Wednesday, September 7, 2016

What I Read: The Sparrow

Image courtesy Villard
I got The Sparrow in a care package from a friend. I put it away for a while (I had other books to read) and finally picked it up last week when I didn't feel like going to the library. After reading the back and also getting some way into it, I realized that one of the book blogs I followed had recently reviewed it. But I didn't remember which blog, or much of the review (except that it was mostly pretty positive) so it was the best of both worlds: I had heard good things but nothing was spoiled for me! (So if you've reviewed it, send me the link in the comments!)

In a nutshell, The Sparrow is a first contact SF story: in the near future, SETI finally yields fruit and, sponsored by the Jesuit order, off our characters go to harvest it. Things do not go as anticipated.

Thoughts without spoilers:

 I think Russell did a pretty good job in terms of alien world building and race creation. She walked the fine line between overly vague descriptions of the alien races and overly detailed very well, and overall the writing was fluid and free of embarrassing clunky bits. Like, I love John Scalzi as much as the rest of you do, but if you go back and re-read Redshirts, his need to use dialogue tags in EVERY. LINE. OF DIALOGUE. will kind of ruin the book for you. I don't know how Wil Wheaton managed with the audiobook version; just listening to JV read it out loud was jarring. Even today we periodically tack on a "Dahl said" on the end of a sentence as a sort of inside joke. No such clunkiness here. If there were issues with the execution (and there were, for me), the writing was at least enjoyable. The flashback/present day jumps are, in the beginning, a little obnoxious (and the flashbacks could have had some of the fat trimmed, I think) but as things pick up the shifts become quite seamless and build up some amount of dramatic tension.

Russell also had a pretty good sense of what sort of tech we would have in 2019. I got the impression this was a fairly recent release (since I had only heard of it last year or so), but no: this came out back in 1996! I don't know if we'll be mining asteroids by 2019, but SpaceX is definitely picking up the slack when it comes to space travel (even if I think governments should be investing in it, sigh); it doesn't really feel preposterously far-fetched. Meanwhile, in 2016, tablets are already ubiquitous. Good call, Russell!

The only writing-related thing I couldn't get over was 1) her tendency to explicitly mark cultural references as references (in one scene someone quotes Young Frankenstein and someone else replies "I love Young Frankenstein!"; in another there's something like: " ' "We're looking for a few good men," ' Anne said, quoting the old recruitment slogan for the Marines.") and 2) her use of said references, all dating to the 1970s and 1980s, in the scenes set in 2060. Young Frankenstein is a national treasure, yes (RIP Gene Wilder), but whether people will be quoting it 90 years later is maybe not the kind of suspension-of-disbelief-breaker you want in your Jesuits In Space novel. Ninety years is a long-ass time. It takes a special kind of nerd to be under 30 and go and reference the Marx Brothers these days—knowingly, anyway.

Speaking of the Marx Brothers, let's take a moment for some levity:

Beyond writing style, Russell also gave pretty serious thought to the linguistic paradigms of multiple alien races. The world-building overall I think was solid, and I'm very picky about world-building in SF/F—praise from Caesar is praise indeed.

I gave it 3 stars over on the ol' GoodReads (which is a pretty good rating from me). If you stumble across it, and you like SF with a heavy dose of humanities/liberal arts insights (linguistics, anthropology), you'll like this. I do want to talk out the things that downgraded my 4-star rating to a 3-star, and since that all is REALLY SPOILERY (and also touches on some really heavy content), it's after a jump.

What held me back from 4 stars was mostly the characters.

A few negative reviews on Good Reads have blasted them for being terrible scientists and fucking it up, but I think they actually have pretty good fuck-ups (if that makes sense). None of the fuck-ups, really, are from someone holding the Idiot Ball; well, none except one, maybe; more on that in a second. There's no protocol for alien first contact; if/when it happens for real, people will fuck it up ("unknown unknowns") so characters in a novel have every right to fuck things up as well. So that's not my beef with the characters. The fact that something as seemingly innocent as planting a garden is what ruins everything is pretty realistic, in my view; it's impossible to foresee the consequences of such simple, harmless ("harmless") actions.

Over the course of the book there are lots of scenes where people are chronically afflicted by laughter. I don't mean as in they got some weird space sickness and couldn't stop laughing; I mean that Russell is incapable of writing a dinner party scene without everyone laughing at everything. This would be okay except you should never actually write out the jokes, because then you have to hope your jokes are funny, and unless you've been doing comedy writing for ages they're probably not. Emilio, in particular, is supposed to be hilarious—not for me, thanks.

If "not being that funny" was the only character flaw, I'd live with it. But it's not. Everyone is pretty weakly sketched, though Emilio fares better because we spend 95% of the book with him. Some characters just blend in with the background (George, Marc, Alan, Jimmy) and the ones who do distinguish themselves are obnoxious. Not as people—as written characters. Anne suffers under the "Team Mom" trope and is officially designated as having a near-psychic insight into people's emotional states. (The author later admits that she modeled Anne and George on herself and her husband, respectively. HMMMMMM.)

Sofia, meanwhile, is the stereotypical Ice Queen type and much of people's internal thought processes (and even sometimes external dialogue) are about how despite her astonishing intelligence and hypercapability, she obviously has a broken little girl in there somewhere. (And, also, about how pretty she is. Blegh.) Can't we have super awesome hypercapable women without speculation about their baggage? No one muses about Captain Kirk's inner broken little boy. (And, of course, both of the women are very clearly marked as "thin and pretty," even if Anne is in her early 60s.) D. W. is the least troperrific character with any personality, but he does have a hyper-Texas dialect that felt very put-on and cringeworthy, to the point where I skimmed a lot of his dialogue. Maybe it's one of those things where it feels like a stereotype to me (not being from Texas and all) but someone actually from Texas could confirm/deny how realistic it was.

I mentioned The Idiot Ball earlier and, from my view, someone tosses it to Sofia and she takes it and runs with it, with deadly consequences. Maybe, I guess, this is good writing—it gives her Ice Queen persona some kind of character development— but it's kind of awful and at the cost of her pragmatism, which is her greatest strength.

If you've already read the book, you know which scene I mean (probably). If you haven't read the book but have decided damn the torpedoes, I'll read this review, I'll summarize: The big reveal at the end is that the Jana'ata (the more scientifically advanced race we meet a little later) actually breed and raise the Runa (the peaceful but relatively unadvanced race we meet right away) for food. Imagine if cows had a language comparable to human language, and could sustain themselves in their own little cow villages, and in addition to eating them we also hired them for certain jobs and engaged in trade with them. Usually the Runa are kept in a sort of low-energy state (something do with diet) so that they don't go into estrus. When the landing party decides they're going to plant a garden (for science and also because they miss Earth food), the Runa are quick to realize the implications. Between the extra food from the human garden and the Runa's own attempts at agriculture, they have enough energy for estrus and the result is a miniature baby boom.

The Jana'ata are smart and are only too aware that they are actually outnumbered by the Runa; population control is the most important aspect of their Runa husbandry. A bumper crop of Runa is bad news for them, so they dispatch the military/police/whatever to this village to take care of the problem. Here, "taking care of the problem" means "slaughtering Runa infants."

Sofia freaks out when she sees the Jana'ata demand the new Runa for slaughter. The Runa, on the other hand, are sort of chill with it, since it's (more or less) the natural way of things for them. But this is completely lost on Sofia. She walks up and takes back one of the Runa infants and incites the Runa to revolt, which they would have never done on their own, and then the rest of the human landing party, minus Emilio and Marc, are slaughtered.

The Sofia at the beginning of the novel would have never done that. She would have played it cool and done the pragmatic thing to ensure her survival (as well as her unborn baby's). She probably would have even had the thought that even if this culling seemed cruel and barbaric, it probably played a role in maintaining the larger balance of the ecosystem—systems get all out of whack if prey populations aren't kept under control, and then everyone suffers. But post-marriage, post-pregnancy Sofia is a completely different person, which I mean character arcs are good but not when they revert to the age-old divide of men being rational and women being emotional. As if it's somehow "unnatural" for a woman to be as cold and pragmatic as Sofia and that, like a rubber band, she eventually needs to snap back to her "proper" form.

That's my first big beef. The second is with Emilio, the central character of the story.

Marc and Emilio survive the onslaught and end up under the protection? ownership? of their first Jana'ata friend, Supaari, and here the story gets fuzzy because even though Supaari likes the humans, he still ends up selling Emilio to a brothel. The book never really gives a clear explanation for it, which would normally bother me a lot, but apparently the sequel clears that up so I'll put that to the side.

Emilio's experience at the brothel (namely, repeated [gang] rapes) is supposed to be the catalyst for his despair and his agnosticism, but I really can't buy it. Not when he almost certainly feels responsible for bringing all of his friends to this planet (and to their dooms) in the first place; not when he would almost certainly feel equally responsible for the deaths of those Runa infants; not when he murders the young Runa assistant he thought of as a daughter in a blind and confused rage. It comes across as uncharacteristic of the Emilio of the rest of the book, who has grown quite attached to his makeshift family and who is naturally able to process his own suffering fairly efficiently so that he can help others process theirs. Even through the throes of trauma, it seems unlike him.

But it's not just that Emilio's reaction seems out-of-character. Alien gang rape is not a trauma that I (or anyone else) will ever experience, so Russell has some latitude there. Some. I could forgive Emilio-the-character for being so shattered by his experiences in the brothel, but I can't forgive Russell-the-author for very clearly making those experiences the whole dramatic linchpin of everything. The big dramatic turning point in Emilio's inquisition? investigation? back home is not "how the landing party was slaughtered" but "Emilio was raped." It feels like we're supposed to be shocked and dismayed at the big reveal about Emilio's experiences in the brothel, but I don't know if I rank that as worse or more shocking than being responsible for so many deaths.

There is a sequel, called Children of God, that is supposed to fill in all of the gaps and also bring some conclusion to the whole thing. I don't know if I'll buy it (maybe used, for cheap), but I would like to read it.

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