The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars.
Series: The Sparrow (Book 1 of 2)
Genre: Science fiction, literary fiction
Published: 20th anniversary edition, 2016 by Ballantine Books (first published in 1996)
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”
“But the sparrow still falls.”
The Sparrow is a multi-award-winning science fiction novel about first contact. After reading it, I could understand why. I came across this title over two separate occasions. First was when a friend recommended it to me many years ago, but I’ve forgotten about it. And then it was mentioned in the Great Course audiobook for How Great Science Fiction Works, which I’ve recently finished, under the sub-topic of ‘Religion in Science Fiction’. The context in which The Sparrow was discussed in that Course finally tipped me over to pick it up.
The Sparrow was predominantly a story about a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz over two timelines. One was when the SETI Programme at Arecibo picked up signals from the Alpha Centauri region of space in the form of music and singing. A secret space expedition led by Jesuit priests was sent forth to locate the source of these signals, which turned out to be a planet called Rakhat. The second timeline was about 40 years later, when Emilio Sandoz, a linguist, was recovered back to Earth as the sole survivor of the expedition and had to undergo inquisition as to what really happened on Rakhat. At first glance, this may seem confusing. However, I found the narrative flow between the past and current timeline to work really well. The past timeline introduced us to the characters who were part of the space expedition. It took almost a quarter of the book before the signal was discovered. Thus, building upon the characters, first and foremost. At this juncture, the current narrative mainly showed Father Sandoz suffering extreme trauma of what happened on Rakhat, and finding it immensely difficult to cooperate with the inquisition.
The narrative was wholly engaging from two key points. One, it is highly character-driven for the reader to know and understand the different individuals on the space expedition – their contribution or value to the mission, and most importantly, how much they mean to each other. Sandoz got the most character development out of them all, for obvious reasons; to truly understand the extent of the horrors of what he endured. To say that I greatly sympathise with him seemed an understatement. Sandoz’s characterisation, his backstory, and how he developed his faith in and love for God, is very significant in establishing why he is suffering so terribly now. Besides him, I also found most of the other characters to be well-written and likeable. The more I got to know them, the sadder I was with the knowledge that none but Sandoz survived.
The second point was how the storytelling kept by my curiosity piqued throughout the novel. Part of Sandoz’s suffering does manifest physically, and I needed to know what it was and why. The current timeline also reported a heinous crime committed by Sandoz which was contradictory to his character that it begged to be explained. The pacing was by no means brisk but I found myself enjoying the experience of reading this thought-provoking book. That the author is an anthropologist comes across quite clearly in the narrative. In her own words, her key interest in writing The Sparrow was “not to highlight technological changes and differences, but continuity across vast swaths of time and the commonalities that unite us – hence, the centrality of both music and religion in my story.” However, let me forewarn any readers who may pick up this book with the idea of getting a wonderfully moving story about beautiful music across the stars, etc. While the music may be one of the central themes, it did not feature heavily in the narrative. Even more crucially, the revelation about the source of music from this planet was frightful. Beauty, after all, lies in the eyes of the beholder. And in this case, the beholders are entirely alien and foreign to humanity.
The more apparent central theme of religion was superbly developed, particularly on the fundamental question of existence. Again, I’ll let the author’s own words from the Afterword speak for itself.
“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.”
This much-disdained genre amongst the literary circles has so much more to offer aside from space operas and cyberpunk fiction (which I also love). With excellent novels like The Sparrow, I’m learning to appreciate the layered subtleties of great science fiction writing better.