The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell November 12, 2011Posted by futurewired in Mary Doria Russell, Reviews.
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There’s a moment in The Sparrow which, for me, seems to express the idea at the heart of the book. A Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz is presented with an account by his rescuers, that accuses him of acts of prostitution, and of murder on an alien planet during a disastrous first contact mission. He is asked whether this account describes the truth; his answer, is that it is all true, with the qualification lost amid the uproar, that it is also all wrong. Facts are given meaning by context, by interpretation. The same sequence of events can be seen as the operation of divine providence and as a cruel joke, a gift can become a curse and beauty transmutes to ugliness when placed in its proper surroundings.
Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel won a heap of prizes on first publication and it certainly has the ambition and intrigue to back up these credentials. Its a novel featuring interstellar travel that spends the bulk of its time on earth, a first contact story that focuses as much on interpersonal relationships between it’s human character’s as anything else, and a book with expressly religious concerns in a genre that can appear almost resolutely godless at times. I found it a gripping read, poignant and thought provoking in equal measures.
Briefly it tells the story of first contact between earth and an alien world; a mission organised by the Jesuit order, responding to musical broadcasts from another planet, travels across the stars to make contact with the mysterious ‘singers.’ Something goes terribly wrong however, and the book centres on the debriefing of the mission’s sole survivor, the struggle to obtain from him the ‘truth’ behind the events that led to the deaths of his companions and to his own degradation and disgrace.
We have therefore a central mystery – what happened and why, – and the book alternates between two narrative streams, the gentle interrogation of the mutilated and traumatised Father Sandoz by the leaders of his order, and a series of flashbacks detailing the origins and course of the mission itself. We learn that the apparent failure of the Jesuit endeavour has led to the disgrace and virtual ruin of the order, (due to the relativistic effects of high velocity space travel decades have passed on earth compared to the handful of years for Sandoz and companions.) Sandoz is a broken man whose reluctance to discuss what happened is palpable, it is only through the carefullest manipulation that the truth begins to emerge. Parallel to this we get to know the other characters, their past, their personalities and history; it is one of the book’s strengths that we are made to care, even as from the first chapter we know, approximately, their fates.
As I mentioned it’s a surprisingly long time before the book really leave earth and even when the mission reaches Rakhat, the descriptions are pointedly sparse. We are given a few details, general descriptions of the two alien species encountered but there is no prolonged visualisation of a new world as you might expect. There is however, a great emphasis on language; Sandoz is a linguist and there are lengthy discussions of the ways in which language reveals facets of cultures and societies, as a concrete iteration of a way of thought – form is as revealing as content.
This gap between content and context plays out in a number of different ways. A first example would be various actions by the crew, innocent by intention that in the context of an alien society have potentially disastrous consequences; the introduction of the concept of agriculture to a group of hunter gatherers being a prime example. They consider all the consequences at the time but there are always factors beyond their knowledge at any given time; in this case the nature and structure of the society in which the group operates. An experiment in growing earth plants on another world triggers a series of events that culminate in gut-wrenching violence.
One of the central aspects in which this features s the way in which the narrative itself is viewed. The expedition begins so fortuitously; it is apparently only by chance that the group of people present to first hear the alien broadcasts possess between them the skills and contacts to organise this mission. Everything proceeds almost without a hitch, the planet itself is amenable to human life , Sandoz himself turns the first encounter into a success confidently, empowered by faith. The notion of divine providence is repeatedly brought up by the characters. The problem with this is when things go wrong, there is nowhere else to turn – God is cruel or God is dead. Sandoz is trapped by the human need to construct narratives, unwilling to reveal the depth of his shame. Ultimately it is only through telling his story, constructing a shared narrative out of what had been solely personal events that he can begin to move on.
The worldbuilding in the book is done well; just enough detail to be convincing – widespread use of AI, asteroid mining, virtual communication, – but it isn’t laid on too thick, something that really helps considering that the narrative covers such a long period of time. The changes in technology that would be expected to have occurred aren’t such an issue however as the entirety of the action set after Sandoz’s return is in an enclosed environment, a retreat for the Jesuit order.
The Sparrow is a really interesting book, different in many ways from a lot of the stuff I normally read in terms of its concerns and its reference points. The criticism I can make really relate to the choice to have certain passages narrated by one of the aliens (the whole book shifts between different third person narratives.) This is just a personal thing, I feel like it would have been more powerful for the book to be from a solely human perspective, but I appreciate that this might have made it more difficult to follow or appreciate certain elements.
Minor quibbles aside I’d definitely recommend giving this one a go. There’s a sequel Children of God that has now made its way on my ever expanding reading list. I’ve seen on some reviews the recomendation that if you’re not religious or interested in religious concerns then you should give it a miss; I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; the issues it deals with might be expressed in the language of religion but they run much deeper than that.
Dune (1984) November 1, 2011Posted by futurewired in Film, Frank Herbert, Reviews.
Well it’s been a little while since I’ve written anything for this blog, a new job and new shift patterns meant that finding the time to do anything even remotely constructive was getting a bit difficult. I have however been keeping up with my reading so I’ve got a couple of reviews on the back burner at the moment. Just finished Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic novel The Sparrow and I’m halfway through Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn at the moment so expect vaguely formed responses to these to pop up on this page at some point soon.
Today however I’m going to move sideways a bit, as a way of easing back in to the blogoverse, by – horror of horrors! – talking about a film. Namely the 1984 film adaptation of Dune.
Now I have seen this film before, many years ago when I was a lot younger and my memories of it were a bit blurry at best – there was a guy who looked like a walrus? And Al from Quantum Leap kept going on about a tooth for some reason?
I’m a huge fan of the book and I think it’s a telling sign of my geek status that a boxed set of all six of Herbert’s Dune novels was one of the best Christmas present’s I’d ever been given in my early teens. I’ve also seen the TV minseries which I thought was a pretty fair adaption of the book.
This film though is really quite something. In some ways it reminded me of the Flash Gordon movie, which suppose makes sense considering Dino De Laurentiis had a pretty big hand in making both. The key difference is that while Flash Gordon never comes close to removing toungue from cheek, Dune seems to take itself completely seriously.
My second thought was that it must have made no sense at all to anyone watching who hadn’t read the book. Somehow despite all the exposition and internal monologue it manages to remain completely opaque – words like Landsraad, Gom Jabbar, Sardaukar are thrown in with pretty much no explanation, even those terms which are explicitly explained ie Kwisatz Haderach still remain slightly mysterious and I get the sense that if you miss a couple of lines of dialogue in the first hour the rest of the movie would be pretty much impenetrable. The film is narrated intermittently by Princess Irulan, who, unless I missed something, has pretty much no onscreen role apart from appearing in the background of a few scenes, there was no mention of Paul marrying her at the conclusion.
The dialogue as far as I could remember seemed fairly true to the book, the effects were idiosyncratic, a bit clunky in places but overall pretty convincing I thought. I know a lot of people have said that the worm attack sequence hasn’t aged well but I thought it still looked not too bad.
The mystic elements of the story were played up quite a bit, Paul’s messianic status being taken quite literally at the film’s ending – how exactly did he make it rain again? There were a couple of liberties taken that I thought worked quite well too- the reinterpretation of the weirding way as amplified sound and movement was a really interesting idea.
The real issue with the film is probably the pace – it takes an astonishingly long time to get going, and the heavy use of internal monologue means there are a lot of scenes of people basically sitting staring at each of other.
The performances are quite impressive as well – Kenneth McMillan hams it up as Baron Harkonnen, and Kyle Mclachlan is actually believable in his transformation from boyish dauphin to militant messiah.
More than anything however I seem to just be left with a bunch of slightly unsettling images. A mulletted Patrick Stewart charging into battle, clutching a little dog under one arm with a gun in the other. Sting in his underwear winking at the camera. The Mentat’s eyebrows.
Awesome soundtrack though.
All in all probably a glorious failure of a film, bewildering with some real pacing problems, but I still really want to watch it again!
There may be something wrong with me…
Back soon with more literary fare hopefully!
We Who Are About To… By Joanna Russ July 24, 2011Posted by futurewired in Joanna Russ, Reviews.
Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To… is a strange, brief and and almost unrelentingly bleak book. It is a harsh account of an interstellar shipwreck in an unfriendly universe, a feminist reworking of the ‘new Adam and Eve’ trope associated with stories of that kind, but ultimately much of the book is an uncompromising meditation on death.
NOTE – Spoilers ahead
The set-up is a relatively simple one – an accident on a spaceship, an interstellar liner leads to a handful of survivors being stranded on an unknown planet with no possibility of rescue. They have six months worth of supplies and, as might be expected in this kind of narrative, they set out to colonise the planet and rebuild civilisation, in the style of Robinson Crusoe. All except one.
The narrator denounces these activities as pointless; if the local flora and fauna don’t kill them, without medical supplies, with no adequate shelter and no knowledge of the climate or weather patterns of their new home, disease, accident, childbirth, will do for them all in the end. And if they do survive, to what end? To live in a new stone age, with the lifespan and lifestyle that entails? Civilisation, she points out, continues on quite happily – they just happen to no longer be a part of it. Life for life’s sake holds neither temptation nor obligation. All she asks is to be left alone.
Of course she knows that won’t happen. Survival, society, these are the fantasies that are keeping her companions together. A regressive, elemental patriarchy reasserts itself – clumsily at first, when a male character realises he can assert his dominance through physical force, then over the crucial issue of reproduction. Swiftly, the women’s freedoms are restricted, as child-bearers they are now too valuable to put at risk. Interestingly though, and slightly contrary to my expectations, this isn’t really the real line of division – as the narrator puts it, the disagreement is what matters. The act of dissension, not the subject of the dispute.
The more the narrator struggles against the group, by keeping things back, a supply of drugs that could be used to end her life, and eventually by fleeing, the greater the level of confrontation. Eventually things come to a head and the narrator kills most of her pursuers. Of the rest, one has died of natural causes, another has come round to her way of thinking and kills herself. The narrator returns to the camp and kills the two remaining survivors, once as a pre-emptive act of defence, the other as an act of mercy.
If it sounds like I’ve given away the ending you might be surprised to hear that the above events all occur in the first half of the book. The action, as it were, is all over. The initial conclusion the narrator came to is made inescapably clear; dying is all there is left to do.
For the rest of the book we follow the narrators thoughts as she slowly starves to death. The narrative is presented as her words recorded on a dictaphone and so there is an element of stream of consciousness. She remembers past incidents, time spent as a communist activist, as a neo-Christian. She hallucinates, berates herself, offers justifications for her actions. Her ‘victims’ return to accuse or forgive her, she explores the possibility that she killed them because she wanted to rather than because she had to. She is still not suicidal as such, all she wants to do is die with dignity, to be delivered from the demands of the body. But there is no escape from herself, she has to stay with ‘this awful, awful woman, this dreadful, wretched, miserable woman, until she dies.’
It’s a fascinating read, though not necessarily an easy one. A lot of people seem to have found it dull or tedious, which is partly the point I suppose. Ultimately she never sways from her convictions, her determination to live and die on her own terms and there is something moving about the way she endeavours to ensure her death is in a manner keeping with her life. She is an outsider, who has in her life drifted further and further outwards as a way of coming to terms with the failure of political activism, of religion, and now she has effectively stepped outside the intelligible universe. Is that the only option for someone at odds with the ways of the world? Like I said, a strange, bleak little book, in some ways like nothing else I’ve really read.
We Who Are About To… was published in 1977 a few years after the publication of The Female Man, Russ’ best known book which I might give a go when I have a chance. There are a lot of elements which feel very much of its time but a lot of others that go beyond that. It was reprinted in 2005 and is definitely worth a look if you fancy a bit of feminist sci fi that turns into something quite different.
Personally I think I need something a little lighter now to balance things out. Perhaps a little P.G Wodehouse…
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‘Underpromise but Overdeliver’ is a mantra often heard in the customer service industry, wherein I am currently employed. Viewing the world through the prism of science fiction you could be forgiven for thinking that the future as it appears so far doesn’t quite seem to deliver the goods. 2001 has come and gone and there’s no sign of superintelligent, if a tad neurotic, computers, moonbases or manned missions to Saturn. The singularity appears just as far off as it did a decade ago. A long time ago they might have had lightsabres and interstellar travel but, despite innumerable youtube efforts, the real thing is yet to make an appearance.
Where’s My Jetpack? and Physics of the Impossible are two books that seek to make the best of this considerably disappointment, albeit in two slightly different ways.
I’ll start with the lighter of the two by Daniel H Wilson. The author has a PhD in robotics as well as form in the area of comic/popular science books, having written a guide to surviving a robot uprising. The book takes a number of staples of science fiction over the last century and looks at currently existing efforts to see how far science is from realising the dream. Beginning with transport, the titular jetpack is discussed – various versions have been tried but the main obstacle is the fact that nobody really wants to make them on a large scale. They would be worse than useless as a mode of transportation, there’s no real military application so the only peeople actively pushing for them are going to be extreme sports enthusiasts. Flying cars, moving pavements and that steampunk classic, the Zeppelin are all covered.
From here we move on to future forms of entertainment, superhuman abilities, space travel and the home of the future. We learn of a woman who lived with a dolphin for a year in a semi-submerged house, Soviet experiments in building a ‘space mirror’ – an orbital superweapon, teleportation through quantum entanglement, artificially cultured meat and the fact that the Pentagon developed the power bar.
One interesting thing is the extent to which technology has moved on in the last four years. Developments like the widespread commercial use of 3d technology in games and tv – without the nausea and vomiting that accompanied the first attempts to develop 3d without glasses – and the introduction of backscatter machines in airport security.
Where’s my Jetpack? is great fun to read, the kind of book you can flick through, pausing on those sections that catch your attention, or that you can devour easily in one sitting. The research seems solid enough, but the author eschews lengthy digressions into science and engineering, preferring quick, snappy descriptions of the history of the future and the strange, eccentric and surprising stories that come with it.
Michio Kaku is a physicist, an academic, a key figure in the development of string theory and a fantastic popular science writer. Physics of the Impossible basically uses speculative technologies from sf as a jumping off point to talk about the fringes of physics as we currently understand it. The author desribes three levels of impossibility; technologies that are beyond our capabilities at the moment but do not violate any physical laws of the universe, technologies that may be possible but are thousands or millions of years beyond our current capabilities, and finally, technologies that violate the laws of physics as we currently understand them.
Under the first category the author tackles such sf staples as forcefields, phasers, artificial intelligence, UFOs, teleportation, Death Stars and telepathic powers. He takes current theories and technologies and extends them to speculative models of possible future versions, with the expected references to Star Trek, Star Wars and other popular culture sf classics. The science here is pretty detailed but perfectly accessible; indeed one of the joys of the book for me was the way Kaku explains in simple paragraphs the kind of basic scientific facts that you are dimly aware of but if pressed might have difficulty putting into words. Stuff like superconductors, how lasers work, Bose-Einstein condensates, the kind of thing that crops up a lot in hard sf, along with a good helping of quantum physics all delivered in a fashion that is neither condescending nor overly technical. A masterclass in how to write popular science books.
The second class of impossibilities goes deeper into science fiction territory, covering faster than light travel, time travel and parallel universes. In each the author gives us a bunch of competing ideas to out line the parameters of the debates between competing theories, while giving his own views on what theories seem most likely (at least within the next ten thousand years or so.) Again, a useful for aspiring sf writers, if you’re writing a space opera and want a consistent model of interstellar travel, this would be a good starting point.
Class three impossibilities cover precognition and perpetual motion machines. These may violate the known laws of the universe but Kaku nevertheless gives a few intriguing suggestions as to how this obstacle might be overcome. The discussion of zero-point energy from the vacuum is particularly interesting. As with the rest of the book however it’s the combination of free-wheeling discussions of physics peppered with examples from history and fiction that really make these chapters.
Among the many things I learned from this book are:
King Kong, while visibly impressive would not be able to walk; his legs would collapse under his own weight. (A slightly disappointing revelation if, like me, you happen to be a fan of giant monster movies.)
The US patent office won’t issue a patent for a perpetual motion machine without a working model. (On account of too many applications over the years; the French Academy of Science stopped taking submissions in 1775 because of the sheer volume.)
There is a version of the strong Anthropic principle that suggests that the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ operates at a universal level; intelligent life develops in a universe by chance and then goes on to create it’s own ‘bubble’ universe, fine tuned for life. This cycle continues making it more likely than not for life producing universes to exist.
Both of these books are worth a read, having the capacity to reignite any latent enthusiasm for science, gadgets and novel modes of transportation. They help link fantastic ideas from fiction to real world examples and offer up different ways of viewing sf from a technological perspective.
A couple of links today. Here’s one to an article by Michio Kaku from 2005 in Prospect Magazine on the possibility of escaping into a parallel universe;
And an extra one, to the excellent site Paleofuture, looking at retro visions of the future;