The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

thesparrowAt first, they simply listened to the fragment of music over and over, each time groaning as the signal fell off to static just as the music began to build to something wonderful. Then, after the third hearing, Anne said, “Okay. What can we tell about them? They sing in groups, and there is a lead singer. So they have a social organization. Can we assume they breathe air because their music can be heard like this?”
“We can assume they have some kind of atmosphere that propagates sound waves,” George said, “but not necessarily anything we could breathe.”

Jimmy is a young astronomy student when he makes the discovery of a lifetime — a musical signal coming from a planet orbiting the nearby star Alpha Centauri, proof that alien life exists only a few light years away. Sharing his discovery with his closest friends, including Jesuit priest Father Emilio Sandoz, a madcap plan develops — the Jesuits will secretly fund a mission to this planet, named Rakhat, and Jimmy and his friends will make the first contact.

Forty years later, Sandoz has returned, the only surviving member of the original mission. He is broken both mentally and physically: his hands have been severely maimed, and his is suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. A garbled (and unflattering) version of what happened to him has reached earth, and so he is a controversial figure, and the Jesuit community must try to heal him and persuade him to tell them his story.

Once I got over the absurd premise of Jesuits funding a secret space mission and sending a bunch of people who happened to be at the same cocktail party, there were some things I really liked about this book. Sandoz is a linguist, and the linguistic and anthropological details of the party’s encounter with the two species of aliens were really well thought through. Having the aliens be discovered through music, and the eventual reveal of what the music really is, was also a nice touch. The descriptions of the planet Rakhat were really beautiful, and I appreciated the contrast between the visual paradise, and the growing sense of unease when things starts to go wrong for the mission.

I also really enjoyed the interplay of the scientific with the religious, as Sandoz believes the mission is blessed by God, and is motivated by the realisation that as he meets these aliens, they are God’s children too. Once he returns, the discussions between him and the other Jesuits about how to keep faith in the face of overwhelming despair are really moving. In general, there was a lot more philosophical and theological discussion here than in the majority of science fiction, and I thought the book was richer for it.

That said, I did have a couple of issues with this book. Firstly, apart from Sandoz, I really didn’t like any of the characters. For example, they spend the journey to Rakhat goofing around and telling dirty jokes, which was perhaps meant to make them all relatable, but was actually just annoying. And (without giving anything away) I felt really let down by the ending to the mission part of the story, which seemed to happen rather quickly, and the big reveal here was a bit of a letdown.

However, I can see why this book is a classic, and if you appreciate a solid helping of philosophy with your science fiction, and don’t mind an implausible setup to get you there, I think you would enjoy this.

The Sparrow is available from Amazon.

7 thoughts on “The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

  1. I loved this book, but haven’t revisited it in a long time. I suspect I’ll respond to it very differently now as my tastes have changed significantly, but your review gives me reassurance that I won’t find suck fairy dust all over it :)

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    1. That’s a really good point, and you’re right, not liking the characters doesn’t make a book bad. In this case, though, I didn’t feel like I was being presented with flawed characters to accept, warts and all, I felt I was supposed to like them and when I didn’t, it felt very alienating (like when you’re on the outside of a clique), and so affected my enjoyment of the book.

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      1. Yes, but that is SF’s strength — you are presented with different people doing different things, good, bad, etc and all the friction that results takes us from our world and places us on another…. I would be bored if every character felt like some extension of my being…

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      2. That’s true, but then there’s quite a large gap between ‘this character is exactly like me’ and ‘I cannot relate to this character at all, despite feeling like the author wants me to’. Of course it’s possible that I was supposed to have this sense of alienation, but then that takes something away from the emotional stakes later on. I realise I’m ascribing a lot to author intent here, though!

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      3. Authorial intent is real! haha, for someone who is in control of her narrative, as Russell is, you can do that! Some hack author, probably not… In that case perhaps editorial intent is the better word ;)

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      4. I have found that what we want in a character can be some idealized person of ourselves — when, in reality, how we might appear to others is quite different. So, if we’re presented with less than idealized characters, we are filled with terror! Characters are supposed to make us uncomfortable, if they don’t, they aren’t really doing their job — as in, a lens of their society through which to view ours. We live in an uncomfortable world!

        (and yes, I am completely departing from the Russell novel under consideration, my apologies).

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