This year, an award is made for absence of sex

February 23, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@
[ "The Sparrow" is on Elisabeth Sherwin's List of Best Books, the 1997 compilation ]

The Tiptree Award is given annually to the science fiction or fantasy writer who deals most effectively with an exploration or expansion of gender roles. The award for 1996 will be announced next month in Florida.

According to one of the jurors, the winner will be first-time novelist Mary Doria Russell for her unusual novel "The Sparrow."

I just finished reading "The Sparrow" and it's very good. It's the story of Earth's first flight to an inhabited planet and the meeting between humans and aliens.

This is how the story unfolds: "After the first exquisite songs were intercepted by radio telescope, U.N. diplomats debated long and hard whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to reach the world that would become known as Rakhat. In the Rome offices of the Society of Jesus, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.

"The Jesuit scientists went to Rakhat to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God's other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm."

But of course, something dreadful happens on the planet of Rakhat. I don't want to give away the plot's surprises, which Russell carefully foreshadows and builds up to.

The hero of the book is a Jesuit priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz from the slums of Puerto Rico. He becomes the only member of the original mission to return to Earth and he comes back to the Society of Jesus not only horribly mutilated both physically and spiritually but held accountable for the disaster that occurred on the planet with three suns.

Other members of the ill-fated crew died violent deaths on the alien planet including Ann and George Edwards, a happily married couple for more than 40 years, and D.W. Yarbrough, the senior Jesuit on the mission - he's gay but only Anne knows it. His more compelling characteristic is his colorful East Texas speech. Jimmy Quinn and Sofia Mendes get married in the two years they spend on Rakhat. When Sofia dies, she's pregnant. Marc Robichaux also is a Jesuit who appears to be content with his role in life and on the mission although we're told that at one time, in his younger days, he was quite the womanizer.

The story of the mission is told, haltingly, when a ruined Father Sandoz returns to Italy and the Society of Jesus demands an accounting of his role in the failure.

Russell, trained as a paleoanthropologist, has the skill to write well about science and the imagination of a novelist. She received her doctorate in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband and their son.

So, if the Tiptree Award is given each year for the writer who deals most effectively with an exploration or expansion of gender roles, why did Russell win? Granted, she wrote a compelling, original novel, but what about gender roles and sex? Or, maybe the question should be phrased differently. What about no sex?

I don't know for sure why this award went to Russell - and we may not know until the award ceremony next month - but this is my guess. Russell didn't explore gay or lesbian issues or do much new in the way of stripping away sexual stereotypes. But what she did was bring to light a discussion of celibacy which, considering the relentlessly bisexual recent trends in science fiction, is award-winning indeed.

Father Sandoz describes the most private and the most public aspect of his life to Quinn: "Celibacy is not the same as deprivation. It is an active choice, not simply an absence of opportunity. It's not that we don't feel the desire. It's that we hope to reach a point, spiritually, that makes the struggle meaningful."

Men who make compromises, said Sandoz, bring nothing but grief to the women who love them, or dissolve loneliness in alcohol, or deny that they feel desire of any kind and split their lives in half: paragons in the light, predators in the dark.

Brave words, and Sandoz lives up to them. The problem is, Sandoz feels that God has forgotten him. Read "The Sparrow" to find out why.

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