1998-04-16: The Sparrow

The Sparrow (1996)

by Mary Doria Russell (1950-)

This is a first novel, classed as science fiction, about the religious implications of interstellar travel by a small, privately-organized mixed group to meet an alien culture.

The author has written technical works for many years, so she knows how to write. She shows here that she also knows how to tell a story. The book contains a dual narrative of the events leading up to and during the journey to Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system, and the debriefing of the lone survivor. The writing is very good.

The book is science fiction, not fantasy, set only a few decades in the future. No violations of physical law as we know it are assumed in the book’s infrastructure or plot. The actual details of the construction of the ship and the relative timing of the journey and earthly events might not stand up under close scrutiny, but those are basically accidental details. Basically such a journey might be possible.

Once singing is heard in the radio emanating from Alpha Centauri, the few people who happen to be near the discovery become involved in the preparation of the journey. Key among these people is a Jesuit priest who persuades that Society to organize the journey, and to include the core group in the crew: four Jesuits, an astronomer (single male), a computer specialist (a Jewish woman), and a married couple. This group, financed by the Jesuits, sets out within a couple of years of the discovery, well before the national or world governments or commercial interests could possibly get organized. To those involved, the ease with which everything falls into place is likened to turtles on a fencepost: they couldn’t have just happened without some other agency’s intervention. In the end, all (except possibly one) believe their mission is enabled by God.

The sole survivor, the priest present at the initial discovery, is returned to earth, and must tell his superiors what happened. The horror of losing all his crewmates and the suffering he underwent have broken his faith.

The book is interesting, but also disappointing. Extensive notes at the end (the author is still a rather technical writer) indicate that her motivation was primarily to investigate issues concerning faith. The distortion of probability in the plot and characters permits these issues to come to the fore, at the expense of other interesting issues that might be expected to arise in such a journey. For instance, the crew contains one (and a half) experts in linguistics, but none in the cognitive or biological specialties that might be expected to be important in the first contact with another planet containing life. Similarly, the nature of the physical and biological infrastructure of the planet is glossed over, permitting the earthlings to land, fly an ultra-light, walk around unencumbered with special suits, breathe the air, eat the plants and animals, live in the spaces of the natives, speak their language, teach them ours, and do other improbable things. The culture shock is minor, until interaction with the dominant species (the singers) occurs. Then it is catastrophic. Yet even then, it is short-lived, only long enough to precipitate the central spiritual crisis.

Despite the shortcomings I found in this book, I could recommend it to others. It isn’t the book I would have written, but then where is the book I would have written? The author has written a sequel (Children of God), premised on the return of the protagonist to Rakhat. I don’t expect to read it.

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