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Saturday, 15 December 2007

Nonbelieving Literati: The Sparrow

It all started here, when the Exterminator began a little atheist book club over the web on grounds that

[S]cientists shouldn’t feel that they’ve cornered the market on nonbelief. There are plenty of us folks in the humanities who also have no faith in faith.

The list of great and near-great freethinking authors, for example, is a long one. It contains, among others, such non-scientists as: Ambrose Bierce, Pearl S. Buck, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, H.L. Mencken, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, the above-mentioned Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, and H.G. Wells.

I think it’s time we atheists draw some inspiration from literature as well as science.

Well said! I held off joining initially, but really, this is right up my street in some ways. So here I am, and, before I read what anyone else has written on the subject, here's my post on Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.

'So God just leaves?' John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. 'Abandons creation? You're on your own, apes. Good luck!'

'No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.'

'Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,' Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. ' "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it." '

'But the sparrow still falls,' Felipe said.

It's hard to tell where the author of this book stands on religious issues. She knows a lot about Catholics, but it's hard to say whether she writes from the inside or as an apostate. I know the Nonbelieving Literati have had more liberal, irreverent Christian authors before, so the choice of this book isn't necessarily a sign that the author doesn't believe in God. I suppose a web search or something might turn up more information, but if you ask me, that's cheating. I'll take the book as is and never mind the author, and I'll say this. The fact that you can't tell where the author stands is at least in part because this is a good book, a realistic book, a book that doesn't paint ideology into the storyline half so much as it allows the characters to be believeable. Many of the characters hold views I don't agree with. Many of them espouse reasoning that I consider to be highly questionable, and large parts of my viewpoint don't even make it into the conversation. But that's life. That's believeable. And I can't help but admire the author for being able to write with such sympathy for her characters, and yet such coldness when it comes to the pain she'll put them through and the problems she'll hand them that challenge the views they hold dear.

The book alternates between two timescales. One is an action-packed story of humanity's first contact with sentient alien life, a dare-devil trip to outer space to meet the inhabitants of a distant planet, propelled by faith and doomed to disaster. The other is the story of what the sole survivor has to deal with when he gets back to Earth, a tense emotional drama of misunderstanding interacting with deep trauma. Both on this re-reading and when I first read the book a few years ago, it was this latter story that was the page-turner for me. Action is all very well, but it's nothing compared to human interaction, and while there were many parts of both storylines that kept my attention, I found myself checking ahead to see when the next section of unpacking and unravelling the survivor's persective would be, waiting for the moment when they'd understand, and being fascinated by the developments in perception and misperception between the characters.

One of the major things that consoled me when the story went into flashback mode was the conversations. The relationship between the central characters is so obviously tightly knit, and their dialogue is witty and frank. It's also worth noting how psychologically interesting the alien culture is. The author is an anthropologist, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. While she has taken small liberties with the realism of the story line in having the aliens be so close (Alpha centauri? Could you be more obviously choosing stars for closeness?), and while it's hard to be sure how realistic her representation of possible alien biology might be, there's no doubt that when it comes to culture she has put some thought in. I can forgive her for small liberties in exchange for the tightly-imagined story she tells in that regard.

It gives to think that I am not more disturbed by this story. I know my mother found it pretty traumatic. Peculiarly, I think I read it like some detached, emotive God, feeling along with the characters in a limited sense but blaming no-one. Or perhaps I was a parasite, feeding off the emotion no matter how it hurt the characters who felt it. I cannot say I enjoyed the painful end, but I accepted it as a gift nevertheless, taking the emotional understanding that it gave. I don't know what that says about me.


The Exterminator said...

Thanks for posting on this book, Lynet. I disagree with everything you said except I cannot say I enjoyed the painful end. Since reading the book felt to me like what I imagine having your brain fried feels like, I'd have to concur with you about the end. For me, though, that sentiment -- and the painful feeling -- extended to the whole rest of the novel, too.

Of course, that's the beauty of Nonbelieving Literati: many minds, many opinions.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I'm a lot closer to you on this book than to the Exterminator. In the end, I think the book fails the author's purpose, but I found it a fascinating read.

The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - that assumes, of course, that I have correctly identified the author's purpose. Like you, I found her own stand obscure, but I chose to decide I knew what it was...

Unknown said...

Although I had to suspend belief, I enjoyed the "clash of cultures" and the ramifications. Though by the end it was difficult.

One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption, but I can't watch often. I always feel like I've been pulled through the ringer by the time it's over.

John Evo said...

Like Ex says - the beauty of the Non-Believing Literati...

I "guess" I wasn't sure what the author's feeling was - so I DID cheat and read some of the end notes including an interview with her. Those things confirmed what I was "pretty sure" was her intent. And I don't care for it. I'm always more troubled when intelligent people like
Russell are fools for god.

But, it's still cool that we can all (on every book so far) see it a bunch of different ways and take different things from it. I'm glad I read it, but I won't be reading "Children of God" (apparently sort of a Part 2, with Emilio going back to Rahkat... Riiiiiight).

EnoNomi said...

I liked the book for much the same reason that Lynet pointed out:

Many of the characters hold views I don't agree with. Many of them espouse reasoning that I consider to be highly questionable, and large parts of my viewpoint don't even make it into the conversation. But that's life. That's believeable.

If I get time in my reading schedule, I might even read the sequel.