Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows, Matthew 10:29-31

In 2019 a SETI programme picks up a radio transmission from near Alpha Centauri containing the sound of exquisite alien songs.   The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) decides to fund and lead an independent, scientific mission to that part of the galaxy to try and find the planet of origin.  After a few months, the Jesuits  lose contact with the expedition and the UN sends a second mission to Rakhat.   The information that they send back  threatens to bring the Jesuit order to its knees. Only one member of the first mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been found alive.  He has been discovered living in a state of degradation in what appears to be a brothel, and worse still, has been accused of murdering a child.  Decades later in 2059 (thanks to the speed of light) Sandoz finally arrives back on Earth, a broken man, sexually brutalised, with his hands horrifically maimed.  Under huge international and media pressure, as well as UN condemnation for taking matters into their own hands without approval, the Jesuit order decides to hold an investigation into what happened on the planet of Rakhat.

If Carl Sagan and Ursula K. Le Guin got religion and decided to write a novel together The Sparrow might be the result.  Russell openly references Sagan and The Sparrow obviously owes a lot to Contact.  Another obvious reference point is Arthur C. Clarke’s wonderful short story, ‘The Star’, about a Jesuit astronomer whose scientific discoveries force him to question his faith.

The Sparrow’s narrative moves very elegantly between the Jesuit investigation into Sandoz and the story of the expedition.  The former is mainly concerned with the effect of trauma on Sandoz and the attempts by the Jesuits to draw him out and persuade him to tell the truth about what happened. It is told largely from the perspectives of the priests who try and befriend him during this time.  The other half of the narrative tells the story of how the members of the expedition met, their relationships with each other and their experiences on Rakhat.

Russell pulls together a diverse crew for her expedition (knowing that they are all dead from the beginning adds a sense of relentless oncoming doom to their story).  The mission is lead by Fr D.W Yarbrough, an ex-military priest from Texas.  Jimmy Quinn is a young Irish-American astronomer who discovered the transmission.  Sophia is a Sephardic Jew, an ex-child prostitute with a genius for programming artificial intelligence, who is bought out of indentured labour for the mission.  Anne and George Edwards are an older, white, middle-class, married couple, a doctor and an engineer respectively, and both atheists.   Also included are two other priests, a French naturalist, Marc Robichaux, and a musicologist, Alan Pace.  But at the centre of the story is the charismatic Emilio Sandoz, a priest and multi-linguist who was born in the slums of Puerto Rico.  Sandoz is the glue that binds the others to one other, a man who believes their mission to be divinely inspired, a man who when he left for Rakhat, some people believed to be worthy of canonization.

The Sparrow is a compulsively readable, but deeply disturbing novel that addresses some very big questions.  What happens to peoples’ identities and beliefs when thrown into contact with a radically different, alien society?  What might be the unintentional consequences of contact with alien cultures? What is faith? Is there some kind of divinely ordered plan for us? Does God exist? If God does exist, what is the nature of God? If there is so much pain and horror in the universe, should we consider the possibility that God is evil, something to be hated and railed against?  In bringing disruptive knowledge to the seeming paradise of Rakhat, is Emilio Sandoz a saint, or is he unintentionally having an effect similar to that of Satan in the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps what struck me most strongly was the novel’s grasp of the way that people project meaning onto their experiences, reading signs in relation to their desires rather than reality.  Sandoz and his friends desperately want Rakhat to mean one thing and, of course, they find that it means something very different.  The Jesuits, likewise, read the meaning of Sandoz’s condition on his return in the light of what they want to believe.  I won’t spoil the story, but the songs are a metaphor for this problem.

If I have any criticisms, I’d say that the writing of the characters and dialogue doesn’t always come up to the same standard as the plotting.  The crew of the expedition were a little too good and nice for me, and I started to get weary of their endless joking and affection for each other. “Ok,” I kept saying to myself, “I get that they’re good people already!”  Also, I found one of the relationships unbelievable – again, I won’t spoil but Russell suddenly gets two people together in a way that seems contrived and requires one of the characters to have a personality transplant.

All in all, though, I think this is a worthy winner of the multiple awards that were bestowed on it, one of those science fiction novels that comes along and pushes the boundaries.   Russell has published a sequel, Children of God in 1998, but I think I’ll leave it a little while before I return to Rakhat with Emilio.

3 thoughts on “Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)

  1. Pingback: Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996) « Purple Prose

  2. The Sparrow is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I’ve read it a few times now, and even though the surprise at the end isn’t a surprise anymore, it still hits me, right in the chest, every time. The last time I read it, I finally understood the hand surgery. I haven’t no idea why that didn’t register with me the previous reads (distracted by everything else that was going on?), but I did finally understand what was happening. Minor flaws aside, it is an incredible book.

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