I’m back from a very nostalgic trip to DC (and a less nostalgic trip to Providence and Boston, two cities that I’d never visited before). I spent five years of my childhood in DC, from age two to age seven – but even so, I was surprised by how much revisiting the city felt like coming home. The effect was probably amplified by taking a tour, with my sister, of all our favourite childhood haunts, such as the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum (sadly minus most of its dinosaurs at the moment – they are going to reappear in a new dinosaur hall in 2019) and our old house and old school. A kind neighbour helped us to set up the second photo in this dual shot outside our old house in Palisades (1994/2018):
Alongside all of this, I also found time for some reading – and enough reading that I’ve had to split it into two posts!
Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow came highly recommended by Rebecca, Annabel and Elle, and so I felt pretty certain that I would enjoy it. As I turned out, I absolutely loved it. The novel jumps between two timelines; in the present day, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz has returned injured and traumatised, the sole survivor of a mission that made first contact with a newly-discovered alien race on a distant planet, Rakhat. Forty years ago (due to relativity, time has passed more slowly for Emilio than for Earth), we see Emilio planning this mission with his friends, a vibrant secondary cast that include Anne, a medical doctor, her husband George, who picked up the original signal from a radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory that led to the discovery of Rakhat, and Sofia, a genius-level specialist in artificial intelligence who, we discover, is trying to escape a form of bonded labour she was sold into as a child.
The Sparrow, on the surface, sounds similar to a number of other novels; it’s not the first science fiction to deal with ‘Jesuits in space’ (that seems to be James Blish’s 1958 novel A Case of Conscience, which I haven’t read) and its depiction of violent and gruesome cultural misunderstandings between two highly developed alien societies gave me flashbacks to Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. However, when I first heard about this book, the first comparison title that came to mind was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, which also imagines a religious mission to an undiscovered world. It was refreshing, therefore, to realise just how different these two books are. The Sparrow is more concerned with the journey of its protagonists than in the detailed depiction of the alien cultures they encounter. In contrast, Strange New Things lacked an emotional centre for me, because its central couple were so unlikeable, but delivered a more satisfying plot line relating to its aliens, the Oasans – partly because the last third of The Sparrow feels too compressed. The heartbreaking moment in The Sparrow comes when Emilio realises just how far his linguistic abilities have failed him when communicating on Rakat; in Strange New Things, it’s when the missionary protagonist, Peter, understands exactly why the story of Jesus has such appeal to the Oasan race.
Both The Sparrow and Strange New Things are structurally clunky, which I think is almost inevitable, given what they are trying to do; interweave a character-led, literary story with a more gripping, plot-led thread borrowed from hard science fiction. The Sparrow deals seriously and thoughtfully with Emilio’s loss of faith, and I was also impressed with its consideration of celibacy and commitment. Emilio’s choice to remain celibate is something that he suffers for, but Russell doesn’t caricature it by suggesting that it is innately warped, wrong and unnatural. Instead, she uses it to open up a wider discussion about how we all make choices that close off other paths. Anne and George are admired by the other characters for their decades-long marriage, but Anne sums up why this works without sentimentality: ‘I have been married at least four times, to four different men… They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt… Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.’ Vows, Anne implies, are not worthless simply because they don’t last forever, or because they don’t cater to our most immediate impulses.
The Sparrow fails because it tries to do so much; it also succeeds, triumphantly, because it tries to do so much. It’s not a novel that’s easy to forget, and I doubt it would become more indelible if it was smaller and tidier.
I also read Andrew Ervin’s Bit by Bit, a popular history of video games, and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, a speculative novel that imagines a plague that starts in a college town and sends each of its inhabitants to sleep one by one. Bit by Bit was short, engaging, and thought-provoking. Ervin outlines the early history of video games, skipping from the first video game (whether that was Tennis for Two (1958) or Spacewar! (1962) is a matter of debate) to innovations such as the use of a gap in a wall to indicate a door in Adventure (1979-80), which also introduced the first ‘Easter egg’, to more modern multiplayer video games such as World of Warcraft. Unlike Jason Schreier’s more formulaic Blood, Sweat and Pixels, he’s happy to hop around topics, discussing everything from ‘are video games art’? to the difference between healthy escapism and unhealthy obsession. Refreshingly, he also gives plenty of space to female game designers, as well as to more recent games such as Journey (2012) and Gravity Ghost (2015) that explore questions of gender, race and immigration. I enjoyed playing video games as a teenager but have always resisted them as an adult as ‘a waste of time’. Ervin’s book made me question that.
The Dreamers isn’t out until February 2019, so I’ll post a fuller review nearer publication date, but I was impressed by how Thompson Walker sustained its eerie, paranoid atmosphere – especially as I’m not at all interested in the psychology of dreaming. The book has little to add to the many other stories that have already been told about devastating plagues, but its use of sleep as the central agent of destruction plays cleverly on deep-rooted fears of sleep as ‘the little death’, and how in sleep we may not be ourselves ourselves. Darting about between several groups of characters, the very short chapters maintain tension, and I was particularly drawn in by the story of two young sisters and their survivalist father, and the couple with a newborn baby who were once praying to get more sleep, and are now terrified of it. Compelling, if not groundbreaking.