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  1. #1
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    Reading Group: THE SPARROW Discussion

    Welcome to the second Reading Group discussion. This month we're looking at The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - a personal favourite. The novel was published to near unanimous critical acclaim and should make for an interesting discussion.

    Please remember, it's never too late to join us in this discussion! If you're new to this forum don't hesitate to contribute.

    Below are a few starter questions / statements. These are only my attempt at getting the discussion started...don't feel as though you have to respond to them! Ignore them if you want to!

    (1) The Sparrow was originally marketed as a non-genre novel - why do you think this was the case?

    (2) Russell uses a complex structure in her novel - switching time frames and character points of view. Does she successfully utilise this technique?

    (3) Emilio '...had discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.' Is this an adequate summary of the path the character of Emilio takes?

    (4) Why were Emilio's hands cut? Is there a metaphor to be found in this act?

    (5) Russell is a trained, multi-disciplined scientist and uses areas of knowledge in The Sparrow that aren't normally considered the domain of SF (such as anthropology, geology, economics etc). Has this changed your opinion of what the Science in 'Science Fiction' can mean?

    (6) The Sparrow is, in many ways, a traditional First Contact novel. In what ways does it differ to other similiar books?

    (7) Personally, I find the characters in The Sparrow incredibly believable and endearing. Do you agree that without her obvious skill at characterisation, Russell's novel would have been less successful?

    (8) Does the blunt language and portrayal of violence and sexuality jar with the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of the novel?

    (9) Can a non-religious person fully appreciate the novel?

    (10) Score the book out of 10!

  2. #2
    Lord Deceiver estranghero's Avatar
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    Okay, was feeling guilty for not being able to participate in last month's discussion of EG so here's my two cents for this month.

    (1) The Sparrow was originally marketed as a non-genre novel - why do you think this was the case?
    Because it was more like a philosophical/ theological take on the possiblity of alien life rather than science-fiction. If you've noticed, the science of their ship was not taken up as much as other sf books.

    (3) Emilio '...had discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.' Is this an adequate summary of the path the character of Emilio takes?
    Yes. There's an idea in the story that I really liked, that the Church gives a view of God as a "kind and loving deity". But Emilio, after going through such harrowing experiences, supposes that maybe God isn't such deity. That maybe God isn't really listening. Considering I have a Roman Catholic background, that's powerful stuff.


    (4) Why were Emilio's hands cut? Is there a metaphor to be found in this act?
    That's an easy one. It's a ironic take on the Crucifixion.

    (7) Personally, I find the characters in The Sparrow incredibly believable and endearing. Do you agree that without her obvious skill at characterisation, Russell's novel would have been less successful?
    Yes. The book isn't really about First Contact, it's about how humans react, whether theists or atheists, when confronted with the inconceivable. For the atheists, it may be indescribable aliens that could drive men mad. For theists, it could be the idea that God is out to get them.

    (8) Does the blunt language and portrayal of violence and sexuality jar with the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of the novel?
    Actually, stylistically, I think it works to its advantage because it gives both sides fairly well so it kinda bounces off the two motifs against each other. You know, spiritual vs. physical side of the story.

    (9) Can a non-religious person fully appreciate the novel?
    That depends. Whether a person or not is non-religious or atheistic, it's whether the person can understand the moralistic and philosophical undertones of the story that they can appreciate the novel.

    (10) Score the book out of 10!
    A 8 or 9. This is one of the few books I read that integrated philosophy/ theology into SF/F very well and made it easily understandable.

    Whew! Sorry I couldn't be more controversial in my answers. Mebbe if someone comes up with a statement that I can play devil's advocate, I'll jump in...


    [This message has been edited by estranghero (edited April 16, 2002).]

  3. #3
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    DISCLAIMER-It has been a few years since reading the book...

    1) C'mon, you know many folks look down their nose at Science Fiction! They wanted a wider audience.

    2) I think she absolutely is successful at using this technique. The tension between what the preist goes through on Rukhat (Sp?) and back on Earth play of each other pretty well.

    4.) I think his hands were cut to symbolize Christ's wounds from being nailed to the cross.

    5.) Not really, but I'm not much of a stickler for that anyway.

    6.) It differs in that Religion is such a strong issue. (though I haven't read Blish's A Case for Conscience, I think the first contact there involved a priest). The only other 'first contact' novel I've read that touches upon religion is Sagan's thought provoking Contact.

    7.) From what I remember the characters were believable.

    8.) The language, violence and sexuality didn't jar too much with me. It was a strong aspect paralleling the strong aspect of faith and religion.

    9.) Yes, I enjoyed it and I don't consider myself religious.

    10.) 8 out of 10

  4. #4
    Seeker of Stuff Moderator Kamakhya's Avatar
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    Ok, my turn.

    (1) The Sparrow was originally marketed as a non-genre novel - why do you think this was the case?
    Under what genre was it marketed??? This is clearly a Sci-Fi novel, so I go with FitzFlagg's response. It was a ploy to make it more palatable to non-sci-fi fans.

    (2) Russell uses a complex structure in her novel - switching time frames and character points of view. Does she successfully utilise this technique?
    More or less. I have to say that at first it kind of bothered me. However, by the end, I thought the use was brilliant. It enabled the book to (a) add a lot of suspence (what made this wreck of a man?) and (b) emphasize the fall of Emilio.

    (3) Emilio '...had discovered the outermost limit of faith and, in doing so, had located the exact boundary of despair. It was at that moment that he learned, truly, to fear God.' Is this an adequate summary of the path the character of Emilio takes?
    This is a tough question. On the one hand, it seemed as if Emilio was pushed so hard that he lost his faith. On the other hand, the last two pages make clear that he was a sort of Job character (which Russell mentions in the text) and that he would eventually find his faith again.

    (4) Why were Emilio's hands cut? Is there a metaphor to be found in this act?
    I really enjoyed the explanation given in the book. The beautiful, yet useless vines. Emilio became a pretty, but useless entity. What an intense, yet understandable explanation. This is akin to the foot binding of Chinese women or the corseting on Victorian women. In a way, this was the emasculating of Emilio.

    The use of his hands emulates the crucifiction too, but I think the limiting of his abilities far more important.

    (5) Russell is a trained, multi-disciplined scientist and uses areas of knowledge in The Sparrow that aren't normally considered the domain of SF (such as anthropology, geology, economics etc). Has this changed your opinion of what the Science in 'Science Fiction' can mean?
    No. LeGuin uses her knowledge of anthropolgy and physical science in her novels too. I have a B.A. in Anthropology and one in Sociology. This is my favorite kind of story! All too often, Sci-Fi authors have no idea of how to present culture from a completely different context. This story was just so cool from an anthropologist's point of view. A culture where the eaten were sentient. Wow. By having the team meet the food first really sunk the point home when it was finally brought to light at the end of the book. Brilliant.

    (6) The Sparrow is, in many ways, a traditional First Contact novel. In what ways does it differ to other similiar books?
    Often, first contacts are with the dominate species, or even more commonly, the dominant species is the only sentient species on the planet. This book broke those boundaries.

    (7) Personally, I find the characters in The Sparrow incredibly believable and endearing. Do you agree that without her obvious skill at characterisation, Russell's novel would have been less successful?
    Her creation of the culture of Rakhat is stunning. I was disappointed not to see more. I think the ideas could have carried the book, but, you are right, her choice of characters and the development of them was superb.

    (8) Does the blunt language and portrayal of violence and sexuality jar with the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of the novel?
    Oh no. They were essential to the story. Emilio took a fall and to do that it necessitated the most extreme of measures. This was a study in the endurance of faith. How far could Emilio be pushed? From the extacy of love to the depths of hell. To be raped by God was a powerful image.

    (9) Can a non-religious person fully appreciate the novel?
    I am not particularly religious and certainly not Christian, though I am into the study of religion and mysticism. The use of Jesuits was perfect. Jesuits are a world apart from traditional Christians like the Qabalasists are from Judaic.

    Job is an interesting Christian tale and this story explores it in a whole new way.

    When I first read this question, I was sure you got it wrong...you must have meant, Can a religious person fully appreciate the novel. But upon thinking about it, I see this point of view. Emilio is shown that God is cruel and He will test you to the limits. He overcomes the test and begins to rebuild himself.

    This book displayed a culture much like our own, but with one small difference...that their food is sentient.

    What does this mean to a religion that exalts sentience? Supposedly Man has control over all species on Earth. But what if our food could talk back to us? Would we do the same thing? Would we force our food into servitude and humiliation? Is their culture really that much different than our own? These are the kind of questions that would perplex a Christian as much as an atheist.

    (10) Score the book out of 10!
    I give it a 9. It is close to perfect, but not quite there. Some of the passages bored me and seemed drawn out.

    All in all, this was one of the most exciting and thought provoking books I have read in a long time. The characters were believable and heartfelt, the plot was engaging and the ending blew me away. It is a far cry from A Case of Conscience, which I was not too thrilled with.

    Thank you Vortex for sharing it.

    [This message has been edited by Kamakhya (edited April 17, 2002).]

  5. #5
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    I don't have time to add my thoughts at the moment but I just want to thank the three of you who have responded so far. Your opinions are exceptionally well thought out and have added another dimension to my appreciation of this book...and given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

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    (1) The Sparrow was originally marketed as a non-genre novel - why do you think this was the case?
    I really wish I could say that it was because the publisher wanted to take SF to a broader audience but I doubt that was the case. More likely, because of the absence of 'hardware' I think the publishers were worried that the book wouldn't appeal to the normal SF readership.

    (2) Russell uses a complex structure in her novel - switching time frames and character points of view. Does she successfully utilise this technique?
    I think this is a very difficult technique to employ successfully...but Russell does so remarkably well. I read a lot outside of SF as well and this technique is used quite often but rarely so well.

    (4) Why were Emilio's hands cut? Is there a metaphor to be found in this act?
    I've found the answers to this question that suggest this act can be seen as a metaphor for the crucifixion intriguing. I hadn't come to that conclusion myself. Perhaps simplistically, I'd only seen the mutiliation of Emilio as a dehumanising act. What sort of 'man' is a man that can't use his own hands? So much of what makes mankind a success is related to that opposable thumb of ours...without this refinement aren't we, in some way, nothing more than animals?


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    5) Russell is a trained, multi-disciplined scientist and uses areas of knowledge in The Sparrow that aren't normally considered the domain of SF (such as anthropology, geology, economics etc). Has this changed your opinion of what the Science in 'Science Fiction' can mean?
    Well, it hasn't changed my perception of what can be called SF but it does remind me of how limited traditional SF can be. It doesn't have to be all spaceships and nanomachines...there are many other areas of science that writers could explore. The lack of detail regarding the ship in The Sparrow didn't bother me...the hardware was never meant to be the focus. Actually, I thought Russell covered the relativistic effects of near speed of light travel very succinctly...you didn't need a degree to be able to comprehend it.


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    7) Personally, I find the characters in The Sparrow incredibly believable and endearing. Do you agree that without her obvious skill at characterisation, Russell's novel would have been less successful?
    The Sparrow would be nothing, a non-event, if it wasn't for the characters Russell has created. I think good characterisation is often lacking in SF and makes otherwise interesting premises uninteresting. This isn't the case here. The only other character in SF that I can think of that is created with so much detail, depth and compassion is Paul Atreides.

  9. #9
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    (9) Can a non-religious person fully appreciate the novel?
    I'm not only non-religious, I'm anti-religion but that didn't stop me from enjoying this aspect of the novel. In fact, I found Emilio's faith (and subsequent questioning of that faith) very moving...the novel would be nothing without this.

    (10) Score the book out of 10!
    A definite 9/10 for me (I don't believe there's such thing as a 10/10). I enjoyed it as much the second time around as the first...repeat enjoyment has to mean something!



    [This message has been edited by vortexreader (edited May 02, 2002).]

  10. #10
    Seeker of Stuff Moderator Kamakhya's Avatar
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    Vortexreader said:

    I'm not only non-religious, I'm anti-religion but that didn't stop me from enjoying this aspect of the novel. In fact, I found Emilio's faith (and subsequent questioning of that faith) very moving...the novel would be nothing without this.
    Whew...for a while I thought I was going to offend you. People can get rather touchy about religion.

    I enjoyed Anne's perpetual arguments with Emilio over the nature of faith and God. In particular, how they dealt with the horrors one can face in life. I loved how Mary Russell took on both sides of the religious argument and made both seem reasonable and highly personal. I loved how she pointed out the fallibility of priests, it made them so much more human than they are often portrayed.

    I am somewhat anti-religious, but this book portrayed christianity in a very realistic manner. Russell made Emilio a lovable character and she worked hard to make the reader understand his faith. It was not preachy like some authors, but it also was not antagonistic like Morrow's works. I am still trying to decide if Russell's underlying philosophy is pro or anti christianity. On the one hand, she seems to work through Emilio's trauma and maintain his faith (at the end) and on the other, she created a situation that is about as shocking as possible for a christian.

    All in all, The Sparrow is one of the best books I have ever read. It was incredibly thought provoking. I will have to track down the sequel. Interestingly enough, this is also one book I would absolutely have never picked up on my own.


  11. #11
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    Hi

    I am new to this. I have enjoyed reading all the comments on The Sparrow. They have given me much to think about but I am not ready to comment yet. I was given this book and its sequel by a friend. It was not a book I would have picked up myself. Then I found I could not put it down. However, when I read the sequel I was a little disappointed as I felt it did not live up to the first. This book really didn't need a sequel. IMHO, it is much better as a stand alone because it leaves the reader seeking answers instead of tying everything up in nice neat packages.

  12. #12
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    I finally finished this book. This is what I thought:

    I expected to like this book. I wanted to like this book. But frankly I was a bit disappointed. As an exercise in characterization, it's pretty darn impressive. As a science fiction novel of discovery and first contact itís only so-so.

    The characters are well-drawn, each with different personalities that evolve over the course of the novel. But I never really built much empathy for any of them. And their theological considerations didnít particularly resonate with me.

    I didnít like the authorís twin storylines plotting, partly because it felt disjointed and partly because it revealed key elements of how the book was going to end from the very beginning. The alien planet, flora and fauna, and society served to support the plot, but were less compelling than those offered in my favorite books of this ilk. I found some of the key plot developments unbelievable. And the final unraveling of the reasonably blissful situation in Kashan felt rushed.

    All in all, a promising first novel, but not really up to my perhaps unrealistic expectations going in.

  13. #13
    Anitaverse Refugee FicusFan's Avatar
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    I didn't realize there was a discussion thread for this book. I have also read it and thought it was pretty close to sublime.

    I read it and its sequel 3 or 4 years ago, and just recently suggested it to my fiction group. We have read SF and Fantasy before when I suggested it, so they are flexible, but may not read it on their own. Anyway they all loved it and several were asking about the sequel (which I agree is not as good, but perhaps nothing could be).

    I thought the characterization was what made this book. It was so real, so humane, so touching that I just wanted to roll in it. I knew those people and felt I could find them living somewhere. Just amazing.

    I really liked the way she portrayed Emillio as being a fully rounded person, who chose to be a priest. Too often these characters are dead inside so there is nothing for them to sacrifice in terms of human contact (sex, family), or they make excuses and have both. Emillio made the tough choice every day, because he really believed, and yet he had strong feelings and would have been happy to fully express his humanity.

    I thought the intertwining and backwards storytelling was very well done. At first it annoyed me, but once I accepted it, I was sucked into the story.

    I really liked all the character development better than the actual trip and actions on the planet. I thought it was a different pace, and was too rushed. I also thought the characters on the trip were woefully under-fleshed out compared to those before. I really didn't care when bad things started to happen to them. Which may have been a deliberate act on MDR's part, to show that those we know and care about seem more important than those we don't - when we are all the same in the eyes of god, and supposedly the government.

    I had a very different take on the food on the planet. I don't think MDR was talking about some other type of people, I think she was talking about us. We have decided that animals are not sentient in any way that counts, and don't really have emotions, or in some cases feel pain, and of course that they don't have a soul. If we are willing to torture (medical research), Kill and eat other living beings because they are different than us, and we feel inferior in some way, what hope do we have with anyone else we meet who is not exactly like us ?

    What claim to humanity can we really have if our life and happiness is built on the suffering of others ? How can we claim to love, serve or belong to god if we don't think his/her benefits, care and concern can extend to all others ?

    I think the whole thing was about how from the love of god on down we make allowances for those we know and care about, and refuse to for those who are strangers, different, or totally apart from us.

    I thought it was a magnificent book, and would give it a 9 or 10.

    By the way she has written another book since these, for those who want to read more of her writing. It is called A Thread of Grace, and is not genre, its about the story of how Italians sheltered and saved thousands of Jews during WWII. It is based on true events and took her about 7 years to research and write. This was the first book my fiction group read and they wanted more MDR.

    She is now working on a book about Lawrence of Arabia and the conference that defined the boundaries of the countries in the Middle East. Hopefully it won't take 7 years.

  14. #14
    Registered User Raule's Avatar
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    She is now working on a book about Lawrence of Arabia and the conference that defined the boundaries of the countries in the Middle East. Hopefully it won't take 7 years.
    Interesting that she is working on a book about Lawrence of Arabia. When I read The Sparrow, I remember thinking at the time how Emilio reminded me somewhat of what I'd read about Lawrence. Lawrence was short and slight in stature from I remember of his physical description, and there was something about him that remained asexual and untouchable. I have always wondered if the author intended to strike a parallel between Emilio and his struggle with God and sexuality in the same way that Lawrence struggled. I'm probably far off the mark on this, but it was just something that struck me at the time of my reading. At the time, I chalked it up to my overreaching imagination.

  15. #15
    I am reading The Sparrow at the moment and Russell is a bit too slick for her own good.

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