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The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow Series) Paperback – September 8, 1997
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“Important novels leave deep cracks in our beliefs, our prejudices, and our blinders. The Sparrow is one of them.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Powerful . . . The Sparrow tackles a difficult subject with grace and intelligence.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Provocative, challenging . . . recalls both Arthur C. Clarke and H. G. Wells, with a dash of Ray Bradbury for good measure.”—The Dallas Morning News
“[Mary Doria] Russell shows herself to be a skillful storyteller who subtly and expertly builds suspense.”—USA Today
From the Publisher
I started reading it on my vacation, and it's a good thing, because I couldn't put it down to do anything else! I'm not quite sure what I can say about it that will do it justice, because it can be viewed so many different ways by different people----it's beautiful, ugly, sad, optimistic, and intensely compelling all at the same time. Suffice it to say that it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime books that just makes you stop and sit-up and think about things that you've never given second thought to before.
-----J. Rendon, Editorial Assistant
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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.
I will admit that I was wary about this whole Jesuit priest thing. Nothing against anyone’s faith – I just don’t tend to read many books where religion is prevalent. I was worried it would feel preachy or that I would feel isolated for not having the same views as the characters (why I thought this, I don’t know; it’s not like I’d feel isolated if reading about a barbarian because I have a non-barbaric lifestyle, I’m just silly like that.) That was certainly not the case. This was an exploration of one man’s faith and how the events of this mission affected his views on God.
This is a haunting and poignant book and the end had me crying like a baby. The set up to this interplanetary mission is a slow one, I’ll warn you. The party doesn’t arrive on the planet until just about halfway through the book. However, I found it was worth the wait. The first half of the book builds up the characters, so when the plot picks up and things start happening, you care about these people.
My only real issues with this book were how much it made my hands hurt (no, not from the weight of the book, but due to a certain scene which I think you’ll understand if you read it) and how willingly Emilio’s peers in Rome were willing to demonize him without really knowing what happened on the mission. I would think that having known him, they would have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – as a reader, once I was given some of his backstory, I was certainly willing to hear his side of the story before passing judgment. It was puzzling, but really, not a big issue.
I can’t wait to read the sequel! If you’re looking for a character-driven sci-fi that explores faith and raises interesting social questions about what could occur if humans did make contact with other life forms, and you’re ready for some feels, then I highly, highly recommend this.
I enjoyed the book as "literary sci-fi," and I actually enjoyed the lack of focus on the technology in favor of focusing on the spiritual and moral dimensions of a first encounter. My enjoyment was ruined by the final 25 or so pages. The central character's trauma was centered around a moral ambiguity and we didn't need a sexual debasement to somehow accentuate that in the mind of the reader. It's as if the author gives no credit to the reader's understanding of everything that preceded those last pages. I was offended enough that I wouldn't read the sequel, nor would I read anything else by this author.
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Ignoring the qualities of the book, which have been detailed scrupulously in other reviews, I just wanted to highlight the message I picked up very loud and clear. That message is echoed across the world of sci-fi, although the message is often diluted by the 'fun' of violence (such as 'Independence Day'), etc. In many ways this issues the same sort of warnings given out by the aforementioned Lem in wonderful books such as 'Solaris' (not as good as the Tarkovsky magnum opus however) and 'The Invincible'. We should stop our puny search for life 'out there', because when we find it it will be so alien that we cannot hope to understand it and any belief that we can will simply be a conceit. How could we possible understand an alien life-form any more than we can understand the workings of the universe? The word 'alien' is a clue in itself.
In 'Solaris' it is very clear just how alien the alien is - after all, a sentient ocean is not the sort of alien that you could easily hang around with and trade with. However, 'The Sparrow' illustrates the danger of our conceit that we can understand something that looks vaguely similar to us and would appear, on the surface, to have understandable social structures. Clearly the humans were wrong on almost every level.
As Lem noted in 'Solaris', 'We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror'. Exactly right, and films like 'Star Wars, et al, bear this out. We don't really want to meet something like the Solarian ocean, we want to meet a nice humanoid alien that we can have a bit of banter with and make ourselves feel better about our own somewhat isolated (in terms of the universe) situation. SETI should end now. Be careful what you wish for, as Kelvin, Snaut, Gibarian and Sartorius will tell you.
I don’t know if The Sparrow is fine literature but I believe it to be good storytelling in a way I wasn’t able to second-guess. The clues are all there but the denouement is still earth shattering.
I have to read the sequel now...after a break to recover.
Read to the end.
In the fictional 2019 of 'The Sparrow' (it was written in the 1990s), a radio signal from space is identified as music, prompting a private mission by the Jesuit organisation to find and contact the 'musicians'. From the outset, we know that the mission was a disaster and the one survivor, Father Sandos, returned to Earth, physically, emotionally and spiritually wrecked. Shifting timelines covering the planning of the mission, life on the planet, and, years later, the long process of discovering the truth, gradually reveal the misconceptions which led to tragedy, and to Sandos' loss of faith.
The Sparrow was a spontaneous purchase in response to an Amazon offer. Sci-fi isn't my usual genre choice, but the interface between science and religion produces compelling story-telling and 'The Sparrow' is ultimately a very human story about a man whose bedrock beliefs are challenged by what happens to him. The title refers to the bird whose fall God may see, but does nothing to prevent. Serious and heartfelt -- the story and characters will definitely linger.
Awful smug characters who seem to sit about laughing hysterically at their own jokes.
Ludicrous premise of Catholics in space.
The dullest and most unfeasible aliens
Very slim plot with lots of jumping about in time.
Very limp character- driven sci-fi/ Religious propaganda. Like some self published Kindle Unlimited rubbish.
I liked this book. The characters were 4 dimensional, believable and you either
loved them or in certain cases, hated them. My only real criticism is the jumping sround between the time sequ..nces. Other than that I couldn't wait to find out what happened next (and why). As a secular humanist (and avowed atheist, I found the ehole package beautifully written, both sad and exhilerating at times.
Read it. You will not be disappointed.
The loss of the original party, the misunderstandings that arise especially regarding contact with the ruling Ja'anata and the struggle Emilio Sandoz
undergoes regarding his belief in a god and his postion in the jesuit order are beautifully told and I am still mulling over some of the points to come out of the book. There is no facile redemption in this book and the ending is uncomfortable. I would suggest, also, reading " Children of God" which is essentiallya sequel and in whihc many of the unfinshed threads of the first book are bought together. Also not an easy read but worthy of another 5 stars
It's a novel first, a science-fiction novel second: in other words, it has rich characters, a compelling plot, and leaves you with much to think about. The SF element is done seamlessly well with good hard science and coherent thinking about another world and how it might work.
The plot is all about a Jesuit mission to another culture, what happened there, and how it affected the hero, a Jesuit priest and translator. I suspect Mary Doria Russell gave her story an SF context only because on earth, most of the strange tribes have already been encountered, if not by Jesuits then by their Protestant missionary cousins, or by Western pagan neo-colonialists (aka loggers and drillers).
Underlying the whole tale all are deep questions about God, about faith, redemption, surrender and devotion.
It really is a wonderful book, and shows perhaps how hollow much of the rest of the SF universe really is. (Not that that stops me enjoying it: it's just that this book is so much richer.)
It rightly won prizes. This is the only SF book I would recommend my wife should ever read. It's a wonderful novel, not to be missed.
My novels: Paradise (Jamie's Myth) The Wheels of the World (Jamie's Myth)
Set in the near future, the sound of song from a planet in the relatively near reaches of space is intercepted by a radio telescope. This telescope is funded by the Jesuit movement and they decide to fund a mission to visit the planet and make contact. The visiting party comprises of a combination of priests and professionals, men and women of science and men of faith. All is going well until they land on the planet and the communications stop. A second mission is sent to discover what happened and find only one survivor, hideously disfigured and unable to tell them what happened. They send him back to Earth where the Jesuits attempt to learn what occurred on the mission.
The novel is told using 2 narrative strands, the priest talking to the Jesuits, and the events leading up to the discovery of the planet and the subsequent mission. The two are expertly paced so that the events are revealed at the perfect time to keep the reader intrigued throughout.
'The Sparrow' achieves what all good SF can do, ask big questions about human life, using other worlds as the metaphor. The obvious connections to the Jesuit missions on Earth are well exploited and Russell uses the priesthood to bring into mind the balance between faith and science. She manages a big cast of characters with aplomb and while some of them are a little close to stereotypes it never threatens to derail the book. That are a lot of heavy weight ideas held within the pages and the danger would be that it could become too preachy or weighed down with science, but Russell never allows either to happen and instead presents a thought provoking story, which is also hugely entertaining.