The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell
Back in my youth, I was a big fan of science fiction: Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and company, the early greats. Then something happened. The genre changed. Perhaps it was due to the fact that world had become vastly more complex and the future not so much fun to contemplate. Science fiction seemed to take on a retro, pseudo-medieval quality, stories full of knights and sorcerers, fantasy tales that didn’t seem to me much like science fiction at all. I guess I’m old fashioned. When I think science fiction, I want rocket ships to distant planets. I want ray guns and little green men.
Recently my wife Gail brought home “The Sparrow,” by Mary Doria Russell, the 1996 novel published in paperback by Fawcett Columbine that is already a cult classic. It’s the sort of book that if you carry it in public, people are apt to come up you to ask if you are loving it as much as they did. Probably there hasn’t been a science fiction novel since Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” that so transcends the genre into heady realms of philosophical speculation. Mary Doria Russell has a Ph.D. in biological anthropology as well as a wide knowledge of theology, and her debut novel is really a quest into the nature of good and evil, and the existence of God.
The plot of “The Sparrow” is fairly simple and owes perhaps a small nod to Carl Sagan’s “Contact.” In the year 2019, a radio astronomer in Puerto Rico receives a signal from an alien planet, a transmission that sounds suspiciously like music. A lovely, celestial song that encourages a small group of Jesuits and several non-Jesuit scientist friends to make a private expedition to a nearby galaxy in order to make contact with the alien species.
The story goes back in forth in time and space, from the ongoing expedition in 2019, to the expedition’s sole survivor at the end of the journey, the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, who has returned to Earth in the year 2059 and is in very bad shape, physically and emotionally tortured from his experience. For me, this was a bit clumsy as a narrative device; we get the story backwards and forwards, from Emilio as he is being debriefed by his Vatican superiors, and in real time as the group lands at last on the planet Rakhat and explores the mysteries of the alien civilization.
It takes the author nearly 200 pages before the Earthlings actually arrive on the planet Rakhat, where the main body of the story begins. There are some tedious sections in the first half of the book, but once she has us on Rakhat, it’s as though suddenly Mary Doria Russell, novice novelist, has figured out how to write. From here on, the book is fascinating.
The best part of “The Sparrow” is Russell’s depiction of the alien culture, subtle matters of customs and prejudice and eating habits that throw an interesting light on our own terrestrial mores. Quite innocently, meaning only to be helpful, the visitors from Earth disrupt the ecological balance of the new planet and create a terrible evil that results in bloodshed. In the end, the sole survivor of this disaster, Emilio Sandoz, must face the consequences of his actions and find an expanded definition of God, and a divine plan that includes suffering and evil.
“The Sparrow” is not a masterpiece; for me there were serious flaws. But it was the sort of story where the author’s enthusiasm to say something important transcends the writing itself, and you will be left thinking about her ideas long after you close the last page. In its own way, this is an original, delightful book — the best science fiction I’ve read in years. There were no ray guns, I’m sorry to say, and the aliens were not green; but at least they had nifty tails and the most interesting sex lives you are likely to to encounter this side of Alpha Centauri.