Tuesday, April 16, 2013
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Father Sandoz, the sole survivor of a Jesuit mission to an alien planet, grapples with his faith as he reluctantly confesses the disastrous consequences of meeting "God's other children."*
This is a book you have to allow to sink into your brain and heart, where it will certainly take root. It is a character study of Father Sandoz and his closest friends as well as a chilling first contact story of the impossibility of entering a truly foreign culture without suffering from dangerous ignorance and misunderstanding.
I admit to feeling impatient with Sandoz as he mopes and avoids telling his story (which is recounted VERY slowly in parallel flashback chapters, told in third person), but by the revelations at the end I was completely on his side - the horrors he suffered are every bit as soul-shattering as his reticence suggests.
Russell sees no conflict between religion and science, and for this I am profoundly grateful: her characters encompass a range of belief (from priests to atheists), but each person is educated, intelligent, and articulate. The Jesuit mission on Rakhat is to learn, not to proselytize, and the portrayal of the priests is human and sympathetic.
There are no other books quite like this one, but science fiction does have more than its fair share of thoughtful books about first contact by brilliant writers: Contact by Carl Sagan, China Mieville's Embassytown, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin...I could go on.
P.S. There are traces of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine here, too, for anyone who remembers the Eloi and the terrifying Morlocks.
* This annotation was a joint effort by students, created in class for "Adult Reader's Services" taught by Nancy Pearl (Spring 2013).