Review: The Sparrow

I know; I’m a little late to the game if I’m reviewing a book that’s twenty-five years old. But I’m excited about it enough that I really don’t care about that.

So, we’re gonna talk about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, an exposition of theodicy wrapped in a sci-fi tale that’s secretly a bildungsroman of sorts. If you’re not a theology nerd, “theodicy” is the word for the study of the problems of evil and suffering. In Christianity, in particular, this problem might be more specifically phrased as “If God is all-powerful and entirely good and loving, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Why do these things happen to seemingly good people?”

Job is my favorite book of the Old Testament, in part because it addresses this very question and gives us the best answer I think can be had for it. When God appears to Job at the end of the poem, God’s answer to Job’s questioning is to tell Job that he cannot understand the answer. It’s too complex, it’s too nuanced, for the human brain to comprehend in all its depths. The ultimate answer God gives that humans can understand is “Trust me.” Faith, faith that God is sovereign over all things, that God is love and intends ultimate good for God’s creation, hope that everything will one day be clear and suffering and evil will be conquered fully after having served their purposes–as inscrutable to us as those purposes may be–is the answer. It is, admittedly, an answer that I find at once entirely frustrating and comforting. It’s not my job to solve the problem of evil and suffering; it’s my job to respond to evil in suffering in the way that God has instructed me.

Part of the brilliance and beauty of Russell’s book–and only part, mind you–is that she takes the same approach. There is no attempt to answer the question of suffering, only an attempt to hold it in her hands and turn it at all angles for the reader to view, to experience in part, all of its manifest complexity and difficulty. There are no apologies here, no arguments, only an investigation of the issue that is by turns beautiful and terrifying, humbling and infuriating.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I’ve got to at least tell you what the book is about, right? All of that investigation into theodicy is not exposition or diatribe, it is examined through the experiences and humanity of the characters.

The Sparrow tells of the aftermath of a first-contact mission put together in secret by the Society of Jesus to the planet of Rakhat, discovered by the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico in 2019, when the astronomy equipment there picks up radio signals that turn out to be the singing of the indigenous peoples of Rakhat.

Only priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz survives the mission; the handful of clergy and layperson companions that accompany him to Rakhat do not. The time dilation of space travel, the reports of the second, secular mission to Rakhat, and reports from the first missionaries themselves seem to tell the tale of a horrific fall from grace and into depravity on the part of Sandoz. The story jumps back and forth between the Jesuit interviews with the recovered Sandoz (in an attempt to discover the truth of the reports and, hopefully, salvage something of the Jesuit reputation after the reports of the missionary journey have decimated it), the first discovery of Rakhat and the synchronicity that brought Sandoz and his companions into the mission in the first place, and the events that actually unfolded on Rakhat. These separate narratives meet, as it were, at the climax of Sandoz’s telling of his story.

That main thread, and its analysis of theodicy, contrasted with the modern missionaries’ own thoughts about their relationship to the 16th century missions of the Jesuits to the “New World”, form the core of the text, but Russell’s writing of the missionary characters, their backgrounds, their feelings, their developing relationships to one another, their thoughts about their places in Creation as they confront their missionary (or priestly) status, provides just as much literary joy and human insight as the “mystery” that frames all of these subplots.

This is, after all, a sci-fi story (one for which Russell won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1996, the year the book was published), and great detail is paid to the physiology and culture of the peoples of Rakhat, to the methods of space travel (the missionaries convert a mined-out asteroid into their spaceship) and the believable physics of story. At the same time, those elements never get in the way of the narrative; no time is lost on long exposition about the nature of technologies or theories of culture and alien psychology. These run seamlessly throughout the text, woven in with the unfolding plot instead of interrupting it.

The writing itself is beautiful, jealousy-inducing for an aspiring writer such as myself. The blend of familiar, practical tone with clever description and amusing turn-of-phrase reveals the intelligence and imagination of the mind behind this tale in an ever-delightful manner. The pacing and plotting of the story are an example of mastercraft in that aspect of the art, something especially apparent to me as I struggle with revising the plotting and pacing of my own fledgling work.

I must also express a debt of gratitude to my wife for bringing me to read this book. It’s one she first read–and told me about–almost a decade ago. It sounded interesting, but I must not have been paying close enough attention to her explanations, because this a book that fits with my own interests so uncannily perfectly. Only when she announced that she was going to read it again, now that her experiences in ministry and seminary had sharpened her abilities to appreciate the tale, did I agree to read it alongside her. As I must often admit, she was right all along. I should’ve read it the first time she told me to. So should you.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the D&D

I generally don’t like D&D as a gaming system. So how did I get here? Well, given the general downtime for everyone, I started working on a roleplaying game to be played virtually with some friends. Since the Shadowrun game tapered off, I haven’t had a game running and there’s a part of me that’s just not happy whenever that’s the case.

I suggested to my friends a game using the Fate system based on the Tom Clancy’s Division games. I spent a lot of time working on some custom rules for the setting (which I’ll post in their unfinished state in a separate post) before two things happened: (1) several of us came to the conclusion that that setting probably doesn’t provide enough respite from every day life in the COVID-19 world, and (2) two other members in the group both offered to GM/DM if we played Dungeons & Dragons. I do a lot more running of games than playing in them, so, despite my reservations, I quickly agreed and we set about negotiating a rotating GMing situation, with our first game set for this Friday.

Here are some of the (admittedly subjective) reasons I’m not a big fan of D&D:

  1. I would prefer a more “realistic” rules approach to combat, particularly than large hit point pools, armor as making one more difficult to hit and no penalties for taking damage until you’re out-of-action.
  2. I don’t like classes and levels, generally. I tend to think that these constructs detract from roleplaying and character development in their rigidity. For instance, only Rogues get sneak attack bonus damage–other characters are mechanically incapable of taking full advantage of an ambush, no matter whether they’re a soldier whose survived a thousand ambushes himself or a gutter punk getting lucky with a sudden knife attack.
  3. As a corollary, D&D is a game (like Shadowrun) with a ruleset that draws me into ours of obsessive character-building to try to find the exact build that will do all the things I want it to, even while knowing that the character generation’s economy of resources won’t allow for it and I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to play characters that are good at everything.
  4. I see D&D as a system that pushes a game toward combat and the gamist side over the roleplaying side based on its design. As you know, my preference leans heavily narrativist. Basing XP on kills makes me uncomfortable on many levels–from the ethical and theological to game design itself. G.K Chesterton once wrote (and I agree): “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” But that’s a big leap from killing 100 orcs because, well, they’re orcs and “orcs bad!”
  5. Encounter building and levels work together in a way that, if playing strictly by the rules, makes some fights unwinnable. I fully believe that some fights should be unwinnable if the players aren’t resourceful, clever and maybe a bit lucky, but D&D as written militates in favor of a straight-up fight of hit-point attrition and forces the good GM to make-up whole cloth how alternative approaches work. Yes, we can talk about “rules versus rulings,” but I’d argue that, when we have to have that conversation at all, something it lacking in what the rules are communicating. That’s not to say that rules should address every eventuality and should be rigidly followed–far from it. The problem here is that the D&D books might say that they encourage this kind of player creativity that requires responsive and flexible GM/DM adjudication, but the rules give the impression of the opposite, and few tools are provided to assist in making such ad-hoc judgments. Put another way, I don’t like that Level 1 characters (or 5 or 8 for that matter) don’t have a chance against a dragon simply because they haven’t ground out enough levels yet. In addition to the ways the rules are written complained of above, a skills-based system over a level-based one can go a long way in this regard.
  6. The assumption that combat is the way you overcome monsters bugs me. Why not more interesting possibilities? Ghosts that you don’t hit with magic swords but that must be banished or appeased in some other way that relies on wits and skills more than fighting?
  7. D&D Physics. This is perhaps my biggest gripe, and it’s admittedly about certain players rather than the rules themselves. Some players assume that the rulebooks represent the physics of the worlds D&D games take place in–if something is technically allowable by the rules as written, no matter how ridiculous, then it’s a loophole in the spacetime continuum that should be exploitable by a player. One example: the player who thinks that, as long as he succeeds at a Deception/Persuasion check, he can convince anyone of anything, no matter how blatantly untrue or unlikely. Another, from 3.5e: a ladder costs less than two ten-foot poles, but is comprised of two ten-foot poles plus some other stuff. You do the math. If I remember correctly, in the forward to The Riddle of Steel roleplaying game (an amazing game on many levels, if not the easiest to run), Jake Norwood described a game of D&D where he realized he would take fewer hit points of damage jumping off the cliff he stood atop than fighting his way through the oncoming orc horde as an inspiration for creating a game with much more realistic combat (he’s also a talented western martial artist, so he was just the type of person to write that game).

Okay, that’s a fair amount of griping, and none of it’s new to anyone. While there are alternatives to D&D (some very good ones), D&D retains the large majority of market share in fantasy roleplaying, despite decades of competition. Why? For one, it’s the only name that most would-be roleplayers know. Additionally, it’s got a special nostalgia factor for a lot of gamers my age or older and a solid place within popular culture that grows every year (2 episodes of CommunityStranger Things, the Greetings, Adventurers! and The Adventure Zone podcasts, etc., etc.). But most of all, I must admit, it’s just a fun game. I’ve played several campaigns of D&D in the past, none of them especially-long running but usually going for a few months or so, and not one of the things I’ve mentioned above really factors into my overall-fond memories of those games.

I’ve decided to enter this upcoming D&D campaign with an eye toward throwing aside some of my complaints and design differences and enjoying the game for what it is–a time-tested engine for running enjoyable high-fantasy games. The other players in my group are all fans of D&D and familiar with it (to varying degrees, but certainly moreso on average than any other system I’d choose to run) and, if all goes well, I may well commit to (personally) running more D&D for them in the future.

Okay, so how am I stopping worrying and learning to love the D&D? Some counterarguments to my complaints above I’m trying to keep in my mind as I undertake this adventure:

  1. Hit points aren’t meant to be a reflection of damage (though they often are treated that way). They’re more like Stress in Fate RPG: a narrative indicator of the leeway a character has before receiving a serious injury. A character who loses hitpoints has lost some of that vigor and focus that keeps her from being injured and comes closer to the possibility, but shouldn’t be thought of as having taken a blow (instead having barely turned it aside, etc.). There are a few points that, as a GM, I’d have go along with this: (a) narrate hit point damage as a near miss and degradation of performance but not a blow actually received; (b) use lingering injuries when hitting zero HP to drive home the fact that that’s when injuries occur; (c) use alternative mechanisms over HP to adjudicate unavoidable damage where appropriate (falling, etc.). Under this approach, it makes good sense that armor serves as a buffer to having to use up HP rather than as a dampener on HP lost, so I get a double rationalization with this mindset!
  2. Classes really are a good conceit for certain types of roleplaying games. In D&D, classes give everyone’s character a chance to shine, clear delineations of where characters fit within the team of players, and accentuate’s cooperative, synergistic play as a group.
  3. Levels can make sense, too, within the conceit of the game mechanics. If we’re literally talking about the accumulation of experience that makes adventurers better at what they do, levels are an appropriate shorthand for that, even if not the choice I’d personally make in game design.
  4. A good GM can use the rules in creative ways (or modify/ignore them) to overcome issues about the game being too combat-focused or too restrictive in the allowance of creative problem-solving, and the occasional unbalanced encounter can be a good reminder to players that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.
  5. I tend to take a very particular approach in what I want from roleplaying games–I expect deep immersion and something approaching high art. I rarely get it, so these expectations are just setting myself up for disappointment. If I’m willing to focus on entertaining stories, interesting characters, exciting encounters and generally having fun, I’d likely enjoy running games even more than I currently do. In other words, maybe I should just get over myself. D&D is an excellent system having fun and telling entertaining stories if I forego my pretensions. I retain the belief that RPGs can lead to deep, immersive stories with significant impact on the players’ thoughts and lives–but they don’t have to be, and if my gaming friends frankly aren’t that interested in that kind of roleplaying, maybe I should lighten up and just have more fun with them! After all, I am a writer, so I do have some outlet for the deep and artistic (if that’s actually more than just pretension and something that actually pervades my writing…).

So there it is. D&D may not be my first choice of RPGs, but there are certainly things about it I like, and could potentially grow to love. Now, if I could just figure out how to build the character I want to play…