Monday, December 1, 2008

Science Fiction to Mess with Your Mind (Book Reviews)

I finished reading a couple of crazy-awesome sci fi books this weekend. The first one, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, was given to me by my friend Eric on my recent visit. It's one of those stories told mostly in flashback so I spent most of the novel being like "get on with it already! What happened on that alien planet?" By the time I got to the end, I almost didn't want to know what happened, but it was like a car wreck you couldn't look away from. Incidentally, Brad Pitt's (supposedly) going to star in the movie adaptation soon so if you don't want to know what happens until then, stop reading now.

The Sparrow's title is taken from the bible verse about god seeing all sparrows that fall and is basically a meditation on the fact that the sparrow still falls anyway. The books' "present day" events take place in Italy where a Jesuit priest - the only person left from a mission to an alien planet - is recouperating from his experience that left him with eviserated hands, constant nightmares and chronic headaches and the bad opinion of all his peers. The Jesuits are looking after him, waiting until he is strong enough to be interviewed/interrogated by the Father Superior. The second mission to the alien planet found and returned the priest, Emilio, before they too fell into radio silence. Spooky right?

The flashback scenes tell the story of how the alien planet was first detected as a radio signal carrying otherworldly music. The group of friends the radio engineer calls just happened to include Father Emilio who gets them all worked up about being THE people who answer this alien call and go out exploring the way Jesuits used to be the first explorers in the Americas in many places. So everything just happens to fall divinely in place it seems for these friends and they hurtle through space in an asteroid that mines itself for fuel as they travel until they arrive at the world where "the Singers" live.

They make contact easily and Emilio, being a brilliant linguist, helps them communicate quite quickly and they are instantly enveloped in the aliens' culture. They are traders and simply accept the humans as guests. Except it turns out that these aliens are "the Singers" and they're definitely not the dominant species on the planet. When Emilio and the others finally meet them is about the time they are doomed. I won't give away anything more than that, but it is seriously messed up, so be prepared. It's one of those books that is going to stay with me for a long while, like House of Leaves did, in that my mind will keep puzzling over it when normally I've already mentally moved on.

The other book that I read was messed up not because it was disturbing, but because it was really weirdly sexual... like inter-species dating weird and the heroine was a 15 year old girl. Trust Orson Scott Card to put kids in weird world-saving situations like his Ender series (coming soon to a comic book near you) does. In fact, Wyrms turned out to be very similar to the Ender series (minus the first book) at least in so far as weirdly interconnected alien and inter-species relationships are concerned.

Patience is the daughter of a high-ranking slave/public official whom she discovers is really the true human ruler of the planet in a long line of ancestry that has remained unbroken for three thousand years. Taught to serve as an assasin and diplomat, she runs away with her father's, and now her, most trusted slave to avoid being killed after her father's death. This sets her off on the path to fullfill the prophecy that when "the seventh seventh seventh human Heptarch," by blood this is Patience, is in power, she will bear the Unwyrm's child and cause the destruction or redemption of their world.

The planet where Patience lives is also home to several species of aliens, each with varying levels of influence and intelligence and particular social relations. The humans treat the aliens with little respect and receive little in return. Human society has developed strangely here since the original colonist captain, rumored to have gone mad, destroyed all large metal deposits in the planet. So society is in many ways similar to Middle Age European society with random technological improvements.

Patience leaves to save her life but ends up on a quest to follow "The Cranning Call" which seduced all the smartest humans who subsequently disappeared. Everyone knows that the Unwyrm is the one who calls them - the being born from the first species on the planet and the original "mad" colonist captain. The Unwyrm has incredible psychic powers and can control and affect just about anyone's thoughts which makes the journey all that more difficult for Patience - not because he doesn't want her to find him, but because she wants to get there on her own terms, which turns out to include finding ways to bring all the other various species together in harmony.

Because it turns out that either all the other species or the Unwyrm will survive, because all the other "indigenous" intelligent species were also born from the Wyrn/space captain coupling which is why they all have so much in common. The Unwyrm is the only one that is the most like the original species who ruled the planet and he's been waiting thousands of years to take it back. The ending is such a weird mixture of sex, ickiness and totally random events leading up to the saving of the world, you'll love it. Some of the philosophy behind this book is how we create god through our desires and actions. It actually does an even better job of blending philosophic thought with nifty sci fi stuff than The Sparrow did. But that's Orson Scott Card for ya - he's a Mormon, you know.

Okay, now I promise not to let myself talk about books again for a good long while... But I don't think I can say the same for other sci fi topics.

Related posts:
Smelling Outer Space (Dumb Science)
When Elephants Rule the Earth!
Growing Up Different (Book Reviews)

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Nuke said...

I read the Card book a while back, didn't stick with me quite the same way Ender's Game did. Good book tho.

Your description of Sparrow sounds very familiar, tho I do not remember it. I may have sped thru it in early high school when I was reading every bit of SciFi I could find in my small town. I am gonna keep my eyes open for it hto.

Eric said...

Wow, so glad you liked it! I'll probably read the sequel sometime in the future because I remember the actual first book now.