I’ve been doing more “for fun” reading of late than I usually do, which I’ll chalk up to lots of travel this semester. (I’m not good at reading academic texts on planes and in airports.) So, in the past four months I’ve read Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

The Princess Bride

My reading of The Princess Bride, while a long time coming, was sparked by reading The Sparrow. (The main character of The Sparrow, a Jesuit, likes to quote movie dialogue. I read a passage in which he quotes a line from The Princess Bride while sitting in Chicago O’Hare airport on the way to Omaha, and I realized that I was going to finish the book long before I got back to St. Louis. My wonderful hosts found a bookstore with The Princess Bride and took me there so I could buy it.) The book is fun, as anyone familiar with the movie can tell you.

Goldman wrote both the novel and the screenplay, and the movie serves as an excellent abridgement of the novel, just as the novel is itself supposed to be a “good parts” abridgement of “S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure.” In the novel, we get back story to the characters, discussions of abridging Morgenstern’s masterwork, and fictional autobiographical details of Goldman’s life. The 25th anniversary edition I read includes Goldman’s “abridgement” of the first chapter of Morgenstern’s sequel Buttercup’s Baby. All in all, a novel I’d like to teach someday.

I’m assuming my readers have seen the movie, so you’re familiar with the book even if you haven’t read it. But if you haven’t, see the movie and read the book. You’ll be glad you did.

The Sparrow

Recommended to me by a reference librarian/SF fan, I originally bought The Sparrow in the hopes that I’d be teaching science fiction again at SLU where I thought a novel about Jesuits initiating first contact with an alien species would be fitting. You don’t need to be Catholic or teaching at a Catholic school to enjoy this novel, however. The premise of the novel is that in 2019, we discover radio broadcasts coming from Alpha Centauri and the Vatican sends a Jesuit-led mission to make first contact. As the end of the one-page prologue reads:

The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. htey went for reasons Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm.

The novel focuses on Fr. Emilio Sandoz, the Jesuit who ties the other seven members of the mission to Alpha Centauri together (they number four Jesuits and four lay people, or, to put it another way, two women and six men), and he is the sole survivor. The narrative jumps between 2059-60 after Sandoz has returned to earth, the pre-mission and mission narrative of 2018-45, with some flashbacks to Sandoz’s earlier life.

At the beginning of the novel we learn that Sandoz was sent back to earth by the official UN mission, the members of which had found him, a broken and maimed man, working in a brothel. Sandoz’s first action is to kill the young alien girl who had led the UN mission to him, a child whom he claims to have loved. Broken and maimed, the 14 year return trip to earth nearly kills Sandoz, and that’s how the novel opens. Oh, need I also mention that somewhere in this ordeal he’s lost his faith? Well worth reading.

The Atrocity Archives

I stumbled upon The Atrocity Archives when looking to see if Analog has ever published an anthology of its science writing. Actually, I stumbled upon a review of The Jennifer Morgue, which is the sequel, but it began with the following:

In The Atrocity Archives (reviewed here in June 2006), Stross presumed that mathematics, topology, physics, and computers all had the power to open portals and let the eldritch horrors of Lovecraft, et al., through. Naturally, there are government agencies whose business it is to prevent disaster, either by stopping meddlers (sometimes by recruiting them) or by cleaning up the mess after the meddling. One of their employees is Bob Howard, once a graduate student whose work became meddling, now a computer geek whose usual job at the Laundry was keeping the computers running smoothly until they needed him for something more active. [Read whole review — you’ll need to scroll down.]

Lovecraftian SF with a hero named Bob Howard,1 how could I not check it out further? The Atrocity Archives is, essentially, a mashup of H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraftian mythos, which I’ve long maintained is as much SF as supernatural horror), Neal Stephenson (post-cyberpunk SF), and Len Deighton (cold war spy thriller), all three of whom are thanked in the acknowledgements, with a great deal of government bureaucratic procedure tossed into the mix, all written in the comic vein (because, you know, a serious novel with this much paperwork due to actions such as killing a co-worker to stop a major demonic possession/transdimensional infestation would get tedious). A fun romp, and yet another novel I’d like to teach someday.

  1. That is, Robert Howard, author of Conan and long-time correspondent with Lovecraft. []