Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" - Dathon, "Star Trek" September 30, 1991

My friend E and I went out for drinks last Friday evening.

E came out of her house with The Three-Martini Playdate tucked into her pocket; she swears that coming prepared with reading material in no way reflects upon her expectations of the evening. Since I go nowhere without carrying something to read, I believe her.

We talked about all the things friends who are moms talk about: our kids, our husbands, the good old days when we were young and single and could get as drunk as we wanted when we wanted, the school, the teachers, gossip about the teachers, movies, books – you know, the usual.

Three Bacardi-and-Cokes (and an order of mozzarella sticks) in, I was compelled to hug poor, surprised E. Those of you who know me know how odd that is, and certainly E is no exception in being startled at physical displays of affection from me. But we were talking books, and she said to me something along the lines of, “I remember reading this terrific book called….Children of….wait, God….I can’t remember the title, but it was about this priest who travels to another planet and…” at which point I bounced up and down in my chair a little and interrupted eagerly, “The Sparrow?”

I read The Sparrow last year, and was absolutely blown away by its intelligence and depth, its complexity, and its compelling characters. I eagerly recommended it to everyone I could think of who I thought might like it – the same people, I admit, to whom I have recommended some of my other all-time favorites like Satanic Verses, Possession, and Stones from the River. Difference being that Sparrow is science fiction – and I generally do not like sci-fi. But I LOVED this book. It does indeed seem to be a “love-it or hate-it” sort of book; the friend who recommended it to me didn’t care for it at all, and neither did H.

E is a religious history scholar, and she seemed to find the twining of religion, linguistics, and anthropology in The Sparrow, and its sequel, Children of God most intriguing. And I agree with her - The Sparrow is not your stereotypical sci-fi novel, replete with strange creatures, space-age weaponry, and interplanetary hijinks. It’s a thoughtful and detailed exploration of first contact with an alien civilization: the clash between cultures and the implications thereof, and the impact of belief – cultural, religious, moral - on a society. It is a book that bears rereading, and its protagonist, Emilio Sandoz, is one of the most unforgettable characters I have ever met and learned to love.

So, despite my inappropriate and somewhat inebriated display of “Oh my God, I lurve you, you’ve read it too!” enthusiasm, when I offered to rustle up some other books like The Sparrow, E agreed that that would be awesome. So, to the research databases (NoveList and Fantastic Fiction), and my personal lists and shelves, and here we are. Some factor in the religious aspect, some the linguistic aspect (which is where my interest mainly lies). Some are just smart and curious and deal with compelling relevant topics in a relatively novel way. (I am willing to bet that Badger has some other titles to offer in this vein as well.)

I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the first books that came to mind, Phillip Pullman’s gorgeous, haunting His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. (I love these books so much that you could probably without much effort talk me into naming a (girl) child of mine Lyra.)

And the book I threw out, off the top of my head, to E that evening, Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio. H really likes Bear and has read many of his books. I read this one and found it a terrific read, very smart and provocative (by the way, this is most definitely a do-not-read-if-pregnant selection.) Its Amazon blurb sums Radio up fairly well: "...its real villain, as well as its last best hope, is the endless ingenious cruelty of the natural world and evolution."

A Case of Conscience - James Blish. This is apparently the seminal work of literature in the vein of The Sparrow and has been mentioned as one of its possible influences.

A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller, Jr. I admit, I have tried and tried to read this book and just can’t get into it. But it can’t be ignored, either. Apparently part of the sci-fi canon, I am sure with good reason.

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula LeGuin. A classic. I am halfway through it, ashamed to admit I have not read it previously.

The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood. Chilling.

I haven’t read any of these following books, never even heard of them, until I embarked on this quest. I weeded out a ton of books, but these seemed like quality, or at the very least, worth a look.

Days of Cain - JR Dunn. "...a passionate tale about a rebellious group of time travelers who attempt to prevent one of the greatest atrocities humanity ever devised: Auschwitz."

Wrapt in Crystal - Sharon Shinn. "...examines religious faith and the nature of love while providing a riveting murder mystery."

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein. "...the story of Valentine Michael Smith, born during, and the only survivor of, the first manned mission to Mars. Michael is raised by Martians, and he arrives on Earth as a true innocent…[B]ut he brings turmoil with him, as he is the legal heir to an enormous financial empire, not to mention de facto owner of the planet Mars...Michael explores human morality and the meanings of love. He founds his own church, preaching free love and disseminating the psychic talents taught him by the Martians..."

The Discovery of Heaven - Harry Mulisch, translated by Paul Vincent. A “novel bulging with metaphysical speculation…masterfully interspers[ing] mathematics, biology, linguistics, numerology, philosophy and theology.”

So...boldly go where no man has gone before.
Or no reference librarian.
Or something like that.
Just, you know, don’t drink the water.


Anonymous said...

The Sparrow is somewhere in my huge pile of books to read. Since you love it, I'll move it father to the top of the pile.

Jess said...

Oh, God, A Handmaid's Tale - I read that years ago and bits of it still pop into my head sometimes and haunt me...

MORE books to read! You are bad for me!

--Deb said...

I love just about everything that Sharon Shinn has written . . . beautiful writing.

Stomper Girl said...

I loved the Handmaid's Tale too but I'm getting nowhere with Oryx and Crake which I'm led to believe has similar dark future/sci-fi overtones... a lot of sci-fi books seem to have male protagonists and I quite often find it harder to engage with them (David Lodge and Nick Hornby are my most notable exceptions).

Anonymous said...

I wasn't nearly as hooked by Oryx and Crake as I was by The Handmaid's Tale, either. I agree that a lot of it has to do with the protagonist but also the whole tone and feel of the book.

Is every entry going under "magic swizzle" now?

Badger said...

I will think on this and get back to you. I definitely have some recommendations in this vein, but right now my kids are REALLY LOUD and I can't think.

Badger said...

Oh, and ssheers, I think you will really like The Sparrow, but you should go into it knowing that it's sad.

hungry in LA said...

I am having google/blogger issues but that won't stop my surprise at your not having read "Stranger in a Strange Land." The LeGuin not nearly as much of a shocker.

Kathy said...

I own A Canticle for Leibowitz; I have tried to read it many many many times. I fugured it was just me since my husband is always pointing out that it's classic sci-fi and must be read. Stranger in a Strange Land was a different "not finished" book -- I read more than half of it, lost it, can't find it and now will have to start over when I check it out from the library. I bought The Sparrow by the way -- I had so love A Thread of Grace, I figured I try this.

BabelBabe said...

Badger's right - Sparrow is horribly sad. but terrific.

and yes, every entry is being tagged Magic Swizzle now. i thought about changing the name of the blog even...but decided not to. I am enamored of Magic Swizzle. It sounds either like a sex toy, or some sort of British sweet. either of which is fine with me.

Rogue Librarian said...

I was haunted by A Handmaids Tale for a long time. That was a great book.

I’ll tell you what no science fiction list is complete without though is Dune by Frank Herbert. It is hands down the most complex and brilliant Sci Fi I’ve ever read. It basically creates and entire civilization and culture (based largely in Islamic history and traditions) and then tells a compelling story based in that culture. It’s one of my top ten books.

Velma said...

Don't drink the water?!? What water? All I see around here are rum and cokes!

(I'll be picking up The Sparrow ASAP, so thanks!)

nutmeg said...

I knew I had to have The Sparrow - so glad LC found one for me. And there is a sequel? Get out of town! Can I hug you through cyberspace? When I first heard about The Sparrow it took me a while to overcome the fact that it was sci fi as generally it's not a genre I read much of. But overcome it I did - I have to get reading it soon.

Darwin's Radio looks good too. Did I tell you my other twin pasions are evolution and anthropology? I have a list as long as my arm of non-fiction on these topics.

Badger said...


Smart sci-fi that transcends the genre and maybe has some religious or at least spiritual stuff along with:

God's Fires by Patricia Anthony

The Darkangel trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce: The Darkangel, A Gathering of Gargoyles and The Pearl of the Soul of the World

Beauty by Sherri S. Tepper

In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker

Ack. There are more. Need to dig through the shelves to find them.

Badger said...

Oh, wait! Also Robert J. Sawyer's Neandertal trilogy: Hominids, Humans and Hybrids. FASCINATING stuff if you are into anthropology at all, and there is a strong religious component as well.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm going to be reading The Sparrow then. If Badger says I'll like it, then I'll like it.

The Star Trek quote ... I remember that episode as if it were yesterday. It was 16 years ago ???

Anonymous said...

I just finished The History of Love and wanted to weep when I finished the last page. I'll have to buy a copy of this one. Thanks for the reco!

lazy cow said...

I'm here to provide the lone lowbrow comment: I've been looking for The Three-Martini Playdate for MONTHS out here, and have just got the library to order it. The only book I've read on your list is The Handmaid's Tale. Freaked me right out.

Sharon said...

I love that you referenced my very favorite episode of ST:TNG. No, I'm not a nerd. Well, mostly not. But that episode was SO GOOD.

Blogger said...

Get your personal numerology reading.
Begin the most interesting journey of your life and learn your true life purpose.