Review: The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell, and Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks

Prologues [1]

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm.

—Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

- They thought you were their plaything,
Savage child; the throwback from wayback
Expedient because
Utopia spawns few warriors.
But you knew your figure cut a cipher
Through every crafted plan,
And playing our game for real
Saw through our plumbing jobs
And wayward glands
To a meaning of your own, in bones.

—Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Iain M. Banks's Use of Weapons are both excellent and complex novels. Since they also have some interesting similarities of form and structure, I thought it appropriate to review them together.

These novels cannot be summarized in any great detail without spoiling them, something which must not be done, but a sense of their plot can be given. Use of Weapons is one of Banks' Culture novels. The Culture is a utopian society which likes to "interfere in societies . . . [that] might benefit from the experience," a sort of limited variant of Uplift. It occasionally feels that it needs to use non-utopian weapons to achieve its goals; one of these weapons is called Cheradenine Zakalwe. His work with the Culture seems to be a way of trying to cope with a terrible secret in his past.

The key similarity between the novels is that narrative structure is absolutely essential. Neither could be effectively told in any other form. Use of Weapons consists of two narrative threads. Both start at approximately the same period in time; one moves backwards in time to the crucial tragedy, while the other moves forward towards the possibility of redemption.

The Sparrow is, among other things, a first contact novel, and is also told in two narrative strands. Unlike Use of Weapons, however, both threads focus on the same events. One describes the events around a Jesuit-led expedition to the planet Rakhat, and the other describes the hearings held to determine what went wrong. These lines run more or less in parallel. As in Use of Weapons, the central mystery is the nature of the tragedy which scarred the main character, who here is the lone survivor of the mission, a Jesuit priest known as Emilio Sandoz.

As I said earlier, narrative structure is crucial to these novels. The main characters are enigmas to the other characters and to the readers throughout most of the novels. As the books progress, more and more is divulged about the characters and the effects of their mysteries on them. With the revelations at the ends, it becomes clear that everyone has misunderstood the nature of the main characters' crises, though the authors are more than fair to the reader. These sudden comprehensions give the novels their very considerable emotional force—if the nature of the tragedies had been revealed in the middle of the novels, much of the impact of the realizations would be lost.

I should also note that the form and content of the big revelations are handled well by the authors. Frequently, when such suspense is created over the course of a novel, there is the fear that the denouement will be a letdown. These fears are not realized. Indeed, The Sparrow in particular makes me think of Lois McMaster Bujold's method of creating plots, which is to think of the worst thing you can do to a particular character— and then do it. The past tragedies are both objectively terrible and have a uniquely personal dimension of horror to the characters.

One other thematic similarity (which ties into the structural similarity) should be mentioned. In both novels, the key to the chance of redemption or healing is, in Banks' phrase, "facing it by facing it," confronting and accepting the reality of the past. Since the reader faces the past at the same time as the characters, the reader shares in the feelings of pain and catharsis. This statement is from The Sparrow, but is equally applicable to both books: "He will have to tell it again and again, and we will have to hear more and more, until he finds the meaning." The reader, by reading and journeying with the characters, also participates in the search for meaning. This increases the emotional involvement of the reader in the story.

These broad thematic and structural similarities do not mean that these books are particularly comparable in other ways. The Sparrow tackles questions of God and (particularly) faith, while Use of Weapons is a mediation on its title. Despite the back blurb of the UK edition, Use of Weapons focuses almost exclusively on the man known as Zakalwe. The woman and the drone mentioned (who are respectively known as Diziet Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw), are important to the book (on a thematic level as well as to the plot [2]), but they are not as emotionally vivid as the supporting characters in The Sparrow. While these do not go through as much character development as Sandoz, they make more of an impact on the reader than their counterparts in Use of Weapons. The Sparrow also spends more time on world-building, which is unsurprising in a first contact novel.

Overall, these are excellent novels and well worth reading, separately or together. They are thought-provoking, emotionally and morally powerful books, enough so that they remained very much on my mind for several days after finishing them.

[1] Okay, technically the poem from Use of Weapons is before the actual Prologue. It's close enough.

[2] Thanks to Emmet O'Brien for pointing this out.

Copyright November 17, 1997 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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