The Sparrow, by Maria Dona Russell

Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – a good and readable Sci-fi story. That is praise enough, in the end, in a world where readability and good English seem to matter less and less.

I write that, but I’ve just finished Stephen King’s classic novel “The Stand”. Stephen King is an icon amongst wannabee writers. In all of “The Stand”there are perhaps two or three adverbs. 28 pages into “The Sparrow” and one of the characters is doing something”expressively”. Hmm.

Whilst ostensibly writing sci-fi, she has used sci-fi memes to enable a discussion of such eternal matters as celibacy, pride, marriage, and relationship. Her Jesuits seem believable to me, though her space vehicles and her aliens are perhaps less convincing, and beg more questions than they answer. It’s an interesting point; after all, what is fiction for but to stimulate the discussion of ideas?

Her Puerto Rican priest Fr. Sandoz is the central towering figure; gaunt, hugely capable, prideful, strong. Yet he is utterly destroyed, ruined, by his appalling experiences on the alien world. It was his pride and strength that helped destroy him. He is healed and restored to wholeness in the end, not by the working of grace, nor even by human compassion, but by robust and stern treatment from his superiors at the Society of Jesus. This I find unconvincing – but I believe in grace.

Alpha Centauri is one of the very nearest stars to Earth. That humankind should receive radio signals from intelligent lifeforms from somewhere as relatively close as that, implies that the universe must simply teem with intelligent life around almost every star (in keeping with the ideas of older writers like Poul Anderson or even more modern authors like Stephen Baxter.) But she has not taken this idea forward.

The relativity and ballistics seem fine at first glance. Her space vehicle gets to Alpha Centauri in about 18 years (as seen from Earth) but time dilation makes the journey time about a year as seen from on board. The engines of her space vehicles remain as undescribed as those of Iain M Banks, and are even less convincing thereby. To accelerate at 1G up to light speed, and then decelerate again, as one must to reach Alpha Centauri in less than decades, implies quite remarkable fuel consumption. There are some interesting gaps in her engineering, but in the end her book is not about engines and aliens, but about people and human relationships. An astonishing work and I’m glad I found it.

The Treaty of Seattle

(loosely and colloquially translated from the original Russish)

About that time, there was Treaty of Seattle, which marked end of long and bitter war, between Chinese on one side, and almost everyone else, on other side.  Some called it a third world war.  It was the last world war.  Major nations of world allied with and fought with our ancestors against Chinese aggression.  Long term effect of war was to create democracy in Russia and strengthen the weakening culture in rest of world. “Renaissance civilization” was able to prevail against rising and illiberal Islamism in last decades before start of Diaspora.

Though nuclear weapons were used, and some cities were destroyed, war was never “apocalypse” predicted in the literature and media of the world at that time.  It began some fifteen years earlier after aggressive and sudden Chinese moves into Russian territory.

At same time, Chinese miliary moved south towards continent of Australia.  Initial losses were staggering – within six weeks, Singapore had fallen, and all of Russia east of Lake Baikal was in Chinese hands.  But all that ground was taken back over the course of the war.

The advance of the Chinese brought about political chaos across earth, collapsing political unions and causing some small but signficant minor wars.  Recent work by historians suggests that discoveries in Antarctica, and the subsequent technological step-change, were rather more important to victory than heretofore thought.

Human cost of Russo-Chinese War was over 4 million Russian and alliance dead, 30 million Chinese dead, and several historic Chinese cities destroyed. China was forced back to her original boundaries and Confucian culture destroyed forever.

Following war, political landscape was left in chaos.  But it was out of that chaos and technical developments from Antarctica, that there came launch of Russian starship Yekatarina Velikaya.  Exact date we can no longer be certain of, due to issues relating to the small differences between Standard years and  length of Earth year.  But  we believe that this was sometime in sixth decade of twenty-first century after Christ.