on July 28, 2000
Reading this book was a enriching, rewarding experience for me. As with most books, it isn't for everyone. I was looking for a little lighter read, since I've been reviewing books on death and dying and the Holocaust. Silly me - but I am so glad I made the mistake of thinking this would be an escape from the ultra serious!
This is definitely not a light read and in fact, it hits on many of the issues I've been exploring - the existence and function of God, the meaning of life, the use of suffering and healing, the delicacy and necessity of human relationships.
The story switches between the year 2019 - the US has lost its primary position as a world leader to Japan, marketers search the streets looking for ghetto kids with intellectual skills to groom and sell as indentured servants - and the year 2060, when a Jesuit priest is under examination for sins he is assumed to have committed while on a mission to a New World - Rakhat a planet far away from here.
We see Father Emilio Sandoz before the journey (2019) as he initiates this venture, traveling with characters so well written, I started to believe they were real. Dr. Anne and her husband, George; the recently freed indentured planner, Sofia; the young man who discovered the existence of the other world, Jimmy Quinn; D.W., their grumpy Jesuit leader. Two other characters are less developed, but make nice backdrop for this riveting story.
The book was a little difficult to get into at the start, not because of the writing, but because of the promise of horrors to come. How could this priest, so filled with life in 2019, be so horribly disfigured (did I really want to read the gruesome details?) And how could he have ended up a prostitute, and then murdered a child?
Note: These are not spoilers -- this is information freely given at the start of the story, a hook that pulls the reader in.
To find out, the reader follows Sandoz' slow recovery, sees his bitterness and anger in his interaction with the community who is interrogating him in the year 2060, after he has been rescued and returned from Rakhat. Sandoz questions the intimate, passionate connection he'd had with God - and the reader is led to question some assumptions about God, quite similar to those raised by the Holocaust. (Isn't God supposed to deliver us from evil if we do all the right stuff?)
A science fiction tale, a mystery, a spiritual quest, a sociological and anthropology exploration, this book would be an excellent choice for a group to read and discuss. It is also great for the inquisitive mind of the solo reader.
As for me, I hated to put it down. I read it as often as I could, and almost wept when it was done (sort of Harry Potter for this grown-up!) After writing this review, I'm off to order the sequel, Children of God.
on November 1, 2000
Who should read this novel?
1. Sci-fi fans - it has won lots of awards, featured on umpteen 'best of' lists and is just excellent science fiction. If I only had five sci-fi books, this would be one of them. Having said that, it's not 'hard sci-fi' - in other words it doesn't let the science get in the way of the story. Willing suspension of disbelief is the way to go.
2. anthropologists - Ok, so that's not many of us, but the point is that this book sensitively explores the concept of 'otherness'. There are two intelligent species on the planet. One is nice but dim, the other is bright but deadly. Who do the humans identify with? Intriguing question, huh? Well it was for me, anyway.
3. Religious people. And also people interested in the possibility of God, the possibility of forgiveness. This book faithfully addresses the seeming absence of God in the pain of the world (or should that be universe?). But it's never 'preachy', just keepin' it real.
4. Anyone who likes a good yarn. It's well written and the plot cracks along. The repeated cutting between the story of the mission and the aftermath of the mission keeps you guessing to the end. There's a kind of dawning realisation of the horror of what's being told, and I for one couldn't put it down.
5. Look, the first human contact with alien life is sponsored not by NASA but by... THE VATICAN! Its a mad idea - you just have to read this book to see how it works out.
Science fiction is a medium that is tailor-made for investigation of some of humanity's most perplexing questions, most especially questions of his (and the universe's) origin, God, what constitutes moral behavior, man's ultimate purpose. But very few science fiction novels really attempt to tackle these questions, getting caught up instead in the nifty gadgets that can be imagined, and forgetting their human element. Not so here.
Russell has crafted a fine work of character, of people both exceptional and very real, in this tale of first contact between a Jesuit sponsored mission and the denizens of the planet Rakhat. Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of this mission, and most of the story is told from his viewpoint, both as a currently happening time-line and a later recollection under interrogation after he returns to Earth. It is easy to become engrossed in this man's life, as we see him as a great linguist, a priest with very understandable doubts but a solid need to help others, a man with normal desires for companionship, a person suffering under sever stress, a man mangled both physically and mentally. The other mission members are not slighted in the character development area, so that by the mid-point of the book, I felt that I was living with a very tight-knit family, whose individual foibles were all well-known and accepted, whose interpersonal banter was enjoyable and fitting.
It is this very depth of characterization that adds poignancy to the mission's fate and starkly highlights the main religious question. How can one believe in a God that allows such terrible things as the mission failure to happen? How can one not believe in a higher power that has orchestrated such an incredibly complex universe of objects, intelligences, and events? Falling within this halo are other questions, ones of personal responsibility against an omniscient deity, institutionalized religion versus an individual call to God, the morality of killing in a culture radically different from our own, when does pride in accomplishment become insufferable hubris? Russell does not provide answers, but her characters each have their own way of dealing with these questions, methods both practical and, for some, esoteric. In this area, this novel is very comparable to James Blish's A Case of Conscience, another fine novel working within this same area of ideas and religious import.
There are some elements that are not so good. Possibly most obvious is the idea that a privately funded mission to contact the first verified alien intelligence would not only be the first but the only mission, at least until the rest of the world found out about this mission. Second is the idea that star-travel is so close to being doable that a (relatively) small amount of money and some minor engineering would allow it to become a reality - if it was that close surely someone would have started such a project long before, even without the impetus of alien contact. Third, this is supposed to be the Alpha Centauri star system. From a planet orbiting Centauri A, Centauri C ( a small and quite dim red dwarf) is so distant it would not show a visible disk nor provide any great illumination (it would look like just a bright star), yet there are consistent references in the novel to working under the red light of the third sun. In a work of 'hard' science fiction, such problems would be pretty major. For this novel, with its primary focus on theme and character, these flaws are at most gnats, easily dismissed as not relevant to the overall story.
Emotionally and intellectually powerful, this story can upset your life, force a new perspective on your world-view, make you once more sit up and see the sparrow.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on June 16, 2002
I've read quite a bit of "Sci-fi". I love authors like Gibson, Stevenson, and Varley- science fiction novelists who hit you with material that combines great writing with action and characters who seem like they popped out of the latest hollywood action thriller. Sci-fi filled with weird devices, cool dialogue, and strange venues. The Sci-fi that computer geeks and teenage punks can't get enough of.
"The Sparrow" is not Sci-fi.
Russell is a writer of mature, philosophical science fiction in the grand tradition of authors such as Asimov, Clarke, and Huxley. Science fiction that truly makes you wonder about not only the physical (science), but the metaphysical as well. Questions of morality, spirituality, meaning, and destiny are all actively pursued by such authors- not as afterthoughts or decoration, but as the centerpiece of the fiction. Such works create a vital mythology for the postmodern and impending transhuman eras- they weave truths into their tales.
"The Sparrow" charts the journey of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit Priest and linguist, from the slums of San Juan to the planet of Rakhat, 4.3 Light Years from Earth, orbiting the star Alpha Centauri A. Along with an intriguing little group of well-meaning Jesuits, scientists, and engineers, this modern-day Cortez sets off to a new world in search, not of gold, but of spiritual treasure. Instead, he encounters disease, hardships, and two strange alien races barred from truly understanding humans by millions of years of evolutionary history. Ultimately, his search for god, about to finally be realized, is transformed into a carnal nightmare which destroys his illusions of divinity and nearly leaves him for dead. From this, Sandoz must retell his tale before a council of fellow priests, and face his own existential anguish over having his dreams of grace crushed by the nightmare of an uncaring universe.
Overall, I would say that the Sparrow is one of the most captivating and engaging novels I've ever had the fortune of reading. I highly recommend this book not only to lovers of the philosophical tradition of Science Fiction, but to "Sci-Fi" fans as well- perhaps it will kick start their own spiritual journey- one that, with any luck, will be as profound and meaningful as Sandoz's odyssey.
on December 29, 2007
A first encounter with intelligent aliens is one of the primary themes of classic science fiction. Will they be good or evil? Will they be friendly or hostile? How will they be like us? How different?
The Sparrow doesn't address these questions so much as use the story of a trip to a planet orbiting the nearest star as backdrop for exploring personal ethical questions, such as the existence of evil in a god-created universe. The Sparrow's aliens are pretty much like us humans, albeit humans living in tribes or the cities of a rather primitive civilization that has somehow developed nineteenth century technologies.
The strength of this book is in its originality. I found The Sparrow an enjoyable read, not particularly as science fiction then, but for the story.
· First, the anthropological approach that the author used. But it is as if she is describing some very primitive (in some respects) tribes rather than civilization(s). I liked the concept that the sense of smell was much more important to the aliens than it is to us, so they reacted to coffee and spices much differently.
· Second, the language issues and problems that the author brings up, and the tragic misunderstandings that can occur.
· Third, the descriptions of the two intelligent species on Alpha Centauri, and the physical evolution of the carnivores based on the characteristics of their prey were quite good.
· Finally, I liked the interplay between the characters (to some extent), it got redundant after a while, though. Her idea seemed to be to get them all together for pizza and have them make wise cracks or jokes. This happened too often.
What I didn't care for was some of the science fiction and most of the religious aspects.
The Sparrow doesn't fit the science fiction genre, unless it is science fiction from the twenties or thirties. That's the only time you'd find all of the fortuitous events that lead a group of friendly, bantering adventurers off on some far-fetched expedition that would in reality most surely be done by government or corporate interests. I'm thinking of the old Edgar Rice Burroughs or Arthur Conan Doyle type science fiction popular in the thirties.
What doesn't quite work:
Modern science fiction worlds must have credibility; even when you are presenting phenomenal events, you must make things believable. Some problems of credibility I picked up on in The Sparrow were:
· The descriptions of the red dwarf star Alpha Centauri C (or Proxima) are wrong. The star is so small and so far away (½ light year), that it would appear as just another faint red star in the night sky to the people on the planet. You wouldn't have them saying," Wait until the red sun rises, etc."
· The asteroid driven by a mass driver to get up to speed approaching lightspeed would take too much energy, even for an economy 13 years ahead of ours. I don't know how to do the calculation, since the author doesn't provide the mass of the asteroid they use, but I'm confident all the energy currently in use in the world woudn't be enough to move an asteroid up to approach light speed using a mass driver, as the author postulates.
· The society of the Alpha Centauri carnivores is static, sort of a tribal kingship system, yet somehow they have developed their technology to such an extent that they have powerful radios. So the technology has advanced quite a bit, but the social system hasn't advanced much at all. This doesn't make much sense.
The second, more fundamental problem I had was with the religious aspects of the book. I am not religious myself, but am familiar with the issues. The author, on the other hand, doesn't seem to know much about Christianity, the Jesuits, or Catholicism. I read somewhere that she got her information about religious people only from reading books by priests who left their vocations, and it shows.
· It didn't make any sense to me that a group of Jesuits would land on a planet with sentient life and never wonder if the inhabitants had souls, and if they had souls, were they subject to original sin? For religious people, this would be a much larger issue than Sandoz's big struggle with his faith, which the author makes out as the point of the book (more below). For religious people, this would be the first issue to be addressed, but it is never addressed, as far as I know (I stopped about halfway through the second book, Children of God).
· Why didn't the Jesuits try to convert the aliens to Christianity? They never even get around to the issue of God until 140 pages into the second book. But that is what the Jesuits are all about; they are "soldiers of Christ."
· I found it odd that what happens to Sandoz makes him question his faith. He apparently has no knowledge of 2000 years of martyrs that preceeded him in the Christian faith. He's unaware of that old lions and christians in the coliseum thing. You would think that, as a Jesuit, with all the history of Jesuits being tortured or killed, (for example, by the native Americans after the Jesuits arrived in North America), you would think that he would know all this and realize as a Jesuit that such could well happen to him, especially upon arriving on a new world with a strange civilization. But he is shocked to his core that God would allow horrible things to happen to him, even though God allowed them to happen to so many of his predecessors.
The appeal of the book is its fresh approach to the old scientific question of alien civilizations, but the fresh approach is also the cause of some of the books problems.
on December 24, 1999
I know some people didn't care for this book, but I loved it. My friends who have also read it loved it. I especially recommend this book to people interested in anthropology -- social/cultural anthropology, including linquistics, and archaeology.
The characters are all so wonderfully human and real, rather than cardboard cutouts. The interplay and politicking (of individuals AND of the "larger entities") of all the characters raise The Sparrow from what could be just another run of the mill throwaway novel to something much more complex and thought-provoking. Not only is it a heartbreaking "biography" of Emilio Sandoz, but also of humanity.
I must say the sequel, Children of God, is absolutely a must-read -- the sequel is a necessary component of the whole story. More is revealed of the Rakhat's history, culture, social structure and when you take that and put it against what you read in The Sparrow, you find that everything you thought back then was wrong. If you've seen the movie The Sixth Sense, the effect is similar to the feeling you get at the end of the movie: the story transforms into something totally different.
Talk about cultural relevance.
As for negative reviews about the jumping around in time or perspective, look at The Sound and the Fury. Some people read it and find it a great work, some people just can't take all the "broken" parts and put it together.
Mary Doria Russell has created some of the most well-rounded, realistic characters that I've ever seen in this novel. Her protagonist, Father Emilio Sandoz, especially stands out. I have to admit to a certain fondness for this sort of religiously-themed novel--Graham Greene is perhaps my favorite author--and I loved the moral questions/problems/debates, etc., that Russell deals with in the book. It is often quite brutal and gruesome, but then life is like that. A film I saw once, called _Black Robe_, had a similar feel, with Jesuit missionaries working (and subject to brutality/misunderstandings) among Indian tribes in early America/Canada. This is a book that truly deserves all the superlatives which have been written about it. A perfect introduction to science fiction for those who might not normally read in the genre (and I'm not going to nit-pick the scientific details--they just didn't matter that much in the face of the truly human characters Russell presents us). Highly recommended!
on January 26, 2007
After reading the other reviews, I am not sure that everyone has the same taste as I do, but I thought the book was marvelous! I am a linguist at a Jesuit University and happen to be a sci-fi fan as well. Hearing this, someone recommended this book to me and I thought, 'Why not?'. I was looking for ideas. I had no idea it would be so good! I didn't know it was so focused around religion before starting or I might have been turned off, but the musings about God and religion are rather more philosophical than anything else.
I was hooked after only the first two chapters. Everyone in the year 2060 wanted to know what could have happened during the mission to Rakhat and by the third or fourth chapter, I was dying to know, too! The back and forth from "present" 2060 to 2019 when it all began created a riveting suspense! The main characters were wonderfully developed and, of course, I was personally delighted and entertained by the anthropological and linguistic details.
It was an unusual feeling to be falling in love with a character in a chapter with the full knowledge that this character would eventually die. I found myself thinking, but *this* one might live. He/she is too special to be killed off, right?
There is, as is often the case with fiction - especially science fiction, a requirement for the reader to be able to suspend reality. I found some of her 'futuristic' ideas, such as the AI 'vultures' and 'futures brokers' to be very creative.
My only criticism is that the end seemed way too hurried. It's as though she got tired of writing and piled everything into the last couple of chapters, disposing offhandedly of characters we had, by that point, become very attached to. I wish her editors had made her extend the last few chapters and develop them more. Despite that bit of disappointment, the rest of the book is incredible, making it well worth a read as a whole! I just found out that there is a sequel and I'm definitely going to give that a try.
on January 3, 2000
Readers of science fiction are more willing to suffer hokey dialogue and stock characters than readers in other genres. (If they weren't neither Asimov nor Heinlein would ever have sold a book.) The payoff is that the readers are supposed to get deep, thought provoking ideas in return. The 'First Contact' story is a vehicle for some of these deep ideas that has been used hundreds of times over the years, and in The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russel gives us her version.
There are some neat small ideas about linguistics and anthropology, a couple of big ideas about comparative anthropology, and at least one really big idea about faith and the nature of religion. The relative merit of these thought provoking ideas versus to the woodenness of the characters and dialogue is net positive and the author is clearly competent. However, the book left me flat. That was because ultimately the ending just didn't deliver. After spending so much of the book leading up to it, the climax and denouement seemed hurried, and after enduring hundreds of pages of Emilio's other thoughts and emotions, Russel never successfully communicates just how profound his feelings of confusion, abandonment and hopelessness must have been.
That said, the book was good enough that I do expect to read the sequel.
on April 29, 2005
I wonder if I am the only atheist who has reviewed this book? I was worried it would turn out to be a "religious" book, preachy and manipulative, but it was certainly not.
The Sparrow asks excellent questions, gives no easy answers, and will leave you thinking about it for long after you've finished. It manages to cover a lot of ground, philosophically and practically, merging science, moral values, societal ethics, religious faith, and the human drive to meet and know the unknown against all odds, just for starters. It will simultaneously bring to mind Star Trek and the Spanish Conquistadors, or Star Wars and the Crusades, for example. It will bring to mind much of human history, human present, and potential human futures.
Although I was a bit disappointed in the ending, which seemed quite blatantly leading to a sequel, I was equally relieved that things were not wrapped up in a neat little bundle.
I will plunge right into Children of God.