Book Review – The Sparrow

I hadn’t even heard of this book until it was brought up by one of my local book clubs. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell was published in 1996 and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. A mini-series based on the book is currently under development at FX.

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Here is the blurb:

In 2019, humanity finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post picks up exquisite singing from the planet Rakhat. While the U.N. debates possible contact missions, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an 8-person expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.

This brief description hardly begins to explain the scope of this book. The story unfolds in two parallel time frames, one telling how an alien radio signal was discovered and a secret interplanetary mission was sent to search out the planet from whence it originated. The second part follows the trauma of the sole survivor to return from that mission, a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz.

The plot develops slowly, but that didn’t matter as much to me as it usually does, being a plot-oriented reader. The way the character development was done and how the relationships between each character were slowly drawn were engrossing and made up for the lack of immediate drama. This is heartbreaking at the same time, for you already know at the outset that something terrible is going to happen to all these people.

Emilio Sandoz becomes the spiritual force behind the mission, and much of this book is about his faith in God at different points in his life. Everyone on this mission has their own reasons for being there, and while the expedition is driven by the Jesuits, this is not a book that glorifies religion. Rather, it asks questions of how far one will go for faith and how events can be interpreted by those with blind faith in their God. In the end, can tragedy be written off as God’s will? Or is it better to forgo all belief in such a system?

Have you read The Sparrow or anything else by Mary Doria Russell? Let me know in the comments.

Read more of my reviews here.

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