Tuesday, April 24, 2007

my book review: The Sparrow

So while I was in AZ, I read two books. There's not alot I usually feel like doing after work in the field...I mean besides my excercise routine of running 20 miles, and then doing my usual 200 pushups.

I read In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick and The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell.

In the Heart of the Sea was great, a quick and pretty easy read about the ramming of a whaling ship by an 85 foot sperm whale, a true story that formed the basis for Moby Dick....but thats not what this post is all about.

I also read the Sparrow...and I liked it, but I hated it. It was good, but annoying.

Here's the premise (in short): A group of people, a few of them very religious, one or two of them "spiritual", discover intelligent life on another planet. They decide to go directly there and meet this intelligent life, assuming that since one of them is a Jesuit Missionary with language skills, they are the best suited, and in a religious sense, are directed there with the help of god.

They go there and get all religous, live pleasantly, hang out with the natives, and then they realize that the basic social organization of the aliens are a lot like Human's relationship to cows. There are two races on the alien planet, one that is like cows in that they serve as a herd-like animal that the other race routinely slaughters for food.

They land and first make contact with the "cow" group. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong when they figure out that the other race kills the cows. They all die except one of them, the jesuit priest, who spends the time reconciling his horrible tragedy with god.

I think the main theme of the book is that "you just have to have faith"...sometimes bad things happen to good people, and what you EXPECT from god, isn't necessarily what god has in store for you. The Book is heavily faith-based, and written in an almost nauseatingly warm-fuzzy tone: everyone gets a hug when things are good, or when things go bad, there's this naive expectation that good is in everything, and descriptions of beauty include references to spiritual experience.

So...there you have it. God is awesome, we're all filled with such love, and sometimes shit-happens, but that can't change the awesomeness of god in the heart of the faithful.

The book is a lesson in maintaining faith in the face of life's greatest tragedies.

How else can a believer in god deal with evil in the world?

There's an even easier explanation for why there's evil: There is no god. If you step back from the story for a minute and think "if good things can happen to good people, maybe there is no god". Things can just happen, the Universe just is what it is, and we are here dealing with it. Maybe because you’re a religious zealot and can’t see past the narcissistic delusion of your faith, you couldn’t notice that you were about to get sodomized by an alien.

In fact, I think if you look at the premise of the story, and say that it was religious arrogance and ignorance that directly lead to the demise of the characters.

1. They assume at least latently that somehow god was involved with this trip, and that they were doing gods work in going to the planet.

2. They assume that social and cultural values that we have on earth are also true on other planets. They also assume that there is equality and harmony with all species on the alien planet.

3. By immersing themselves within one social group on the planet, without understanding ANYTHING about the planet itself, they place themselves in direct conflict with the cows and the carnivores.

4. They assume that the killing of the cow race of aliens is morally wrong.

If you think about it for a minute: Its ignorance of the alien planet, its culture, its intelligence, the roles of different intelligent races lead directly to their downfall. Also, Their arrogance that they should just zoom right in and start hanging out with aliens as having something to do with gods plan is ridiculous.

I’m not sure if this book was supposed to reinforce or help to bring people into a spiritual life, expose and highlight the human folly when it comes to faith, or to provide a discussion on the mere existence of god, any god.

I also browsed the Amazon.com customer reviews for this book, there are more than 400 of them, and it seems that many people thought the same thing. There are comments from actively theistic people arguing that Russell has no idea what it means to be religious and faithful, and some who say that it’s a great book that all Christians should read, even though Russell is a Jewish person.

I’m still confused by it a bit, and If I had to say anything about it in short: 1. people acting on religious principles are ASKING to be slaughtered. 2. if there’s anything we should learn from history its that religious missionary behaviors lead to death of a few at the least, and fucking genocide at the most and 3. if you want to explore new planets, new cultures, new ideas, send a scientist, not a na├»ve, kooky group of religious bubbleheads.

Anyone else read this book and get as frustrated as me? If not, you should read it and enlighten me.


mom said...


Haven't laughed so hard in weeks, thank you, thank you, but, think I'll pass on the sparrow.

Joe said...

You should read it, you'd probably actually like it.

its not a poorly written book, and it certainly puts forth some compelling ideas, hence the confusion, frustration, and ample discussion on amazon.com

Erik said...


I think your interpretation is good, but I think the bigger point is our own cultural relativism and how it confuses us in to believing we are in the right when really we are just fulfilling our cultural expectations. I think this book was interesting in that delineates how wrong our expectations can be.

I also found the "god" aspect of it to be fascinating, not for its' questions of faith, but more for how (even in this hypothetical future), this religiosity is doomed to repeat history, the Crusades, the Evangelicals of today, any religion that imposes its' world-view on others.... The religious relativism of Christianity's righteousness dooms the crew.

Anyway, I'd read the 'Children of God' just because it's cool to see what the "carnivores" culture is doing while the others are with as you say "the cows". It's a nice companion piece that really should be part of 'The Sparrow'.

ANWAY BARB!! READ IT...it's great!!!