The year is 2059. Father Emilio Sandoz has just returned to Earth, the lone survivor of a mission to Alpha Centauri to find the aliens whose music was the first clear evidence of life on another planet. He is mentally and physically traumatized. His hands have been surgically mutilated; much of the skin of his palms has been removed, giving his fingers an elongated appearance and making it impossible for him to use his hands. Reports from the UN consortium that followed the Jesuit team have led the world to consider Emilio not just a failure but a pariah.
In The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell tells Emilio’s story as he recovers it, gradually. He shares with the priests who are taking care of him, part confessor and part jury. He gives official testimony and reports to his superior, but he’s reluctant, fearful, haunted, broken. As his hands become better able to grasp a coffee mug, he becomes better able to grab onto the truth of what happened to him. But his hold on it is never quite secure. He has doubts about what it all means and what it says about God and his plan. God may know that a sparrow falls, but the sparrow falls just the same. Why? What to do?
The team of Jesuit priests and scientists had left in 2021. They were a tight-knit group; many of the team members were long-time friends of Emilio, a brilliant linguist who would learn the language of the aliens and serve as translator. The years they spend together only bring them closer. These are not solemn, stoic, holier-than-thou priests. They joke and banter and get annoyed. And although this is a Jesuit mission, supervised by the Roman Catholic church, the non-priestly members of the team are treated as equal partners, as family members even, for this team does become a family.
On Rakhat, the planet that becomes their home, they discover a village of peaceful herbivores called the Runa. The Runa are interested in the humans but don’t seem terribly startled by them, presumably because the Runa are used to entering into trade agreements with other species who differ from them. They are startled—and distressed—by the humans’ attempts to share their music, and they can’t abide the eating of meat, but they mostly treat the humans with curiosity and affection. Eventually, the team meets a merchant named Supaari, one of the Jana’ata, a more urban and technologically advanced species than the Runa. It was the music of the Jana’ata that brought the team to Rakhat.
Russell slowly and carefully dribbles out information about the Runa, the Jana’ata, and the disaster that left Emilio alone and shattered. The deft plot construction is especially impressive given that this was a first novel. Even on a second read, knowing what was to come, I felt the terrible suspense. It’s remarkably well done. And the same applies to Russell’s research. She skillfully weaves in linguistics, science, Jesuit philosophy and theology, and alternate history without resorting to info dumps. It is a technically impressive work.
But it’s not the novel’s technical wizardry that makes it so haunting. Emilio’s story leaves the reader just about as shattered as Emilio himself is. Just like Emilio, we look for meaning in the tragedy, but meaning is elusive—or we don’t like the meaning we find. We might be able to find small missteps the team made or notice, in hindsight, things they should have recognized early on. But on another planet, among alien cultures, what frame of reference could possibly be adequate? Even basic medical science fails when one of the team members becomes ill. There’s no way to understand what germs and microbes they’ve been exposed to or precisely what nutrients they lack or how the change in gravity and atmosphere could affect a human body.
For the priests, faith in God could theoretically provide a bedrock on which to stand, but God’s will is as slippery as everything else. It’s the age-old questions: Where is God when it hurts? Why do bad things happen to good people? Or as Anne, the team’s doctor and a firm skeptic, says,
“What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can’t swallow that kind of theological candy. Either God’s in charge or He’s not.”
The question of who’s in charge comes up in multiple ways. The question of whether God is in charge and what it means if indeed “Deus vult” (“God wills it”) is the overarching question, and it colors Emilio’s story from beginning to end. But there’s also a frequent dynamic of people choosing to live under another’s will, as the priests do in making a vow to God and the Jesuit order. It’s a voluntary vow, and the priest has control over whether to keep it, so who’s really in control? And what if God is the one directing the priest to make the vow in the first place?
Stepping outside the question of priestly vows, there are also commitments people make for their own survival. Sofia Mendes, an expert in artificial intelligence, made a business deal long ago that in effect ceded her free will, but that deal enabled her to put her degrading past in the past. Plus, she drove a hard bargain and got a better life than many women in her position could expect.
And humans aren’t alone when it comes to problems of power. The Runa and Jana’ata have a symbiotic relationship that puts one clearly in the power of the other, and no one seems to mind that much. Yet to human eyes, the relationship is clearly exploitative. You can say all you want about different cultures being different, and alien cultures being the most different of all, but there are acts of what this human cannot see as anything put pure selfish evil.
Yet… yet… what if there’s consent? Or is consent even possible when the whole system is constructed to make it the only option—or not an option at all, just the way things are? If the enslaved aren’t miserable, is it even slavery? Never mind that the worst acts are the acts of an individual, using the system for his own gain. Do the others even realize how evil his actions are? Does he? Perception is everything, and once you put someone in the category of “other” or “lesser” the whole relationship changes.
And then to take all this and throw it back toward the human relationship with God—it hardly bears thinking about.
Yet Russell makes us think about it. And what I love is that she doesn’t turn the fact that all of these questions are impossible into a diatribe against God—or a defense of God. Emilio’s soul shouts the question to heaven, and we wonder if any answer would be acceptable.
The Sparrow is one of my favorite books, and this second read of it cemented by love for it. I’m not one to evangelize for my favorite books because I know people’s tastes vary so much, but this is a book that I can’t imagine anyone who appreciates complex, well-written, imaginative stories not being glad to have read. It’s extraordinary. Read it.