Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Book Selection: "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (Fourth of Four): The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The perfect long-flight read, this unusually “literary” sci-fi novel depicts the preparations for, initial success of, and harrowing denouement of a Jesuit-led space mission to a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, where humanity makes first contact with aliens, and things don’t go quite as well as anticipated.

The author, Russell, is an anthropologist, and it shows in her very thorough and sensitive depiction of the subcultures involved both within the international (and interfaith) crew and on the planet Rakhat. Adding tension to the whole story — and making it perfect for inclusion in this blog’s “Month Without God” — is the fact that it is framed as a flashback by the only member of the expedition to return to Earth, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz. And Sandoz, a charismatic, optimistic man of faith in the flashback sequences, is in the present a haunted, physically-battered, grotesquely-maimed, very angry man suffering a severe crisis of faith.

For good or ill — since the book’s great strength is keeping us tensely wondering how such an optimistic man and promising mission could have gone so horribly wrong — things unfold a bit slowly at first, convincing medical, engineering, and psychological details being developed, then fall apart rather abruptly at the end, as if Russell’s heart was not entirely in it once it came time to show terrible things happening to her extremely likable characters.

Nonetheless — worth the trip. For me, I mean. Whether it was worth it for the characters is the great, existential-dread-producing question. And it strikes me that it’s the sort of doubt that is (or should be) almost as troubling for good utilitarians as for Christians. Without giving things away, I will just say that the question of whether short-term suffering will somehow be compensated for by the resulting long-term betterment of the world even when we cannot immediately see whether that’s likely is central to the plot of the novel, to Christian wrestling with “the problem of evil,” and to thoughtful utilitarians attempting to turn their attention from adherence to utility-maximizing rules to often hopelessly complex utility calculus about long-term contingencies.


Whether your focus is literally eternity or simply “the distant point in the history of the universe when current actions cease to have any further ramifications for the total amount of human suffering in the universe,” the moralist has mysteries and problems to confront big enough to make one wonder whether perhaps one’s whole moral system is in need of revision.

Add to that the confusion that results once people start trying to tease out different aspects of happiness that seem incommensurable — or in some cases (as with a sort of impromptu book club meeting that happened today among some friends of mine via e-mail) even questioning whether some things are inherently good in a way that renders happiness secondary. Of course, that’s not ultimately a coherent position from my utilitarian point of view — I think everything is good precisely in so far as it contributes to happiness and that any other standard is arbitrary and lacks a reasonable justification.

However, given how difficult it can be to articulate our sense that some forms of happiness are richer — and thus ultimately more rewarding — than shallower but more satisfying (and often more popular) pleasures, like some encouraged in Vegas, even as committed a utilitarian as I can end up sympathizing greatly with those who think utilitarianism seems dry and that some other standard — heroic, religious, Randian, what have you — seems nobler. I think the merits of those other standards can be explained in terms of their likely contribution to happiness, but I can admire people who are drawn to them instinctively without making such calculations — just as even the most science-minded reader of The Sparrow is likely to admire the Jesuit characters therein and see (as Russell does) the parallels between engineers’ self-discipline and committed Jesuits’ self-discipline.

And while I do not think that the illusory promise of eternal bliss in Heaven is the right thing to shape one’s life around, as a utilitarian, I must logically appreciate those who think that eternal happiness — if it did exist — would be a matter of much greater concern than short-term highs and lows. I can even sympathize with the idea that an omniscient, omnipotent being — were one to exist — might vastly morally outweigh the concerns of the limited little beings it had created, in strictly utilitarian terms. Luckily, no such “utility monster” appears to exist.

P.S. But don’t feel that the universe is therefore empty: it still has kittens — and even chickens (cousins of sparrows, of course) who, in their confused way, love kittens as they would their own offspring.

P.P.S. And as if reading a sci-fi novel (even a very literary one) weren’t nerdy enough, I should blog this week, in a confessional way, about my imminent (albeit brief) return to the old addiction: comic books. Turns out new New Gods are coming…

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