A Flock of Readers for THE SPARROW: A discussion in progress

We’re a few weeks into the Read-Along of The Sparrow, so this seemed like a good time for some interim discussion. My co-host Heather J. posted a fine selection of discussion questions yesterday; I’ll respond to a few of those, in addition to sharing some of my own impressions on Our Story So Far. Links to all of the responses are being collected here; participants are asked to post their discussions before March 30, which is the day we’ve designated for reviews and wrap-up posts. Also, if you’re not part of the Read-Along, but you’ve read The Sparrow before and would like to join the conversation, please feel free to join in with a post of your own or comment on the discussion post – we’d love to have you!

It is the year 2019. From an outer-space listening post on Puerto Rico come the sounds of exquisite singing—emanating from a planet that will be known by earth as Rakhat. While the international community debates endlessly about sending a mission, a scientific team of eight Jesuits quietly launches its own. What they discover on Rakhat makes them question the very basis of what it means to be human. Four decades later, Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor, attempts to tell what happened. – summary via LitLovers

I’m just over halfway through the book right now. This is my second time reading it; I first read it five years ago, and I’ve been surprised by both how much I remember and how much I didn’t remember. A few days ago, I came to the place I remember falling in love with the book the first time around: a scene where Anne and George Edwards had Emilio Sandoz over for dinner at their home for the first time. It’s not particularly pivotal to the story, but for me, it’s where it really began to come to life. Mary Doria Russell makes this scene vivid for me not through some dramatic announcement or interruption of the party, but simply through the characters’ dialogue – they joke, they laugh, they get acquainted, and everything they say and do feels completely real. At that point, I knew I was reading a master. On repeat reading, there’s one more thing that stands out for me about how true-to-life it all feels: characters can explain complicated ideas to one another without stopping the story dead in its tracks (yes, I’ve read some Dan Brown, why do you ask?).

This is a very hard book to pigeonhole. The fact that the primary plot concerns interplanetary exploration and first contact with a non-human species in another solar system should place it squarely in the science-fiction section – but in some ways that’s no more than an incidental setting. The novel itself is exploring matters of faith as well as science, and questions of what it means to be human and to seek God – but reading it is nowhere near as heavy as those themes sound. Again, it comes back to the characters, who are what propel this story forward (and back again; the author uses a flashback/flash-forward structure that works well, and will feel completely comfortable to any Lost fans). Russell does a fine job creating a large, authentic cast of characters, both human and non-human, and managing multiple plots and timelines.

But since I want to save a few things for my review post in two weeks, let’s move on to some of the discussion topics Heather has offered.

This book is set in a not-so-distant future in which the balance of world power has shifted from the United States to Japan. Poverty, indentured servitude, ghettos, and “future brokers” are common. Based on this projected future, would you classify this novel as dystopian? Do you think this future is a real possibility based on where the world is today? (Heather’s own question)

The fact that Japan was a world leader here did stand out for me. The Sparrow was originally published in 1995, and during the late 1980s/early 1990s, Japan certainly was poised to become a major power. From the vantage point of 2010, and after years of recession in Japan, that aspect definitely seems less likely. Given that the “flashback” portions of the novel take place only ten years from now, many of the technological aspects of the novel seem less probable – but on the other hand, there are some off-hand mentions of things like tablet computers that were speculation then but are completely current now.

However, I think I’ve drifted away from the meat of the question…I’m not sure I’ve seen it in those terms before Heather framed it that way, but I do think there are dystopian elements in the book. However, I don’t think I’d call it a “dystopian novel” overall – I just don’t sense that it’s that dark, or all that different from where the world is today. Then again, the real world does seem to be developing some seriously dystopian elements, so I tend to think the future Russell depicts here is indeed a real possibility.

The discoverers of Rakhat seem to be connected by circumstances too odd to be explained by anything but a manifestation of God’s will. Did God lead the explorers to Rakhat–step by step–or was Sandoz responsible for what happened? If that’s the case, how could God let the terrible aftermath happen? (adapted from Reading Group Guides)

My own view of God is one who set things in motion and has pretty much left them alone ever since; much as I’d like to sometimes, I don’t really believe in direct divine intervention, at least not at the individual level. I do believe that the spark of inspiration can be attributed to God, though – and I don’t see that as contradictory to my previous statement. But in my view, the expedition to Rakhat was a human endeavor – in all respects. If it was directed by God, then all of it had to be – good and bad. And if it wasn’t, then none of it – good or bad – can be laid on God’s doorstep.

“It is rare to find a book about interplanetary exploration that has this much insight into human nature and foresight into a possible future.” – San Antonio Express News reviewer quote

I don’t read all that much science fiction – I’m more inclined to watch it on TV or at the movies – so I’m not sure I can speak to the rarity of finding these elements in a story of interplanetary exploration. But I think the best science fiction, in any form, does tend to address questions about human nature and its meaning. I also think it’s rare – and special – to find a book in any genre that’s as insightful and thought-provoking as The Sparrow.

Thanks to Heather for leading our discussion, and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s take on the book!

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