The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: the questions were not whether or why but how soon

Updated: May 2, 2021

Emotive singing plucked from the stars. A broken priest shamefully repatriated. The heartbreaking consequences of ignorance and altruism.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a brilliantly written, stimulating novel, poignant, disturbing, and tragic. I’m not a science fiction fan and was hesitant about reading The Sparrow when it was chosen at our book club, however, from the very first page the book captivated my interest. The themes, structure, and characters are masterful, and the core premise of the novel deeply challenges your thinking.

Although technically a sci-fi novel, I hesitate to classify The Sparrow as such and urge you to think of it primarily as a thought-provoking story recounting deadly misunderstandings, dangerous entitlement, and supreme naivety.

After Earth receives radio telescope broadcasts of intricate and elegant singing emanating from a far planet, a private Jesuit mission is planned and sent to the planet Rakhat to meet with its unknown inhabitants.

The story begins with the return from the mission of the emaciated, damaged, and vilified Jesuit priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz. From this point, the full tale of the expedition gradually unfolds as the author cleverly interweaves Sandoz’s return in 2059, with events beginning from 2019 on the discovery of the extra-terrestrial songs.

Each step of the selection of the crew, preparation for the mission, and the occurrences on Rakhat alternates with the gradual revelations of the expedition’s ill-fated progress, provided by the returned Emilio Sandoz.

The lesson of this fateful quest is summed up brilliantly by Sandoz’s fellow Jesuit priest.

‘The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time. Like most colossal disasters.’

The author steadily reveals and explores with deftness and humour, each of the characters who eventually comprise the mission, and those seeking answers from Sandoz on his return. The characters’ backstories are adeptly constructed and interleaved with the skilful unfolding of events surrounding the expedition’s evolution. The inhabitants of Rakhat and the complexities of their societies are imaginatively and convincingly conceived.

Religious missionaries down the ages have assumed the right to connect with, and in many cases convert, communities that are unlike their own, often with catastrophic, unforeseen consequences. In The Sparrow, the Jesuits are no exception, and although their aim is ‘to learn, not to proselytize’, their actions have devastating consequences.

These unwitting but arguably colossal blunders remind me of elements of The English Passengers which in places describes how colonists completely misunderstand the ways of the indigenous Tasmanian people. Even for those settlers that mean well, their actions culminate in a decimation of the population through their ignorant actions.

At the heart of The Sparrow is the Jesuits' unassailable belief that they have a Godly duty and right to send a mission to this unknown planet without reference to earthly authority.

Through the crew’s actions, fundamental misunderstandings, and Sandoz’s subsequent suffering, The Sparrow explores Sandoz’s relationship with his faith and the colossal effect of misdirected beneficence.

It never ceases to amaze me what human beings will do if we believe we are in the right.

I savoured this book so much that, again on the suggestion of one of the book club members, I read the second book, Children of God, which I would encourage you to read too as it satisfyingly expands and completes the story.

If you would like a thought-provoking, beautifully written good read that explores faith and humanity issues through compelling characters and events, then The Sparrow (and Children of God) is for you. Sci-fi or no sci-fi.

Happy reading!

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