Saturday, June 08, 2024

Bokrecension: DET BLINDA RUMMET av A. R. Yngve

Tora F Greve har läst och recenserat min novellsamling DET BLINDA RUMMET. Läs recensionen HÄR. Citat: Det blinda rummet är en samlingsvolym med AR Yngves speciella SF-stil och ett måste för alla som hyllar udda science fiction. De flesta har varit publicerade innan, det mesta på engelska i olika tidningar och antologier.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Book Review: THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

THE SPARROW (1996) by Mary Doria Russell

I have read other books that use genre fiction as a vehicle for religious messages (see also my review of G. K. Chesterton's THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY).

In THE SPARROW, the message is related to Catholicism. The story is a heavy-handed allegory about the Problem of Evil. It comes off as an attempt to "sell" Catholicism and the pillars of its belief system - even though the author's intent may have been to criticize it. Does this sound confused? I think it is.

THE SPARROW is labeled as science fiction, but that is the weakest element of the novel.

The plot hangs upon a crucial event: That the main protagonists take part in a hastily assembled, first-ever manned space expedition to another star. The scientific plausibility of this expedition is low, for a book written in the 1990s.

 Among the book reviews on Amazon, I found one quote that sums up how the space travel in THE SPARROW fails to convince: "Hey, gang! Let's go to Alpha Centauri!" The setup really is that naive.

The costly and extremely risky expedition is financed by Jesuits, and the spacefaring crew is led by a charismatic Jesuit priest. In fact, the whole aim of their mission - expressed by said priest, who is the main protagonist - is to affirm the Catholic faith through contact with aliens.

Where do they get their starship? The Jesuits buy a used spaceship that was not made for traveling outside the Solar System, and refit it for travel at near-lightspeed. (That part of the story takes place around the year 2020, in a book written in the 1990s.)

I have questions.

Whatever happened to NASA? The military? The scientific establishment? The way the expedition is created and unfolds, the reader might think those institutions had vanished - and only the Catholic Church remained to organize the first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.

On what basis was this expedition founded? What made a crew of non-professionals risk their lives traveling over 4 lightyears with poor planning and a low chance of survival?

Well you see, a radio telescope happened to pick up some alien song that was broadcast from Alpha Centauri. So obviously this is the business of one specific organized religion - or so the plot would have us believe.

Were there any attempts to contact the aliens before going there? Any work on trying to figure out the possible meaning of the broadcast? Perhaps one should build more powerful telescopes to examine the planets of Alpha Centauri? Or send unmanned space probes, before human astronauts go there?

Nope. Things really do proceed on, or near, the level of "Hey, gang! Let's go to Alpha Centauri!"

But you can't approach THE SPARROW by taking the plot literally, or as science fiction, because then it just falls apart. It's an allegory; it's about The Message; the aliens are there to teach the reader how to relate to The Message. 

The elements of Catholic messaging that appear in the novel are easy to spot:

- Missionaries: The crew traveling to Alpha Centauri frequently behaves as if they were in the 16th century and going on a mission to the "heathens" of South America or the Pacific.

Speaking as an agnostic: If you approach a first contact with an alien species on another planet as if you were a Jesuit on a religious expedition, then either you are guided by divine providence... or you're out of your mind. So things can only go wrong - and boy, do they.

- Martyrdom: The brave missionaries suffer horrible fates - not surprising, really - but this is not framed as a consequence of their utter incompetence and the expedition's lack of planning and cohesion. The narration didactically instructs the reader that whatever bad things happen to the crew and the central protagonist matter in relation to God, and to the dogma of Catholic faith in particular. 

- The Meaning of Suffering: The narrative contains a great deal of foreshadowing that the expedition will end in disaster, death and agony. (Too much foreshadowing, too contrived, too repetitive.) And what finally happens is ghastly and revolting - but it's shoehorned into the overall telegraphed Message "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?"

- God's Plan: The characters just can't shut up about God's intentions with absolutely everything that happens on their mission. They go on and on about it, to the point where I wondered if it was satire. (It's not.)

- Celibacy: The core "romance" element of THE SPARROW is that the attractive Catholic priest protagonist is loved by an attractive Jewish woman, but they can't ever have each other because The Rules. The cynic in me suspects that this contrived "romantic" subplot may explain the commercial success of the novel - think THE THORN BIRDS in space.

Either this sort of "will-they-or-won't-they-but-he-mustn't-because-Celibacy" dance appeals to you, or it doesn't. In this case it left me cold, but then I'm a big dumb straight agnostic male. Feel free to judge me for thinking about these two characters: Oh, just sleep with each other already. You're more than four light-years away from Earth and you're probably going to die in space - what are your options?

I won't spoil what happens to the attractive woman and her unrequited pining for the attractive celibate priest - but it involves a mix of tragedy and severe "cringe."

- Confession: A major part of the narrative is that other Jesuit priests try to coax the priest protagonist into confessing to them (and to them alone) why the expedition failed. The author makes this confession a very big deal, and the importance of Confession is telegraphed in an obvious manner.

(None of these serious-minded men of the cloth seem to consider that their organization was responsible for the failure of a doomed venture that said organization financed, and could have stopped in advance. The infallibility of the Church, I suppose.)

In the end, THE SPARROW is not as profound as it purports to be.

The novel's final, traumatic "big reveal" - that is supposed to present a deep, tormenting dilemma about God's intentions - is torpedoed by events in the real world.

The priest protagonist wouldn't have to travel all the way to Alpha Centauri to find that dilemma. It would have been enough to explore the Catholic Church itself, unflinchingly, and ask: Why would a just and loving God allow evil to exist inside the Church? Was that part of some divine plan?

But even if you overlook what we now know about abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, THE SPARROW is shallow. Other writers have tackled the themes of God, faith and belief with more depth - also in the science fiction genre. I can think of several examples (see the list below), but I'm certain the list could be made longer.

And therefore the critical praise heaped upon THE SPARROW seems undeserved. It's almost as if THE DA VINCI CODE had somehow been mistaken for THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. In addition to the lack of intellectual depth, the plot is weak and contrived, the characters are unconvincing and often cringeworthy, and the attempts at "humor" are embarrassing.

The final part of the book features a quite unpleasant "shocker." (I do not recommend THE SPARROW to sensitive readers.) I wouldn't say the shock scenes were deliberate emotional manipulation, but they can be interpreted as misleading.

Shock scenes in fiction can manipulate readers' emotions, confuse them: You're shaken and moved by the characters' trauma, and you think this means you have had a profound experience. But the shock numbs your mind to the questions you, the reader, would otherwise have asked.

Being emotionally shaken - even traumatized - is not the same as thinking profoundly, and I suspect this is where THE SPARROW might "cloud the reader's mind." 

THE SPARROW leans towards affirming Catholic dogma, but it seems to happen by accident -
as a result of muddled writing. I assume the author had sincere issues with her belief, and tried to work out her doubts by writing THE SPARROW.

However, the resulting book fails to mentally step outside the religious dogma, and thus fails to observe them with something like a cold, analytical objectivity. It does not indulge in outright sophistry, but it dodges the "hard questions" by not taking them far enough. 

(Consider also the possibility that the author might have used those "shock" scenes to numb herself, as a way to avoid the hard questions.)

There are some really interesting ideas in THE SPARROW, and the germ of what could have been a much better story. It was a success, and there are sequels. Since the first book disappointed me, I won't bother with the series.

If you wish to read memorable genre fiction about God, faith and belief systems, then I can recommend these books:

By James Blish: 
A Case of Conscience
Black Easter and The Day After Judgment (the two titles form a "duology" and should be read as a single book)

By Philip K. Dick:
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
A Maze of Death

Eye in the Sky

#scifi #sciencefiction #religion #literature #books #bookreviews #christianity

Sunday, May 26, 2024

FREE EBOOK WEEKEND, May 31 - June 2: "THE ARGUS PROJECT" (sci-fi novel)



My old space-opera novel THE ARGUS PROJECT is available for FREE ebook download from Friday, May 31, PDT (Pacific Daylight Time) to the end of June 2, 2024.
(NOTE: In European time zones, the offer lasts until Monday June 3, 2024.)
In the distant future, Planet Earth has become the seat of an interplanetary empire. It wages war on its own colonies to gain control of the Solar System and its precious energy resources.
Two lovers are caught up in this colossal power struggle. They join forces to win back their freedom... and each other. In their way stands the military forces of an entire empire... and the last politician.
This complete 100,000-word science fiction novel has previously been released as a Web serial.

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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Book Review: GLORY ROAD by Robert A. Heinlein


GLORY ROAD (1963) by Robert A. Heinlein

This novel is a "portal fantasy" that still holds up. It is humorous, inventive and entertaining.

The novel's protagonist, a mercenary named Gordon, returns from fighting in Southeast Asia (probably Vietnam). He feels alienated from 1960s society at the beginning of the hippie era, and is looking for something to do with his life.

Then he discovers a mysterious newspaper ad with the headline "Are you a coward?", promising dangerous adventures for a volunteer hero.

Gordon answers the ad... and is transported to a fantasy universe. A beautiful royal woman takes him on a quest to reclaim a priceless magical treasure from an evil sorcerer/demon.

After many strange and dangerous (and occasionally bizarre) adventures, Gordon triumphs. But then comes the twist: What happens to the hero after he saves the kingdom and marries the queen? It gets complicated, and not at all what he expected...

The author Heinlein is clearly having fun when he plays with the fantasy genre. And he keeps his tendency to deliver long-winded lectures somewhat under control (maybe he had a good editor).

In order to appreciate GLORY ROAD, you must not come at it expecting a "Tolkien"-type fantasy story. You can also say that it's "postmodern" in that it seems aware of its own preposterousness. It is also greater than the sum of its parts.

(I came across a critic who speculated that GLORY ROAD inspired Stephen King's THE DARK TOWER. That may be true, but I haven't read King's novel.)

Recommended for adult readers (this is not fantasy for children) with a sense of humor.

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Thursday, May 16, 2024

PRECINCT 20: DEAD STRANGE - Crime stories from an urban twilight zone


Welcome to the 20th.

You'll never leave...
Crime stories from an urban twilight zone
Available here in paperback and ebook format:

#horror #CrimeFiction #paranormal #books #ghosts #XFiles #TheTwilightZone #noir #Crime #literature

Saturday, May 11, 2024




May 17-19 (Pacific Daylight Time):
Download my "paranormal crime" story
for free. Follow this link:

For lovers of "The X-Files" and weird fiction. Hardboiled cops in an American city hunt an "impossible" serial killer... NOTE: This offer is valid until May 20 in European time zones.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2024



Get the sci-fi novel ALIEN BEACH for free
April 26-28, 2024 (Pacific Daylight Time) here:

PLEASE NOTE: The freebie will be available longer, until Monday April 29, in certain timezones (especially Europe).

What might have happened if aliens had visited our world, the real world, in the very recent past? What would NOT happen?

On a tiny Pacific atoll nicknamed ALIEN BEACH, a group of men and women come face to face with amphibian visitors from space.

They must learn to understand these enigmatic visitors, before the planet is thrown into a war that cannot be won... and in doing so, come to understand themselves. 
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