Tiptree for Russell?

There was an an interview with Mary Doria Russell at Lightspeed Magazine posted recently, which mentioned offhand that Russell’s first novel The Sparrow had won the Tiptree award. I did a double-take.

Why in the world would The Sparrow have gotten a Tiptree award?

My confusion has nothing to do with the quality of the novel. The Sparrow is a wonderful book, one of my favorites, and it would deserve almost any award you could give it. But the Tiptree is for “works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore one’s understanding of gender,” which was not one of the things that stood out to me as something The Sparrow really did. And looking through the remarks by the judges, I feel my suspicion confirmed:

I was initially concerned that the sexual content was slight, but my enthusiasm finally swept these doubts away. Although never quite defined as such, the transformation of the protagonist takes place largely through sexual experience, from his initial celibacy, to the middle of the book with his longings, to his final climactic and terrifying journey offworld.

I have to agree with this judge that the sexual content is “slight”. The book has a realistic portrayal of Sandoz’s celibacy, including the fact that he’s not always happy about it, but that’s about it.

The story centers on the spiritual crisis of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who has had his view of God (and, not incidentally, his masculinity and his sexuality) challenged by his experiences on the planet Rakhat…. On a different level, in her portrayal of the inhabitants of Rakhat, Russell makes fascinating connections among the binary oppositions of male/female, person/animal, ruling class/laboring class, pushing these connections in new directions.

Again, the first sentence of this quote is correct, but the second makes me wonder if we read the same book. Actually, let me correct that: the relationship between the two alien species on Rakhat can be read as an interesting embodiment of social relations on our world, but these considerations strike me as being far from the core of the story. (They are, however, much more important to the second book.)

Central to The Sparrow is the examination of the importance of sexuality to gender identity, specifically masculinity. Can you be celibate and still be a man?

The answer to that question is pretty clearly “yes”, and I don’t see where this is ever centrally important. That Sandoz is both a man and celibate is taken for granted throughout most of the story.

There is an alien race whose genders are ambiguous to humans, mostly because the females are larger than the males and the males raise the children. The center of the book is the hero’s struggle to reconcile the fact that the aliens he had moved heaven and earth to study have abused him terribly, with God’s Plan, celibacy, and his own macho upbringing.

Again, it’s true that the alien sexes are dissimilar from our own, but this is a commonplace in modern science fiction. A book in which biologically different aliens are also sexually different is hardly groundbreaking at this point. The second sentence of this quote is the only one that actually mentions what I regard as the real center of the book, but notably this has only a tenous attachment to gender.

Perhaps the place where I differ from the judges is more in emphasis than in content. The gender-related themes that they identify are certainly present in the novel, but they play second fiddle to the spiritual themes. If you ask me what The Sparrow is about, I’ll say faith and faithfulness, providence, grace, and forgiveness. I probably wouldn’t mention anything gender-related at all. And insofar as gender does impinge upon the story, it seems to me that it does so in a completely conventional way for a contemporary story, i.e., it doesn’t reiterate the gender norms of fifty years ago, but it reflects straightforwardly the gender norms and quasi-feminist cliches of today. The Sparrow is a great book, but it’s not the sort of book that I would nominate for the Tiptree.

The other nominee for that year was Ursula K. LeGuin’s novella Mountain Ways, which is much more the sort of thing that I would expect. It’s about people from the planet O who have a custom of four-person marriage, and it’s wonderful.

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