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A Case of Conscience for Mary Doria Russell
a feature by John D Owen

So, Mary Doria Russell has swept up the 1998 Arthur C Clarke Award to go on her bookshelf alongside the James Tiptree Award and the BSFA Best Novel Award. I'm not really surprised, as The Sparrow is a very good book, one I enjoyed reading immensely, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel. But if I had been a judge on either the Clarke or the Tiptree panels, I think I might very well have voted for some other book.

The thing that would have stopped me voting for The Sparrow was the strong feeling that the book was not quite as original as it should have been. Recycling old SF plots seems to be quite the done thing nowadays (cf Jack McDevitt's Eternity Road, which I reviewed here a few weeks ago, which seemed to me a retread of a hundred apres Armageddon novels of the past), so one shouldn't be surprised to encounter examples of it everywhere. But when I first heard details about Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, the outraged thought that immediately sprang to mind was "Hang on, she's ripping off James Blish!" That, in my book, is fairly close to sacrilege, Blish being a particular favourite author of mine, so I felt a need to investigate further.

Having subsequently read The Sparrow, as well as re-acquainted myself with Blish's forty-year old novel A Case of Conscience, it is hard to say for certain whether Russell knew Blish's work intimately. However, the amount of central material that coincides could indicate some familiarity. The way the material is used is, of course, considerably modernised. While Blish's work is unusual and striking for its time, it shows clearly its pulp SF origins. Russell's book, by comparison, is thoroughly up-to-date with a depth of characterisation Blish rarely bothered with in his SF work (though he was perfectly capable of writing deep characters, as his Dr Mirabilis showed, with its fine portrait of Roger Bacon).

The major similarities between the two books are mostly obvious ones. Both central characters are Jesuit priests sent off to contact an alien race. The Jesuits are of similar Latin American origin (Blish's Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez from Peru, Russell's Emilio Sandoz from Puerto Rico). The priests both fall from grace. Ruiz-Sanchez is accused of Manichaean heresy (believing that Lithia is literally a creation of the Devil, whereas the Catholic Church holds that creation is God's preserve alone, presumably so you know who to blame). Sandoz seemingly descends into murder and prostitution (whether pederasty or bestiality depends on how you view the Jana'ata, the dominant race on Rakhat). Both priests are seemingly redeemed by the end.

The two books feature 'first contact' with an intelligent alien race, with the humans going to the aliens following interception of their radio signals. In both cases, the enterprise ends in tragedy -- in ACOC, for the alien race (whose planet is blown up entirely), in TS for the human explorers, all but one of whom are dead by the end -- though one suspects long term effects on the Rakhatians too, which will undoubtedly be taken up in the sequel.

Both stories are set close in time in the near future: A Case of Conscience takes place in 2049/2050, while The Sparrow takes places between 2019 and 2060, with the main action on Rakhat between 2039 and 2042.

There is no doubt that The Sparrow is a much more modern book than A Case of Conscience, and that Ms Russell does far more with the base material than James Blish did. But is that enough? Are the differences between the two books compelling enough to offset the sense in my mind that The Sparrow is a rewritten version of ACOC in the same way that Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla is a remake of the Japanese original? Are the similarities too much to ascribe them to a case of spontaneous and unrelated re-invention?

Being the generous fair-minded person I am, I'm quite prepared to believe that Ms Russell may merely have been guilty of the same kind of unconscious plagiarism that George Harrison fell into when he accidentally lifted the melody from the chorus of the Chiffons' old hit "He's So Fine" for his own song "My Sweet Lord". Things do lodge in the creative subconscious for many years, emerging transmogrified into the light in some other guise. No shame in that -- worse acts of creative barbarism happen in Hollywood every day, where plots are recycled wholesale with nary a credit given to the originator.

The question is are we really so wedded to the environmentally friendly recycling of old stories that we give some of our most prestigious awards to a work that reads like a reworking of a forty year old classic? However unintentional the process by which Ms Russell arrived at her novel, and however successful the end result, the inescapable fact is that it bears a remarkable resemblance to James Blish's book. I'd suggest readers go out and find Blish's A Case of Conscience and decide for themselves. I've seen enough to be uncomfortable with the awards given to Ms Russell, even though I enjoyed reading her book much more than I did the similarly recycled McDevitt novel mentioned above. It's a confusing life!

© John D Owen 1998

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