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The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Originally published in 1997, The Sparrow combines some of mankind’s most basic questions into an interesting story:

  • Are humans the only species in the Universe? And if we find another species, how do we approach them?
  • From Anne, in the story: “What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can’t swallow that kind of theological candy.” In other words, if God is responsible for the good times, is He responsible for the bad?

Both of these themes thread through the novel, told in flashbacks and first hand narative. The answer to the first question is unique: without consulting any other Earth organization, the Jesuits launch a mission, just as they have launched missions to remote and unknown places at different times in their history. This is a unique angle in the sci-fi “meet the new aliens” genre.

The second theme is the strongest, and centers on Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, who sees the hand of God in the “coincidences” leading up to the mission, and the first part of the mission itself…but has lost his faith by the time of his return.

Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor from a Jesuit sponsored trip to the planet of Rekhat. Originally the inspiration and the spiritual leader of the mission, he is blamed, and basically put on inquisition, for the heinous crimes he is thought to have committed. The discovery of the alien race (through transmissions of their singing) and the mission to visit them, told in flashbacks, seems pre-ordained, particularly to Sandoz, a survivor from the rough part of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who went on to become a Jesuit priest. When a young friend of Sandoz, Jimmy, hears the alien singing while working at the Acerbo dish, and the first people he calls are Sandoz, his friends Anne and George (she a doctor, he an engineer, both friends of Sandoz and pulled to San Juan by him) and Sofia Mendes, an indentured servant/savant whose specialty is AI programming (she had already developed a linguistic program by questioning Sandoz, and was doing the same with Jimmy and his ET Searches). Emilio sees the gathering of these folks as divine, as the right team to go to the planet, on the other side of Alpha Centauri, in private while the United Nations debates endlessly on what to do.

After a while it became hard to ignore how, against odds, the dice kept coming up in favor of the mission. The crew members went on with their training, their work unaffected by the waxing and waning of confidence, but they all experienced varying degrees of amazement. Even the Jesuits were divided. Marc Robichaux and Emilio Sandoz smiled and said “See? Deus vult,” while D. W. Yarbrough and Andrej Jelacic shook their heads in wonder. George Edwrds and Jimmy Quinn and Sofia Mendes remained agnostics on the question of whether these events were minor miracles or major coincidences.

At first, the mission is divine. The team meets and Emilio builds communication with the alien Runa, and then the Jana’ata. But it goes incredibly and suddenly wrong with the team misunderstanding the cultures and relations of the two races, prompting the inquisition of Emilio as he returns to Earth as the sole survivor, questioning his own faith, blamed for the murder of his alien liason and possibly the deaths of the rest of the team.

The main drawback of the storyline is the suddenness and ferocity of the violence, which happens much too near the end of the story. With one or two clues that the carnivorous Jana’ata were agressive and violent (the main one being when Supaari attacked Emilio when first seeing him), the Earthlings discover too late in the game what they are really up against.


COMPAQ: Building implosion, HP and Apple

The implosion today of two buildings (CCA 7 and 8) on the former Compaqcca8 campus comes nearly ten years to the day after the business implosion of Compaq through its acquisition by HP. Like Compaq, CCA7 and CCA8 on the Houston campus, now owned by the local community college, had been deemed too expensive to renovate; the choice was made to blow them up and rebuild.

This parallels not only HP’s recent “blowing up” of its tablet and (profitable) PC business, but the final disposition of the great COMPAQ Computer Corporation, a company that I proudly worked at for fifteen years. Compaq in the beginning was an incredibly innovative company in portable computers and servers…but in the later years was one Steve Jobs shy of a full Apple cart.

It is easy to envy Apple, now one of (if not the, depending on market closings) the highest valued companies in the world, and in the enviable position of charging and receiving premium prices on almost all of their products. The history of Apple is well known, and its story and that of Compaq can be seen as mirror images…until Apple’s turning point, when Jobs returned, grown up and ready with innovation, differentiation and a long term plan.

In between the leadership of John Sculley and Steve Jobs’ return as interim CEO in 1997, Apple faced similar crossroads to Compaq’s at the same time. Obviously over-simplified, in 1998 Compaq chose to follow the kings of the day, and emulate IBM by acquiring services (and people and debt)-heavy Digital Equipment Corporation; while Apple chose a gambler’s path of innovation, a path to no longer try to compete on the speeds and feeds of cpu/memory/disk with the PC vendors of the day, but to create a content consumer/content creator vision, to innovate and differentiate.

In 1997, Compaq’s revenues were approx. $25 billion, and income was approx. $2 billion.

In 1997, Apple’s revenues were approx. $7 billion, and income was a LOSS of approx. $1 billion.

Three years after Compaq acquired Digital Equipment Corporation, HP acquired Compaq, a controversial acquisition according to HP’s board (mixed if with a bit of Deutsche Bank conflict of interest scandal). The services division of the combined Compaq and DEC was not meshing, and was not proving as “accretive” as had been hoped in the original merger documents. CEO Eckhard Pfeifer was let go in 1999, and by 2001 Compaq’s meteoric time in the technosphere flamed out.

Four years after naming Jobs interim CEO, Apple released the iPod..then the iTunes store…then the iPhone…then the iPad.

Could those paths have been switched? If Compaq had not purchased Digital, would it still exist? There were many variables, and I’ll leave the possible scenarios to the academics, to future business school case studies. As a man I admired said, “you can’t un-honk a honked horn.”

Like many people, I found my fifteen years working at Compaq an incredible experience. I met the love of my life while working there. After we were married, she would look out the windows in the break room at CCA8 and see our daughter waiting for the school bus in front of our house in Lakewood Forest. With the demise of those buildings, and the presumed demise of the last vestiges of Compaq with the pre-announced sale of the PC business, we choose to think back fondly on those days , the great people we worked with… and whimsically wonder what could have been.


Death in Silver by Kenneth Robeson

Paine L. Winthrop, President of Seaven Seas ship building company, isdeathinsilver murdered, his office destroyed by a launched missile. Monk and Ham are in Monk’s lab in the same building, and go to investigate. They are ultimately taken captive by the Silver Death’s Head gang (so named because of their silver costumes). the gang apparently responsible for Winthrop’s murder.

The Silver Death’s Heads gang launches a crime spree in New York City, including the murder of Winthrop, robbing armored cars, banks. etc.. They net over $1 million, but there is a larger conspiracy at work; multiple shipping companies are being acquired under mysterious circumstances, accidents befalling their leaders, and stock transactions worth over a billion.

Doc enters first to save Ham and Monk, then to stop the Silver Death Heads gang, as they try to get him out of their way.

This is the first adventure in the re-read where only Monk and Ham (with a brief appearance by Pat) join Doc. Renny is off working on the dam project in South Africa, which is a large part of the novel Python Isle by Will Murray.

This also makes the first adventure in the re-read where the action stays in NYC (and the NY Harbor).

There is a reappearance (from #4 The Polar Treasure and #10 The Phantom City) and apparent sinking of the Helldiver submarine.

My sortable table of Doc Savage books is here.

  • Written by: Lester Dent
  • Villain: the mysterious Master in Silver, leader of the Silver Death Heads; his scientist named Ull;
  • Doc Gadget: underwater radio, underwater diving apparatus; adjustments to the sub Helldiver to make it squirt black ink underwater;
  • Doc Feat: lots of underwater swimming for long lengths of time.;
  • Exotic locale: none, except for the New York harbor (and under it) and, of course, NYC.
  • By the numbers: originally published October 1934; Bantam #26 (July 1968); Philip Jose Farmer dated July 1934
A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin reviewed at SFSignal.com

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin reviewed at SFSignal.com

My review of A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin, the fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, has been published at SFSignal.com.

An excerpt:

REVIEW SUMMARY:An extremely well written, well paced book, with excellent characterizations where, like many “bridge books”, not much forward movement on the plot is achieved…well-worth the the read.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series parallels the previous novel, following characters Tyrion Lannister (running into hiding after killing his father), Jon Snow (after the fight with the wildlings, determining how to stop the undead “Others”), Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark and others as they deal with dragons, the Others, multiple kings, politics and the lead up to the final show down between Ice and Fire (hopefully not too many thousand pages away).

PROS: Continued awesomeness in the characterizations; the blending of the magical/fantasy aspects has them not overpowering the characters or the story; dragons and Daenerys; a few surprises (though, five books in, I almost put this aspect in the CONS list).
CONS: Unlike the first three books in the series but like many “bridge” books in the middle of a series, not a lot of forward plot movement; no summary at the beginning, and I’d rather rely on an author’s summary than random Wiki entries to refresh my old memory; one or two characters who seemed superfluous (Quentyn Martell???).
BOTTOM LINE: Though I kept wondering when a momentous event such as those that were in every chapter in the first three novels, I was a hundred pages on, and enjoying the prose. It’s GRRM, just read it!

George R.R. Martin’s fifth doorstop in the Song of Ice and Fire series, is, like its predecessors, extremely well written and full of fantastic and memorable characterizations. The fourth book, A Feast of Crows, runs in parallel for about the first 600 pages of A Dance With Dragons; but this new novel returns many of our favorite characters: Jon Snow, now Lord Commander of the Wall; Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of Meereen, freer of the slaves and stuck with her dragons, trying to determine how best to return to Westeros to vie for the Iron Throne; Arya Stark (though too briefly mentioned, IMHO), learning to be an assassin; Theon and Asha Greyjoy, sea warriors stuck on land, Theon tortured to become Reek, Asha trying to hold on to the castle at Deepwood Motte; and everyone’s favorite dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, running after killing his father and being smuggled out of town.

But this is the fifth book in what is rumored to be a seven book series. It is a bridge book; the characters grow, some change. But, unlike the first three books, where the plot pace was quick, wars were fought, main characters were killed off at a splendid pace…this novel explores the characters. Not much happens, except for one surprise I would not presume to reveal (small hint: it did lead me to a solid theory on who Jon Snow’s mother is).

My concern before investing my precious time in this 959 page hardback — I made the mistake of buying the hundred pound hardback to add to the similar first four novels causing a slight hernia carrying it on planes…should have bought the eBook — was that it would follow the path of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series, which I stopped reading around the sixth or seventh book; those characters were slow to change and uninteresting, and new characters that were introduced five books in did not grab my attention. As Neil Gaiman so eloquently put it, GRRM is not my bitch…but I’m not his either. Reading a novel this large and a series that may go on another 2-3,000 pages is a large investment of time by a reader to an author.

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