Once in awhile a book comes along that sends me into a tailspin and I find myself putting off writing about it – mainly because I worry that anything I write couldn’t possibly do it justice. The easy thing to do would be to say – read this book, come back when you’re finished and then let’s talk. It’s that kind of book. It wants to be discussed.
I do not usually read science fiction. It just isn’t my thing. But when Ann from Table Talk, whose impeccable judgment I trust completely, recommended Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow, I went and got myself a copy right away. I believe Ann said the book was a revelation for her at the time she read it and that was certainly enough to get me interested. I love the idea that a single book can change the way we understand or think about the world. Literature is just that powerful.
The Sparrow is about Jesuit priests and space travel. A young scientist discovers radio waves from another planet which turn out to be music. He reveals his discovery to his closest friends, one of whom happens to be a Jesuit priest and linguistics expert named Emilio, and suddenly the Jesuits are funding a research expedition to get to the planet and see if they can make contact.
The novel is written in such a way, however, that you know from the very beginning the expedition was a failure. Eight people (four priests, four civilians) were sent, and only one has returned – Emilio. He is close to death when he arrives back on earth. All of the other travelers were killed somehow and Emilio was found by the rescue team working in a brothel. He also seems to have killed a child from the alien planet.
The Sparrow takes on a staggering number of philosophical questions – about religious faith and humanity, about definitions of sentient life and forms of social structure. It explores biological determinism, racism and political theory. And yet it is also a clearly-written story about friendship, love and adventure which takes place in a richly-imagined alien world.
Highlights for me included the novel’s discussion about clerical celibacy, questions about assumptions/prejudices we might make with regard to other sentient beings, and the book’s investigation of a different and difficult-to-understand socio-political system. Also, The Sparrow looks at the idea of influence. What happens when a theoretically more-developed culture comes in contact with a theoretically less-developed culture? And who gets to decide what “developed” means?
It is hard to pinpoint a central question in The Sparrow but one which became very important for me by the end of the novel was a theological one – if we accept that God is good, how do we accept that He allows horrible things to happen? This paradox, I think, is fundamental to any exploration of faith. If we believe that a higher power has worked to put together or is fundamental to some kind of architecture – biological or moral – then we can’t help but be interested in understanding how that higher power is involved when the architecture breaks down.
Perhaps there are tons of science fiction novels with a similar preoccupation and since I don’t read them I’ve missed out until now, but I can’t help feeling this novel was unique. Russell’s prose is straightforward and her ideas complicated – an effective combination for a novel with so much going on.