Daily Archives: July 31st, 2011

The Sparrow: a tale of religion and aliens

This book was recommended to me I think when I was lamenting the lack of religion in modern SF on Galactic Suburbia, and then also somewhat at random by my school librarian. Who then proceeded to buy it for school… but put it on my desk before putting it on the shelf. Truly I am looked after.

The premise behind it is one that, once stated, makes an enormous amount of sense when you consider the history of colonisation and exploration from a European perspective. Which group of people have, historically, often been the first into new, uncharted-by-white-folks areas? That would be the Jesuits. Of course. So, in 2019 when a signal is received from another planet, it is the Jesuits who finance and send the first interplanetary mission. As the history of Earth’s colonisation would also suggest, it is not an easy mission, and fraught with all sorts of difficulties – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

The narrative follows two timelines: one from the time of the discovery of the radio signal, and the subsequent preparations to go to the new planet; the other, some 40 years later, with the one returnee being… interviewed… by his Jesuit brethren about what happened there. This is a difficult process for a variety of reasons: some pertaining to the priest (Emilio) himself, some to the interviewers, and others to the way the situation has been handled and reported. This second timeline is the most difficult to read, obviously, but in turn it has a big impact on the way in which the first has to be read. In the first, Emilio is not the man he has become in the second, so reading the two congruently gives the reader quite a sense of dissonance – which of course makes sense and adds to the experience of understanding just how this man changed, and why.

Did I mention it’s not an easy book to read?

Most of the characters are compelling, and usually in a good way. Emilio is probably the most enigmatic of them, right from the start. The rest of the crew who head off to the alien planet are more accessible, to a greater or lesser degree; most of the Jesuit investigators likewise, although we get to know them to a much lesser extent. There is a nice variety of character – different religious backgrounds being the greatest and most important example of diversity, given the book’s premise. I found most of the characters intensely believable, too, with one exception – and that exception I can’t really talk about without giving spoilers. Suffice to say, I hope, that I didn’t find that this took away from the book in the slightest.

In some ways this book can be seen as a meditation on the impact of European contact and colonisation on the rest of the world in the so-called Age of Discovery. Interestingly, and intriguingly, it looks at the impact on both the subject and the colonisers, which is I think something often missing from the literature (Heart of Darkness being an obvious parallel here). Connected to this, and really really interestingly from my perspective, is the fact that the impact of such an experience – right from the discovery of aliens to contact and the end result of that – on religious people is also front and centre. And taken seriously, and described in ways that I, as a Christian, found quite profound and… accessible, I guess. (The author discusses her own religiosity in an afterword, saying that she was a lapsed Catholic until she had children, at which point she started thinking about religion again and converted to Judaism.) I appreciated this attempt to grapple with what I think are incredibly important issues, and that are often overlooked in the genre.

There is a sequel, apparently, and I’m not sure what I think about that; it stands so starkly and brilliantly by itself that I would be reluctant to add to the ‘afterwards’. That said, this book is so beautifully written that I’m a bit in love with Russell’s prose and I think I could read every other bit of fiction that she’s put out there, so I guess I’ll be reading the sequel.

Shades of Milk and Honey are delicious

This has been on my to-be-read list for a long time – since Tansy recommended it at least, and definitely since it won the World Fantasy Award last year (2010). It’s not really the sort of book that might immediately seem appealing to me; I don’t think the list of books that I’ve read recently and reviewed here would indicate that I’m much of a romance, or Jane Austen, reader. (Hmm. Maybe the Carriger. And possibly the Bujold if you’ve actually read them….) The reality of course is that I am a sucker for a well-written romance that isn’t set in my normal world, and that includes other interesting elements. So, Austen – because I dig the social commentary, and it is indeed so far from my own experience. Not that I’m a great Janeite; I think I’ve only read three completely? (I Could Not get through Emma. She annoyed me too much.)

Anyway. This book is described as one that Austen might have written… had she lived in a world with magic. And, yes, I could pretty much leave a review at that, except that someone else has already stolen that line and where would be the fun in such a short discussion?

Kowal has clearly and consciously set out to write a Regency romance + magic – no attempt here to hide her influences. It is a comedy of manners – and one of those comedies that falls perilously close to being a tragedy, as such things must in order to make the comedy (not the laugh-out-loud sort, but the all-coming-good sort) all the more poignant and wonderful. The main character, Jane, is very plain indeed, but possessed of a remarkable talent for manipulating glamour – the art of using magic to enhance or change appearances. In the same way that the Bennet sisters were to be skilled at the arts of music in particular, well-bred young ladies in this Regency are to be familiar with magic. Its subtle and sensible use are key to a charming, upper-class home. Jane has little hope, though, that her talents will secure her a husband, being that terribly old-maid age of 28. The plot progresses with mishaps and misunderstandings, revelations and rescues, and some utterly delightful pieces of descriptive prose.

There are a number of things that make this book a wonderful, relaxing, read – much like a bath with a book and champagne, or a spring afternoon in the sun with a book and chocolate. The first is the assurance that, because Kowal has taken Austen as her muse, you just know that things are basically going to turn out all right. Of course, it was possible that Kowal would totally throw readerly expectations, but after the first couple of chapters – discovering that the mother is Mrs Bennet to the nth degree, and observing the love-tangles – I was fairly sure that I could rely on Kowal to subvert some aspects but not the basic premise of the comedy. The second is the really wonderful description that Kowal employs throughout, which makes both the setting in general and the idea of glamour in particular come alive. There is no attempt at really explaining how glamour works – just like Austen never attempts to explain how music works. It’s simply a part of the world, this idea of folding light to create illusion.

I enjoyed all of the characters, in the same way that one does with Pride and Prejudice; Mrs Bennet may be a car crash in motion, Lydia a tornado and Wickham a particularly nasty form of blight, but they’re still fascinating to watch. A similar principle applies to Shades, although I shan’t reveal any of the character parallels (some are obvious from early on, others not so much). Jane is an appropriately plucky, thoughtful, and sensitive heroine, one that I at least could certainly empathise with. She deals with her family, friends, and neighbours in the sensible and demure way expected of a Regency lady, always aware of her her social standing and the need to protect her own and others’ reputation. The reader is afforded more of an insight into her thoughts that Austen allows, though, so we also get some of the alternatives she runs through before doing The Right Thing, which modernises her a little but not to the detriment of overall believability.

The one omission  I was surprised by was the lack of reference to church, which gets just one mention I think towards the end. I would have been quite interested to see how Kowal imagined her Regency working with the actual one, where church was one of the foci of village life and the minister an important member of the community. Perhaps we will get this in the sequel, which is apparently due early next year (hooray!).

Overall this is a really lovely, gentle, engaging and joyful novel.