Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
On the face of it, the Sparrow is a novel about humanity's first contact with an alien race, a disastrous expedition to Alpha Centauri that leaves only one survivor, a Jesuit priest named Father Emilio Sandoz. Underneath, though, Mary Doria Russell creates a nuanced, multi-layered novel that poses some serious questions about the nature of faith and morality.
The story builds suspense by cutting back and forth between the Church’s interviews of the spiritually and physically broken priest, who initially refuses to talk, and the events of the past, proceeding from the time when the aliens are first discovered (and the Church recognizes an opportunity for itself). We know that things are destined to go wrong, but not exactly how, except for a few pieces of foreshadowing. Does the tragedy of the mission hinge on one mistake -- or many?
Russell takes her time setting up the story, which might try the patience of some readers, but illuminates the minds of a small, tight-knit group of well-constructed characters. We see the initial sense of scientific and spiritual mission, the optimism of the interstellar travelers as they near their destination, the months of exploration of the edenic planet Rakhat and the first encounters with the childlike Runa. However, as the story unfolds, we begin to see the outlines of a significant difference between the humans and the aliens that neither side manages to perceive fully, each with its own innate view of how life is meant to function. I found the conception of an alien species’ alternate biology and culture reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin’s works.
Religious themes often feature in First Contact novels, because, of course, the very presence of other intelligent beings would raise important questions about the “design” of the universe. Could we get a new glimpse of the Ultimate Creative Force by meeting fellow travelers? Or is there a hubris in hoping? What commonalities should be embraced? What differences accepted? In The Sparrow, these issues are central, though you don’t need to be Catholic or even religious at all to relate to them. The priests here may belong to an old tradition, but theirs is one that embraces science and rationality, seeking God somewhere in the DNA of the universe rather than in supernatural encounters. Indeed, conversations between Father Sandoz and a strong-willed agnostic character named Ann show that the boundaries between belief and lack of it aren’t easy to define.
At the heart of the book, though, is the question of shattered faith. What happens when what we hope for fails us, and the universe cruelly turns on us, as it does for Father Sandoz? Do we let go of the piece of wreckage we’re clinging to and allow ourselves to silently sink below the cold waves? Or do we reach for the helping hand that others offer us, even though it forces us to face the pain and weakness we carry? Russell, admirably, doesn’t offer an easy out for either Father Sandoz or her readers.
A few things hold me back from a five star review, however. First of all, there are a lot of plausibility issues, the main one being that a visit to another inhabited planet would never unfold with so little planning or caution (I mean, think about the bacteria). Secondly, though I liked the characters, their quirks and banter get a little too precious at times.
Overall, though, I think The Sparrow is well worth a read for anyone who appreciates science fiction that isn’t about blazing guns or astrobabble, but tells a contemplative story focused on age-old human questions.
I really enjoyed this book, though, as you can tell from other reviews online, it's not a novel for every taste. Let me put it this way: if you like the films of Hiyao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke), and relish a few dashes of metaphysics, literary/movie/music references, and existentialism, then Murakami's mix of fantasy, surreality, and realism might speak to you. If not, you'll probably be frustrated with the listening/reading experience. (If you don't know Hiyao Miyazaki, then get ye to Netflix first, then come back here.)
On the surface, the book has two intertwining stories. One is about a 30-something loner guy with slacker tendencies and cyberpunkish skills who lives in Tokyo and takes a job with an eccentric scientist, a choice which soon sets off a cascade of strange consequences. This is interleaved with a second story, in which a man with no memory finds himself trapped in a fantastical, dreamlike town, trying to make sense of its fable-like inhabitants and his reasons for being there. As the novel progresses, the two stories begin to intersect. While "magic realism" is a genre that can really fly off the rails sometimes (see Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale), Murakami keeps his story readable and grounded in a coherent flow of events.
This is one of those books where (in my opinion), you'll enjoy it more if you don't expect the author’s stew of ideas and imagery to make perfect sense or try to analyze his science and philosophy too much. Yes, there are a few logic holes and not everything in the surface-level plot gets resolved in an obvious way. Rather, this is a novel to read for its oddball characters, the vision of the writing, the strange-but-fitting twists and turns of the story, the humorous juxtaposition of the surreal and the everyday, and the existential questions under its fanciful trappings. If you had only 36 hours to live, what would you do with the time? I found the way Murakami chose to answer this question unexpectedly moving. Even with the end of the world coming, you might still have to do laundry...
I enjoyed the narration and voice-acting in the audiobook. The main character's voice reminded me of Spike from Cowboy Bebop, which (in my world) was a bonus.
This book is a lot of fun. Weir seems to have done a ridiculous amount of research into how a manned NASA Mars mission would probably work, and turns this knowledge into a suspenseful adventure with a likable protagonist and a healthy dose of humor. The story begins, in classic castaway fashion, from the journal entries of an astronaut named Mark Watney, who’s stranded on Mars after an emergency forces the rest of his fellow astronauts, who think him dead, to abort the mission and depart.
Now alone with his expedition’s equipment, including rovers, space suits, a habitat, and some botany experiments (but no radio), Watney must improvise ways to stay alive and contact Earth. A lot of science and engineering geekery soon follows, but Weir does such a good job of explaining it, using Watney’s informal voice and snarky, quip-ready “engineer” humor (the opening f-bomb sets the tone), that I don’t think it will be too hard for the average reader to understand. Being an engineer myself, I could easily relate to how this guy’s mind worked, as he took apart different systems and put them to use in ways they weren’t quite meant to be used, yet did so in a careful, controlled manner. I had one of many smiles at the part where he contemplates international law and decides that one of his actions makes him a pirate. A SPACE PIRATE! Yep, engineer.
I don’t think it’s much a reveal to say that the narrative eventually expands to include people back on Earth. If you recall the movie Apollo 13, a lot of similar action follows, as NASA and other organizations put their best minds to work on the problem of how to save Watney. I won't spoil the series of mishaps, setbacks, and narrow escapes that follow as he hangs on for a rescue attempt, but suffice to say that Weir makes good use of his setting and contrives some creative but plausible solutions. The supporting characters could have been developed a little more, but their banter is entertaining. Weir is clearly a fan of NASA, but isn't above poking fun at bureaucracy, PR machines, and the various personalities that inhabit the organization.
I hope someone sees fit to make a movie, because all the right ingredients are here. There’s a crowd-pleasing survival story and a likable hero. There’s a long-shot plan and a big-screen-ready nail-biter of a climax. And it's a heckuva a lot more believable than other Mars-themed stuff that Hollywood has given us (I'm looking at you, Red Planet). But, if there’s never a film, audiobook narrator RC Bray is the next best thing, with a boyish voice that's a perfect fit for Watney, and different affectations for his various quips.
On Audible since the late 1990s, mostly science fiction, fantasy, history & science. I rarely review 1-2 star books that I can't get through
For my money, Peter Hamilton is the best writer of space operas working today. Like all of his books, this one has a cast of many characters, frequent shifts in perspective between at least 8(!) storylines that initially seem unrelated, some great action sequences, lots of interesting speculation about far future technologies, and an occasional need for an editor.
This book takes place 1500 years after his last two-book series (Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained). Some of the characters from that series are still around, due to the virtual immortality provided by future medicine, but knowing the previous books is not required, though it will make some of the story more interesting.
As the first book of three, this one starts a bit slower than Pandora's Star, but builds over the first third or so of the audiobook to become a really compelling story that weaves together the stories of a far-future hitman, the leader of a religious movement, a semi-omniscient AI, a young woman launching a business career, and a young man who initially seems to be living in a fantasy novel. And yet, as the story comes together, these desperate elements weave together into a story about interstellar intrigue and an upcoming event that could threaten the galaxy.
I thought this was an excellent start to a new space opera, much better than Hamilton's Nights Dawn series, but not as immediately action-packed as the previous Pandora's Star novels. Some segments run a bit long, and the occasional sex scenes can seem a trifle gratuitous, but if you like sprawling novels with dozens of characters (think George RR Martin, but in space) and innovative space opera spanning dozens of worlds, this is a great, very well-read choice.