The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Posted December 4, 2010on:
In an interview at the end of the book (my copy has a super awesome “Book Club discussion” section), Doria Russell said she wanted The Sparrow to explore the benefits and risks of religion. The first time I picked up this book, I was apprehensive. Main characters are Jesuit priests? These are the guys who are obsessed with education (yay!) but also responsible for the Inquisition (not so yay!). A first contact story involving a religious mission to an alien planet sponsored by the Vatican? What the hell kind of book is this?
Nothing I say can do this book justice. It is beautiful, it is heartbreaking, it transcends “science fiction”, and takes first contact and mistranslation to a whole new level. It transcends everything. There is much discussion of religion in The Sparrow, but this is not a religious book. In fact, just skip this review and go buy the book. That’s what the hell kind of book it is.
My habit is to write a review that talks about the characters and the plot, and blah blah blah. I’ll try to edit that stuff down because here’s the meat and potatoes: The Sparrow is hands down the most beautiful book I have ever read.
If I was going to talk about the plot and the characters I’d say in 2019 we receive a radio signal from Alpha Centauri, and talented linguist Father Emilio Sandoz leads a mission to an alien planet to make first contact. Quietly funded by The Vatican while world goverments were still trying to figure out what to do, Father Emilio and his crew of Jesuits and civilian scientists travel to the alien plant of Rakhat. Emilio is the perfect Jesuit. He trusts his life in the hands of God, and knows that everything happens for a reason.
The mission is a glowing success. Mary Doria Russell presents a most wonderfully alien culture. The Runa and the Jana ‘ata are bi-pedal and humanoid – two arms, to legs, two eyes, fingers and toes, but that is where the similarities end. The humans are too busy learning to communicate and laughing at the Runa’s love for the smell of coffee to realize how much they don’t understand. The humans don’t even know the right questions to ask.
And then one day, after accidents born in ignorance and the best intentions, the mission is a most unbelievable, most incredible failure. Emilio is the only survivor.
Father Emilio is truly a saintly man, and happily puts his life in God’s hands. He trusts that God will take care of him. When the worst happens, and then something even worse than that happens, how could this be part of God’s plan? It is so easy to become blinded by the obvious benefits of religion that you start to refuse to see the risks. When you put your life in God’s hands and the worst happens, how do you reconcile that? As ship doctor Anne says after the first death on Rakhat:
“Why is it that God gets all the credit for the good stuff, but it’s the doctor’s fault when shit happens? When the patient comes through, it’s always “Thank God”, and when the patient dies it’s always blame the doctor. Just once in my life, just for the sheer novelty of it, it would be nice if someone blamed God when patient dies, instead of me.”
Nearly dead from scurvy and blood loss, a rescue mission is able to get Emilio back to Earth in the year 2059, where he is sequestered by the now crumbling Jesuit order. His “misadventures” have embarrassed and humiliated the church. All they want out of him is a confession. They demand to know why he murdered a child and was found caged at a brothel on an alien planet. His ritualistically destroyed hands slowly heal, but Emilio refuses to tell them what happened. His nightmare is such that once he tells them about it, they too will have to live with what happened, with what was borne by their mission and their wish for First Contact.
Let me say it again. The Sparrow is not a preachy book. This is not a pro-religion (Christian or otherwise) or an anti-religion book. Yes, there is spirituality, and priests, and confessions, and Latin and some churchy stuff. But I’ve got a Jesus-meter that pings at the mere mention of angels or demons, and all through The Sparrow that meter was sitting at “perfect and balanced”. Adult language and sex jokes aside, I’d almost be nervous to recommend The Sparrow to the deeply devout for fear they would be offended.
For such serious subject matter, The Sparrow is also unexpectedly hilarious. The characters feel like real people you’ve know your whole life. Jokes about zero gravity sex are made, bad Star Trek references are made (10 points if you identify every scifi pop culture reference in the book!), affairs are contemplated, confessions of unrequited love are made. Mary Doria Russell’s prose is poetic, subtle, and stunningly damaging. You want the perfect example of “don’t tell me, show me”? This is it.
You can read The Sparrow as a first contact story. You can read it as character based literature. You can read it for all the questions it will force you to voice. I don’t care. Just do yourself a favor and read it.