The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
“There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”
So God just leaves?”
No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”
But the sparrow still falls.”
In 2019 Earth begins to pick up radio signals from another planet – signals that are distinctly recognisable as music. The first exploratory mission to this planet is organised by the Society of Jesus, and among its members is father Emilio Sandoz, a linguist and a Jesuit priest. Sandoz is the only one of the crew who will return.
The framing narrative of The Sparrow deals with the return of Emilio Sandoz to earth some four decades later. The second mission to Rakhat (as the planet is known) had sent back some rather disturbing messages about the circumstances in which they had discovered him. Emilio, greatly damaged by his experiences on the planet, comes home to find himself already stigmatised as a prostitute and a child murderer. As he slowly recovers from his trauma and physical mutilation past events unfold. The book skips through time, describing events that led up to the voyage as well as the voyage and landing themselves. We see the humans’ first contact with the inhabitants of Rakhat, and we see the horrors that follow.
Language and religion are central to this book. This makes sense; encountering an alien species is necessarily going to involve communication with it – and it’s also going to involve a rethinking of the self; what we think of as a person, what our position in the universe as intelligent beings is. The ‘science’ in this science fiction novel all seems very dubious (even compared to the dubious science of a lot of SF), with its conveniently close planet with breathable air and easily-digested food.
But this doesn’t matter; the science-fictional apparatus serves mainly as a background to the central subjects of the book: Emilio, his suffering and the question of what God means in a world where such suffering exists.
There are things at which this novel succeeds very well. One of them is character – Russell spends a lot of time inside her characters’ heads and they are always complex, sympathetic, believable and even likeable people. Then there is the religion aspect which I (speaking as an atheist, at least) think is brilliantly done. Emilio’s struggles with his faith are never a crisis OF faith; and if the conversations between various characters on the question of faith feel a little too deliberately inserted, they’re never as obviously explanatory as they might have become.
Russell’s prose is often wonderful. The prologue in particular is perfectly pitched; the last line, “they meant no harm” manages to be ominous while also conveying a plea for understanding. Yet in the context of the book the reader is left wondering whether it matters that no harm was meant. Certainly harm was done.
Yet The Sparrow also suffers from laying its focus so disproportionately upon one character. Russell creates an interesting society, hints at such subjects as apartheid and colonialism, and never goes further, preferring instead to deal with Emilio’s suffering. This is all very well, but the reader is given enough of a look into this world and these characters to make them more than just background. As a result it’s hard to privilege Emilio’s pain and suffering as somehow so much worse than anything that happens to anyone else. Russell’s depiction of rape is probably the weakest angle here – at least one other character has dealt with sexual assault in the past. It’s hard to escape the implication that it is worse here not just because it is happening to Emilio, but because it is happening to a man.
Despite this Russell’s book is a thoughtful and lyrical exploration of faith. Whether or not the aliens and interplanetary travel are sufficient to make The Sparrow science fiction depend upon what you think science fiction is and what it ought to do. But it’s beautiful, and that is enough of a reason to read it.