The Sparrow

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.

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38 Responses to The Sparrow

  1. gaskella says:

    I read this when it first came out, and loved it too, although I was a bit confused about many of the theological/philosophical aspects, so, I know there is much that I will gain from a second reading, which I really want to do now I’ve read your re-read review – good job I kept this book.

  2. yes this makes me want to do a reread, for sure. Great thoughts, many of which I don’t think I considered the first time around. I love books that invite multiple readings! I love this book in particular.

  3. Samantha says:

    I am so convinced to read this!

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’ll really like it, Samantha.

      • Samantha says:

        You make it sound a lot like Silence, in that the book forces readers to confront difficult theological issues and doesn’t really offer much guidance as to what the right answer is – or even whether there is a right answer at all. I’m glad you’re promoting these books, because I never would have heard of them otherwise!

      • Teresa says:

        It is a lot like, Silence. In fact, I was just recommending both of those books to a friend last night as being similarly difficult and interesting.

  4. I can’t remember how long ago I first read this book, but I think it must have been back in the 90’s sometime. My honest first impression? I resented the person who had advised me to read it, because she had told me I “needed to read it.” I thought of her as a sadist after this, and still have a lingering distaste for her company. There aren’t many books that can arouse that degree of reactiion in me, positive or negative. I know therefore the power of this book, and agree with you that it’s a really strong literary experience. And why I resented the advocator of it so much, I’m not entirely sure, especially since the question posed by the book, “why do bad things happen if God is truly in charge?”, is one I’ve asked in my skeptical way from almost my early teen years. The book simply turns my stomach, and while I doubt that I will ever read it again, I will never forget what I read the first time. I agree (ironically enough, I agree) that people “need” to read it!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so interesting! I think this is a book that invites–almost requires–a strong reaction. It just puts all the hardest questions right out there and makes you look at them, which is not at all pleasant.

  5. Jeanne says:

    This is a wonderful review. It gets at so many of the things that make people love this book. I always hope this one will encourage people to read other SF.

  6. cbjames says:

    This is a marvelous book. When I read it, I thought about the questions raised by seeing the Runa as a highly intelligent food source, which the more or less are on their world. In this context, what are the theological questions raised by the structure of the food chain. What’s done to the Runa is arguably much better than what is done to many food sources by humanity. Just how intelligent does a species have to be before raising it as food is an atrocious act? Taking humanity out of the equation does not make the picture much prettier theologically.

    However you look at it, the fact that The Sparrow can be read so many ways is a testament to just how good it is.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! I wondered how the humans would have viewed the Runa if they’d met the Jana’ata first. It probably would have taken a while for them to see them as sentient and to be bothered by the way they’re treated. Because on the service, their life isn’t so bad.

  7. Alex says:

    This book saved my sanity. I read it when I had been very ill and thought that I would never be able to think straight again and then I read the passage about language and the concepts of sufficiency and necessity and was suddenly transported back into the academic world I’d left and knew I was going to be all right. I owe Mary Doria Russell more than I can ever say.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so wonderful to hear! I find the wisdom in this book to be extremely difficult to take, but ultimately, especially on this second reading, I find it to be a hopeful book, too.

    • Alex, can you give a bit more info about the passage you’re referring to? It sounds quite interesting, and it’s been about 10 years or so since I read the book, and I’d like to remember that passage a bit better without necessarily having to re-read the whole book.

      • Alex says:

        Shadowoperator, I don’t have the book to hand but it occurs when two of the characters are trying to work out the grammar of the indigenous species and the young woman thinks she’s found a rule. However, it turns out that what she has observed is a necessary condition but not one that is sufficient by itself. I think it has to do with the way in which you refer to a third party and is governed by whether that third party is present or elsewhere at the time. So, to use the particular grammatical form it is necessary that you are referring neither to yourself nor the person to whom you are speaking but that is not sufficient that person must also be completely absent from the location in which the conversation is taking place. My memory may not be entirely accurate, but that is the general idea of necessity and sufficiency. It was exciting for me because by research discipline I work in the way language is organised (although normally at a higher grammatical level than this example works at) but I had been very ill for a couple of years and thinking straight was hard. Reading this and actually getting there before the explanation was given was the first sign I had that I was beginning to recover. I won’t say I never looked back, but it was a turning point for me.

      • Thanks a lot, Alex. What you do sounds like a combination of philosophy and linguistics. I started out in linguistics as an undergrad, but soon deserted for the greener (for me) fields of theatre and English. But I still appreciate a good conundrum to sort out, like the one you’re describing. Thanks for following up my question, and congratulations on regaining or re-realizing your own potential.

  8. Deb says:

    Although I don’t read a great deal of science fiction, I very much enjoyed this one. I liked how Russell did not shy away from hard theogical questions and ambiguous answers. The big questions are always mysteries that each of us must resolve individually. If I have one minor quibble with the book, it’s that the characters are a bit tiresome–particularly the married woman whose sense of humor and world outlook just did not jibe with mine, although I felt our politics (but not our theology) were pretty close. I understand there’s a sequel. Have you read it? What did you think? I suspect it’s hard to write a sequel to a great book like this.

    • Do you remember what the name of the sequel is? I’d like to have a look at it. Thanks if you can help, or just thanks for clueing me in to its existence.

    • Teresa says:

      Once in a while, I did think I wouldn’t want to live with these people–they’re so full of opinions and seem so all-knowing about each other! But I decided that a lot of that just came from how very tight-knit and intimate the group was.

      I haven’t read the sequel, (@shadowoperator, it’s called Children of God). I’ve been leery of it because Jenny read it and didn’t like it much. The second reading of this has made me more curious about it. If anyone else has read it, I’d love to hear opinions!

      • Jenny says:

        I hated the sequel with the fire of a thousand suns because it begins with the premise that something she told you was true in the first book is not, actually, true. (Something pretty important.) I can’t stand it when authors cheat. However, if you can get past that rug-pulling, it’s pretty good in other ways. Doesn’t top The Sparrow, but pretty good.

      • Teresa says:

        Oh Jenny, you just made me laugh out loud. You hate it with the fire of a thousand suns, but it’s pretty good.

        And with my usual willingness to be spoiled, I Googled the book and now I know the plot point of which you speak. I think I could get past that, but yeah, it feels like a cheat. Then again, we only got that information through Emilio. It’s what Emilio believed, and we’re given no reason to doubt it, but did he see it? A little wiggle room there, I guess, but it would have been better if there’d been some ambiguity introduced, even an “as far as I know” kind of statement.

      • Jenny says:

        Well, yeah, once I got over being stabbed in the heart, it wasn’t bad at all. :)

  9. Jenny says:

    I need to reread this. It’s been a while. Last time I read it, I was doing an experiment of writing in the margins of my book, which I have never done before or since, and I think it interfered with my reading process.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s highly re-readable, especially if you think your reading experiment marred that first reading.

      (I’m definitely a margin-marker, although I’ve learned to live without it when I’m reading library books.)

  10. Mary Grover says:

    I read “The Sparrow” years ago and loved it. I have read the sequel and I loved it too. But it’s been so long since I read them that I can’t really contribute to the discussion. I think it’s time for me to read them again.

  11. Caroline says:

    I’m glad shadowoperator guided me to your post. It’s very engaging and I realized that I actually bought the book a while back and forgot about it. It sounds like a really powerful novel. It touches on such a lot of topics I care about. I would like to start it right now but need to finish something else first.

  12. What a wonderful review! I recently read this book and loved it. As you said, the author’s technical skill was a big part of what made it so gripping, but I was also drawn in by all the religious, spiritual, and philosophical questions the novel grappled with. I love the way you explored this in your review. I also love the way you think and write. I’m adding you to my feed reader as we speak. :)

  13. Melissa says:

    I love this book so much. I’m thrilled to hear it held up so well on a re-read for you because I’d love to re-visit it soon.

  14. aartichapati says:

    Beautiful, thoughtful review, Teresa. I LOVED this book when I read it a couple of years ago, too. There is so much there. She had me at the very beginning, when she said something like “They meant no harm.” Sigh. The lament of colonists everywhere, I guess. Even the best intentions can so often go wrong.

    I loved Emilio, too.

    I didn’t enjoy the sequel nearly so much, but it was also a gripping story.

  15. Laurie C says:

    I don’t reread too many books, but I definitely need to reread The Sparrow. It is an amazing book!

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