in modern letters.

From a purely technical point of view, The Sparrow doesn't quite work. The central conceit is that this is a tragedy of errors, of misunderstanding piled on misunderstanding, the truth only gradually coming out as we see different characters' angles on what we thought we understood. The problem is that some of the questions can only be resolved by giving us viewpoints that we shouldn't have; the book starts out trying to suggest that all we're going to get is what we can hear from the survivor and whatever was in the diaries and log entries of the people who didn't make it, but towards the end, we start getting scenes which only an omniscient narrator could have recorded, and it slightly breaks the logic of the narrative and the implicit deal with the reader. That's just a quibble; I don't know if Russell could actually have got the job done any other way. What matters is the arc of redemption, guilt and forgiveness she's trying to navigate, and that's delivered powerfully and credibly.

As such, The Sparrow could easily have stood alone, the questions about the invented world of Rakhat left open. 

Even so, Russell went back, and let the consequences of the first visit work their way out in the second book. It's much less seamless; one half of it is the continuation of the long ordeal of Emilio Sandoz, and the other is the collapse of Rakhat's civilisation. Just as in The Sparrow, the narrative jumps back and forth in time, jumping ahead to the aftermath of the arrival of a second Jesuit mission to Rakhat, and then back to the evolving war among Rakhat's people. The Rakhat war is far more interesting, not least because it teases out the contradictions and puzzles the earlier book left open.

One of the most interesting things about Russell's Rakhat is that she finds a solid way to sell the idea of an unchanging society; Rahkat has a perfectly plausible stasis, and a system which would preserve it indefinitely - till the earthlings show up and knock over the first domino by accident. A recurring theme for character after character is the simple sentence "No-one meant any harm." The Jesuits came, determined to avoid the mistakes of historical missionaries, but no matter how careful they were, destruction seems almost inevitable. The book, however, is not concerned so much with the collapse of the civilisation as it is with the price of justice for the people the civilisation has oppressed.  Where's the line between justice and revenge? What does it do to people - to a people - if they set out to exterminate their enemies? 

That's the good part of the book; Rakhat is opened out and richly imagined, and torn apart by its own contradictions. The effort to shoehorn Sandoz into the continuing action doesn't work so well. There's an abashed admission in the afterword that she found it very hard to think of a credible way to get Sandoz ever to go back to Rakhat, and in a way it's a pity she didn't take a lesson from that difficulty and rest the character. He'd done all the heavy lifting in The Sparrow, and completed a ruinous journey. There was a good case for letting him fade out. Keeping him led Russell into all kinds of sin, including the worst Irish joke I've ever read; a Jesuit priest from Belfast with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother called - wait for it - Sean Fein. 

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