The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowThe Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Shannon Turlington

It’s hard to describe the exhilarating sense of emotion I felt while reading this book. I don’t consider myself a religious person, and this book is unquestionably about religion and our relationship with God. I am a spiritual seeker, though, and I found this novel to be one of the most meaningful examinations of our purpose as humans that I have ever read. It is not an easy read, and it offers no easy answers. But despite its horrors – and some truly horrific things happen in this story – it is a beautiful, life-affirming read.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joy of reading The Sparrow lies in discovering it. Russell parcels out the story in bits and pieces, to prepare the reader for what’s coming. So, just a bare-bones summary, then: a group of people discovers radio signals – recordings of beautiful singing – coming from the Alpha Centauri system. One of these people, Emilio Sandoz, is a Jesuit priest, who interprets the singing as a sign from God. He spearheads a Jesuit mission to travel to the planet of Rakhat, four light years away, and meet the Singers.

Russell tells the story of the expedition mainly in flashbacks, alternating with scenes set in the present, after Sandoz has been rescued from Rakhat, the only survivor of his mission, a broken and despairing man. This structure allows the story to unspool slowly. The reader knows that Sandoz’s ultimate experiences on Rakhat were horrific, that he loses everyone he cares about and is somehow brought to a state of utter degradation, but we don’t know exactly what happened to him (until the end), or why. We are seeking, like Sandoz, for the the meaning of suffering and loss, searching for God somewhere in the universe. Even though it concerns aliens and space travel, The Sparrow is a very human story, a quest that mirrors one of our first stories: the story of the Fall of humankind.

When Sandoz and his friends arrive on Rakhat, it is literally a Garden of Eden, and the aliens they encounter first are like the innocents before the Fall. But Russell doesn’t make it that easy for us. The fundamental mistake that the human visitors make is interpreting this alien world through a human worldview. Russell’s tale of first contact is meant to mirror Europeans’ first encounters with Native Americans. Early on, the narrative includes a historical account of a Jesuit priest who was tortured and mutilated by the Native Americans he tried to convert, was rescued, but returned to America to be recaptured and ultimately killed. This story mirrors Sandoz’s journey in many ways. He is not interacting with primitive humans, though, but with alien species that at a very basic level he does not understand. Russell does a terrific job of making these beings truly alien and showing how the humans’ failure to acknowledge their alienness leads to the downfall of the mission and irrevocable changes on Rakhat.

However, the humans are just as alien to the Rakhat natives, and through their eyes, Russell leads us to question our own sense of morality. Sandoz is judged harshly by almost everyone upon his return, and to me, this is one of the most distressing truths of the novel: the lack of compassion we show our own.

The Sparrow is a book of contrasts. The planet of Rakhat is both incredibly beautiful and the scene of almost unimaginable horrors. The human characters are good, intelligent, loving people, yet the novel doesn’t flinch from depicting humanity’s failings, most especially our capacity to misjudge, misinterpret and, even out of good intentions, make the worst mistakes. And while this story is full of God, it doesn’t definitively answer for the reader the question of what God is or whether God even exists. For its contrasts, its challenges and its beauty, I absolutely loved this book.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on

Children of God, Mary Doria Russell

The Children of God, Mary Doria Russell (1998)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The Sparrow is probably the best SF novel never to be nominated for a Hugo. The publishers promoted it as mainstream and we didn’t find out about it in time. It did get the BSFA Award at Intuition, and hopefully Mary Doria Russell will walk away with this year’s Campbell Award. There’s a Mythopoeic Society Award up for grabs too, not to mention the already won Tiptree. But now there is a sequel out. Is it, perhaps, next year’s Hugo winner?

From an SF point of view, perhaps not. Children of God adds very little to the world created in The Sparrow. The emphasis of the book is more on morality, on religion and on politics then on science. Nevertheless, it is every bit as good as we have come to expect. I laughed, I cried, I was in awe. Russell is very, very good indeed.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Emilio Sandoz gets to go back to Rakhat. What he finds there is a telling lesson for anyone looking forward to first contact with an alien species. Cleverly, Russell makes excellent use of relativity to allow an awful lot to happen in the life span of a single character. Other than The Forever War, it is the only SF novel I can think of that makes good use of time debt rather than bending over backwards to avoid it.

But, as you might expect, the central question of the book is Sandoz’s faith. Does he get it back again? Does he forgive God for what happened to him? Does he convert to Judaism? Are all Jesuits as stupid as Russell made them out to be in The Sparrow? Ah, that would be telling.

In my review of The Sparrow I said that I thought Russell was deliberately making the Catholics look stupid as part of her justification for her own conversion to Judaism. I now think I was wrong. Russell doesn’t seem to have converted because she thinks that Judaism is a better or more moral religion, just a more honest one. The God of the Jews is, after all, a capricious, jealous, arrogant chap who never, ever explains what he is up to nor apologises for the shit he puts his creations through. He ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, He hounded Jonah mercilessly, and He stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen. Christianity supposedly provided the apology. Russell, it would seem, thinks that that apology was insincere, and wants to go back to a more honest relationship with her deity.

The problem with this, of course, is that, if you continue with an anthropomorphic view of God, you have to come to the conclusion that he is a thoroughly unpleasant old git who deserves our contempt rather than our worship. Therefore we find God disappearing into the machinery of his creation and Russell’s religion starting to have rather a lot in common with my own. Creation is indeed miraculous and beautiful, but don’t expect it to step in and grant you salvation. It is far more likely to kick you in the teeth. The trick is that if you believe in a merciful, compassionate God you are going to be disappointed, but if you don’t you can still find beauty, love and hope.

And you can find all three, and the obligatory Chicago Cubs joke, in Children of God. Read it, it is splendid.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

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.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Aishwarya Subramanian

“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.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on