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The Sparrow #1

The Sparrow

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In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that 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 what it means to be "human".

419 pages, Paperback

First published September 9, 1996

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About the author

Mary Doria Russell

11 books3,037 followers
Mary Doria Russell is an American author. She was born in 1950 in the suburbs of Chicago. Her parents were both in the military; her father was a Marine Corps drill sergeant, and her mother was a Navy nurse.

She holds a Ph.D. in Paleoanthropology from the University of Michigan, and has also studied cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, and social anthropology at Northeastern University in Boston. Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio with her husband Don and their two dogs.

Mary is shy about online stuff like Goodreads, but she responds to all email, and would prefer to do that through her website.

Photo by Jeff Rooks

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 8,690 reviews
Profile Image for Lori.
678 reviews74 followers
March 6, 2016
I had picked this up years ago due to all the terrific reviews, but when I started it, since it involves priests and such, I thought it was going to be a Christian book. So I'm really glad that a group decided to read this, because it is NOT a yah-yah Christian book at all. I would instead call it a spiritual book in that the journey involves time old questions, of faith, of God, of religion, of humanity. And altho most of the main characters are indeed Jesuits and so many questions and approaches do involve Catholicism, they were universal. And very very beautiful.

After I was done, I read that the author had left the Catholic church at age 15, and after 20 years of aetheism found herself re-examining questions of values, ethics, morality and religion upon the birth of her child. She found her drawn to Judaism and converted.

And that makes alot of sense, in that The Sparrow does speak about religion but in a completely open, tolerant way. You can also be an aetheist and derive much insight into the nature of what drives us toward spirituality to begin with. And that morality and goodness has its place even outside any type of established religion.

This was also one of the best first contact books - because The Sparrow is far more than just a question of what God is or isn't, but more so a fascinating study of anthropology. Of both humans and aliens. As a matter of fact, I'm sorry I started this review even discussing the religious aspect, because I would say the anthropology approach and insight is just as strong if not even a stronger force in the book.

Which also makes a ton of sense since the author was an anthropolist!

And I can not ignore the fact that the characters were some of the most complex, likable and developed you can find in any book.

I liked this book so much I immediately started reading its sequel, Children of God, upon completion. The Sparrow itself is very much a stand-alone book, but I was so engrossed with Emilio I HAD to know what happened to him.

Hmm. I might make this book a 5.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,713 followers
February 21, 2009
I had wanted to read The Sparrow since its release back in 1996/1997. I had seen a review of it and loved the basic idea of future Jesuits being the first “missionaries” to make contact with the first sentient alien species discovered. But I lost that review and was never able to figure out the name of the book or the author. I tried to discover it everywhere I went, and all those I asked were oblivious. I really thought I would have no trouble tracking it down, but I couldn’t, so after a while I gave up.

Now, over ten years later, I discovered Mary Doria Russell’s masterpiece and am disappointed that I didn’t read it sooner.

I feared -- many times over while reading The Sparrow -- that my disappointment would be complete.

The Sparrow is so good, you see, that as I moved from moment to moment, following Father Emilio Sandoz’s broken narrative, I was sure that there was no way Russell could deliver on the promise of her writing. It was so good it was great, and I worried that it was too good to maintain its level throughout. Experience with much literary disappointment was steeling me for a let down.

Creating Suspense -- One of the things Russell did was to create suspense in the story with all the skill and technique of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock provided an example of how to craft suspense in an interview many years ago, relating this scenario: show the audience a bomb being planted under the seat in the witness stand, then bring the witness in and have him take a seat. The man goes on answering questions, going through the action we expect of him, totally oblivious to what is coming, thus letting the audience worry about the bomb. The audience wonders when the bomb will go off. Who will the bomb injure? Is there a chance for the man to be saved? How will he be saved? How will he die? And the audience’s tension rises for every minute that ticks by without a resolution.

It’s a cinematic version of dramatic irony, and Russell is a master of her own prose version. We the audience are positioned as the tribunal of Jesuits, listening to Father Sandoz’s history of the mission to Rakhat, but we are given droplets of information ahead of our brethren that none but Sandoz and Father General Guiliani have access to. These droplets set up Russell’s entire narrative structure, making the story compulsively readable by piquing our need to know more, our need to understand how these terrible things we know must happen actually happened.

Complete Characters -- But this need to turn pages, this desire Russell kindled in me to know it all and know it all as quickly as possible, was steadily tempered by my desire to stay with the characters she crafted. I didn’t want to leave Emilio Sandoz to his torment; I wanted to prolong my stay in his presence. I wanted to remain with Anne and George, D.W., Marc Robichaux, Sophia, Jimmy, Father Behr, Father Candotti, Father Reyes, Father General Guiliani and even Father Voelker and the Jana’ata trader Supaari. I wanted to stay with them so much that I found myself slowing down my reading, setting the book aside even while another part of my mind tugged me back to turn the pages.

The reason was how deeply Russell made me feel her people. They were real for me in a way that few characters have been (really...it’s only my favourite books that have achieved what Russell achieved, character being more important to me than anything). Their decisions made sense, their love for one another made sense, their desires and cares, their anger and frustration, their actions and reactions. They were real and true. And I felt them as though they were real people in my world.

Morality -- Then there was The Sparrow's struggle with morality. I am not a moral person; but I am an highly ethical one, and Russell’s management of the big moral questions moved me.

Contemporary or futuristic moral struggles in literature often bore me, or even anger me with their preachiness or closed minded simplicity, but not the struggles of the priests in The Sparrow. These men were struggling with their morality and their God in passionate, energetic, complex and vital ways. And the heart of the struggle was Emilio Sandoz, the man who loved his God the deepest and had his faith and love shattered in the worst possible ways.

He described the struggle best when he said: “...[That:] is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that gentlemen is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it.”

This meditation on responsibility is pivotal for all of the characters’ morality, not just the Jesuits, but this pivot is most emotionally raw for Father Sandoz, and his position as our narrator makes his struggle, to some extent, our own.

Disappointment? -- I expected that all this excellence was too good to be true. I expected Russell to lose her nerve in the end, to take the easy route of evil, thereby absolving all of the missionaries from their own responsibilities based on the scapegoating of the VaRakhati -- more specifically the Jana’ata. And for one moment, during one act of Jana’ata brutality, I thought she had done what I feared, but Russell stood fast and said what needed to be said through Sandoz: “There are no beggars on Rakhat. There is no unemployment. There is no overcrowding. No starvation. No environmental degradation. There is no genetic disease. The elderly do not suffer decline. Those with terminal illness do not linger. They pay a terrible price for this system, but we too pay...and the coin we use is the suffering of children. How many kids starved to death this afternoon, while we sat here? Just because their corpses aren’t eaten doesn’t make our species any more moral!”

This moment is an act of true authorial bravery, solidifying The Sparrow's place in my pantheon of books while ensuring that no disappointment could taint Russell's fine work.

There are quibblous moments in the book that stroked my fur backwards, such as Russell’s tendency to focus on her characters joyous moments of laughter and rejoicing (I’ve never seen people laugh so much or so easily as the Jesuit missionaries and their party, except in a Guy Gavriel Kay novel) or the veneration of Anne by every being she met, but these are meaningless when faced with the triumphs of The Sparrow.

I could go on -- discussing linguistics, the clear link between Mary Doria Russell and the great Ursula LeGuin, the subtly handled science, the concepts of culture and race, the manifestations of violence, rape, prostitution, art, love and scent -- but all of that would be superfluous. As is most of what I have written.

Suffice to say that The Sparrow is a masterpiece that Russell will likely never better. I wish I had written her words. And I hope to meet her one day so I can thank her properly for the experience.
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
554 reviews60.5k followers
December 20, 2019
If God is anything like a middle-class white chick from the suburbs, which i admit is a long shot, it's what you do about what feel that matters.

(4.25?) This was a beautiful and heart wrenching book. The characters were attaching and you can't help but root for them... but also cry with them. An interesting take on the first contact with alien trope.
Profile Image for Matt.
216 reviews656 followers
January 14, 2020
I've hit page 199 of 'The Sparrow' and the viscosity of the text is increasing.

By page 12, I had a lot of hope for this book. By page 88 I was really into the book, and thinking there was a good chance this was a 4 or 5 star book. At this point though, I'm not sure I can summon enough conviction up to finish it.

Russell takes a gamble with her story of telling it from the beginning and end toward the middle, and relies extremely heavily on foreshadowing. It’s high risk technique with a big payoff, and while it is somewhat effective at first in generating interest in the story, after about 130 pages of foreshadowing gloom and horror, it gets really tiring. It's like taking a bad page from some of the worst of Kurt Vonnegut's literary tics, only where Vonnegut comes off as pretentious or even pandering, Russell is coming off as being a bit of an amateur. Even worse, making the first third of your story foreshadowing with nothing happening is I think promising a payoff that is so large that I don't see at this point how she can deliver a sufficiently big twist or epiphany to justify it.

There are a lot of things to like about this book - its witty intelligent dialogue, its ambition, and its quality prose. But the chief merit of the book so far is the sensitivity to human culture that Mary Doria Russell brings to her work. Her skill and knowledge as an anthropologist shows, and in particular she envisions the social fabric of the world of 2016 in a way that is believable and seems to be almost prescient.

The same easy believability cannot be said for almost any other aspect of her work. Her characters are all little more than caricatures, with the sort of exaggerated easily identifiable physical features that you’d expect of characters in a comic book or role-playing game. The physicist is 6’6” and scarecrow thin. The mathematician is a petite and impossibly beautiful ex-prostitute. The pilot is impossibly ugly and speaks such an exaggerated Texan slang that the portrayal is embarrassingly close to racism. The main character Emilio is a roguishly charming and impossibly handsome Jesuit priest. He’s essentially an agnostic that wants to believe, who hubristically seizes on the mission to another world as a way to reconcile his own lack of faith in his God. His chief sounding board, and seemingly the author’s chief voice, is Anne – a 64 year old silver haired but still sprightly sexual doctor and hostess who is always ready with wit and wine. Both characters seem to be someone’s fantasy rather than real people, and tellingly Anne’s husband George is the least well drawn and least independent of the central characters.

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief. While I can easily believe the social developments that appear to have happened by 2016, it’s simply ludicrous to believe that by 2016 we will have sufficient in space infrastructure and technical process that a private organization will be able to mount an interstellar mission. It seems highly unlikely that a technological civilization would be found orbiting our nearest neighbor. It seems even more unlikely that news of the discovery of said alien civilization would create only a small and passing sensation in the press, or that any of the major world governments would simply allow such a singularly important event as contact with an alien species to be unregulated. I mean, I would think contact with a new sentient species would be perceived as a matter of the utmost delicacy, given that the potential extinction of either species is on the line should matters go wrong. But as Russell would have it, the discovery of mankind’s first extraterrestrial neighbor generates somewhat less interest than the Y2K bug.

Equally bad, it seems impossible to me that supposedly excellent scientists would fail to develop contact protocols and would arrive at a distant planet inhabited by a sentient species with no clear idea what they intend to do. This last one is for me the near mortal blow to the story. Not only are no contact protocols developed, and no plans made, and no experiments scheduled, and no egos bruised fighting over whose theoretical models should be attempted first, but upon reaching the planet, the team takes essentially no environmental precautions and stupidly starts sampling everything that looks remotely edible. This, quite unsurprisingly, leads to the death of one of the crew. This is a severe problem because we've been foreshadowing a tragedy the whole time and the author - somewhat unsuccessfully - has been trying to make the characters very sympathetic, congenial and witty so that this tragedy will produce some sort of big emotional payoff when its elements are finally revealed. In what amounts to the prologue chapter, Russell voices what appears to be something of a thesis statement. Through the thoughts of one of her most sympathetic characters she writes:

"The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time."

But at this point I've not been seeing a lot of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions. I'm seeing characters behaving like such complete buffoons that the vibe I'm getting is more slasher film than tragedy, and if they keep acting so foolishly I'm going to be rooting for their gruesome deaths before it’s all over.


Well, I'm finally done with 'The Sparrow'. For all that foreshadowing, Russell ends up spoiling most of the 'twists' either explicitly or by inference long before the story is complete. There isn't a really big epiphany at the end, and the last thing she chooses to resolve seems almost anticlimactic to the point of unbelievably.

Judged as a science fiction book or a non-science fiction book, this is a book with major flaws.

As a non-science fiction book, it's very difficult or impossible to have sympathy for the characters because their mistakes are in many cases so egregious and have so predictable of consequences. Some of the 'Mary Sue'-isms which would be forgivable in a sci-fi book are made to grate precisely because the author builds up how hyper-competent the people are, and then makes them jump through hoops of stupidity so as to achieve her tragic story goals. The slasher movie vibe was palpable. Ultimately, it's difficult to believe that anyone considers Emilio that saintly. Speaking as a religious person myself, I never got the impression that Emilio was acting with divine guidance and never understood why anyone would have seen him as such. His faith was childish in all the worst ways rather than all the better ones. He seemed infected with Hubris, projecting his hopes, desires, and needs on to God, and then blaming God when his Emilio's plans didn't work out. He never struck me as someone who walked with God or who had some spiritual gift the some real people have. And, I found it difficult to believe that Emilio, who has lived such a hard brutal life, if he had any faith, would let simple Latin male machismo get in the way.

As a science fiction book, the story fails for several reasons, not the least of which is none of the participants seems to be particularly skilled in hard sciences. The biology of the story was utterly unbelievable. You can't move from one end of the country to the other, much less to a foreign country, without spending at least the first six weeks sick as your body builds immunity to local pathogens and your digestive tract accommodates new flora. Yet, these people go to a whole new world and don't show the slightest concern for the fact that they'll be encountering microorganisms wholly unlike anything they've ever encountered, or that they'll be exposing the new world to the same. Old world explorers didn't have a clue about the consequences of exposing the New World population to small pox, but modern explorers have no such ignorance. The events of this story are scientific irresponsibility to the point of being criminal.

I could have rated this story just two stars or even less, based on the flaws and the fact that I nearly put this story down unfinished twice. But I think some consideration has to be given to the ambition, seriousness, and thoughtfulness of the author. This story gives me a lot more to chew over and has a lot better prose than most stories I'd just give two stars. So I'm tentatively giving the story three stars, even if it wasn't as enjoyable as most stories I'd actually say of, "I liked it."

This is Mary Doria Russell's first novel, and it shows. I can only hope that she has a long and productive career, because the talent is there to produce a true masterwork that puts her in the first rank among science fiction authors. However, this wasn't it.
Profile Image for Candi.
623 reviews4,716 followers
December 14, 2020
"What is a life worth living, and what is a life wasted, and why? What is worth dying for, what is worth living for, and why? What shall I teach my child to value, and what shall I urge that child to avoid, and why? What am I owed by others and what do I owe others, and why? Each human culture provides a different set of answers to those questions, but deity is nearly always embedded in the Why."

The above quote is from Mary Doria Russell in her Afterword of this brilliant novel. I think they sum up perfectly the very same questions that I found myself grappling with while reading this. Russell certainly won’t give you any answers to these questions, but she will give you plenty of intellectual food for thought. I admit to lying awake many nights in the past pondering the questions of the universe, but of late I knew the answers would not come so I set aside such contemplation. Russell managed to reawaken such reflections.

I won’t get into the details of the plot; just suffice to say that on the surface The Sparrow is about a first contact made with another planet. It appears to be a science fiction novel; therefore, non-lovers of the genre may mistakenly steer away from this. However, this is so much more than the introduction to an alien species. Sure, we have the opportunity to meet these, but in reality it isn’t all that different from making contact with another culture; albeit one that is completely unfamiliar to us. More than a physical journey, the characters in this novel are on a spiritual journey. The character development is superb. Father Emilio Sandoz is a Jesuit priest… but wait, don’t run away quite yet! He is someone that you will not be able to get out of your head once you see his soul bared to you in all of its most human components. The way the novel is structured, we are taken back and forth in time from post-mission to the preparation for the mission, as well as to the mission itself. We know from the outset that Emilio Sandoz is tormented and my heart broke for him. What could possibly have happened to this man that has turned him into such a tortured human being?

Aside from Emilio Sandoz, there are a number of other characters that are a pleasure to get to know. Perhaps my two favorites were Anne and George, in their sixties and happily married. Anne doesn’t buy into the whole idea of a God, but that doesn’t stop her from sustaining a valuable and close friendship with Emilio. The two are sounding boards for each other’s beliefs and doubts, and their conversations are priceless. Anne is very spirited, and her thoughts on marriage are another source of wisdom for any reader that is so inclined to glean a bit more thought about this institution as well. At one point she says, "People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people." Anyone with a spouse or a long-term partner can likely relate to this.

I could carry on about this for quite some time, but I don’t think I can really do the book justice. There is a lot to ponder here. My mind is beginning to spin into those dizzying heights that leave me feeling rather breathless and inarticulate. Much like the feeling I get when my son drags me onto some of those terrifying yet thrilling rollercoaster rides that he is wild for! All I can say is that you don’t have to be a religious person to read this book. You don’t have to be a science fiction devotee. But if you have ever stopped to consider what is out there that is bigger than yourself and what role we as humans play in this universe, then you might want to give some serious thought to reading this book. For my part, I am not done with Father Emilio Sandoz’s journey, and will continue on with Children of God, the sequel to this one.

"We need not choose one kind of majesty, forsaking all others."
32 reviews5 followers
January 17, 2015
Sadly, goodreads has yet to allow a kill-it-with-fire rating, so I'll have to content myself with a one star review and a nice cup of tea to quell the overpowering nausea. Not due to the "shocking" ending, which I would have welcomed somewhere around page two. Not due to the incompetent sci and incredibly half-assed fi. Due to the revolting, self-congratulatory, aren't-we-so-clever-and-cute, wink-to-the-audience characters. But perhaps this was intentional. Perhaps Ms. Russell intended her audience to greet the tragic death scenes with laughter, loud cheers, and grateful relief that these idiots will FINALLY shut up. No? There's still more than 100 pages left? ... God, damn it.

I can only imagine Ms. Russell's thought process went a little something like this:

"Now I want to set this book in the future, but I don't actually want to go to the effort of developing a rich, textured, and believable future society. I know! I'll have all my main characters be obsessed with the 20th century! And they'll do nothing but reference 20th century pop culture! And then they'll all stand around complimenting each other on how funny and brilliant and totally sexy they all are! I mean, anyone reading my book will HAVE to think my main character is witty if all my other characters say he's witty. Ooo! Ooo! And they'll all agree with everything I think, and one of them will actually be me, but no one will notice because I'll be super subtle about it and -"

You would think that at this point someone would have stepped in, if not for Ms. Russell's sake, if not for the sake of future generations, then for the whole field of science fiction. They've already dumped Stephenie Meyer on us. Did we really need this too?
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,883 reviews16.6k followers
February 13, 2020
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell was Russell’s first novel and was published in 1996. Winning many accolades and several awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, it describes a first contact between humans and an alien race. A group led by Jesuit priests travels to a planet near Alpha Centauri after alien singing is picked up from interspace radio signals.

This is a beautifully written novel with brilliant characterization (really the greatest strength of the novel) that is poignant in its narrative and painfully brutal in its inevitable path towards a tragedy that is interwoven throughout the bittersweet story. Told by alternating timeline perspectives, the reader learns of the action by the protagonist’s bitter memories of the doomed trip and from present tense action of the trip itself. These scenes are painfully alive for the reader who has a theatrical ironic view of what must ultimately come. The look back sections are also difficult to read as the priest struggles with his ability to deal with the psychological damage of the trip and his return.

This really transcends the science fiction genre and is almost more of a psychological or philosophical thriller. The reader will also be led down a theological path of discovery, questions and hard fought resolutions.

An excellent story, masterfully crafted but with an overwhelming sense of tragedy and loss.

Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
June 29, 2009
This is the third SF story I've read where a Jesuit priest goes on an expedition to another planet and suffers a spiritual crisis as a result. It's almost becoming a sub-genre. I don't want to call Emilio a whiner or anything - obviously, what happens to him is truly horrible. But, much as I hate to say it, his tragedy seemed lightweight compared to the other two, and I felt disappointed. I was expecting something a little more cosmic in scale.

Of the three stories, the one I found most effective was Arthur C. Clarke's classic short, The Star. They set course for a supernova remnant and find a half-melted planet on the outskirts of what used to be its solar system. There's a deeply buried time-capsule planted by the alien civilization which was destroyed by the explosion. The aliens evidently had plenty of warning, but no chance to escape. This was all they could do. The priest spends a lot of time looking at the records and artifacts, and is greatly moved by them.

They also let the humans get a precise fix on the date of the explosion, which was previously just guessed to within a few centuries. The Jesuit does the calculations, and makes a horrifying discovery. The light from the supernova would have arrived on Earth in 1 A.D. At the end of the story, he is wringing his hands. How could God have destroyed this innocent alien race, just to provide a beacon to shine over Bethlehem?

OK, I found that suitably impressive. And, even though it's poorly written, James Blish's A Case of Conscience is also grandiose enough to justify the SF setting, rather than making it a historical novel set in the colonial era. There's this planet populated by a race of lizard-like aliens. At first, they seem harmless enough. They're kind, peaceful and very civilized. But, if you're prepared to accept the author's loopy theology, the mere fact that they have this perfect society without any belief in God is an affront to the teachings of the Church. Then the aliens also provide living proof of the correctness of evolution, since their young visibly recapitulate all the evolutionary stages after they've hatched. Thus (and I must admit that the details of the argument were a little obscure to me), it follows that the whole planet was created by Satan in order to tempt mankind. There is an apocalyptic showdown, the details of which I shan't reveal, but, even if the book is crap, at least it's crap on a motorcycle.

So, two hard acts to follow. At one point, I wondered if Mary Doria Russell was trying to update the Blish formula, and produce a better-packaged version of it. That might be worth doing. The closer I got to the ending, the harder I found it to see what the payoff could be, and when I got there it thought it was dismayingly prosaic. Did we need to go to Alpha Centauri for this?

Well... I don't want to knock the book too hard. I liked the main characters, even if they were sometimes just too damn nice to be credible, and it was a page-turner. The linguistics and anthropology were well done, and it was uplifting at times. I didn't think it lived up to the advance billing. But I enjoyed it enough that I'll probably read the sequel, which I'm told is better. Stay tuned.


PS This is incredibly geeky, and I know it has nothing to do with the actual story, but I need to share my thought. The asteroid accelerates at 1 g for a year, reaching about 0.93 of the speed of light, or so she claims. Then it decelerates by the same amount for another year, to slow down. To get back home, same procedure again.

Now... whatever can its power source be? Even if you had an anti-matter drive working with perfect efficiency at turning matter into kinetic energy, you'd still use up most of the asteroid as fuel, with all sorts of structural implications. Remember that structural stability was important. And how would you store that quantity of anti-matter? Recall that this is being done a few decades into the future.

Look, she started it. This is what's wrong with an SF scenario. If it had been a historical novel set in e.g. the sixteenth century Amazon rain forest, you wouldn't have to worry about my silly objections. It's bad enough keeping track of the theology, without getting involved in physics too.


PPS And continuing my geeky thought: if the engines are powerful enough to accelerate the asteroid at 1 g, it follows that they could lift it against Earth's gravity. Wow. Those are some engines. I estimate their thrust at around 2 Supermen or 0.8 Powerpuff Girl (say, Buttercup when she's feeling a bit wussy). And we're going to have invented them within the next ten years.

Sorry, sorry, sorry... all totally below the belt, I know. But I'm still blaming her for starting this. She tries to give it a hard-science gloss, but she didn't use enough undercoat.

Profile Image for Leonard Gaya.
Author 1 book937 followers
October 9, 2020
In the spring of 1636, Isaac Jogues, Society of Jesus, sailed from France to Quebec. He was part of a Jesuit party set out for the New World, to Christianise the native population of what was then called Nouvelle-France (a vast territory colonised by the Crown of France, that spanned from the Labrador and the Saint Lawrence River, to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and Louisiana). Father Jogues settled in Ontario with a group of Jesuit missionaries, among the Iroquois, the Huron and the Algonquin. The situation between the natives and the French settlers was tense indeed and, at some point during his mission, a war party of Mohawks captured Isaac Jogues. During his captivity, the priest was beaten, hung, mocked, flogged, horribly tortured and had the ends of his fingers cut off. Jogues endured his ordeal with an equanimous attitude, considering his martyrdom as an imitation of Jesus’ torments on the cross and the persecution of the early Church. Isaac Jogues managed to escape his torturers and get back to France. He was canonised in 1930.

The Sparrow is a science fiction novel, but it is secretly inspired by the life of Isaac Jogues. Mary Doria Russell imagines that, at some point in the near future, the giant radio telescope at Arecibo picks up a message from an alien civilisation, somewhere in the region of Alpha Centauri (an idea probably borrowed from Carl Sagan’s Contact). A group of scientists, among them several Jesuit priests, decide to set out for that distant planet, in a secret mission sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church. Several years later, only one survivor, Father Emilio Sandoz, a linguist from Puerto Rico, returns from the mission to Earth, his hands atrociously mutilated. He is questioned by the Father Superior, and the whole point of the novel is to discover, through a series of flashbacks, how he got these stigmas.

The underlying idea of the novel is extraordinarily compelling and reminded me of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (which also includes a story with a Jesuit). Father Sandoz, as well as most of the characters involved in the interplanetary mission, stand out well, each with their background, with their issues, with their language and outlook on the world. And Russell has the rare merit of presenting the priests as multidimensional and endearing characters. She also has a remarkably deft pen, devoid of affectation, which makes her prose very pleasant to read. Unfortunately, it seems the execution doesn’t quite live up to what I was expecting.

For one, the plot drags on from one piece of conversation to the next, most of which are not devoid of funny repartee and cloister jokes, but add very little to the story, tend to water down the stakes and get a bit irritating in the end —especially the slightly gooey Anne character and the constant sprinkling of foreign idiomatic expressions.

Secondly, some plot points are a bit far-fetched, for instance, the decision, taken practically on the back of an envelope, between a few friends who coincidentally happen to be around, to set up a mission to the alien world on an asteroid travelling at close to the speed of light, and all secretly funded by the Church!

Too, considering this is a book about a bunch of ecclesiastics, many considerations are geared toward priesthood, the vow of celibacy and some vague theological thoughts. Still, it seems to me Russell is just scratching the surface on these topics to give her novel some philosophical gloss.

I was also disappointed by the way Russell lacked a sense of awe when imagining what an alien planet and civilisation would be like (is this attributable to the fact that the author is an anthropologist?…): basically, it’s a bit too similar to our planet and human civilisation — say from pre-Columbian America? — and I’ll leave it there to avoid spoilers.

And finally, the last fifty pages, which unveil the mystery of the maimed priest, take a sharp turn towards a gruesome, even tearful, ending, that I found somewhat surprising, disturbing, clumsy even — when considering the benign, casual tone of the rest of the novel — and, all in all, almost unnecessary.

So why didn’t Russell write a novelised biography of Isaac Jogues instead of this lumpy sci-fi tale?
Profile Image for Zach.
285 reviews297 followers
June 11, 2009
Irritating. Irritating prose, irritating philosophizing, intensely irritating structure, and SUPREMELY irritating characters. Honestly, a more annoying set of self-satisfied "witty" bourgeois assholes you will not find.
Profile Image for Katie.
278 reviews357 followers
March 22, 2019
If called upon to imagine a scenario in which the faith of the devoutly religious is put most severely to the test I would probably think of the Jews in the Nazi death camps. What they experienced and witnessed is almost like science fiction in the unimaginable scope of its horror. Mary Doria Russell chooses the genre of science fiction to dramatize one human being's dark night of the soul and it's certainly the most imaginative account of a spiritual crisis I've ever read.

The Sparrow is about a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat. We learn early on that only one member of the crew survives and returns to Earth. This is Emilio who is mutilated and traumatised. The narrative alternates between the voyage and life on Rakhat and the Vatican interrogation of the surviving crew member. A lot of the success of this novel is due to the ingenious structure which cleverly builds tension and the big vivid and vibrant characters. I especially warmed to the two women - the earth mother, Anne and the damaged ice queen, Sofia. Sexual politics plays a big part in the novel's subplot. Sex is depicted as both a pinnacle of rewarded faith in life's beauty and wonder and the most base inhumane means of cruelty.

At times The Sparrow walks a tightrope over an abyss of absurdity but every time I thought the narrative might fall off it regained its balance. The most dangerous moment was when the author opts to take us inside the head of an alien. Earlier she had made fun of Star Trek and how the aliens always speak English. I wasn't entirely convinced taking us inside the head of an alien wasn't a similar kind of act of hubris nor was I convinced we needed this small part of the novel. Otherwise though I was gripped throughout.

Thanks to Candi for her ravishing review.
Profile Image for carol..
1,575 reviews8,226 followers
February 20, 2011
It was well done, with beautiful prose. Interesting dual storyline style. I understand other reviewers' complaints about realism and incompatible biologies, microflora, etc., but I think the story is, at heart, a parable. There is sophisticated play with words throughout the book which adds to the depth of meaning. In one of the later hearings, she writes "Sometimes they were dealing with a Spaniard... Or Mephistopheles... Most often, it was Dr. Emilio Sandoz, linguist, scholar..." The passage ends with the final devastating revelation about Jana'ata manipulation of Runa breeding, leading off with "It was Mephistopheles who laughed." Brilliant.

For me, the sour notes surround the pacing at the end of the book and the theme of rape. The deaths of D.W. and Anne seemed too important to be disposed of so quickly, both in story line and in page numbers. Their deaths should have echoed through the mission longer. I think the horror of their having been "poached" would have further set up the shock of the storyline, of discovering the Jana'ata are predators of the Runa population. The adventures of the first day in the city were similarly undigested; it would seem that Marc should have shared his vision of Runa being ceremonially slain and discussion would have started them wondering.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,065 reviews1,904 followers
April 15, 2022
If I wanted to read about sexual slavery, rape, gang rape, and gang rape with an audience, I'd just read the news everyday. Actually, I do read the news every day. This kind of stuff is rampant. It always blows my mind that SF-F authors - who can write about ANYTHING, no limits - often choose to return to stuff like sexual slavery.

This is not entertainment for me. It is real life, it is every day, and it is NOT what I seek out in my fiction.

Russell is a great writer - this one-star is not a reflection of her writing. Her character development is also excellent, which makes it that much worse when a character we love, a wonderful man, gets brutally raped over and over and over and over ad nauseam.

They also slaughter and eat infants and children.

No matter how good the writing is I cannot get on board with this. Call it a personal hang-up. If I knew sexual slavery and gang rape were the punchline to this novel, I'd never have read it.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,308 reviews2,191 followers
September 3, 2021
3.5 stars rounded up.

Some reviewers have said that while this is science fiction, it so much more and it is, but nevertheless it was a lot of science fiction for me to handle as one who does not read it routinely or care for it.

I’m glad I hung in there, though, even if it was a little drawn out, because I loved the characters, each one on a journey, both physical and philosophical, about matters of substance - their humanity and morality.

On to something a little lighter .

Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,327 reviews2,146 followers
November 20, 2017
I love when I skim through pages of reviews of a book and they are nearly all either 5 stars or one star. Only a really good book produces that range of opinion! This is a really good book.

The Sparrow is science fiction with class. It is well written, there is a satisfying amount of science fiction and then there is a whole lot more besides. Russell's greatest talent is in characterisation. I enjoyed every single one of the characters in this book and when I had to put it down and do other things I missed them and could not to wait to pick the book up again. I loved the humour in the early days when Emilio and Anne and George first get together and I nearly cried in the later stages several times.

A lot of people comment on the fact that the book is about religion. I suppose it is but not in a way that any particular belief is pushed at the reader. Others find some parts confronting. Again it is just part of the story and the author handles it with great skill.

I see there is a sequel. I will be reading it very soon!
Profile Image for Julie G.
897 reviews2,931 followers
May 26, 2017
Well, dang it.

Dang it!

I was NOT in the mood to give another scathing review of a book, especially not a book that has a near cultish fan following, as this one does.

This is a seriously beloved book (with a 4.17 overall rating).

But, for the first time in my existence on this planet, I'm going to quote Whitesnake:

Here I go again on my own
Goin' down the only road I've ever known
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.
And I've made up my mind, I ain't wasting no more time.

Yep, that's right. I just quoted an 80s band with bad hair, 'cause I'm in my 40s now, people, and "I ain't wasting no more time."

The people who adore this book treat it almost like a coveted lover.

Well, let me tell you, friends, if this had been MY lover. . .

We wouldn't have made it past appetizers.

It took ME, a wicked fast reader, almost 5 days to make it to page 88. Then on that page, there's a brief moment of glory in the plot, and I thought to myself. . . okay, it's going to take off now! Nope. No it didn't.

And, if this type of slow-moving plot and character development is Ms. Russell's version of literary foreplay, I say. . . it's time to tap this lover on the shoulder and tell him, "Let's be done, dear. It's obvious that no one's going to climax today."
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews807 followers
June 26, 2020
“Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” (Matthew 10:29)
“But the sparrow still falls.”
I think the second sentence in the above quote (from page 401) basically says “shit happens”. It does encapsulate the major theme of the novel quite well I think.

The Sparrow is one of those books I hear people raving about and immediately put on my TBR list, where hundreds of books languish, but it won’t stay there quietly as I keep hearing about it almost on a weekly basis. So I have to capitulate or go mad and move it to the top of the pile.

In a nutshell The Sparrow is about a mission organized by the Jesuit order to a planet called Rakhat where a satellite received a transmission of alien music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri.

The novel has a dual timelines narrative structure. In the “present-day” timeline at the beginning of the book, it is revealed that the protagonist Father Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of the mission. He is in very poor shape with grossly mutilated hands and he is on trial for a couple of heinous crimes he allegedly committed on the alien planet. This leads to the flashback timeline where the details and mysteries of the mission gradually unfold.

As with most novels the shorter the synopsis the better I think (plus I hate writing them). Mary Doria Russell certainly plays her cards close to her chest. I was intrigued pretty much from beginning to end and while The Sparrow is not a fast-paced novel it is something of a page-turner. I had no idea the book has a dual timeline and initially, I made the mistake of not paying any attention to the date indicated at the beginning of the chapters and had to backtrack. So I would recommend paying close attention until you are settled into the narrative.
“The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances, is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”
While it is certainly a science fiction novel the emphasis is not on the sci-fi-ness of first contact with aliens, it is more an exploration of faith. Not in a proselytizing sense, Ms. Russell is not badgering the reader to accept God, she is writing about what can happen if you do, what can you reasonably expect to get for your faith. Should you believe that He watches over you 24/7? (She describes this as the belief in God’s micromanagement). Without really spoiling the book I can tell you that some very awful things happen to very good people, including the pious ones.

In spite of the religious theme, the First Contact with aliens aspect is not neglected. The conditions of the planet Rakhat are clearly described and the alien native species is vividly imagined. They are very similar to humans in many ways but extremely alien in many others. The exposition of their biology, culture, cities, etc is just the sort of thing most sci-fi readers would appreciate. It also leads to the secondary theme of the danger of the First Contact, of interfering (even with the best of intentions) in a culture you don’t really understand (but think you do) because of a few similarities to your own.

The seriousness of the main themes is nicely balanced by the infusion of humour throughout the book. The author does have quite a flair for witty bantering dialogue and the prose style is nice and smooth. The characters are very well developed though I would caution you not to become too attached to any of them. My only complaint is the mention of “Van Halen’s arena rock masterpiece, 5150”. Please! That’s Van-Hagar! (if you have no idea what I’m on about just ignore this bit of nonsense).

OK, I am almost done, just a quick look at a quote from Wikipedia:
"Nancy Pearl, a reviewer at Library Journal, felt that this book was mistakenly categorized as science fiction and that it is really "a philosophical novel about the nature of good and evil and what happens when a man tries to do the right thing, for the right reasons and ends up causing incalculable harm."
When a “literati” type finds a sci-fi book that they like they tend to immediately declassify it as “not sci-fi”; aliens, spaceships, futuristic techs etc. notwithstanding of course! Of course The Sparrow is sci-fi, it even says so on the tin. Very good sci-fi it is too (unless you dislike religious themes then this is not for you). The sequel Children of God is very near the top of my TBR.

fancy line
We are having a good discussion about this book at Print SF (on Reddit) if you are interested.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,954 reviews1,292 followers
April 4, 2011
It has been a while since a book made me cry.

The Sparrow begins with a concise prologue, so unassuming that I overlooked its significance. Within this prologue, however, is a reminder, a sort of caveat that hangs over the book:
The Society [of Jesus:] asked leave of no temporal government. It acted on its own principles, with its own assets, on Papal authority. The mission to Rakhat was undertaken not so much secretly as privately—a fine distinction but one that the Society felt no compulsion to explain or justify when the news broke several years later.

The members of the Jesuit Rakhat expedition are amateurs. They are brilliant priests and scientists, to be sure, but none of them are astronauts, and they are amateur anthropologists and diplomats at best. So much of our history of space travel has been dominated by government organizations that sometimes we forget civilians, with the right technology and resources, can venture into space too. The Rakhat expedition is the first of its kind; Emilio's linguistic adventures with remote groups of humans are the closest anyone comes to having first contact experience. The outcome of the expedition is a sobering reminder to those who eagerly await our first visit to an inhabited planet: we're human, so we are probably going to screw it up.

This is a message not of pessimism but of realism. The Sparrow, its religious themes notwithstanding, is overwhelmingly about realism and not denying the facts of the moment. There are two interleaved stories linked by one man, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, although the Emilio from one story seems nothing like the Emilio of the other. In 2060, Emilio is a broken man trying to recover from degrading, dehumanizing trauma. His expedition to Rakhat was twenty years earlier by Earth's count, but thanks to the effects of relativity, it has only been a few months since he was rescued—and though forty-five years passed on Earth while he was gone, he only spent three years on Rakhat. Emilio is the sole survivor of an ill-fated voyage of discovery, a victim of cultural miscommunication and physical assaults, and a prisoner of his guilt and self-pity.

After the disappointing anti-linear narrative that was Time's Arrow , MDR's use of flashbacks is a nice reassurance that non-linear storytelling still works. Moreover, MDR's attempt to use foreshadowing and dramatic irony to create suspense works where Martin Amis' fails miserably. The Sparrow begins in 2060, with Emilio rescued and returned to Earth. He is incoherent and inconsolable, but the reports from the rescue team include scandalous, horrifying facts: they found him in the equivalent of a brothel, and he killed the child who guided them to him. The Emilio Sandoz of 2019, the dreamer, the community activist, is not capable of such actions. How does he become the broken man we meet at the beginning of the book? Every moment spent on the story of the expedition is tainted by the knowledge that everyone except Emilio dies, knowledge made all the more tragic by MDR's great characterization of Jimmy Quinn, Sofia Mendes, and Anne and George Edwards.

I didn't expect to fall for the love triangle between Jimmy, Sofia, and Emilio. I groaned at first, worried that this subplot might derail parts of the larger story. If anything, the love triangle had the reverse effect, for it added another dimension to Emilio's struggle with his faith in God. He goes to Rakhat because he knows that, somehow, he has spent his whole life preparing for this mission. And until now, his vow of celibacy has never troubled him, unlike some priests. But he never really confronts the issue until they arrive on Rakhat. He acknowledges the attraction is there, which is better than an outright denial, but he does not confront his feelings. As a result of their proximity on Rakhat, however, he can no longer ignore the budding romance between Jimmy and Sofia, and Emilio realizes he must make a choice. He does not seem to find this choice difficult, but it is telling. Emilio is a man of God. Despite his threats during his recovery to leave the Society, he has always placed his faith in having a purpose as revealed to him by a higher power. This philosophy gives him strength—and so when it fails him, it is all the more devastating.

This juxtaposition of religion and exploration fascinates me. MDR draws explicit comparisons to other missionary activities where priests have met resistance, torture, even death. This is slightly different, however, because any remote tribe of human beings is still a group of humans. There is still, at some level, a basic shared frame of reference. The Runa and Jana'ata, in contrast, are literally alien beings. In her depiction of them, MDR brings to bear her education in her cultural and biological anthropology, much to her credit. The predator-prey social hierarchy of the Jana'ata and Runa, respectively, along with the strict population controls is a depiction both alien yet easily comprehensible. The Rakhatians are not as terrifyingly different as, say, the Oankali from Lilith's Brood , yet they are no less dangerous. If anything, their moments of human-like reactions disarms the expedition. It becomes all too easy to forget that a person like Supaari is not merely a merchant of a foreign land. He is a predator, one with different rules. The Runa and Jana'ata both share some traits in common with humans, but they are not human.

It's this discrepancy, and his failure to keep it in mind, that threatens Emilio's faith. From the beginning, the Rakhat expedition feels like it is blessed. First there is the miracle of detecting the radio transmissions and realizing what they are. Then the Society confirms Emilio's choice of his friends as members of the expedition—even Anne, stubborn and reticent, eventually decides to go. They find an appropriate asteroid and make the journey to Alpha Centauri without issue. The planet's atmosphere and vegetation are hospitable; D.W. and Alan Pace's health problems aside, the expedition members live comfortably on Rakhat for several years. (The lack of explanation behind D.W. and Alan Pace's issues bothered me, because everything else in The Sparrow is so meticulous and pertinent to the plot.) The Runa are amiable hosts; even Supaari's overtures are promising. After so much good fortune, everything goes bad at once. D.W. and Anne die; then Jimmy, Sofia, and George; and finally Marc. The Jana'ata crack down on the Runa village where the expedition has been staying, and Marc and Emilio become dependent upon the good will of Supaari. But Supaari has always wanted only one thing from these foreigners: the status necessary to earn breeding rights. He uses Emilio as a bribe, and Emilio changes hands, becoming a sexual plaything and curiosity of the Jana'ata elite.

And the question Emilio asks is the foundation of theodicy: why? Why has God forsaken him? The answer, if you can call it an answer, is the same as most theodicies—free will, etc. But The Sparrow is not a work of theodicy, at least not on a broad, philosophical level. It is instead one man's attempt at theodicy, but an emotional one grounded in his need to recover from a trauma I can't adequately imagine. Watching MDR break down Emilio is a harrowing, slightly pornographic experience. Setting this tragedy against the backdrop of all the optimism and exuberance of first contact and exploration adds another perspective, transforming a single person's tragedy into a human tragedy on a grander scale. Although not emphasized much, it is clear that the actions of the first Rakhat expedition have upset the balance of power on Rakhat, with the Runa rising up against the Jana'ata. Once again, a human civilization has touched another civilization and brought ruination.

It sounds rather dark, doesn't it? Truthfully, The Sparrow is a dark tale. But in such tales, particularly set against the challenges and differences provided by science fiction, we often find the most human of stories. There is loss, chance for redemption, always the struggle to survive, to understand, and to grow. The Sparrow is tragedy, is triumph, is many other things—but they do not start with "tr," so mentioning them would spoil the alliteration. I still maintain, however, that the atmosphere of The Sparrow is not pessimistic, just realistic. Mary Doria Russell sends Jesuits and scientists into space, fallible human beings without much experience in alien contact. There are mistakes—terrible mistakes—but she never takes the easy way out by laying blame upon a single group. The Jesuits aren't evil missionaries; the scientists aren't calculating, inhuman explorers; the Jana'ata aren't heartless predators. With a complex plot and characters to match, The Sparrow reminds us that things will go wrong, and it isn't the mistakes you've made that matter but the ones you avoid by learning better.

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Profile Image for Kevin Kuhn.
Author 2 books585 followers
November 28, 2022
A vastly different first contact novel, Russell’s book is intelligent, feminine, and moving. While other first contact novels might focus on technology, science, and action, Russell focuses on relationships, religion, and inner conflict. It’s a graceful examination of faith, the search for God and the attempt to understand a God who allows tragedy. It’s also an adept science fiction tale, tackling interstellar travel, time dilation, and a fully realized and original alien culture.

The plot follows Father Emilio Sandoz a Jesuit priest, who we learn in Chapter one, is the sole survivor of a manned mission to an inhabited planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. The story carefully alternates between three timeframes, before the mission, the aftermath of Sandoz’s return to Earth, and the first contact itself. Russell slowly exposes bits and pieces of the first contact, creating intrigue and anticipation, until it’s fully revealed in the final third.

In the first third of the novel, Mary Doria Russell’s writing exhibits a strong grasp of religion, European culture, and history. There is so much character backstory, she almost lost me. However, the quality of the writing and the hints of interplanetary exploration pulled me through. Ultimately, the intricate investment in character development pays off.

Without revealing too much, I’ll say that the first contact portion was imaginative and unique. Russell considers aspects of alien culture rarely addressed, such as their commerce, music, and multiple languages, but more importantly their relationships and social structures. While there’s enough similarities to humanity to mirror our own failings; the planet, its ecosystem, and its intelligent inhabitants feel genuinely alien. I'll also drop a warning that the conclusion includes some violent and horrific events that are not for the faint of heart.

A tragic and powerful tale of exploration, of both interstellar first contact and the internal search for meaning.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,105 followers
July 5, 2018
Let me be a bit real here. I was a bit anxious about reading this because it seemed to be yet another Jesuit first contact novel including aliens.

Now, let me be clear. I actually like religious ruminations when I'm in the right mood and when it's done well and when the context is backed up with solid world-building, whether local or extra-solar. Blish did it extremely well with his Jesuits and aliens. I was simply worried that this would be more of the same. Meaning of life and faith for the poor unsaved brothers from other systems kind of thing.

But actually, what I received was a prototypical near-LitSF that was erudite, humorous, full of likable and complex characters, and a full-blown excellent novel in structure, prose, and thriller-type twists.

And yes, there is also a lot about aliens, tragedy, loss of faith, and especially rape.

We know it's a tragedy before we even really begin. There are two timelines. Before. And after. The nearly saintly linguist-priest Emilio is the sole survivor of an 8-person mission to Alpha Centauri after a musical message gets decoded, luckily, by peeps bankrolled by the Vatican. He comes back mutilated, completely out of faith, calling himself the Whore of God (as in a reference to Beloved being the highest title in a harem), and who keeps everyone around him ignorant of the details.

We must learn about it the long way. But in the meantime, we're treated to present and past as others attempt to heal him and get him to talk and we're delighted by how fresh and funny and faithful he is early on.

The science bits aren't bad and Russell does a lot to keep it real, glossing over a few little issues such as power sources and stuff, but this isn't nearly as bad as some more recent LitSF titles I've read. This is actual SF with a deep and complex storyline about faith and tragedy and a really nasty surprise about the aliens. All three are intertwined.

No spoilers, but my god the end is pretty horrible. We're given a lot of great characters and characterizations, so losing them this way, and then seeing what Emilio had to go through, was damn rough.

A sparrow falling in the wood, but yet, the Father sees all, indeed.

My initial reservations were unfounded. Both atheists and the faithful can find wonderful things in here. Indeed, it's meant to be challenging as hell. And it is.

As for being a new-modern-classic for SF, I can definitely see it. Most of these other LitSF titles are lightweights in comparison.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,864 followers
November 17, 2013
I wonder how it feels to be one of the thirty-one agents who rejected The Sparrow?

Oh, but I shouldn’t be so hard on hapless agents unable to recognize genius or unwilling to take a risk. It took me many years (seventeen from its date of publication, five from when I became aware of it) to pick up Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel. And four days to devour it.

The threaded narrative is split in two by time and space, but follows the story of one man: Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico with preternatural linguistic abilities. In 2022, Emilio and seven other crew members board the Stella Maris to explore the recently-discovered planet Rakhat. In 2059, Emilio returns from the mission alone, physically and psychologically broken. Although nearly forty years have passed on Earth since the doomed crew embarked on their voyage, Emilio—who travelled at light speed—is fresh from the horror. Not even three years have passed in his life since the Stella Maris's departure. The story of what happened to the crew had been relayed by another mission that followed a few years behind the Stella Maris. It is horrific—or we suppose it must be— for Russell raises the tension ante by shifting back to the recent future, keeping her hand on the release valve of the truth as the storylines gradually merge. Whatever happened, Emilio isn’t telling. His hands have been mutilated, he suffers debilitating migraines, and he refuses to defend himself against terrible accusations. The Father General of the Society of Jesus, Vincenzo Guiliani, gives Emilio two months at a retreat outside Naples to heal, then the questioning will begin.

Journey is a core theme of The Sparrow and the characters undertake many. The literal journey from Earth to a distant planet is the heart of the novel’s gripping premise, but the internal journeys make it fascinating and heartbreaking. There are journeys of faith, love, marriage, and ageing; journeys that test physical limits and break the spirit. The spiritual journeys resonate and Russell’s masterful plotting enthralls.

I’ve been thinking hard about this in the days since I finished The Sparrow and I struggle to come up with more than a few titles of books that have been as holistic a reading experience, in which my every literary need and desire have been so exquisitely satisfied. I managed White Dog Fell From the Sky, Eleanor Morse, Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, Atonement, Ian McEwan, Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, and A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth. An eclectic mix, to be sure, but what they have in common is riveting story, characters who get under your skin, a scope awesome in size-either in research or world-building (or both) yet with deeply personal themes, and gorgeous but accessible prose. Each of these books changed me not just as a reader, but as a person. I add The Sparrow to this estimable collection.

Although I could have appreciated The Sparrow many years ago, I wonder if it would have touched me in the same way. The story caught me at a juncture of my own spiritual journey: the road that led me far from religion has crested a rise and I can see past the morass of dogma to the more orderly pursuit of theology. I am left with an inexplicable sense of beauty and hope and a renewed determination to continue my quest.

After forgoing The Sparrow for so long, why now? Well, that’s an easy one. I was gobsmacked by Mary Doria Russell’s most recent novel, Doc (review linked). If I could be this rapturous about a “western,” I was willing to follow her into science fiction. After The Sparrow, I’d follow her anywhere.

Just a sidebar about genre. I understand it’s in our genetic code to sort and classify. But it’s a damn shame to pigeonhole literary fiction with nugatory genres. How many times have I heard “Oh, I don’t really like westerns” as I’ve waxed enthusiastic about Doc in recent weeks (after moaning and groaning myself before digging into this book club pick)? More’s the pity. Ditto The Sparrow—often categorized as science fiction. I resolve henceforth to ignore simplistic classifications and explore a book based on the quality of its storytelling and prose, rather than knee-jerk a rejection because a novel is set in Dodge City, KS or on Planet Rakhat. End of soapbox. Continuation of reading bliss.
Profile Image for Dana Stabenow.
Author 99 books1,954 followers
February 22, 2022
I really loathed this book, I think because it was such a lazy piece of work. The characters had absolutely no clue, no situational awareness of what was going on around them. A real astronaut, hell, Captain Picard himself would never have made the bonehead moves these characters make in a first contact situation, and then--then! to have one of them kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery? Are you KIDDING me? Any scientist, no, make that anyone who made it through freshman biology could have told Russell that it is a mathematical impossibility that two species that evolved separately on planets lightyears apart would never be able to physically copulate, let alone rape for pleasure. This was sheer sensationalism, designed specifically to appeal to the voyeur in us all.

I really loathed this book. Having said that (again) she knows how to write, and perhaps will be able to construct a convincing narrative on another topic. But she should definitely stay away from sf. At least until she's seen a couple of episodes of "Star Trek."
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Will Chin.
545 reviews24 followers
February 18, 2016
The scientists are idiots, and here are the reasons why:

1. They went in search of an alien civilisation by — literally — flying in the general direction of Alpha Centauri. They figured out the exact location along the way.
2. They arrived at the alien planet, THEN attempted to figure out where to land their spacecraft. Imagine if NASA had done that for the moon landing in the 1960s.
3. They tested the edibility of alien vegetation and wildlife by EATING said alien vegetation and wildlife.
4. When someone died from the alien diet, our scientists couldn't quite figure out why.
5. They weren't able to return to their spaceship in orbit because someone literally used up the fuel in the lander just to show off to the leader of the team.
6. They didn't have a clue what to do upon meeting the aliens for the very first time. No SOPs, nothing.
7. They emerged out of the lander for the very first time, on an alien planet, without spacesuits.
8. They disregarded the possibility of contaminating the aliens with pathogens.
9. They disregarded the possibility of being INFECTED by alien pathogens.
10. They spent six weeks on an alien planet before one of them said, hey, maybe we should start planting our own food — YOU THINK?
11. They plant human food on an alien planet and disregarded the possibility of destroying the local ecosystem.
12. They had no way to maintain radio contact with Earth, and shrugged it off because "everyone they loved was on the planet with them".

Most of the characters end up dead by the hands of the locals. This is not a spoiler.

They deserved to die, anyway. God damn idiots, all of them.

These 'scientists' are the dumbest characters in all of science fiction literature.
Profile Image for Tom Mathews.
688 reviews
June 22, 2016
The most difficult thing about reading Mary Doria Russell’s books is just starting them. If you don’t like war stories you aren’t going to want to read A Thread of Grace. If you don’t like westerns, you’ll be tempted to avoid Doc or Epitaph. And if you are not big on science fiction, the descriptions of The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, aren’t going to get you excited. That’s where I was when a coworker first recommend it almost ten years ago. She described it as a story about a first contact space mission financed by Jesuits. My response was something along the lines of “Oookayy, what else has she written?” I read and enjoyed A Thread of Grace but continued to put off reading Sparrow. Finally, eight years later, I picked up a copy and started reading it. Within a day I was thumping myself on the forehead asking how I could possibly have put off this excellent book for so long.

Bottom line: Sparrow is the best book I have read in the last decade, if not longer. It has a wonderful cast of characters and deals with a wide variety of subjects with intelligence, grace and humor. These subjects include faith, anthropology, sociology, grief, guilt, one's sense of duty, and people’s responses to trauma. Remember, I told you that it is difficult to describe this book and make it should appealing but everyone I know who has given it a try has been very impressed. There is no book that I would recommend over this one. Read it.
Profile Image for Paul Weiss.
1,252 reviews236 followers
September 14, 2022
Extremely thought provoking ...

In THE SPARROW, Mary Doria Russell has crafted a unique story in which an early 21st century SETI listening station in Puerto Rico has finally recorded proof of the existence of technologically advanced extraterrestrial life that scientists had so long been convinced was out there. But much to the world's shock, the radio waves emanating from a planet in the Alpha Centauri system are not in the expected format of mathematics or universally understood physics. Instead the world has been treated to a unique and sublime form of vocal "new age" music unlike anything our world's composers had ever conceived.

While world governments and the UN dither over an appropriate response, the Vatican and the Society of Jesus take it upon themselves to launch a manned first contact mission including Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest with breathtaking linguistic abilities, an astronomer, a doctor and her husband, and a skilled computer programmer and free-thinking planner.

When Sandoz returns as the mission's sole survivor forty relativistically dilated years later, the mission de-briefing by his Jesuit superiors reveals not one, but two intelligent species, the Runa and Jana'ata, that have evolved a unique symbiotic co-existence on the planet Rakhat. Sandoz's story is a heart-breaking series of inter-woven tales - the almost insurmountable cultural and linguistic hurdles that would need to be cleared to comprehend and communicate with a sentient extra-terrestrial species; a devout priest's questioning his commitment to his God and to his vocation; and the examination of a world so thought-provokingly different that a thinking reader is forced to consider the very meaning of his own humanity.

If you enjoy soft science fiction that uses the genre to probe and question deep philosophical, cultural and anthropological issues, if you enjoyed the likes of Ursula K Le Guin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS or Isaac Asimov's THE GODS THEMSELVES, then you will enjoy THE SPARROW.

Highly recommended

Paul Weiss
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11.2k followers
April 5, 2010
6.0 stars. This book was beautifully written and the best way I can think to describe it is emotionally devastating (but in a good way). Nominally, it is a book about "first contact" with an alien race but the heart of the story is the age old question, "How can someone believe in a just, loving God when such horrible things happen to good people?"

It has been over a year since I have read this book (in fact I just finished the sequel, Children of God), and I can still remember feeling blown away by the description of the "ordeal" of Emilio Sandoz which is central to the story. Highest Possible Recommendation !!!!

Winner: Arthur C. Clarke Award Best SF Novel
Winner: British SF Award Best Novel
Winner: Campbell Award Best New Writer
Winner: James Tiptree Award
Nominee: Locus Award Best First Novel
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book564 followers
April 6, 2019
Sometimes we are surprised and taken aback by a novel. Even when we have been told to expect something marvelous, we cannot be prepared for the depths to which it will take us and return us again. Such a one is The Sparrow. Mary Doria Russell tackles the hard questions, the cosmic questions, the ones that have tortured man since his inception. She presents us with Job, Cain, and Christ, and without ever flinching from the moral dilemma that is man’s lot, she presents them to us without imposing her own views upon us. She never pretends to have all the answers and she paints characters who realize they do not have them either, but find them worth searching for.

I have allowed this book to languish on my bookshelf for years because I am not a fan of fantasy or sci-fi. I had been told it was more than that, but I could never convince myself to put aside the prejudice and just begin the journey. My loss. Whatever you may think of these genres in general, believe me when I say this book transcends that narrow of a classification and opens up vistas as broad as the space in which these people travel.

This book about a trip into space is oddly not fantastic or unbelievable. And, this book about a Jesuit priest, and God himself, is oddly not religious. Or, only religious in the sense that it is about something larger than life, larger than our lives.

Emilio Sandoz is a brilliant protagonist. He makes you smile, cry, praise and curse creation. You know there is sorrow ahead of you, because the opening chapters reveal enough to tell you that, but the why and how are so important, the characters so rich, that the sorrow still hits you like a sledge-hammer slammed into your chest.

Russell is a masterful storyteller and weaver of language. The questions she raises are not new to you, but within the context of her story you find that they are the most important questions you have ever encountered. For what can be more elemental than understanding God and man? If you can understand God, perhaps you could understand yourself, or vise versa.

How many of us have witnessed, or even endured this:
Edward Behr had seen this kind of thing before--the body punished for what the soul could not encompass. Sometimes it was headache, as with Emilio. Sometimes excruciating back pain, or chronic stomach trouble. You saw it in alcoholics, often, drinking to dull the sensitivity, to mute the hurt. So many people buried the soul’s pain in their bodies, Edward thought. Even priests who, one would have thought, might have known better.

Or this:

She waited to see if he had more but when he fell silent, she decided to take a shot in the dark. “You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting that you’re in love?” she asked him. “You are just naked. You put yourself in harm’s way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you.”

So, what makes this book a cut above, for me, is that Russell understands her subject so well. She sees into the soul of each of us and digs up the pieces that we share in common, the ones we try to hide because we are afraid to show them. She takes what is so basically human and then she elevates it to another plane and makes it a greater love and a greater search...a search for something greater...a search for God himself.

”It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne’s last night and to receive no plain answers,” he said. “Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts. We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.”
Emilio’s head came up and he looked at Marc, his face very still. Marc noted this and smiled, but continued. “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps someday we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”

I could go on for some time, picking quotes and expounding on all the things this novel dredged to the surface for me. But, alas, this review is already too long and cumbersome. My advice, indeed my plea, is read this one for yourself. Russell is inviting you to form your own opinion.
Profile Image for Simon Fay.
Author 4 books154 followers
February 4, 2021
In science fiction, space exploration is usually spearheaded by intellectuals, the military, mega-corporations, and even the average joes of our near future.

With The Sparrow, Mary Russell goes a unique direction by taking inspiration from the explorers of times past – The Catholic Church. It’s a concept with some hefty potential. The early parts of the book lean heavily on it to create a sense of wonder and dread. As a wannabe history buff, I was titillated by the idea of taking a religious organisation as anachronistic as the Catholic Church and launching them to an alien planet on a mission to spread the word of God.

Sadly, I was disappointed to find that the potential was squandered.

Many pages are dedicated to the relationship between spiritualism and celibacy. A little bit of time is spent mulling over the credentials of what makes a saint. There are also some enjoyable sections that draw back the curtain on the inner workings of Church bureaucracy. Overall though, the religious element to the story wouldn’t have lost much by making the missionaries any other form of Christianity.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the banter between the characters. A great amount of the story is spent establishing the landscape of their intimacies and personal history, so I found myself wanting to speed through it just so that I could get to the meat of the piece – That moment, I was sure, when the existential certainty of the Catholics would be warped by the completely alien outlook of another intelligent species.

The book almost tackled the prospect. The alien language that our protagonists learn utilises nouns that define objects as either present or abstract. It seemed to me that there was an entire novel of possibilities in the idea of a Catholic missionary introducing the concept of the Holy Trinity to a species who view the universe in such a way, but the moment was quickly brushed aside and forgotten in favour of describing the inner struggle of man who is close to sainthood.

All told, there are deaths, a genocide and a series of tragic misunderstandings. The terrible events challenge the priests, and the reader, to see through it all and find the love of God. Strange as it sounds, I don’t think we needed to travel to an alien planet to face that trial. It could have been written about anything that’s happening on Earth today, so the science fiction elements of The Sparrow were reduced to a form of nicely designed set dressing.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,301 reviews450 followers
November 24, 2019
4.5 stars

Some day I will surely learn not to judge a book by its genre. When it comes to science fiction, I have a tendency to give it a pass. I want to like it, and have in fact read a few that I liked, but I'm generally lost from the beginning and give up, or finish til the end and still have no idea what I just read. Lest you sci-fi fans out there judge me harshly, let me just say that I consider sci-fi readers to have very high IQ's, else how could they understand what's going on? All this to explain why it's taken me so long to get around to reading this book, even though a lot of trusted friends have recommended it, even though I've read other books by Russell that I liked, even though it appears on a lot of must-read lists. That sci-fi label defeated my best intentions.

So this time I read it with a GR friend. Sometimes it helps to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and a sense of responsibility to finish. So now I've read it. Everyone was right, it's a great book, the science involved is not technical, there's a lot about morality and religion and the human condition, even among aliens, so many wonderful characters, some of them quite funny, a lot of quotable lines, and a riveting story. There was a lot to love about The Sparrow, but I can't quite get to 5 stars because of the length. It dragged in a few places, and I won't re-read it, but I will read the sequel, so that counts for an extra 1/2 star.

Favorite lines:
"Son, sometimes it's enough just to act less like a shithead. And by that kindly if inelegant standard, Emilio Sandoz could believe himself to be a man of God".

" You know what? I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they're religious".

"Genius may have its limits but stupidity is not thus handicapped".

" Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine', Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it."
" But the sparrow still falls, Felipe said. "

Indeed. The Sparrow still falls.
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