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The Sparrow: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – September 8, 1997
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In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being "human." When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong... Words like "provocative" and "compelling" will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
An enigma wrapped inside a mystery sets up expectations that prove difficult to fulfill in Russell's first novel, which is about first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The enigma is Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist whose messianic virtues hide his occasional doubt about his calling. The mystery is the climactic turn of events that has left him the sole survivor of a secret Jesuit expedition to the planet Rakhat and, upon his return, made him a disgrace to his faith. Suspense escalates as the narrative ping-pongs between the years 2016, when Sandoz begins assembling the team that first detects signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and 2060, when a Vatican inquest is convened to coax an explanation from the physically mutilated and emotionally devastated priest. A vibrant cast of characters who come to life through their intense scientific and philosophical debates help distract attention from the space-opera elements necessary to get them off the Earth. Russell brings her training as a paleoanthropologist to bear on descriptions of the Runa and Jana'ata, the two races on Rakhat whose differences are misunderstood by the Earthlings, but the aliens never come across as more than variations of primitive earthly cultures. The final revelation of the tragic human mistake that ends in Sandoz's degradation isn't the event for which readers have been set up. Much like the worlds it juxtaposes, this novel seems composed of two stories that fail to come together. BOMC, QPB and One Spirit Book Club selections.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
So when first contact is made with an alien world in the neighboring galaxy of Alpha Centauri, and that first contact comes in the form of lovely, wistful, transcendent music, Father Sandoz is astounded and amused and intrigued. But when he and each of his closest friends turn out to have the precise skill sets required to make the journey out to this new world, he is shaken. And when, against all possible odds, Father Sandoz and those dearest to his heart land on that far away alien Garden of Eden just eighteen short months later, he is transported. For the first time, he feels, he has encountered and fallen in love with the Living God.
But crossing languages, cultures, and species is a treacherous business. As missionaries throughout the millennia of human history have learned, the cost of leading the vanguard of discovery can be very, very high. How will a fledgling faith hold up in the face of loss and suffering and despair? Can we love a God who takes away as much as He gives, who is neither simple, predictable, or safe?
Mary Doria Russell accomplished in her debut, award-winning novel what I thought was impossible in the modern age. She married the foremost theories of medicine and technology with one of the oldest and most rigidly structured religious faiths. She took atheist and Jesuit characters and treated each with the same honest affection, bound them together as a family unit, and then dissected them in a ruthless pursuit of literally "universal" truths. She did not shy away from a single charged, political question. She looked the reader in the face as she led us to an abyss we all recognize, but work very hard to ignore.
I have a new favorite book, folks. And I am challenged, once again, to expand my own view of what's possible to achieve in fiction.
“But the sparrow still falls.”
The fascinating premise of Mary Doria Russell’s book attracted me, that once an extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered a few decades from now, the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits) is the first to send a contact mission. It struck me as an original approach to a first contact story and makes sense. While governments and private corporations jockeyed for advantage and tried to get out of their own way, the Jesuits quietly did what they have done for centuries. They set out to bring the knowledge of God to the aliens, or to find out whether such knowledge is universal among all God’s children.
Beginning at the Arecibo telescope with a gawky SETI astronomer, the revelation that we’re not alone travels quickly among a circle of friends with extraordinary talents and connections. THE SPARROW is a character-driven story that draws the reader into the lives of people embarking on an historical expedition. I’m not Roman Catholic, but I appreciated the insight into the life of a Jesuit priest. Service, celibacy, and honor are explored alongside secular issues. This is not a ‘Christian’ book, per se, but more an exploration of how intelligent people approach the concept of why an omniscient and omnipotent God allows terrible things to happen, whether he simply watches atrocities or orchestrates them for some purpose hidden from us.
This is a wonderfully-written thinker’s book that encourages the reader to examine the logic of whether God exists, what evil looks like, whether one society’s morality is more valid than another’s, how faith and science can overlap and complement one another, and too many other concepts to list in this review.
Russell has an impressive background in anthropology, and it shows in this compulsively readable, thoroughly approachable speculation on how interaction with an alien culture impacts humanity in general, and one man’s faith in particular.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the book begins with a disaster having taken place. Details of the events are shrouded in mystery, but one thing is clear: it’s not going to end well. I spent most of the book enjoying the intelligence and humor of the dialog and character interaction, falling in love with Russell’s characters, and living in a kind of dread for the hard ending I knew was coming.
The main character says at some point in the story, “God is in the why.” This is reflected in the way the author chooses to structure the novel. We know the ending from the beginning of the book, but the book isn’t about what happens, it’s about why, and the effects of the ‘why’ on one physically, emotionally, and spiritually ravaged man.
The profound sadness of this book lingers, along with grand ideas that I can keep and turn over in my mind like exotic artifacts. My conclusion: at the point where science can no longer answer there are mysteries we have to accept–assumptions that must be made–in order to go on living and working and loving. For some, I think, this is what is required to bridge the gaps in our knowledge that otherwise would lead to despair. Another word for this is faith.
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