Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Review of When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

One of the most recommendable aspects of China Mieville's brilliant The City & the City is the manner in which he evokes a neo-Soviet setting. The secret-secret police, the gray skies, the government institutions shrouded in uncertainty, the Spartan, concrete lives of people on the street—he captures it well. While taking the scene in a different thematic direction, Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls (2021) also captures a neo-Soviet feel extremely well.

In the novel When the Sparrow Falls , the Singularity has occurred and humanity's last mortal bastion is a communist nation called the Caspian Republic. Defying the rest of the world, the CR eschews consciousness technology and the people who have uploaded themselves into the virtual world, thus foregoing the physical world. In the CR government apparatus sits Nikolai Scout, a low-ranking state security official who obeys the letter of the law but does not engage the spirit. His personal problems are simply too heavy. Relationships and poverty foremost in his mind, he grinds through his job, no more. But when a famous Caspian poet dies, Scout finds he has a new assignment, that of tour guide to the man's widow. The spin, however, is that the widow is from the non-physical human world beyond.

When the Sparrow Falls is proper, lo-fi Soviet noir. The narrative centered around only a handful of characters, Sharpson effectively builds the setting by giving just enough detail for an impression, letting the reader's imagination naturally fill in the rest. Succinctly put, the worldbuilding is subtle—an extremely positive aspect in a genre rife with worlds which overtake their stories. Also highly effective is Sharpson's prose. Largely minimalist, it complements the aging, crumbling facade of Caspian power, while giving mystery to the possible—possible in terms of AI technology, but mostly in terms of the surprises Caspian's inner government holds.

If there were anything to criticize, or at least comment upon regarding the novel, it would be lost opportunity. Early in When the Sparrow Falls as Sharpson is patiently building his story, he briefly dips into the meaning and consequences regarding non-corporeal human existence. But little (if at all) does he dig into the bittersweetness of being human—of not existing in a utopian virtual world, and the meaning of suffering and pain. This is not to say every novel must be a literary examination of the human condition, only that Sharpson teases the idea in the text and setting, but chooses not to go there in full—not a negative, but a lost opportunity for this reader.

In the end, When the Sparrow Falls is a John LeCarre take on a post-human AI setting. While the novel's plot becomes a touch convoluted for its own good toward the end, the set pieces never overreach themselves, and the main character comes off as largely realistic through sharp prose and the effective presentation of his surroundings. Sharpson acutely aware of allowing his idea to become too large, things are predominantly kept local, and therefore engaging for the readers as they slowly gain glimpses into the larger world beyond and the real challenges Scout faces. While their aims are different, When the Sparrow Falls nevertheless reminded me of China Mieville's The City & the City for its tone and plot progression. Regardless, it's neo-Soviet noir done well enough to read at least once, and invites hope what Sharpson is able to do next.

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