The Sparrow, or, as I quickly came to refer to it, Jesuits in Space, is a very interesting science-fiction novel by Mary Doria Russell. It won, amongst other prizes, the Arthur C. Clarke award and seems to have been quite the belle of the ball the year it was published (1996). Oblivious to all of this, I encountered it only very recently when a friend recommended that I read it.
The story begins in 2019. It’s a nicely depicted 2019, largely similar to our own time. There’s a little more economic inequality and Japan (which was consistently the go-to nation of the future in the mid-90s) has a bit more influence in the US than it does now. AIs can be designed to replace human employees (resulting in a pleasant worker solidarity sub-plot in the early part of the book), and parentless children can have their education and welfare paid for by private individuals who later get to manage their indentured beneficiary’s career and take a profitable share of their earnings (this innovation also leads to an interesting sub-plot and has excellent payoff for character development).
The first hundred or so pages outline the formation of a group of friends centred around Emilio Sandoz, once Puerto Rican hardman, now charismatic Jesuit, well travelled and a talented linguist. Jimmy is a young astronomer working at SETI; Ann and George are an old married couple, she’s a doctor, he’s an engineer; and Sofia is an AI programmer. Nothing much happens, but they’re all likeable and I found myself drawn into their world. There are moments when characters feel a little stereotyped, especially when Russell draws on their cultural backgrounds, and some of the dialogue feels more like banter than conversation, but their motivations and concerns are quite rich and well depicted.
Things take off when Jimmy discovers music coming from Alpha Centauri. Jimmy calls his posse together and breaks the news. Sandoz feels the hand of God at work and promptly starts lobbying his Jesuit overlords to put a mission together. Yes, inspired by thoughts of the theological insights to be gained from meeting this new race, the first manned mission to another planet is sponsored by…the Jesuits.
Well — we know this plan doesn’t pan out as well as it might. Chapters dealing with events in 2019 alternate with chapters that take place in 2060. At that time, Sandoz has returned from the alien planet (Rakhat) after the intercession of a second, UN-sponsored, mission. Sole survivor of both missions, Sandoz is a physical and mental wreck, his hands mutilated beyond use. Perhaps worse, a report from the UN mission has preceded his return to Earth claiming that he was working as a prostitute when found and that he killed an alien child in cold blood. Despised by the Earth’s populace, Sandoz is given shelter by the Jesuits who must work to restore his health so that they can find out the truth of what happened. Again, not much occurs in this strand of the novel. There are frequent scenes of angst and rage and deep sadness, but, due to the efforts of some good-natured and hard-working priests, Sandoz does gradually get better. It’s all done with great emotional sensitivity and psychological authenticity, and moments of catharsis, when they come, feel earned and satisfying.
Meanwhile, back in the past, when everyone was still idealistic and full of hope, a team has been put together including all of the characters already mentioned, plus another three Jesuits: a prim British musician, a ladies man French artist, and a larger-than-life Texan (because it’s not possible to have a Texan who is the same size as, or smaller than, life). They buy an asteroid, fit it with life-support systems, and away they go. I’m not going to lie to you — the idea that Jesuits would fund a space mission, and that they would choose this random bunch to man it, occasionally strains credulity. Russell’s a good writer, though, and does a pretty good job of making it seem plausible, or, at least, taking attention away from the less plausible elements.
The science of how they make this interstellar journey isn’t really explained, but I didn’t find myself particularly bothered by this lack of hard sci-fi trappings. Relativity does play a role, though, and many fewer subjective years have passed for the space-farers than for those back on Earth. At any rate, the journey doesn’t last long in book-time, and, before you know it, the explorers have landed and made contact with an alien race. I know the characters have watched Star Trek (they make a geeky joke to that effect anyway), but they seem to have missed out on the wisdom behind the prime directive. Before too long has passed, they’ve taught the gatherer society that’s hosting them how to farm. This innocent gesture has profound implications for the planet and for the explorers, and the expedition ends, as we knew it must, in tragedy.
This section of the book, an almost anthropological uncovering of the societies and races to be found on Rakhat, is impressively thoughtful and highly thought-provoking. I liked it a lot. In addition to being an excellent example of science fiction world-building, however, there are also more subtle literary motifs to be savoured. For example, there are elegant meditations on the character of faith, and lovely parallels are drawn between the experiences of the explorers and those of the first Europeans to visit South America.
To conclude — I thought The Sparrow (named for a biblical passage that tells us that the plight of even the smallest of birds is seen by God) was a highly original work. I’ve never encountered anything like this mix of theology, religion, black irony, and science fiction before, and I suspect that it will be looked on as an important contribution to the genre for many years.