by Mary Doria Russell
Paperback; 364 pages
In 2019, a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up a transmission that confirms the existence of extra terrestrial life. The otherworldy music is coming from a planet near Alpha Centauri, which comes to be called Rakhat. Secretly, the Society of Jesus launches an expedition to Rakhat to make the first contact with the Singers.
A team of eight, both Jesuits and non-Jesuits, land on Rakhat and make contact with a village of peaceful vegetarian Runa, who allow the aliens from Earth into their society. The explorers are fascinated by the culture they have found, although they quickly learn that the Runa are not the ones who made the music transmitted to Earth; the music came from a larger city populated by the Jana’ata, a group the Runa seem to fear. Eventually, the explorers make contact with the Jana’ata, but they unwittingly cause a lot of damage between the two dominating species because of their inability to fully grasp the complex societal structure on Rakhat.
Russell wrote The Sparrow in 1992, when America was celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Colombus’ arrival in the New World. At the time, there was a lot of discussion about the first contact between the Europeans and Native Americans, and the way the explorers destroyed the natives’ traditional way of life. With her novel, Russell set out to create a similar “first contact” scenario to explore how people with the best intentions and exemplary educations can unintentionally disrupt a society. Because the Jesuits have a history of progressiveness, thirst for knowledge, and making first contact with foreign cultures, they seemed like the logical choice when Russell considered who would launch an expedition to contact an alien race.
This is probably not a book I would have come to on my own, but I’ve heard so many people whose opinions I trust rave about how great it is. I’m so glad I took their recommendations to heart, because this book is fantastic. Despite involving a Catholic order, it’s not a religious book. It deals with the main character, priest Emilio Sandoz’s, struggles with faith, but it is never preachy. Returning to Earth as the only survivor of the expedition, Sandoz questions the goodness – even the existence – of God.
“[That] is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that gentlemen is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances…is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”
The Sparrow was a fantastic, thought-provoking book populated with brilliant, complex characters and a forward-looking plot with echoes of our own history. It’s told in two storylines: the story leading up to and including the expedition, and the story of what awaits Sandoz when he returns to Earth and is forced to relive his experience in a hearing. I loved Russell’s choice to use alternating storylines; I thought it was a really effective way to both tell the story of the expedition to Rakhat and describe the aftermath on Earth. I highly recommend this book! Not only is it a great read, but it’s really fun to say, “Oh, I’m reading a book about JESUITS in SPACE.”
(I also have to toss a note in here that the Jesuits are pretty awesome. I’m not religious, and I have a lot of problems with Catholicism, but I went to a Jesuit college, and I loved the focus on knowledge and social justice. This, in addition to recommendations from Shannon of River City Reading and Ann of Books on the Nightstand, made me curious about this book!)