Reviewed by Carl Cipra
By Mary Doria Russell
Rating: none given
Rob has been recommending that I read The
Sparrow for quite some time now. He finally talked me
into picking up a copy (Fawcett, trade paperback) in the dealers’
room at Philcon last year; and I added it to the stack of books
I took to read while visiting my family over the Christmas/New Year’s
holidays. Wow! What a powerful, thought-provoking book!
I wish I’d read it earlier! Rob already beat me to the punch
and reviewed it in the Nov. ’97 LSF newsletter; but I just couldn’t
resist putting in a few additional comments myself.
The Sparrow is, at first glance,
a “first contact” story. It tells the story of a mission to
Alpha Centauri planned and sponsored by the Jesuits in the year
2021 - and of its disasterous results. The story is told in
two “tracks” that trade off every chapter or so. One “track”
tells the story of the discovery of alien radio signals in 2019
by a researcher at Arecibo, followed by the planning of the mission
to Alpha Centauri and the account of the mission itself. The
second “track” follows the rehabilitation and de-briefing in Rome
in 2059/2060 of Father Emilio Sandoz, the disgraced and horribly
injured sole survivor of the mission. The two “tracks” converge
as the novel progresses, gradually revealing to the reader how a
mission that started out with so much promise ended up so disasterously.
Throughout the novel, Ms. Russell demonstrates a marvelous ability
to believably “build” the world of Rakhat: linguistics, culture,
society, biology - all woven together into a fascinating whole.
Behind the “first contact” story, however, is a deeply moving examination
of such topics as celibacy, martyrdom, sainthood, personal faith,
Divine Will, and the role of God in the world. (The novel’s
title, in fact, is derived from the provocative Biblical verse about
God and the falling sparrow - Matthew 10:29.) I found Father
Sandoz’s crisis of faith easily as disturbing as the descriptions
of his physical deprivations.
As I read The Sparrow, I was inescapably
reminded of another book I’d read some years ago: Black
Robe, by Brian Moore. Moore’s novel recounts the appalling
experiences of Jesuit missionaries among the Iroquois, Hurons, and
Algonquins in 17th-century North America. Although The
Sparrow is in no way a simple “science-fictionalization” of
Black Robe, Russell consciously sets out to explore many
of the same kinds of “first contact” experiences and consequences
that Moore depicts in Black Robe; but Russell explores them
in the light of a more “modern” era, an era supposedly benefitting
from over two centuries of scientific advances.
I was very pleased with Russell’s handling
of the gay content in the story. One of the members of the
expedition to Rakhat turns out to be gay (certainly not the one
I expected!); and the interactions between him and the other characters
are handled sensitively and believably. Beyond this, however,
The Sparrow effectively explores another concept of abiding
interest to the les/bi/gay community - the concept of “family” as
more than just a biological unit. The Jesuit-sponsored expedition
is, after all, mostly composed of adults who are not related to
each other and who have no close biological relatives back on Earth.
(Even the older married couple - a medical doctor and her engineer
husband - are childless.) Over the course of the years-long
voyage, they become a close-knit, caring “family” (which makes the
expedition’s tragic failure all the more tragic).
At the end of this edition of The Sparrow,
there’s “A Reader’s Guide” which contains an interview with the
author and which offers some fascinating insights into the novel
and its creation. I definitely recommend that you hold off
on turning to the “Guide” until you’re done reading the novel itself;
it contains some “spoilers” that could lessen the impact of Russell’s
Russell’s “successor” novel, Children
of God, is now on the bookstands. It’s already jumped
to the head of my reading list! I was very happy to see that
Rob says she’s managed to sustain what she started in The Sparrow.