But it is important what we make of these stories. What meaning we find in them, as wanderers by the seashore find first one shell, then another, and then form them into a chain of their own making.

Vandana Singh – “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

At the start of this year Goodreads and publishers on Twitter did their usual thing of asking people what their ‘reading goals’ for the year are. I used to set myself reading goals, which I didn’t meet, until 2015 when I far exceeded my Goodreads challenge. Goodreads then proceeded to use my ‘achievement’ to shame my friends who had read far fewer books, failing to acknowledge (a) that some of those friends could not reach their targets for medical reasons and (b) that reading a ridiculous number of books – including some very good books – hadn’t stopped 2015 from being a pretty miserable year. For 2016, I resolved to read fewer books and it was a better year for me personally (despite the utter horror of events more broadly). In 2017 I repeated that resolution and added that I wanted to reflect more on the books I read, in part by trying to maintain this blog more regularly and in part, as Singh puts it in one of the short stories I have been reading this year, stringing more shells together as I read both fiction and non-fiction.

[Content Warning for violence against women]

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Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I mention my girlfriend a lot in this blog lately, but that’s because in the last four months she’s had a profound effect on my life. This is only a minor effect, but she recommended The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell to me several times, ultimately as a book asking similar questions to the film Prometheus, but which actually engaged with those questions. I have been reading it for a little over a week. For the girlfriend, it was the last book she called in sick to work to finish. I thought that my equivalent was staying up late to finish a book, as I dutifully did last night until about 12:30 (it’s late for me these days!) but then I also failed to go into the library to do work today, so I guess that I do both. A plot summary can be read on goodreads. It is about a Jesuit mission to another planet; the review below contains mild spoilers. It is also a fairly raw review with little meditation on the story besides what I did while reading, and a few minutes afterwards.

First, my problem with the book. The alien societies, while in some ways very different to our own, had too many remarkable similarities. They were capitalists, which highlights a distinct problem with this world that we can’t envision a way of life which is complex and yet different to capitalism besides communism. Even The Dispossessed only manages anarchism, rather than envisioning something entirely different to our own experience. The closest a science fiction book has come to achieving this in my opinion is Embassytown by China Miéville, a book which I already feel like re-reading even though I only read it last year. This theme will be discussed a lot more in my forthcoming second Prometheus blog, which should appear tomorrow.

The next point is one of ambivalence, which will depend on your own subjective experiences of reality to interpret. I believe that, had I read The Sparrow as a teenager, perhaps before the age of twenty-one, it might have made me feel Catholic and believe in a god for a little bit longer. This was the effect of the film Dogma (which I now find to have a fairly juvenile answer to the question of belief, but there you go). I think in many ways it fairly represented the challenge of faith under fire and showed how compassionate and good some priests can be. It mentions but does not explore the darkness which can come from celibacy, or perhaps motivate it. This may simply be a product of the time, but personally I would say that sexual abuse by priests is an issue of the church not of the faith. It is man, not god, who is responsible; thus it is not a concern for this book. Furthermore, I think this would be a very different (and not substantially improved) book had it been written after September 11th 2001. We cannot complain about what the book does not discuss, but in what it does discuss I find many reasons and justifications for faith.

I enjoyed all of the characters, especially Emilio Sandoz, although I would understand how much more difficult the book would be if you didn’t like him. Some of the others fall into the background when they reach Rakhat, which is a shame. But I did not find a single one of them unlikable. In general, I would say the book is a bit better in the build-up to the mission rather than when they are on the planet itself; however it is well paced with revelations and reflections throughout. I would suggest that my (very mild) disappointment with the mission itself is that I did not find the aliens to be as alien as I had been led to believe that they would be; rather much of it seemed like some less developed Earth societies. But this is perhaps because I have focused on the similarities rather than the quite horrific differences. There are a few differences in evolutionary path which make all the difference, and I suppose that is what should be emphasised.

So there we have it: an excellent book which should be food for thought for both the religious and the atheist. I would recommend it to most of the people I know and despite the qualifier I can’t think of a person to whom I would not recommend it. I would be especially interested to hear from anyone who has read it while questioning their faith and the response which they had to it.