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3.9 out of 5 stars
The Sparrow: A Novel
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In years gone by the Jesuits travelled far and wide trying to convert civilisations to Christianity. Jesuits were men of considerable learning and they became the friends of Emperors in such places as China and Japan. It is not clear if they actually were particularly succesfull but their travels make interesting reading.
This novels pushes the process to a future in which a Jesuit expedition travels to a star which has broadcast radio signals suggesting that it has intelligent life. The book is not linear but starts off with one member returning alive with his fellows killed. His hands have been mutilated and it is thought that he killed an innocent member of one of the species on the new planet. The book is broadly a gradual (some might say glacial) revalation of what happened on the expedition.
The writer is unusual in that she was a university academic who turned to writing fiction late in life. As a result the book is poignant with issues. How can a benevolent God create a universe in which there is suffering and so on. The structure of the book consists of intertwining the events as they unfold plus an inquiry which takes place some sixty years later as to whey the expedition fails. The main character who is the Jesuit priest who comes back with the mutilated hands is infuriating. For chapter after chapter one constantly exclaims, why can't you just say what happened. However we have to work to a gradual climax which only really unfolds in the last 100 or so pages of the book. In fact the last 100 pages or so are quite gripping but for the initiall 400 or so one just thinks continually of the main character, let it all out, you will feel better, but for the point of view of dramatic development we are kept guising to the end.
The book has other anoying aspects. In reality no one would send off an expedition to a distant planet with people hoping off and talking to new sentient life forms. Look at what happened when the Spanish went to South America and the diseases they transferred to the Indian population killed 80 to 90% of the local population.
However the book looks back to the time of when the Jesuits sent missions to China and other places rather than being grounded in the present. The behavour of the main characters is also irrational. They are poor at understanding the nature of their enviroment and its pitfalls. The questions they ask to their new friends are poorly directed and give them no understanding of the problems they may face. History shows that real expolorers were somewhat more robust.
The character who survives also wines so much. It is true that he has a rather bad time but many people in life have a hard time. He tends to exhibit maudlin self pity rather than being a person who is truly reflecting on the nature of the universe and its compatability with a benevolent creator.
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on November 7, 2003
I really enjoyed the first 100 pages - I thought the characters were well developed and the story line was OK. I enjoyed the book until our heroes found out about the mysterious civilization - the singers in Proxima Centaurs. From this point on the book was full of technical inconsistencies and story gaps and it was very annoying to continue. I somehow digested the fact that the alien life was found around the closest star to our Sun (very convenient, but well it happens), I also closed my eyes to some technical inconsistencies, but I said: "OK, the book does not focus on the technical side of the problem but on the emotional", so I was still willing to continue. The final drop in my frustration was the fact that after this great discovery the Jesuits are the one that sponsor the mission, not any Space agency, not the military, not the government - this is the first mission to another planet ever in Human history, this is the first alien civilization found ever in Human history. And instead of sending experienced people suitable for such pioneering mission they send a priest, a medical doctor and few scientists without any training? Not a surprise that the mission was a disaster... I can go on and on, but I will stop at this point. The bottom line is that I am very unsatisfied with the book.
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on September 30, 2003
_The Sparrow_ is a story of a Jesuit mission to a newly discovered alien race on Alpha Centauri. The lone survivor of the mission, years later, must answer questions about what happened. The story unfolds through his testimony and flashbacks, as he comes to grip with what he has witnessed.
From a Science Fiction perspective, the story and science are very good. (There's a bit of discreet hand waving about the technology, which can be forgiven given that's not the focus of the story.) The beings of Alpha Centauri are sufficiently alien and interesting, if only shown in a few sketches. The expedition's trials are well thought out and the interaction between the characters seems natural.
Sadly, the work tries to handle some deeper questions about the nature of God and of evil. In the humble opinion of this reviewer, there are few new ideas or dilemmas presented that would not be covered in a college introductory course on the subject. The idea that a Jesuit priest, albeit one trained as a linguist, would not have previously encountered the problems the main character agonizes over is unbelievable. To then have Jesuits be rendered speechless despite 500+ years of theology on the subject strains credulity. And to compound the oversight, discussions on the effect of non-human beings on theology are glossed over, along with any questions about the nature of "good" and "evil" from an alien mindset.
In the end, this book is an entertaining and engrossing read with a very weak ending. In the end, the horrific and soul-shattering revelation the plot has been promising turns out to be a very old theological problem with new clothes, but without a new approach.
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on February 20, 2002
Imagine a teenager who believes herself to be Dorothy Parker - now imagine being forced to sit with that teenager and her friends for hours upon hours as they "banter". This author actually has her characters quote lines from movies to one another as a clubby indication of wit. Like those people we all know who can recite Monty Python verbatim but never actually say anything funny of their own accord. Similarly, the author imagines characters of sophisticated taste using words like "superb" to describe a 17th Century table. The characters are unbearable but the author is clearly enchanted with them.
With the single exception of the main question that the ending raises - all the theological and spiritual issues are pretty adolescent. Putting some of her legitimate but theologically youthful issues into the mouths of priests the author demands that the reader imagine these men never actually went through seminary. The also author seems to equate morality and spirituality with late 20th Century American liberalism.
On the positive side, I have to confess that the last 50 pages are laugh out loud funny. The "shocker" ending - is genuinely surprising. Overall I actually liked the ending but getting there was like spending hours reading a teenager's poetry journal - or having twelve inch steel spikes driven through your eyes - which ever seems more painful to you.
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on November 14, 2001
I gave 2 stars because I could see the possibility of this being a good book . It didn't however deliver .
I wanted to like the characters but couldn't .... they were too cute , too witty , too unbelievable , too anything/everything . The two introduced at the last minute while preparing for liftoff ( which was annoying in itself ) I liked better than the ones introduced at the beginning .
I kept waiting for the book to get better but it never did . The story couldn't get beyond the next witty or sexy remark . Which is really too bad because some really great life issues I would loved to have read about in the story were introduced ... and then promptly dropped in favour of some lame excuse for wit or sex talk .
The ending was such a disappointment . After slogging through the whole book (hoping to find a reason for doing so other than it being my reading group selection ) , I was almost let down . I say almost because I really wasn't expecting the book to redeem itself in the last 50 pages ... just hoping .
I would say not to waste your time reading this book except those who liked it REALLY seemed to like it .... for me , I could have been clipping my toenails .
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on October 27, 2000
Judging from the pretentious "Reader's Guide" at the end of the trade paperback edition I guess we are expected to regard The Sparrow as a major work of literature. If only this was true.
The basic story is simple. The Vatican sends a group of people led by Jesuits on the first exploration of Alpha Centauri after transmissions are detected that indicate it may harbor intelligent life. The mission goes horribly wrong and the sole survivor is returned to Earth where he tells his story in a series of flashbacks.
The biggest flaw in the book is that this is essentially a sixteenth century story of Jesuit missionaries sailing across the ocean to convert the Godless natives. The difference here is that another planet is substituted for the New World and the natives are replaced by aliens that act very much like humans. As a result, the science fiction part of the story seems tacked on and artificial. One of the first obligations of any science fiction novel is to get the basic science correct. How can the reader suspend disbelief if the events of the story cannot possible occur? Ms. Russell's let's-fly-an-asteroid-to-the-stars idea is hilariously idiotic on so many levels. Worse yet, her understanding of time dilation and relativity is incorrect. It is clear that she doesn't have even the simplest grasp of freshman physics and her characters could never make the trip to Alpha Centauri as described.
This is the author's first literary work and it shows. The writing is often awkward and the humor is forced. The character of Ann is particularly annoying which is unfortunate since the author claims that she based Ann on herself in the "Reader's Guide". At one point in the story the author needs to cut off her characters from their orbiting mothership so she has one of the expedition fly their lander around until it has so little fuel that it cannot return to orbit. Doh! Some explorers... they can't even read a fuel gauge when the nearest filling station is 4.3 light years away!
... Reader unfamiliar with science fiction may enjoy this story to a greater degree than habitual science fiction readers who will find the science gaffs distracting. The sad part is that none of the futuristic elements of the story were needed at all. The same tale could be easily told as a historical novel and that fact is perhaps what dooms this novel to be poor science fiction.
If you are looking for a good SF novel that deals with religion successfully try A Case of Conscience by James Blish
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on April 10, 2000
The Sparrow was a great book-- for about the first half orso. The writing was generally competant, although it sometimes seemeda bit messy-- nothing I'm not used to. All the same,I found it to bepretty engaging, and thought the mystery surrounding the trip was intreguing. Sandoz, I thought, was a relatively interesting character, and the first half of the book, generally, really pulled me in. I was scarcely able to put the book down.
Halfway though, however, it just took a nose-dive.
Firstly, Russell's idea of time dilation was just blatantly, completely wrong. If it were that alone, I could have forgiven the book. However, at the point in time at which the trip to Rakhat was planned, the book just flipped its tone. Whereas it was a bit dark and foreboding in the first half, with people who, I felt, responded, for the most, part realistically to their situations, the second half of the book started out with people who seemed to have little to no depth to them. While some attempt at giving a few these people 'troubled pasts' made them a little deeper, everything and everyone was still completely joyful and happy and enthusiastic-- and completely unreal.
When Russell comes to the tragedy on Rakhat, the one thing the previous two-hundred or so pages have been spent building up (fairly well, as I've said), these cookie-cutter people are disgraced further by giving them cookie-cutter deaths, devoid of interest, detail, or emotion. When Russell kills off a character, she gives absolutely no insight into their feelings, their fear, or anything. They simply die. It's not the way you want to treat characters the reader's supposed to care about.
That's why I cannot give this book a better rating. The ominous events Russell spends half the book building up to are treated incredibly amateurishly; it's as though she's more interested in the culture she's created than her actual main characters.
It's unfortunate, really. I think that, had I stopped reading the book halfway through, I would have more respect for Russell's writing. END
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on March 15, 1999
Looking at the reader reviews here in Amazon you will find them strongly bimodal. I found this book a huge dissappointment. My confidence in Reviews in major publications (NYT, etc) has never been high and the idea that this book was a BOTM club selection suggests to me that reviewers these days must be skimming books superficially rather than reading them. The NYT review reminds me that Richard Feynman when on a committee reviewing high school text books found that many of the books were blank inside (because they had not been finished yet), but other reviewers wrote positive comments because "the publishers were known to turn out good books."
If you liked Ursula LeGuin there is only a 50/50 chance you'll like this book. I cared about LeGuins characters. For Russell's you felt like saying "Get real". The dropped plot threads were numerous. The plot holes were big enough to drive a fully loaded manure spreader through which Russell and her editor gleefully do. I wasted my time and money on this book.
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on September 23, 1998
This book has some strong points: a plot that holds yourinterest and convincingly alien cultures on the planet Rakhat. But theauthor\222s prose style is devoid of wit or grace. At times, reading her narrative is more like reading a description of a plot than reading an actual story. She also has not figured out that dialogues can stand on their own: not every remark needs a "he said," "she commented," "she responded, "he agreed," or "he uttered" attached. One can almost see the author hunched over her thesaurus huntung for yet another synonym for speech. The adolescent attempts at lyricism also grate. We are forced to endure far too many sentences with beginnings such as "Even Anne, sensible Anne\205" That, along with the exaggerated bonhomie her central characters are reported to feel \226 they often chortle gleefully at jokes that aren\222t funny \226 makes reading this book the literary equivalent of sitting in the back seat of a car clutching broken ribs while Russell drives determinedly over potholes.
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on August 23, 1998
This is really not a very good book. The writing is uneven and at times sloppy, the character development is laborious and not very believable, and the pacing is so slow as to cause you to scream with frustration, whereas the denouement is so rushed as to leave you scratching your head and wondering where the book went (especially in the trade paperback edition, which fools you by padding out the back of the book with a rather pretentions reader's guide to discussion). Yes, some of the characters are rather engaging in the end, but they all die anyway, so what's the use? None of them seem real. And stuff that is important at the start of the novel (like the hand mutilation) turns out not to mean that much in the end, even though the author spends many words on describing it. As an SF novel, this book pretty much fails to be any good. As a mainstream novel that draws on SF conventions, it probably does a bit better. It does have a somewhat haunting qaulity, but it's really not worth your time.
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