Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, like Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, is a novel which attempts to give a realistic vision of first contact with a self-aware, intelligent alien species. This is also a novel by an author new to writing science fiction. In Faber’s case, because he comes from what is called the “literary community” (no Wikipedia definition available), and in Russell’s case, this being a first novel by an anthropologist who had only written academic articles previously.
Russell’s aliens are, in a way, much less alien than Faber’s aliens. Both have arms and legs, are bipedal, have a language, live in houses, and have some technology. Faber’s aliens are otherwise as different from people as squid and hamsters. Russell’s aliens are modelled after kangaroos and tigers.
In both cases, Russell and Faber downplay and lower the drama and strangeness of first contact. They both use the colonial analogy, like Marco Polo first meeting the Chinese or Spaniards first encountering Aztecs. In this analogy, the presence of others is not so astonishing and is not the focus of awareness. Rather simply the inability to recognize social cues and differences in status hierarchy. For example imagine Meriwether Lewis running into the Kim Jong Un after walking over a hill. The social expectations and assumptions will be quite different, and one party may behave with a level of haughtiness and indifference, despite the novelty and strangeness of the encounter, that catches the other party quite unaware.
That, in essence, is the plot of The Sparrow. Russell’s aliens are just not as alien as Faber’s because she makes a lot of assumptions that are Earth-normative: The atmostphere and gravity of the alien planet are not discussed and one assumes identical to Earth’s. There are two similar species. One turns out to be domesticated herbivore prey. The other turn out to be carnivore predators, who look similar as a result of evolutionarily adaptive aggressive mimicry. The herbivores are like big cuddly kittens and have very dextrous hands and are very social and warm. The carnivores have larger teeth and three-fingered, sharp claws, and are very hierarchical and cold. They have different kinds of intelligence, but both species are intelligent and capable of change.
The novel adopts challenge to religious faith as a theme but somewhat tiresomely overplays it. Both the humans being social at rest in the exploration group and the humands giving each other a hard time in the Jesuit context are somewhat heavily and stereotypically written. The construction of the dual species, and the ecological imbalance accidentally introduced by the visiting human party are cleverly designed, as one would expect of a good scientist exploring a scenario in their domain.
I bought the sequel, Children of God, which will arrive in a few weeks. The New York Times didn’t like it. Russell plays out the scenario a little more with a return visit. I’m looking forward to it! My primary takeaways from this book:
- First contact with aliens could play out just like first contact in the human context, for example when Christian missionaries came to Japan in the 1500’s.
- We have to be very careful about unintended ecological impact of human ideas on alien society. The predator/prey society depicted in Russell’s book had strict population controls and no risk of prey insurrection. The human concept of gardening interfered with population controls and the human concept of strength in numbers and retaliation upset the political stability of the dual society.
- The aliens might not like us, find us that interesting, and may look down on us, even if they are technologically inferior, so we have to be very careful about making assumptions about social hierarchies, status, and level of empathy. (The essence of diplomacy, I suppose.
- Maybe we can make asteroids into self-fueling space ships. (Her one cool and relatively unexplored technical idea.)
Finally, note the novel is written in 1998 and she has a relatively uneven scorecard as a futurologist. She got a few things right, like tablet computing, but mostly her timeline is way too ambitious, considering it’s 2017 as I write the following conditions were supposed to hold in 2016:
- Students do not yet become indentured servants to pay for college scholarships.
- Japan is not the dominant economic, military and political power.
- Asteroids are not yet so thoroughly routinely mined that you can go to a broker for a used one equipped with engines that has just the right shape.
- Jesuits don’t commission space explorations.