Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award and one of Entertainment Weekly’s ten best books of the year in 1996, The Sparrow is the debut novel of Mary Doria Russell, an academic who had only previously written scientific articles and technical manuals. I found within her novel a story that pulled me from the first chapter to the last and immersing me in its beauty, tragedy, and depth. It’s not the dry and hard science-fiction that usually puts me to sleep, but rather a powerful intertwining of the future, religion, first contact, and exploration that grabbed me and never let me go.
The story tells of a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, who goes on the first trip to contact an alien species, believing that God has been guiding him to this purpose his entire life. His friends, who are his only family, accompany him and all suffer tragic and sometimes meaningless deaths. Sandoz returns as a shell of a man—sick, defeated, disappointed with God and accused of being a prostitute and a child killer. The novel bounces between the past leading up to and through the expedition, and the future where the Father General and a few other Jesuit priests try to determine what happened on Rakhat, the alien homeworld, and if Emilio is truly guilty as accusations claim.
Faith and the future
Who would send the first explorer’s to make contact with the first discovered sentient extraterrestrial species in the universe? Russell played with the idea that people of faith, not the military, government, or business would be the first to go and learn, explore, and share. She examines the risks and benefits of a belief in a benevolent God, the role of religion in the lives of people who believe and people who don’t, and how that would influence and affect the first human contact with aliens. The vehicle for this exploration of humanity and their relationship with religion is the future: an examination of how, even with hindsight of how previous first contacts had not gone well, mankind could still make the same mistakes. And the only place to explore that was the future as there are no new frontiers on Earth.
The science-fiction elements support this theme, rather than vice versa. Very little time is spent in discovering how to travel from Earth to a planet light years away; rather, the tools are already in place within the future to allow them to depart quite soon after the first confirmation of alien life in the universe. The struggles of the characters are not with technology but rather with their own beliefs, prejudices, misconceptions, follies, and relationships. In some respects this is more a novel about philosophy than of science-fiction, using it as window dressing for the story. I don’t think this makes the story bad at all; it is written well and I enjoyed it. But I want to forewarn any who are looking for something more in the realm of science-fiction.
It is human folly and the inability to successfully understand the alienness of the alien culture that is the mission’s ultimate downfall. The bulk of the explorers are Jesuit priests who immediately expand their belief of God to cover the aliens as God’s children. So they already come from a mentality where they want to look for the similarities between the species they encounter on Rakhat and humanity instead of looking for and understanding the differences. So immersed in their wonder and excitement at learning and exploring Rakhat, they never push themselves enough, and thus, that simple and understandable mistake costs each member of the expedition but Emilio their the lives. He is eventually rescued and returned to Earth only to face misunderstanding, doubt, revulsion, and self-loathing. It is his struggle with belief in God and the risks and beauty of faith that forms the backbone and central theme of the novel.
Foreknowledge and fore-ignorance
The Sparrow is a moving and powerful debut, but it does suffer from a few flaws. The structure—an interweaving of past and future, steadily growing closer together until the last few moments when the mystery is revealed—works both for and against the novel. By knowing from the start that certain events are bound to happen, you have the suspense of growing ever closer to character deaths and the dread in the pit of my stomach both drew me on and made me want to not turn the next page. But this may not work for other readers as they constantly wait for the shoe to drop. When the events do finally happen they lack the resonance and immediacy that experiencing them in the standard format would have wrought. Instead they are often minor blips happening off screen when they could have been experienced by the reader and increased the emotional tension. Even when the final mystery is revealed, though it is terrible and explains Emilio’s actions and feelings in the future, it lacks the emotional punch that would have cemented the ending because it is viewed through the lens of the past instead of in the moment.
There are also a few setups that failed to follow through, like the prologue’s final sentence, “They meant no harm” implying more drama and some kind of big disaster for the aliens when in fact it seems the explorers themselves suffered most. Overall, however, the novel is beautiful and engrossing if you like the premise, philosophy, and soft science-fiction.
Why should you read this book?
There is a reason The Sparrow was one of the best books of the year, but beware if you are looking for a hard science fiction novel. The Sparrow is more an exploration of what happens when a man does the right things for the right reasons and a belief that God is guiding him and when it all goes tragically wrong. Is this what God meant for him? Why would a benevolent and loving God do such a thing? And how can humans’ first contact with aliens avoid the mistakes of the past? The Sparrow is character driven and thought provoking and if that’s up your alley, then be sure to pick it up!