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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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I don’t know if The Sparrow is fine literature but I believe it to be good storytelling in a way I wasn’t able to second-guess. The clues are all there but the denouement is still earth shattering.
I have to read the sequel now...after a break to recover.
Read to the end.
Ignoring the qualities of the book, which have been detailed scrupulously in other reviews, I just wanted to highlight the message I picked up very loud and clear. That message is echoed across the world of sci-fi, although the message is often diluted by the 'fun' of violence (such as 'Independence Day'), etc. In many ways this issues the same sort of warnings given out by the aforementioned Lem in wonderful books such as 'Solaris' (not as good as the Tarkovsky magnum opus however) and 'The Invincible'. We should stop our puny search for life 'out there', because when we find it it will be so alien that we cannot hope to understand it and any belief that we can will simply be a conceit. How could we possible understand an alien life-form any more than we can understand the workings of the universe? The word 'alien' is a clue in itself.
In 'Solaris' it is very clear just how alien the alien is - after all, a sentient ocean is not the sort of alien that you could easily hang around with and trade with. However, 'The Sparrow' illustrates the danger of our conceit that we can understand something that looks vaguely similar to us and would appear, on the surface, to have understandable social structures. Clearly the humans were wrong on almost every level.
As Lem noted in 'Solaris', 'We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror'. Exactly right, and films like 'Star Wars, et al, bear this out. We don't really want to meet something like the Solarian ocean, we want to meet a nice humanoid alien that we can have a bit of banter with and make ourselves feel better about our own somewhat isolated (in terms of the universe) situation. SETI should end now. Be careful what you wish for, as Kelvin, Snaut, Gibarian and Sartorius will tell you.
I liked this book. The characters were 4 dimensional, believable and you either
loved them or in certain cases, hated them. My only real criticism is the jumping sround between the time sequ..nces. Other than that I couldn't wait to find out what happened next (and why). As a secular humanist (and avowed atheist, I found the ehole package beautifully written, both sad and exhilerating at times.
Read it. You will not be disappointed.
The loss of the original party, the misunderstandings that arise especially regarding contact with the ruling Ja'anata and the struggle Emilio Sandoz
undergoes regarding his belief in a god and his postion in the jesuit order are beautifully told and I am still mulling over some of the points to come out of the book. There is no facile redemption in this book and the ending is uncomfortable. I would suggest, also, reading " Children of God" which is essentiallya sequel and in whihc many of the unfinshed threads of the first book are bought together. Also not an easy read but worthy of another 5 stars