The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Cheryl Morgan
Plot synopses always sound banal, but I’m going to give one anyway because you’ll need it. In 2019 SETI finally comes up trumps. Radio signals carrying strange and beautiful singing are discovered emanating from somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system. No government seems eager to fork out for an expedition, so The Vatican decides to go it alone and send a bunch of Jesuits on the first ever mission to the ETs. When this is discovered, the UN gets its act together and, a few years later, sends a slightly more representative party. The time debt between our system and Alpha Centauri is seventeen years.
Forty-one years later, Father Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth. The report of the UN delegation who sent him back arrived years earlier and is damning. He is the only surviving member of the Jesuit expedition. They found him in a brothel – staff not customer – and witness him kill a native girl who had befriended him. He is very sick, physically mutilated, and deeply mentally disturbed.
The book follows Sandoz’s story in two parallel threads. The first tells the story of the expedition as its members saw it. The second follows the debriefing of Sandoz by his Jesuit superiors. It is very well done. Russell does a fine job of maintaining tension by, on the one hand, introducing you to a likeable bunch of people and, on the other, letting slip that all but one of them will die horribly. And they are the lucky ones.
Other aspects of the book are well done too. The astrophysics seems competent and believable. The linguistics is occasionally fascinating, and the anthropology is excellent, as it should be as Russell has a PhD in the subject. My favourite SF books are always those which create a believable and truly different culture for their aliens. Le Guin does this very well. So does Russell.
I must admit that parts of the plot are very far-fetched. Quite how the Vatican managed to put this secret mission together is never quite thoroughly explained. Nor do I understand why they were willing to send a bunch of rank amateurs who behaved as if they were on a jolly picnic in Darkest Africa. These things, I suspect, must be marked down as “necessary for the message”.
And there are two messages that Russell intends us to take away from the book. Sadly, this is where she falls down.
Message number one is theological. As with Saul Weintraub in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Sandoz is forced to question the morality of God. But whereas Simmons deals with this fairly well, Russell just ends up making the Catholics look stupid. Given that she had converted from Catholicism to Judaism shortly before writing the book, this is perhaps not surprising.
Message number two is political. Russell has a bee in her bonnet about how nasty historians are these days to poor, misunderstood people like Columbus and the Conquistadors. They were just trying to do the best they could for the native Americans given their cultural background, she says. And in a similar situation, we’d make just as many awful mistakes.
She has a point that we may well stuff up. Certainly an expedition as badly equipped and crewed, and fatally over-enthusiastic, as hers is asking for trouble. They violate the Prime Directive like it is going out of fashion, but then so does Picard when his sense of morality is affronted. What I refuse to accept is that we can’t get it right. Nor do I believe that ancient colonialists should be exonerated of all blame simply because the job was hard. The Persians and Romans made a better job of colonialism that the British and Spanish.
My point, however, is that the book got me thinking about all this stuff. Even if I don’t agree with the conclusions, I like a book that makes me think.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.