The Sparrow Paperback – 1 Nov 1997
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This strange, ambitious science fiction novel has already won enough attention for its first-time author to make it a selection by both the Book of the Month and QPB clubs. Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist, heads a team of scientists and explorers on an expedition to the planet Rakhat, where contact has been established with two apparently primitive races, the Runa and the Jana'ata. The narrative shifts back and forth between 2016, when contact is first made, and 2060, to a Vatican inquest interrogating the maimed and broken Sandoz. A palaeoanthropologist, Russell makes the descriptions of the inhabitants of Rakhat both convincing and unsettling.
"'One of those rare books that takes you to its heart and refuses to let go'" (Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of Sleepers)
"'Compulsive reading and may be the year's best science fiction novel'" (John Clute Mail on Sunday)
"'Brilliant first novel about the discovery of extraterrestrial life...Shades of Wells, Ursula Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke, with just a dash of Edgar Rice Burroughs - and yet strikingly original'" (Kirkus Reviews)
"'One of the years's most powerful and disturbing books'" (The Times)
"'A parable about human life on Earth, with all its imperfections, failings, doubts, wisdom and erudition...The Sparrow is a startling, engrossing and moral work of fiction'" (Colleen McCullough)
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Top customer reviews
If you don't know what it's about, you might raise your eyebrows cynically when I tell you and I only need to use three words. Jesuits in space. I knew you were going to make that face but stay with me here! Our main character is a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz originally from Puerto Rico with a great talent for linguistics. He is chosen to be one of a team of people, all with individual talents of their own i.e. anthropology, medicine, science, diplomacy to go on a life-changing mission in space. Strange music has been heard and communicated to Earth and has been tracked to a particular planet, known as Rakhat. The group has been tasked with visiting the planet, meeting with the local alien lifeforms living there and researching as much as they can about their world for the purpose of science and obviously for the benefit of Earth if communication and trade between the two planets were to be an option.
However, when we first begin the novel (in the future, circa 2060 or so), we find that Emilio has returned from the mission alone with grossly mutilated hands and things that he absolutely refuses to talk about. He spent three years on Rakhat but around forty years have passed on Earth since he has been away. We switch between two different timelines, the present time where Emilio is being questioned about just what happened on the planet and the mission itself where we see the whole truth for ourselves. His story is both fascinating and terrifying and is a real emotional journey that encompass a number of themes - the different ways faith can show itself, love in all its guises, science and how we communicate with others and eventually, pure horror and hatred.
Let me just say this might not be a book for everyone, I completely understand that some people will just not gel with it and that's okay, we can't all like the same things, right? The slow but steady pace at the beginning might really put some people off but I think if you do manage to connect with the story, which I did when I pushed on, you could find something really astounding that will stay with you for a long time. I'm not the biggest fan of science fiction myself, I was one of those people that didn't really love The Martian by Andy Weir but, to be honest, I haven't read too much science fiction to be the best judge. When it's done right, like its done here in The Sparrow, I could definitely be a convert. There's a lot of characters to get to grips with and that can be quite overwhelming but they are all written so beautifully it didn't take me too long to get my head round whom everyone was. The plot itself is so convoluted and intricate but so very clever, I'm in absolute awe of Mary Doria Russell's writing ability and prose construction. It's everything I wanted from a novel, the scientific parts are not too taxing/dry, the sad bits destroyed me and the horrific parts still play on my mind months after finishing the story. If you've read this, I'd love to talk about it, if you haven't and love science fiction please, please give this a go!
In the mid-twenty first century interstellar songs are detected from a new civilisation across the galaxy. A group of Jesuits finds a way to make up an expedition to find the singers and to discover more of what God has created in the universe. Where NASA or similar bodies might make up a crew of appropriate people based on experience and qualifications this crew is chosen from friends and colleagues who feel that they are called to make the journey. When this book starts there is one survivor, Father Emilio Sandez, who has been returned to earth on his own many years later by the more conventional expedition which followed the church backed expedition and which has now disappeared. The expedition reported back to earth what they found but there has been nothing further and the church is faced by a disfigured and traumatised priest who they have been told is a murderer. The story tells of the attempts to find out from Sandez what has happened whilst he recovers - his hands have been mutilated in addition to other issues. Interspersed between these chapters is the story of the expedition and its members and what happened when it reached the planet from where the signals originated.
To appreciate this story fully you have to accept the premise that the Roman Catholic church would be able to and would wish to mount this expedition and that it would choose the people that it does. Once you have done this then the story is about people asked to undertake a great task who have been ill prepared - assuming that anyone would be better able to carry it out. The story is as much about the members of the crew, their relationships, and how they adapt to what they find as it is about what they discover. In the end the book is more about how one person or group can change others as it is about the fundamental difficulty of understanding the world view of others.
All the way through this book you know that there will be tragedy and as it unfold there is a lot of tension for the reader - ably helped by by the way in which the author tells the story. The climax/revelation when it comes makes perfect sense within the context of the book but, as I said earlier, I did feel that it took a bit longer to get there than maybe was totally necessary - on the other hand, it is possible that the shock of the events might not have been as great had you not had all the background and context.
I found this a stunningly original and thoughtful piece of writing (although I would point to Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead" which has some similarities). It was at times a harrowing read and the way that the story is told creates significant tension. There aren't a lot of laughs here but there is an awful lot to think about and reflect on.
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