The Sparrow duology
by Mary Doria Russell
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 8, 2022
Edits and Addendum on August 17
Book 1: The Sparrow / Book 2: Children of God
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I don't think I was aware of this novel when it was first published (1996), but have heard a lot about it since I started blogging. It's been on my Kindle for over five years, and I've thought about it many times, but it wasn't until a recent tweet compared a newer book to it that I decided I'd waited long enough. Thanks for the prompt, Meg Elison, and maybe it won't take me as long to get around to the newer book mentioned. The Sparrow boasts several award wins: British Science Fiction Association, Arthur C. Clarke, James Tiptree Jr. (recently renamed The Otherwise), Gaylactic Spectrum (shared with its sequel), and the Kurd Lasswitz Preis for its German translation. In addition, it was finalist for the Locus and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, as well as Russell winning the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which has also been renamed recently, to the Astounding Award. I am glad I hadn't searched for more information about it, only knowing it had garnered many positive reviews. I was continually surprised throughout, and can now add my positive response which echoes many others.
I did know it involved a first contact story, and that Jesuit priests were involved, so I thought it might have things in common with James Blish's A Case of Conscience, but only the barest similarities apply. The expedition to a planet later to be known as Rakhat begins in 2019, but the first section of the book is in 2060, when Father Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor of the mission, returns to Earth, and is subjected to interrogation by his Vatican superiors. Chapters alternate between his trial and previous events, including the back stories of Emilio and others that gather around him in Puerto Rico, later to become members of the mission financed and organized by the Jesuits. One of Emilio's friends is Jimmy Quinn, an astronomer working at the Arecibo Observatory, analyzing data from the radio telescope, as well as monitoring SETI programs. Jimmy is being interviewed by Sofia Mendes, whose main task is to gather necessary information for a future artificial intelligence program at Arecibo. Several years before that she had interviewed Emilio concerning his ease of learning new languages, the Jesuits wanting a program that would aid other priests with languages for their various assignments around the world. Jimmy interprets signals from the Alpha Centauri system as being a musical progression, with discernible lyrics, but before reporting that to his superiors he calls Emilio for confirmation. In addition to Emilio and Sofia, Anne and George Edwards are also in on the revelation ahead of an official announcement. Anne is a doctor who had met Emilio on a previous assignment in Chicago; her husband George is a retired engineer.
The Jesuits, the Society of Jesus, are known for their scientific inquiries, including in astronomy and cosmology. As is the case for all of the Catholic Church, they also have wealth to pursue their inquiries. The world of this story's 2019 is more advanced than our own, with asteroid mining already well established. Some asteroids were mined out, or proved to be devoid of the expected minerals, so they were abandoned. The Jesuits purchase one of them to be used as an interstellar vessel, robotic mining machines continually adding to the fuel used by the rockets, as well as processing for oxygen and water. Living faciilities had already been constructed inside the rock for miners, but they are expanded and revamped for a much longer voyage. Rakhat is in the Alpha Centauri system, the closest star system to Earth, about 4.3 light years away. At the time of the writing it was not considered a likely home for an exoplanet due to the continual gravitational pull of the three stars in the system. Russell chose it simply because of its proximity. At least three exoplanets have now been confirmed, all around Proxima Centauri, but there is no evidence any are habitable.
Russell was raised Catholic although she left the church at 15, but it is clear spiritual matters were still on her mind. The story is mainly about the nature of faith, for both the priests and the non-religious characters, how that shapes ones perception of the world and other people. Emilio had been mentored by Father D. W. Yarborough, an eccentric Texan, but he had always struggled with his faith, continually striving to see God in the world, but also afraid he didn't believe strongly enough. Was it possible he was a sparrow that might not always be in the eyes and mind of God? Anne and George were atheistic, or agnostic, to varying degrees. Jimmy Quinn was Catholic although not that devout. Sofia was a Shephardic Jew, whose heritage was from Spain, but her ancestors ended up in Turkey. Her back story is both inspiring and heart-breaking, and while shy and reserved due to some of her experiences, she may have been the most compassionate and empathetic of the group, with the possible exception of Anne. Two other Jesuits round out the eight person crew.
I'll make just minor comments about the rest of the plot. If we ever do encounter extraterrestrials, it is possible our ethnocentrism will blind us to analyzing alien behavior, looking for similarities instead of noticing marked differences. Two sentient species are observed, and there may be others. The first the humans encounter are the Runa, a seemingly pacifistic, vegetarian group that live in the cliff dwellings of Kashan. They are always present in groups, never alone, which leads the humans to assume predatory animals nearby. After several months of habitation in and around the caves with the Runa, a single member of another species arrives. If Emilio had not learned to be a scrappy fighter in the slums of La Perla he would probably have been easily killed, and/or D. W. would have killed the alien with his trusty Winchester. Instead, Supaari VaGayjur reverses his agression and becomes interested in the humans, but maybe only for the prospects of trade. After asking many times, a few of the humans are allowed to go to Supaari's city, Gayjur, where they make several other mistakes of observation, not the least of which is the true nature of the relationship between the Runa and Supaari's species, the Jana'ata. A group within the Jana'ata were the source of the music received at Arecibo.
Throughout the preparation for the journey, as well as during and afterwards, several of the priests continually utter the phrase Deus vult, meaning "it is God's will." But just because something works out the way you want, it doesn't mean it had God's approval, if there is a God that cares about us that is. Anne's contribution to that debate mirrors similar thoughts I've had; if you acknowledge God is responsible for the good things, you also need to blame him for the bad. They were able to embark on their journey in relative secrecy, the trip went smoothly, other than boredom and occasional space sickness due to low gravity. They made it to Alpha Centauri, were successful in establishing orbit around Rakhat, and landed the shuttle plane without mishap. Weeks go by before they attempt contact, which goes smoother than anyone had a right to expect. Then a few bad things begin to happen, and with each new development Emilio struggles with the notion of God's will.
His superiors back on Earth also have a hard time judging him, mainly because he doesn't want to talk about his experiences, always telling them they really don't want to hear it. All they know is what members of a follow-up expedition tell them, information that is very damning of Emilio. I would caution any reader to not make snap judgements of Emilio, since what is said periodically through the book is not the whole story, and completely out of context. I'm not a religious person, although I do have a few thoughts of a spiritual nature. I'm definitely not in line with Catholic theology, except for maybe one thing. It is said that confession is good for the soul. It seems that might be true for Emilio, when after months of shying away from confession, rejecting the intentions of his inquisitors, he is finally able to tell his story without interruption. His days of contemplating suicide may be over, but now his superiors may have too many dark thoughts troubling their own minds. This is the best type of literature, of any genre. Insightful speculations on what it means to be human, characters that are realistic and believable, even when they are not always sympathetic. There is a direct sequel, which I don't have (but my library does), so it may be my next read. Even if not, I will be thinking about The Sparrow for a long time to come. It gets my highest of recommendations.
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Posted August 17, 2022
There are many insightful thoughts expressed in this sequel, both spiritual and secular, yet the disjointed nature of the narrative, as well as despicable acts by some characters reduced my enjoyment of it. I'm not even sure who is referenced by the title, but in my opinion it isn't any of the Jesuits. Well, maybe John Candiotti, who had been a loyal and steadfast friend to Emilio Sandoz since his return to Earth. Now he, Emilio, and others are sent back to Rakhat. Emilio didn't want to go, even when the news came that he was not the only human survivor of the first mission. He thought he was, but Sofia Mendes thought she was, not knowing what happened to Emilio. After his trial he had left the priesthood, and was on the verge of marrying, but the Church had other ideas. Even with each chapter heading referencing the month and year on Earth, they aren't presented in sequential order. There are flashbacks and flash forwards, letting us know some of the people from Earth who survive to later times, as well as a few of the Runa and Jana'ata, but with just vague references to earlier events. Also, many years pass on Rakhat, while the voyage from Earth is time compressed due to traveling at a significant percentage of the speed of light. I had begun to suspect the children of the title were two who were born even before Emilio had returned to Earth; a daughter to Supaari, a son to Sofia. But one of them does not survive to the end of the story.
If you read and enjoy The Sparrow you will want to read its sequel. I've seen comments by readers who hold both in high regard, and there may be some who like the second book more. While I am not one of them, there are still a few ideas that I can relate to. I have long thought that religion is unique to each culture, and is primarily wish fulfillment. We need there to be order in the world, we need there to be a purpose, so we invent it, or it is invented by those in power as a means to control us. In that sense we are all children of God, seeking meaning, and seeing meaning even if it is only real because we want it to be. Religion is a balm for many, but a millstone for others. Each reader will approach these books with preconceived notions of belief, or if without belief before, you may gain some after. Even if it is only the belief that fiction is capable of revealing truths, some of which we might prefer to remain hidden.
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