Sunday, March 18, 2012

Infinity as a limit

Then he smiled into her eyes and asked, in the dry academic tones of an astronomer discussing a theoretical point with a colleague. "How long do you suppose I can go on loving you more every day?" And he devised for her a calculus of love, which approached infinity as a limit, and made her smile again.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, is one of the most fantastic books I've read in some time — the kind where I spent much of my non-reading time not only wishing I were reading it, but talking about various concepts in it to anyone who would listen.

Such concepts include:
  • A habitable planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, a planet with three suns, and three distinct dawns and sun settings, and the visual this creates in my head (especially on the tail of having listened to poetic descriptions of a comparable setting in an audio version of Solaris) is mind-blowing.
  • The privatization of orphanages and the common practice of a kind of indentured service, whereby orphans or other unfortunates could be educated and put to work, and in limited circumstances could buy out the rights to their life from the person or coporation who de facto owned them.
  • Anthropological linguistics, and an alien grammar that voices a distinction between objects that are seen and objects that are not seen or nonvisual, this latter category including both things that are temporarily out of view as well abstract concepts.
    "The ability to speak a language perfectly does not necessarily confer any linguistic understanding of it," Sandoz said, "just as one may play billiards well without any formal understanding of Newtonian physics, yes? My advanced training is in anthropological linguistics, so my purpose in working with Askama was not merely to be able to ask someone to pass the salt, so to speak, but to gain insight into her people's underlying cultural assumptions and cognitive makeup."
    (One of the most common questions I had in response to telling people I studied linguistics was, So how many language do you know?. Aurgh. I wish I could've replied as succinctly as Sandoz.)
  • A world economy in which Polish zloty are a valued currency.
  • The whole Jesuit mystique, and that there be a religious order that might put academic pursuit before God. I feel compelled here to mention the time I met three Jesuits in a bar in Krakow, a couple of whom were visiting from Ireland and were working on translating Ulysses into Polish, and we proceeded to drink bottles of vodka together and talk about rescuing 20th-century Polish literature from obscurity, and they told stories about the Pope, among other things, and I decided, hey, Jesuits are cool.

The Sparrow is about first contact, but like all the best science fiction novels, it's deeply philosophical. While it fully realizes a completely believable yet wholly alien society, it's as much about our own cultural assumptions. It also envisions a future where religion and space travel are both going strong, and where the ideas of God and of alien life are not mutually exclusive.

Once, long ago, she'd allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God's presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdon, was isnstructive either as myth or as history, she'd decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf, God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple choice question. If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs,or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.

Speaking as an open-minded atheist, albeit one raised Catholic, I was worried at times that the novel might end up siding with the existence of God. Although some characters do side with God, most of them maintain a healthy skepticism and some sway between belief and nonbelief, with the very reasonable attitude that "it's difficult to tell from the way people behave whether or not they believe in God." However, it is my one criticism of the novel that there is no affirmed atheist in the bunch.

So, yes, there's much discussion of faith in this book, and I hesitate to recommend it to some of my atheist friends, but I'm pretty sure I'll go ahead and recommend it anyway.

The characters in this novel are delightful — I want them all over for dinner next weekend. Despite most of them having had difficult upbringings, they're all very smart and energetic and lively, that it's only as I write this that I realize they may be a little too good to be true. But, boy, did I enjoy spending time with them. One thing that struck me, and I guess it ties in with the God question, whether life is random or by design, is that most of them had experienced an event in their life about which you could say they were picked up out of their life (by a person) and dropped somewhere else entirely. And I think this is awesome. To some degree I think it's true of all of us, that people nudge us onto paths that lead to vastly different places than we might otherwise have ended up in, and then there's something like love, which can transport you to a completely different life. (Well, how did I get here?)

Russell did write a sequel to The Sparrow, but I've heard from other fans that it is disappointing. I may pick it up someday, but I'm quite content for the time being to let The Sparrow stand alone in my head.

Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

On the other hand, if you like your fiction realistic but are the least bit SF-curious, I think you'll find this group of characters so vivid and likeable, you'll willingly follow them to another planet.


iwonka said...

So does Mom know you're an atheist?

Isabella K said...

Umm, I think so. Do you think it matters? Does she love me less?