the item

The Sparrow
The Sparrow

the questions

  1. What's good hacker sci-fi

more about the

the consensus

One of the best sci-fi books of the decade, asking important questions and keeping the reader excited to hear the answers. A true "can't put down" book

recent reviews

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the review

Ever pick up a book that you just can't put down?

I know I always read that, on the back of paperbacks. A "must read!" "couldn't stop reading!" "kept me up late at night"

Very rarely is that true, however. It's gotten so that I laugh every time I read the backs of these books. To hear the blurb writers tell it, every book in the bookstore is a great piece of monumental fiction that mesmerizes and seduces the readers.


But every now and then -- about once every couple of years -- I really do find a book that I get attached to and have a hard time putting down. "The Sparrow" was just such a book.

I don't want to give away the plot, but the theme of the book is how different peoples interact with each other. There are a lot of examples in history: how the europeans met the natives new world, or how the Spanish met the Aztecs, for instance. In this case we've got a bunch of Jesuits meet an alien civilization in the Alpha Centauri system, but it's the dramatic question that's important. "What if we had to make physical contact with an alien civilization? How would it actually work?"

Along the way, the author takes two storylines and intermingles them together, each of which is captivating in it's own right. We get into the nature of good and evil, the meaning of language and communication, and the way new languages and cultures are woven into our own fabric of experience.

In short, it's a big old philosophical roller coaster ride full of aliens, space travel, religion, war -- all the good stuff. I had a blast reading it.

The author was an academic before writing this book, an anthropologist, and it shows. It's a thoughtful book. Yes, there's action, but this is a book that makes you ask questions of yourself, not one in which you read along as some super hero/detective spy does all sorts of impossible things.

Looking at wikipedia, the book won many awards, and there's also a sequel! Yay! Although it's from 1992, I didn't find anything at all dated about the book, and it was very enjoyable to have a somewhat realistic notion of interstellar travel that didn't involve pixie dust and dilithium crystals. Relativistic effects were considered -- also a bit unusual -- and the universe she created "makes sense", that is there are no glaring edges.

Now that I've become one of those "must read!" book blurbers, I owe it to tell you why I had hard time putting the book down. In a word, teasing. Mary Doria Russell tells you a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but never really comes out and tells you what the heck is going on. You get little pieces of the puzzle as you read along, which she drops in at the optimum moments. I found myself mumbling "Just tell me X!" a couple of times. Great fun.

I picked up four books to read over my recent holiday. Two of them were average. Another was very good, "A Fire Upon the Deep", but "The Sparrow" is my favorite of the lot. I've already downloaded the sequel on my kindle and can't wait to get around to reading it.


the buzz

Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being "human." When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong... Words like "provocative" and "compelling" will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.


the video

Good one-minute review from some guy on YouTube

What is this?

A while back I wrote an article on my blog listing all the books that hackers recommended to each other from the site HackerNews. The purpose was to provide a place to list book recommendations so that people didn't have to type in the same list over and over again. (HN gets several requests for book recommendations a week. I also get at least a couple each month). It was very well received, and many posters and commenters either asked that I make a site or sent me an email asking me to do so.

How is this any different from the list on the blog?

This list has more books. This list is sortable both by what question you have and your skill level. In addition, once you sort the list, you can save the link with your sort and send it to somebody else. So, for instance, when somebody wants a book for noobs learning to program, you can make a link for that and then reuse it

How did you collect these books?

Initially the list came from Googling "best book" and taking the books from the first few pages returned. Later, I added all the books that were mentioned "You left that out!" when Jacques posted the link. While adding those books, I came across a Stack Overflow link where programmers were asked to list their favorite tech books, so I included those too.

If I ask you to put a book on here, will you?

It depends.

These books were all gathered by finding places where hackers hang out and are suggesting books to other hackers and other hackers agree with them by voting up their suggestion. If I can find an example of this for your book, I'm happy to include it.

How are the books ranked?

I did the best I could with ranking. I am sure there are many things you do not agree with. It would be possible to add voting and personal ranking -- that would make the system much better. Heck, you could rank the books yourself and use it as a customized book list to show to people who want your advice. I'd like to do that, but if I've learned anything is to not let your featureset get ahead of the users. This first version will test the waters to see what kind of interest the community might have.