Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: The Sparrow

There's always an odd feeling that comes when you read a book and appreciate it while feeling fairly certain you took away a completely different message than the one the author intended. It's sort of awkward--it seems almost churlish, like you're refusing a gift the writer gave you and instead rooted through their stuff to take home a souvenir. It makes one want to keep silent, for fear of offending fans who no doubt appreciated the book the way it was supposed to be read.

Which brings me to Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow', which was recommended to me by some good friends. And I'm pretty sure it was intended as a science fiction religious parable, a meditation in the spirit of Job on a devout and saintly Jesuit man who believes that divine providence has set him on a path to first contact with an alien race, only to have his faith tested when the mission (in both senses of the word) goes horribly wrong.

What I instead took away was a cautionary tale about the very real need for laws regarding who can initiate first contact with an alien species, because there are definitely some really stupid people out there who will jump in with both feet and mess it up beyond all hope of fixing if we're not careful. Father Sandoz, the main character, is instantly convinced that their trip to Alpha Centauri is divinely ordained because a) he is one of the first people to discover the message that the aliens send, b) his friends all have technical expertise that would come in handy on a mission to Alpha Centauri, and c) he doesn't know enough about what he's contemplating doing to even understand how badly he's about to mess it up.

Seriously, the Jesuit expedition to Rakhat (the planet orbiting Alpha Centauri whose messages Earth receives) is a classic example of Dunning-Kruger in action. They don't even think about the risks of biological contamination--when the first crewmember dies (I'd apologize for spoilers, but most of the book is told in flashback well after it's established that Father Sandoz is the only survivor) they bury his body in the alien soil because, well, they've already breathed the air and eaten the food and defecated onto the ground, so what's the good in preventing a human corpse from rotting in an alien ecosystem? They plant a wide variety of Earth vegetables, all the while patting themselves on the back for using "low-germination" seeds know, probably...won't become an invasive species that overruns a completely alien world and destroys its delicate balance of nature.

You know, probably.

And if their grasp of biological contamination begins and ends with "don't bring along breeding pairs of predatory animals or anything," their grasp of cultural contamination is equally criminal in its naivete. They encounter two sentient alien species in the course of their expedition, and by the end (mild spoilers) they've touched off a civil war and at least one genocide through their interference in an elaborate social structure that they don't even begin to understand. To say nothing of what happens to the expedition and Father Sandoz,, okay, some serious spoilers here, alright? (If you don't want to go any further, assume I recommended the book but really didn't like any of the characters in it.)

The big revelation that the book tapdances around with its flashback-heavy narrative structure is that Father Sandoz spends several years as a prisoner of the alien Jana'ata, being raped in one of their harems. The way it's treated is...uncomfortable. I don't mean in the obvious sense that rape is an uncomfortable narrative trope, I mean in the sense that there's a vague sense in the way it's presented that to be raped as a man is somehow a worse and more shocking violation than to be raped as a woman, and that it's a deeper and more shocking revelation to find out that he was raped than anything else that happened to him or anyone else in the book.

In fact, some of the characters directly contrast his rape with the "prostitution" that Sofia Mendes, one of the female characters in the book experienced, calling it "worse" despite the fact that she was a child prostitute in a war zone who was clearly and blatantly sexually exploited under threat of violence. On the whole, it felt bizarrely like the author was hinting that raping a man is worse than raping a woman, which is just weird and creepy.

That said, the book is worth reading. It's a really well thought out hard science-fiction exploration of a very plausible first-contact scenario with an interesting and beautifully considered alien world and culture, and it makes some trenchant points about the way we consider the careless damage done by explorers of ages past to be the result of ignorance rather than fanaticism. But I have to admit, I'd feel a lot more comfortable with the book if I got the impression that Russell intended it to be about that.

1 comment:

Gerry Canavan said...

I taught this book a few years ago and the way the "male rape" reveal was handled made the book seem really *old* to my students. They pretty much understood that he had been seriously violated in some way instantly and took it as an anti-climax when the book finally got around to talking about it.

There's a sequel, which is worth reading, though flawed in its own ways. The sequel is designed in part to put a thumb on the scale with regard to "was this mission divinely ordained." The sequel more or less asserts it definitely was, though not necessarily for the reasons you'd initially think.