46. THE SPARROW, BY MARY DORIA RUSSELL (Book 1 of Sparrow)
Another recommendation from Michelle. It was interesting as a science fiction book, but, to be honest, the premise felt very flat to me. I think the biggest reason for that is the fact that I’m a direct descendant from one of the peoples who suffered very directly with the Jesuit first contact. My problem with this book is merely ideological; I am capable of recognizing and acknowledging its qualities in story and character.
Synopsis: When a radio transmission from another planet proves it contains intelligent life, a Jesuit team is assembled to approach it and make contact with its civilization. The expedition, however, goes horribly wrong, and only one of the original members return.
Overall enjoyment: Like I said, I have many problems with the premise, but I am able of acknowledging the qualities. It’s impossible, however, to separate the story being told from the ideology behind it, and trying to would be an exercise in futility. Hence the low rating.
Plot: It flows reasonably well. The story drags a bit in the beginning, nothing happens in first few chapters and it actually takes a while for the story to take off. And then, everything happens in the last 20% of the book or so, and it feels kind of rushed. The choice of telling parallel stories, one narrative showing the expedition as it happened and the other showing Emilio’s testimony after he returned, does a lot to fix this problem; nothing happens but you know it will happen eventually. Emilio’s feebleness and reluctance to talk, on the other hand, although very much in character, might have been poor choices: there comes a point where you just want stuff to start happening, already.
Characters: Quite well constructed and characterized. The predator aliens, however, feel very human. Very white, Western, human.
World/setting: It was a very interesting one. I loved the idea of two sentient species, one of them predators and the other prey. The world has the same basic biology as Earth, and that neatly avoids many contradictions. There is some stretching and sidestepping of physics, but nothing major.
Writing style: Pleasant enough. She’s quite good at creating and sustaining suspense.
Representation: Pretty decent. She actually puts together a good and very diverse team of characters, racially and sexually. What I did miss, and a lot, was a character descendant of indigenous peoples whose first contact with Western civilization was through Jesuits. A Native American or a South American Indian character would have made lots of sense in this story, to provide a historical parallel, and would have gone a long way towards distancing the book from “those poor, poor explorers, such a long way from home, having to eat weird food and learn weird languages, can you really blame them for killing thousands of innocent people, completely erasing cultural identities, claiming lands and rights that weren’t theirs to take and enslaving entire civilizations?”
Political correctness: In the prologue, at the very beginning, she says the Jesuits didn’t intend to proselytize, but to learn, and that goes directly against historical records and the experiences of my ancestors. And then, in the Author’s Note, she states that she intended to vindicate the memories of the Jesuits of old by showing that first contacts are always tricky and that maybe we’re being too hard on our judgment of those who have been responsible for them in our history. I find it ironic that she chooses to do that by subjecting her characters (the supposed “explorers”) to the kind of treatment the actual natives received from the actual explorers in real history; and even more ironic that the predator aliens have motivations, characteristics and a social structure very close to what white Western societies were at the time of the Age of Discovery (and very different from those of the native peoples who were “discovered” at that same time). If those historical records show anything about these first contacts is that their problems stemmed from the explorers showing dominance over the natives and taking possession of the land and whatever they pleased on it. In my opinion, the best way to avoid those problems would be having a different, more respectful, approach to the situation; Russell, however, appears to argue that if the explorers don’t show dominance, the natives will. That is, at best, a flimsy and tendentious argument, and using the taboo of sexual abuse purely for shock value and to drive the point home is downright offensive.
Up next: Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo