Desert Island Books – Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow

This was one of those books it seemed everyone was enthusing about at the same time, when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1998. For me, it was an enthralling read which gave me all those things I’d loved in Clarke’s work, Heinlein and Asimov but brought intelligently up to date. There were really alien aliens, a wide range of believable human characters (including women with opinions and agency) and a thought-provoking subtext as the plot explores so many facets of communication and miscommunication, issues of race and colonisation, among other debates about humanity, society and belief; religious and otherwise. Most important of all, the story does all this without getting bogged down. Lucid, literate prose keeps the plot moving swiftly along. Scene setting is vivid and the dialogue natural, all making for an immersive read.

Following the plot that demands the reader’s engagement. The narrative unfolds in different strands and you need to pay attention as you read them in parallel. We see events unfolding from 2019 onwards when the SETI project picks up alien signals from Alpha Centauri. How can an expedition to make first contact be organised and financed? At the same time, we follow the investigators in 2059 who are trying to work out why the expedition ended in such lethal disaster. There’s only one survivor and something inexplicably horrible has happened to him. Sustaining this balancing act between telling the reader at the outset that disaster has struck and then compelling them to keep turning the pages to find out precisely what has happened and then how is a mighty writerly achievement.

Rereading this book in 2016, with 2019 now on the horizon is an interesting experience. Near-future SF notoriously offers up hostages to fortune, especially with the things which writers fail to predict. How many authors devised plots that would be instantly unravelled by mobile phones? Well, mobiles are not noticeable here but their presence wouldn’t make much difference. Mostly, Doria Russell avoids the worst pitfalls by blending logical extrapolation from then to roughly now with a deft lack of potentially compromising detail. The Horn of Africa is a war zone. Countries in Central and South America have refugee, economic and health crises. How these things happened isn’t directly relevant to the story, so we don’t need to know more than the broad brush strokes.

Other apparently prescient things do catch my eye. How does word of the SETI discovery spread? When an illegal download of the musical signal effectively goes viral on what looks very like the Internet. How is an interstellar mission launched? Not by NASA, the UN or any such agency. Space exploration has become the province of non-state bodies. In this case, the Catholic Church, or to be more precise, the Jesuits, take on the challenge. Doria Russell doesn’t pull this out of thin air; there’s been an observatory in the Vatican since 1774 and the Church first became interested in astronomy faced with the challenge of calculating dates for Easter and other holy festivals. This maybe SF but there’s an awareness of the depth of history (and the lessons it can offer) running through this book.

But why get involved in contacting aliens? Well, what would the presence of intelligent life elsewhere have to say about mankind’s relationship with our supposed Creator? What will the faithful do with any answers they might find? More immediately, can explorers voyaging so far with such lofty ideals actually cope with the practical challenges of an alien environment, its ecology and a complex society they don’t understand when they’re at the mercy of powerful individuals whose own concerns are their priority. As those questions are answered, we learn the chilling truth of what happened and why.

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this book. I also recall recommending it widely at the time, including to friends and family who’d usually say they didn’t like SF but found this an enthralling read all the same. If you haven’t come across it before, do go and find it in your preferred format. And remember it the next time you see one of those ‘Best of/Must Read/Memorable’ lists that persist in erasing women authors from our genre. Ask why this book isn’t mentioned.

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