Book Review: “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell

I apologize if the blog’s been rather repetitive this past few weeks.  I promise, I’ve been doing more than just managing the football pool and watching Glee.  You can expect some belated evidence of my other activities coming this week.

First up, a book review.  After the taxing colonial non-fiction, I decided to pick up something more imaginative.  The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, was an excellent read.  It was some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a while; yet I would not hesitate to say that this is a piece for readers of all stripes.  Russell takes on one of sci-fi’s oldest premises–first contact with alien life–and tells that story with sophisticated, believable, and frightening realism.

Russell wisely takes her cue from history.  In the past, who were among those to establish relationships between cultures around the globe?  Typically, they were warriors, privateers, or missionaries.  As such, in Russell’s future, the first expedition to an alien world is launched not by a nation, or by an international body, but by the Jesuit Order.  After a series of serendipitous events bring together an unconventional priest, a young astronomer, a retired aerospace engineer, his doctor wife, and a remarkable computer analyst on the eve of the discovery of life beyond our solar system, the Society of Jesus covertly sanctions a mission to send this divinely assembled group to  meet God’s other children.  What they find is not what they expect: a primitive culture living collectively off of and in harmony with nature.  As they learn to live among this society, the group of human explorers struggles to understand the impact their presence is having.  When the messengers they came looking for finally make themselves known, this cultural divide becomes dangerous.

Russell succeeds in using the premise as it was intended: to ask big questions about our own civilization.  How would the fact that we are not alone affect people of faith?  What would be done with the knowledge gained from this alien culture?  Could we understand their customs and social interactions with our own limited context?  Would we be greeted with fear or courtesy?  What assumptions or misunderstandings would need to be avoided?  They’re all daring questions, and Russell addresses them with deceptive ease.

I should warn you that most of what transpires leads to tragedy (some of it quite graphic), but somehow The Sparrow refrains from pessimism.  Russell’s point, in recounting the mission to the planet Rakhat, is simply that no amount of planning and no lack of goodwill would be enough to keep such an encounter from going awry.  The unknown variables would be too great for even the most perceptive of minds to anticipate.  It’s sad but historically true.

Russell is to be commended for her imaginative world-building.  I refer not only to the Runa and Jana’ata societies on wild Rakhat, but to her depiction of mid-21st century Earth.  The picture she paints is a cautionary extrapolation of the present day; a world in which corporations control science, in which a lack of trees prohibits the printing of books, and in which religious terrorism is alive and well.  Russell populates these worlds with vividly drawn characters, crafted lovingly and with sophistication.  It’s over 100 pages before first contact comes, but it is Russell’s characters that hold you to the narrative.

Overall, I recommend The Sparrow.  You don’t have to be a sci-fi fan for this one.  It’s more Carl Sagan than Steven Spielberg, and it will stick with you for a while.

~ T

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