The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell November 12, 2011Posted by futurewired in Mary Doria Russell, Reviews.
There’s a moment in The Sparrow which, for me, seems to express the idea at the heart of the book. A Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz is presented with an account by his rescuers, that accuses him of acts of prostitution, and of murder on an alien planet during a disastrous first contact mission. He is asked whether this account describes the truth; his answer, is that it is all true, with the qualification lost amid the uproar, that it is also all wrong. Facts are given meaning by context, by interpretation. The same sequence of events can be seen as the operation of divine providence and as a cruel joke, a gift can become a curse and beauty transmutes to ugliness when placed in its proper surroundings.
Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel won a heap of prizes on first publication and it certainly has the ambition and intrigue to back up these credentials. Its a novel featuring interstellar travel that spends the bulk of its time on earth, a first contact story that focuses as much on interpersonal relationships between it’s human character’s as anything else, and a book with expressly religious concerns in a genre that can appear almost resolutely godless at times. I found it a gripping read, poignant and thought provoking in equal measures.
Briefly it tells the story of first contact between earth and an alien world; a mission organised by the Jesuit order, responding to musical broadcasts from another planet, travels across the stars to make contact with the mysterious ‘singers.’ Something goes terribly wrong however, and the book centres on the debriefing of the mission’s sole survivor, the struggle to obtain from him the ‘truth’ behind the events that led to the deaths of his companions and to his own degradation and disgrace.
We have therefore a central mystery – what happened and why, – and the book alternates between two narrative streams, the gentle interrogation of the mutilated and traumatised Father Sandoz by the leaders of his order, and a series of flashbacks detailing the origins and course of the mission itself. We learn that the apparent failure of the Jesuit endeavour has led to the disgrace and virtual ruin of the order, (due to the relativistic effects of high velocity space travel decades have passed on earth compared to the handful of years for Sandoz and companions.) Sandoz is a broken man whose reluctance to discuss what happened is palpable, it is only through the carefullest manipulation that the truth begins to emerge. Parallel to this we get to know the other characters, their past, their personalities and history; it is one of the book’s strengths that we are made to care, even as from the first chapter we know, approximately, their fates.
As I mentioned it’s a surprisingly long time before the book really leave earth and even when the mission reaches Rakhat, the descriptions are pointedly sparse. We are given a few details, general descriptions of the two alien species encountered but there is no prolonged visualisation of a new world as you might expect. There is however, a great emphasis on language; Sandoz is a linguist and there are lengthy discussions of the ways in which language reveals facets of cultures and societies, as a concrete iteration of a way of thought – form is as revealing as content.
This gap between content and context plays out in a number of different ways. A first example would be various actions by the crew, innocent by intention that in the context of an alien society have potentially disastrous consequences; the introduction of the concept of agriculture to a group of hunter gatherers being a prime example. They consider all the consequences at the time but there are always factors beyond their knowledge at any given time; in this case the nature and structure of the society in which the group operates. An experiment in growing earth plants on another world triggers a series of events that culminate in gut-wrenching violence.
One of the central aspects in which this features s the way in which the narrative itself is viewed. The expedition begins so fortuitously; it is apparently only by chance that the group of people present to first hear the alien broadcasts possess between them the skills and contacts to organise this mission. Everything proceeds almost without a hitch, the planet itself is amenable to human life , Sandoz himself turns the first encounter into a success confidently, empowered by faith. The notion of divine providence is repeatedly brought up by the characters. The problem with this is when things go wrong, there is nowhere else to turn – God is cruel or God is dead. Sandoz is trapped by the human need to construct narratives, unwilling to reveal the depth of his shame. Ultimately it is only through telling his story, constructing a shared narrative out of what had been solely personal events that he can begin to move on.
The worldbuilding in the book is done well; just enough detail to be convincing – widespread use of AI, asteroid mining, virtual communication, – but it isn’t laid on too thick, something that really helps considering that the narrative covers such a long period of time. The changes in technology that would be expected to have occurred aren’t such an issue however as the entirety of the action set after Sandoz’s return is in an enclosed environment, a retreat for the Jesuit order.
The Sparrow is a really interesting book, different in many ways from a lot of the stuff I normally read in terms of its concerns and its reference points. The criticism I can make really relate to the choice to have certain passages narrated by one of the aliens (the whole book shifts between different third person narratives.) This is just a personal thing, I feel like it would have been more powerful for the book to be from a solely human perspective, but I appreciate that this might have made it more difficult to follow or appreciate certain elements.
Minor quibbles aside I’d definitely recommend giving this one a go. There’s a sequel Children of God that has now made its way on my ever expanding reading list. I’ve seen on some reviews the recomendation that if you’re not religious or interested in religious concerns then you should give it a miss; I don’t think that’s necessarily the case; the issues it deals with might be expressed in the language of religion but they run much deeper than that.