Greater glory: The Sparrow Read-along, Part 1

In the first part of Mary Doria Russell’s SF classic, we’re dropped in the aftermath of an intergalactic… tragedy? Disaster? Horrific crime? The pieces are disparate, spread over dovetailing timelines, but the closer they are to being put together, the more unsettled this reader becomes…

Let’s discuss The Sparrow. Spoilers will follow for the prologue/chapters 1 through 11.

 

 

Our host for this special SciFi Month Read-along is imyril at There’s Always Room For One More, and you can keep up with the weekly progress and discussion over on Goodreads!

“They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.” What was your initial/gut response to the Prologue?

I can tell you precisely what my gut response was, as per my Slack messaging with imyril herself: “Oh no.”

Basically I knew right away that nothing about this was going to end well. And even though the story is drip-fed to us across a couple of timelines, both past and present (The Event has happened and we’re dealing with the aftermath/learning how it came to pass), and there is still so much we don’t know, I still have that same gut feeling of dread over what we’re going to find out. Clearly it didn’t end well, and it probably will not end well from here either.

I am not prepared.

How are you getting on with the split timeline and the many points of view? How about Mary Doria Russell’s predictions for 2019?

Regarding the split timeline: this kind of narrative is one that I know can be love/hate for a lot of readers. I really like it when it’s done cleverly and manages to keep me on my toes without confusing me too much or making me impatient. So far, so good – Russell seems to have a deft hand when it comes to teasing just enough, giving just enough information, making me go “wait, WHAT?” and then blithely carrying on with a wink and a sense of “just wait”. Which I am entirely here for!

The 2019 predictions: Perhaps I am overlooking some very obvious thing, but I haven’t gotten the sense that very much is different in this fictional world, yet? There’s Sofia’s bond of service and the worldbuilding it implies, of course, which I find deeply fascinating in and of itself, but I’ve yet to get a sense that it impacts the world at large rather than merely being relevant where Sofia herself is concerned?

Or maybe I’m paying so much attention to the detail that I’m missing some of the bigger picture, which is always entirely possible with me – that seems to just be how my brain and my attention span operate! But we’ll see if that changes as the story progresses.

What are your first impressions of the characters? Any favourites so far?

Sofia is a definite favourite; next to Emilio I think she fascinates me the most, in that I feel like there’s so much more I want to know about her. The others are all likeable but they all also feel much more like open books; Sofia and Emilio are probably carrying the most baggage. Or maybe I’m just reading them that way, who knows!

I really appreciate the ‘older couple with all the chill and none of the fucks to give’ vibe that Anne and George have. They’ve been together so long that jealousy seems like a laughable notion in their relationship, and I love the deep trust that’s implied when Anne realises her husband, as well as two of their friends, are attracted to this younger, incredibly attractive and intelligent woman, and doesn’t immediately sharpen her claws. She likes Sofia too, so of course it’s understandable to her. YAS I LIVE FOR THIS MORE CHILLNESS PLEASE. (I also got potential polyamorous vibes with them, or at least with Anne, which I am here for.)

Emilio, though … I am deeply fascinated by him, which is good since he appears to be the present timeline’s main focus as these characters go. But something about him unsettles me. I keep bouncing between deep fascination, sympathetic horror, and dread whenever he’s on the page. I want to know what he did. I’m not at all sure I want to know what he did.

From what we learn of Emilio’s training and what we see in the ‘present’ day (2050s), what do you make of the Society of Jesus as portrayed here?

Oh boy. All right. Look. I will put my hand right up here and say that I have a deep-seated mistrust of any sort of organised religious group, from cultists to global organisations (and yes, arguably these are not mutually exclusive). Don’t care if they’re Jesuit or Catholic or whatever the heck. Unless they explicitly show themselves to be worthy of trust, I will not bloody trust them. And the Father General and Voelker in particular have already made it fairly bloody obvious that they cannot be trusted. They do not have Emilio’s best interests in mind. Guiliani admits, if only to himself, that he is trying to steer Emilio toward a breakdown. To what end, I’m not sure yet, but THIS IS NOT HOW YOU HELP SOMEONE HEAL. Does their ethos of service only apply if it’s in terms of how others can serve him? THIS IS NOT A MARK OF A TRUSTWORTHY MAN.

Before I get fully on board the rant train, however, let me pull back a little and tackle a different element of this question: Emilio’s training.

I get the sense that Emilio is, perhaps by nature but certainly enabled by training, not someone who’s comfortable sitting still. He wants to move, to travel, to learn, to discover new things, and all signs point to this restlessness playing a part in the mission to Alpha Centauri and, I suspect, everything that followed it, between then and his return. This serves the Society’s purposes well, so they put him to use. They use him – they did it then, and for whatever reason they’re doing it now. So if Emilio is unsettling to me, I feel pretty strongly that at least part of that is the Society’s doing. But how much is their training, and how much is simply Emilio’s nature? That’s the question I’m asking myself…

 

3 comments On Greater glory: The Sparrow Read-along, Part 1

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  • I think the remarkable thing about the world-building is that it DOES seem so familiar (for having been written 20 years ago, I think Russell did a pretty good job on the prediction front – small, mostly socially-focused developments plus narratively-convenient space tech 😉 – I also don’t know that I ever noticed most of the world-building on my first however-many rereads, because it’s mostly throwaway comments here and there – this book is all about our characters and then Rakhat!

    I am so uncomfortable with the way the Society use people – and in service to their idea of God, not in pursuit of the person’s best interests. While I love their commitment to education and helping people, what we’ve seen of them so far absolutely doesn’t spark trust on my side.

    • Re: the worldbuilding – yeah, I find it difficult to bear in mind that this was written 20 years ago, and that’s absolutely a good thing! I’m impressed. 😀

      Re: the Society – THIS IS WHAT I’M SAYING *makes more tea*

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Dear Geek Place is my new home on the internet, though I've been around here before - I am the blogger formerly known as @EffingRainbow. Here, you can still find reviews of science fiction and fantasy books, but hopefully more besides, as I throw myself cheerfully out into the world and attempt to chronicle my experiences, one adventure at a time.

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