Book Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I finished reading this book over a month ago, but it took me a while to sit down and actually type out my thoughts on it. I found this to be an intriguing book, though in some ways it was heartbreaking to read.

The Sparrow tells the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest and a master of linguistics. He is the only survivor of an first contact trip to another planet. Maimed in his hands and spirit, he must give a report of what happened to his Jesuit superiors. His narrative runs parallel to a flashback several decades prior, where he first meets the people he will grow close bonds with, and eventually travel with to the new planet.

Although there are many science fiction elements to this story, this is not classified as science fiction. Probably because if you changed the storyline from aliens to, say, the discovery of a unknown people group existing in a volcano somewhere, it wouldn’t impact the story’s main theme. The book mainly focuses on relationships. We get to meet Anne and George, a older couple that made me instantly wish they were real so I could hang out at their house. Sofia Mendez, a beautiful, bright woman with a hard logical exterior. DW, ugly as sin, but a lovable priest. Jimmy Quinn, awkward but smart, who is the first to make the discovery of alien music that will draw them all to the planet. And of course, a younger, more light-hearted Emilio, who sees his friendships as God’s hand of blessing to push forward with this mission to another planet.

And that’s the heartbreaking part. We watch Emilio struggle with his attraction to Sofia even though he took an oath of celibacy, watch Sofia’s carefully placed barriers around herself melt as she grows to love these people fiercely, watch Anne argue theology, then fondly joke with DW, secure in his friendship even though she doesn’t believe. We see them debate, learn, grow, and experience joy and sorrow, all the while knowing all of them will die except for Emilio, who will become embittered, pained, ashamed, agonizing on whether the God he worships is nothing more than a cruel, heartless bastard, or if there is any God at all.

This is a good book. I would almost say it’s the best book I’ve ever read, except for one thing. The whole fiasco probably could’ve been avoided if the Jesuits had some damn sense.

The problem with the whole trip is that it’s not scientific-based but missionary based. Go in, live among the natives, get to know them relationally and by that, have them know us relationally and culturally. However, lack of knowledge can severely sets them up for disaster. This worked for regular missionaries in the field. And it certainly was the case in this book. In fact, it left me wondering if Russell did this on purpose.

That the Jesuit Order would be the first to send people to this newly discovered planet, that the mission was managed by corporate and religious figures, doomed it from the very start. Russell doesn’t explain why NASA or any other scientific based group didn’t take control of the project. But even I, a person with very little experience in space travel, could see all the errors the group did that could have been prevented. Instead of such a small team, why not a large one? Instead of going down to the planet right away, why not set up a base in orbit that could monitor the parties below, and send teams in groups of two? Instead of living among the aliens, the Runa and the Jana’ata, why not observe them from afar first?

It makes the premise hard to believe until, towards the end of the book, I found myself shaking my head at some of the decisions made. When the deaths finally came and what happened to Emilio happened (and I’m avoiding spoilers here), I found that I felt less sympathetic to him than towards the beginning of the book.  It wasn’t God who marooned the crew on the planet and got them killed. It was their own sheer stupidity.

I believe I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half. Russell did a great job showing the complexity and the deepness of the relationships (it was especially interesting how she dwelled on celibacy and sexual attraction). But the scientific motive in the end fell a little short. I do understand there is a sequel, and I might have to read it. The Sparrow gets 3 1/2 stars out of five, and if we hear some far off music coming from space, I’d suggest you find a galactic Wikipedia to learn the lyrics first. It might not be what you think.