Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 3 September 2015

Ruminations on The Sparrow (SF novel by Mary Doria Russell, 1996)

Russell is a paleoanthropologist and so is one of the characters in her book (Anne) whom one thinks may represent the author’s world view, especially concerning religion and God. Anne is basically a good natured and tolerant sceptic.

Whether Anne is representative of the author’s point of view or not, I found Russell’s ideas of God, as expressed explicitly by the main character, Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit (but also implicitly by others) to be old-fashioned, even anachronistic. The idea of God as a father figure and we being ‘His’ children is one I rejected in my teens, especially after reading Camus’ The Plague (La Peste).  So, in some ways, I think Russell is applying the same literary devices as Camus (pointless and undeserved human suffering) to challenge this particular version of God that many of us grew up with.

At one point the character, Anne, asks Emilio if it’s alright for her to ‘hate God’. Towards the end of the novel, another Jesuit priest proposes the idea (not original, I suspect) that God had to make room for the existence of the Universe by removing Himself, which is really a Deistic version of God that one sometimes finds appealing to scientists, because such a God would be non-interventionist. If one takes this to its logical conclusion, there is no reason for this God to have empathy or be the anthropomorphic version we are familiar with from the Bible.

The interesting point is that people sometimes ‘find God’ in the midst of their own suffering. I think of Viktor Frankl (an Auschwitz survivor) who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning and The Unconscious God, who argued that a person can find meaning through adversity. But this supports my own view that God is something that people find within themselves and is not dependent on making God responsible for whatever happens in the world.

As Russell’s novel makes clear, if one makes God responsible for everything that happens, then He’s responsible for the suffering as well as the triumphs of the human spirit. At the start of the story’s journey, the protagonists believe that everything they’re doing is part of God’s plan – it’s meant to be – but at the end, this premise is effectively negated.

One of the attractions of Sci-Fi for me, even when I was quite young, is that it allows what-if scenarios, alternative societies. I would suggest that Frank Herbert and Ursula Le Guin were particularly adept at rendering alternative social structures. Russell’s alien society is particularly well thought through and makes one consider how it may have evolved on Earth had other hominids (like Neanderthals) survived into an agricultural world. As it is, we were (and still are) very good at exploiting economically weaker sectors of our societies, at all levels, from global to local.

There is no clear resolution, at least for me, to the ‘God question’, which is a central theme of her book. One can end up ‘hating’ God, if one follows the logical conclusion from the book’s premise to its confounding end, but I believe that the characters in the story are simply following an antiquated version of God.

P.S. I should point out that this book won the 1998 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

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