Not having time for a longer book at the moment, I cheated and read Wikipedia’s plot synopsis … I’m guessing I wouldn’t appreciate it quite as much as it looks (from a distance) if it just involves sharper jabs born more from a warfare thesis than from a sympathetically exploratory one. I also noted that Guy Consolmagno is quoted as saying of it:
“…that this novel was written without much knowledge of Jesuits, …[its] theology isn’t only bad theology, it’s not Jesuit theology.”
And I have a lot of respect for Consolmagno as a Jesuit director of the Vatican observatory. So naturally … I wondered what he would think of “The Sparrow”. I didn’t have to look far. In this 2004 interview with Astrobiology Magazine he was asked if he had read “The Sparrow”, and this was all he had to say about it:
Yes, and I hated it. But that’s a whole different issue. Nobody in that book had a sense of humor. Nobody in that book knew how to laugh.
so … ouch. I guess my sci-fi favorite here gets no accolades from Guy either. But at least he didn’t mention the theology in it … tempting for me to try to read into the silence there.
I did read Clarke’s short story “The Star” (thanks for that). Interesting plot twist! I think, though, that it fails to develop any further a theodicy theme that is already milleniea old, only writ larger in this story. It reminded me of the slaughter of the innocents already relayed to us in the gospels. So why the priest should have been caught by surprise by seeing the same thing scaled up out there in the cosmos (while understandably faith shaking) still wouldn’t be fundamentally different from the many “large” things already happening on the scale of our own lives here that drive some of us from faith and cause others to flee towards it.
Clarke does have some other works (I’ve read the Rama series) that as I recall give at least a passing nod to Catholic religion (as in he doesn’t mock it by only consigning it to idiot characters) … though his book “Childhood’s End” could not be confused with any sympathetic theological themes I would guess.
I don’t know if the favor I feel toward “The Sparrow” will survive taking in the sequel – I’m almost afraid to do that. But I should give the author the benefit of the doubt; what looked to me to be a spiritual depth in the first book can’t just easily disappear in subsequent works, right? Oh me of little faith.
[Added edit: I shouldn’t have stopped searching so fast on Consolmagno’s reaction to “The Sparrow” – he does say a little more here in “A Jesuit’s guide to avoiding awful science fiction.” Both the Sparrow, and Blish’s “Case of Conscience” make his short list of three. He only says marginally more, though, calling the theology of the first book, “Naive”. His main criticism seems to remain that the Jesuits “take themselves far too seriously.” But while he doesn’t go on to critique the theology for anything more than its naivete, he also doesn’t pay it the same compliment that he affords for “Case of Conscience” – which he calls a page turner despite its backward theology. I’m in no position, of course, to object to Consolmagno’s critique of how Jesuit theology is shown, but I do have to wonder at his finding no humor in “The Sparrow”. I thought the characters engaged in plenty of humor … at least until the main part of the book where things get so bad. At those stages of the story, to show characters laughing or taking their tragedies lightly would have been to make them practically inhuman – something I would guess that no self-respecting anthropologist is going to allow in her story. (…perhaps a bit like wondering why Jesus isn’t cracking more jokes as he’s carrying the cross toward Golgotha.) So with my obligatory nod toward his critique (mere mention actually) of her naive Jesuit theology, I have to differ with Consolmagno on the book’s alleged lack of humor. I thought that it was quite the page turner.]