Other Worlds

The SparrowUnusual for me, I’ve just finished two books with sci-fi/other worldly themes that took me from the past and present and dropped me off in nearly the same places in the near future, 30 or 40 years from now.

The first book is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell which I consumed in audiobook format. I avoided this one for a bit, despite the great reviews I read about it, because I’m not particularly interested in literature that deals with theological themes. But the premise of this book is interesting: after discovering beautiful music coming from a distant but relatively neighboring planet, a contact party, funded and organized by the Jesuits, is sent to the planet to make contact with the singers. How the seven members of the mission (not all of them Jesuits) came to be chosen to go and what happened to them is told in a series of flashbacks after Father Emilio Sandoz, the only survivor of the party, returns to earth in terrible physical, mental, and emotional condition. His hands have been grotesquely mutilated but it is his mind, emotions, and faith that have suffered even more. The first half of the book is ultra suspenseful as Russell builds the background for the mission before she reveals just what happened to Sandoz and his comrades. And what happens to him and his friends is pretty horrifying, once all revealed.

The book definitely deals with themes of faith, but I found them less troubling than I expected as the novel is in not particularly didactic. Using the Jesuits as the first group to make contact with “others” was rather an inspired and historically plausible choice as that has been their mission for so many hundreds of years on earth. Also interesting was the science: Sandoz is a gifted linguist, more gifted and curious as a linguist than as a priest perhaps. His party also consisted of an atheist doctor, a couple of engineers, a Jew, and several other non-traditional priests who are pilots, musicians, etc. All have lively, open minds. There is much discussion about the existence of god and the meaning of faith, but there is no resolution to these topics in the story overall. It would be as easy to argue that God does not exist and faith is a delusion as it would be to say the opposite based on the characters’ experiences. I really likes how Russell deals with these topics and did not seem to be preaching one way or the other. As a former Catholic and sci-fi fan, PJK you will enjoy this one!

imageDuring the same period, I also read The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, and got sucked into his many worlds and voices. If you’ve read any Mitchell, you may know his fondness for segmenting his novels into different narrative voices that all connect in some way, and also, setting each segment in a different time period. This novel introduces a woman named Holly Sykes and the first section is told from her perspective in the 1980s when she is a teenager. Each subsequent section is narrated by a different character, but each one intersects Holly’s life as she matures. The final chapter is set in the future and returns to Holly’s perspective again as an old woman at the end of her life.

Boy that sounds dull! Really, the ride through the whole book is a romp and a half in David Mitchell’s exuberant imagination, spectacular vocabulary, and witty turn of phrase. He also pulls off (again) the feat of writing convincingly about and from the perspective of characters of very specific and complex lives such as Ed Brubeck’s chapter. Ed is Holly husband but he is also a war reporter and the year is 2004, deep in the Iraq mess. Mitchell’s command of the politics and conjuring of the experiences of the gritty war reporter beat are masterful, and I am always, ALWAYS, dazzled by his pitch-perfect ability to so convincingly inhabit so many different voices and perspectives.

All the novel’s segments are tied to real-world events and references. This is perhaps how Mitchell gets away with the other worldly part of this book, a cosmic battle between noble, eternally reincarnating Horologists and predatory beings who reincarnate by sucking the souls out of regular humans. We got hints of Mitchell’s foray into the purely fantastic and supernatural in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which to my mind was not very successful (but I loved the historical part of this book). But The Bone Clocks is all about revealing this fantastical world underlying his novels, and for that reason it works in this book.

Wouldn’t it be great to lock Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell in the same room and see what kind of dazzling, disturbing, and undoubtedly brilliant dystopian tale would emerge? Can’t wait to see what he does next and it looks like with the imminent publication of Slade House, I will not have to wait long.

The Sparrow
Brilliance Audio, 2008, narrated by David Colacci

The Bone Clocks
personal copy
Random House, 2014

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