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The Humanity and Post-Humanity of “When the Sparrow Falls”

Set about 200 years in the future, Neil Sharpson’s When the Sparrow Falls is narrated by Nikolai Andreivich South, a low-ranking state security bureaucrat in the Caspian Republic. Earth has been transformed by the emergence of super-powerful artificial intelligences and technology allowing people to transfer their consciousness to the digital realm. The Caspian Republic alone has refused these changes, outlawing most computers and viewing themselves as the last bastion of real humanity; over the years, it has become an ever-more violent and repressive state. When a well-known party figure is revealed to have been an AI all along, Nicky South is pulled into a complicated tangle of interdepartmental power-grabs that dredge up tragedies both personal and national.

This is a novel of big ideas, politically and technologically, but what carries it is how well it’s told. South’s narration is unhurried but engagingly paced—at under 300 pages, Sharpson has pulled off a complete story without any padding—with just the right amount of introspection. South’s personal backstory and the larger political context are built out with a mixture of epigraphs and commendably (if ultimately ironically) organic-feeling flashbacks, and South’s narration is animated by a kind of dry and frequently deflecting amusement, gallows humor, or sanity-preserving sarcasm—a stance that frequently breaks just enough to let real emotion through.

This mixture of self-conscious comedy and bleak consideration of atrocity constantly reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut. Usually, Vonnegut imitators fall flat beyond some crude stylistic borrowings—so it goes—but When the Sparrow Falls brings him to mind in its mixture of humor and tragic irony, its slightly misanthropic humanism: a playing about with deep ideas grounded in pathetic detail. Through South’s story, Sharpson confronts our transformation or obsolescence in the face of technology and the unthinkable and surreal cruelty of state-sponsored violence. Despite this high-tech, cerebral premise, the story is anchored in quiet, resilient humor and wordplay, and with an eye for both the absurdity of bureaucratic interaction and the humanity of its characters. A police truck rattles “windows and teeth and guilty consciences”; the story of how South started dating his future wife is “a matter of irreconcilable debate between the historians.” In a novel about totalitarian violence and the emergence of godlike AI, the images that stick with me are things like South’s fairly unlikeable partner putting half a meal into his pockets—mashed potatoes and all—to take home to his family.

Questions of artificial rights and accelerating automation—longstanding concerns within science fiction—are getting increasingly mainstream attention, yet these aren’t the real focus of When the Sparrow Falls. While Sharpson flavors the setup with references to Roko’s Basilisk and other AI theories, it is, ultimately, a setup: the novel is primarily concerned with the wholly human actions within the Caspian Republic, not the actual threat of emergent AI or the merits of Luddism. Likewise, there are some serious theological ideas at play—from the Biblical title and repeated references to Jacques Ellul, Christian anarchist and technology skeptic, to hints of a future messianic super-AI—but they largely stay in the background.

The novel is intriguingly difficult to characterize, politically. Given its geographic setting, set on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, its references to mass state executions point inevitably towards the Armenian genocide and Soviet-era pogroms and political purges, giving its fictional atrocities unexpected weight. But the novel alludes to history more than it draws explicit connections to it, and its villains don’t seem to be calling out current threats or trends, beyond a broad reproach to conservative fears of the new. On the one hand, Sharpson’s hypothetical engagement with technology and totalitarianism recalls classics like 1984 or Brave New World. On the other, the novel’s geohistorical rootedness—and its attention to the human side of repressive systems—feels more in the mode of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind. Hearing an internal “Good Brother” who spouts politically correct commentary, South admits to himself that “at least part of me was now occupied territory.” Neither hopelessly dystopian nor optimistic about an individual’s chance of changing the system, When the Sparrow Falls, like Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, focuses on the significance and struggle of even small resistances.

When the Sparrow Falls, to mix up my ornithology, is an odd duck—machine consciousnesses side-by-side with trilby-wearing Cold War pastiches—and all the more enjoyable for that. Its speculative elements lend a freshness to its critique of totalitarianism and petty despots, and, despite its sobering themes, it’s a hopeful novel. Sometimes brutal, often funny, it’s a remarkably assured and polished story, grappling with the best and worst instincts of humanity, even as it imagines what might come next for the species.

See Also

FICTION
When the Sparrow Falls
By Neil Sharpson
Tor Books
Published June 29, 2021