Tuesday, October 14, 2003

I'm going to try a new intermittent feature here at Big Black Feline: capsule reviews of books, movies, or albums that I recommend. Why? Because a guy's got to have something to post, and I'm trying to spare you all of my comments about Canadian immigration policy.

So…

Big Black Feline Recommends: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I just finished rereading this book (and its sequel/companion, Children of God), and I'd go so far as to call it a must-read. When stated baldly, the premise sounds silly: signs of intelligent life are detected on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, and while the UN dicks around trying to decide how to make contact, a party of Jesuits just up and go.

Yep, Jesuits in space. But the thing is, this book works beautifully. Russell takes it completely straight, and she's rewarded richly for respecting her material. We end up with a very thoughtful, nuanced inspection of all sorts of deep issues- the existence of God, the rightness or folly of the Vatican, the perils of culture clash, and so on. Her characters, both human and alien, are fleshed-out and believable; the likable ones are very likable ones, and the not-so-likeable ones are at realistic in their suckiness. She even gets her science right, at least as far as I can tell… unlike a lot of stuff that gets classified as science fiction, nothing happens here that pisses all over the accepted rules of physics.

If there's a weakness, it's Russell's prose. It's not bad, but it certainly isn't going to win any awards. She's here to tell a story and make some observations, and the fancy language tricks can be handled by someone else.

The Sparrow is a satisfying read as a standalone novel, but the action does continue into Children of God. Children is worth reading (one gets further examination of the characters and issues of The Sparrow), but it isn't quite on the same level. Many of the new characters are less-defined; and in several spots, you can actually feel Russell laboring the book along to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B (by contrast, part of the beauty of The Sparrow is that it flows seamlessly through a series of seemingly inconsequential actions whose consequences start to loom quite large towards the end of the book). Still, the positives outweigh the negatives by a wide margin.

The word is that a film version of The Sparrow is in the works. It could be good- the book is eminently filmable. But even if it stinks, or never materializes, this is a first-rate book and you're cheating yourself by not reading it.

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