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The Sparrow
By Mary Doria Russell

Reviewed by Carl Cipra
Rating: none given

Rob has been recommending that I read The Sparrow for quite some time now.  He finally talked me into picking up a copy (Fawcett, trade paperback) in the dealers’ room at Philcon last year; and I added it to the stack of books I took to read while visiting my family over the Christmas/New Year’s holidays.  Wow!  What a powerful, thought-provoking book!  I wish I’d read it earlier!  Rob already beat me to the punch and reviewed it in the Nov. ’97 LSF newsletter; but I just couldn’t resist putting in a few additional comments myself.
The Sparrow is, at first glance, a “first contact” story.  It tells the story of a mission to Alpha Centauri planned and sponsored by the Jesuits in the year 2021 - and of its disasterous results.  The story is told in two “tracks” that trade off every chapter or so.  One “track” tells the story of the discovery of alien radio signals in 2019 by a researcher at Arecibo, followed by the planning of the mission to Alpha Centauri and the account of the mission itself.  The second “track” follows the rehabilitation and de-briefing in Rome in 2059/2060 of Father Emilio Sandoz, the disgraced and horribly injured sole survivor of the mission.  The two “tracks” converge as the novel progresses, gradually revealing to the reader how a mission that started out with so much promise ended up so disasterously.  Throughout the novel, Ms. Russell demonstrates a marvelous ability to believably “build” the world of Rakhat:  linguistics, culture, society, biology - all woven together into a fascinating whole.  Behind the “first contact” story, however, is a deeply moving examination of such topics as celibacy, martyrdom, sainthood, personal faith, Divine Will, and the role of God in the world.  (The novel’s title, in fact, is derived from the provocative Biblical verse about God and the falling sparrow - Matthew 10:29.)  I found Father Sandoz’s crisis of faith easily as disturbing as the descriptions of his physical deprivations.
As I read The Sparrow, I was inescapably reminded of another book I’d read some years ago:  Black Robe, by Brian Moore.  Moore’s novel recounts the appalling experiences of Jesuit missionaries among the Iroquois, Hurons, and Algonquins in 17th-century North America.  Although The Sparrow is in no way a simple “science-fictionalization” of Black Robe, Russell consciously sets out to explore many of the same kinds of “first contact” experiences and consequences that Moore depicts in Black Robe; but Russell explores them in the light of a more “modern” era, an era supposedly benefitting from over two centuries of scientific advances.
I was very pleased with Russell’s handling of the gay content in the story.  One of the members of the expedition to Rakhat turns out to be gay (certainly not the one I expected!); and the interactions between him and the other characters are handled sensitively and believably.  Beyond this, however, The Sparrow effectively explores another concept of abiding interest to the les/bi/gay community - the concept of “family” as more than just a biological unit.  The Jesuit-sponsored expedition is, after all, mostly composed of adults who are not related to each other and who have no close biological relatives back on Earth.  (Even the older married couple - a medical doctor and her engineer husband - are childless.)  Over the course of the years-long voyage, they become a close-knit, caring “family” (which makes the expedition’s tragic failure all the more tragic).
At the end of this edition of The Sparrow, there’s “A Reader’s Guide” which contains an interview with the author and which offers some fascinating insights into the novel and its creation.  I definitely recommend that you hold off on turning to the “Guide” until you’re done reading the novel itself; it contains some “spoilers” that could lessen the impact of Russell’s story.
Russell’s “successor” novel, Children of God, is now on the bookstands.  It’s already jumped to the head of my reading list!  I was very happy to see that Rob says she’s managed to sustain what she started in The Sparrow.

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