November 22nd, 2007


Recent Reading - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I just read this for my book club. It's about 10 years old and got a lot of attention at the time it was written, apparently. According to the cover, the New York Times Book Review called it "a startling, engrossing and moral work of fiction." First I'll do a brief review without spoilers beyond what you'd know from reading a jacket blurb. Then I have some detailed quibbles with spoilers, behind the cut.

The Sparrow is a science fiction novel of the First Contact genre, with an interesting twist: in this case the mission to a new planet and the first contact with aliens is conducted by the Society of Jesus. I've always been interested in the Jesuits, so that element grabbed me right away. The central figure is a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz. The only survivor of the Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, he comes back physically, spiritually, and emotionally broken. He is also accused of terrible crimes while on Rakhat and his order intends to have hearings to determine his guilt or innocence as soon as he is well enough to cooperate with his defense.

The novel is told in several time sequences. The "present day" segments are in the year 2060, after Emilio's return. They alternate with the beginning of the story, when the planet Rakhat is first found to be inhabited by sentient beings, in 2019. In addition, there are flashback scenes in which you learn about the pasts of many of the characters. Russell uses the back-and-forth time sequencing technique very well. As readers we know that the mission ends in disaster, and that knowledge gives poignancy to a lot of the hopes and dreams of those going on the mission.

The mission consists almost entirely of Emilio and his friends. An unlikely bunch, they include: a priest who is also a PhD linguist with an almost superhuman ability to acquire new languages (Emilio himself), an anthropologist-cum-ER-doc-cum-expert-cook, an engineer, an astronomer, an AI programmer, and a fighter-pilot-cum-priest. That almost all the skills necessary for this mission are present in this one social circle leads Emilio to believe that the mission is divinely inspired. As things go terribly wrong, the effects of the mission on Emilio's belief system are much of the novel's emotional and spiritual content.

I quite liked the book. I found it moved well and I really wanted to know what happens next. The characters are all kind of types, to some extent, but Emilio himself seems to rise above that and feel like a fully realized individual. And he was one I cared about and wanted to see end up whole.

There were a number of things in the book, though, that I did not find credible. For those who've read it and are interested, I've put some of them behind the cut.

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That is a long list of plot points and devices I didn't find credible! Still, I really did enjoy the book and didn't find that those elements ruined it for me. Part of my brain was saying "Well that would never happen" when I got to those bits, but most of it was saying "Yeah, but what happens next?" I found the ending quite satisfying and somewhat uplifting, and at the same time I'm interested in reading the sequel. So I guess it's fair to say I found The Sparrow a good read.