A Heartbreaking First Contact Story: Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow

This is one of those books that keep coming up. It’s on many favorite Science Fiction lists, it has won quite a few awards, and people are still talking about it. Not in a hype sort of way, but I’ve stumbled across reviews and recommendations of this work a lot in the last decade. Now I finally picked up this classic sci-fi story about Jesuit priests going to another planet in order to make first contact with an alien species and it was everything I had hoped plus a lot more. So you can add my voice to the many others screaming about how amazing this book is.

by Mary Doria Russell

Published: Ballantine, 1996
eBook: 518 pages
Series: The Sparrow #1
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: It was predictable, in hindsight.

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be “human”.

The Sparrow is a novel about a remarkable man, a living saint, a life-long celibate and Jesuit priest, who undergoes an experience so harrowing and profound that it makes him question the existence of God. This experience–the first contact between human beings and intelligent extraterrestrial life–begins with a small mistake and ends in a horrible catastrophe.

I finished this book a few nights ago and, honestly, I still feel raw. That’s the only word I can think of. This story has taken me through all the emotions and left me crying like a baby. I will not spoil anything of course, although I don’t believe knowing the end would take away from the emotional journey at all.

The Sparrow is told in two timelines. The “present” is set in 2059-2060 and takes place in Italy, where Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz is being treated for his various injuries and illnesses after returning – as the sole survivor – from the planet Rakhat. Something has been done to his hands that renders them not only painful but mostly useless for everyday tasks. His body is battered and weak and his mind is even worse. This timeline follows his slow (physical) healing process and his interviews with the Father Superior and some other Jesuit priests who wish to know what exactly happened on the mission they sponsored.
There is an immediate air of mystery surrounding these events and while Russell feeds us tidbits right from the start, we want to know what happened from Emilio. These passages were painful to read because Sandoz’ character is so well drawn that his pain feels utterly real. He is a priest who has lost his faith in God, who is dealing with severe depression, and is in constant physical pain. And we, the readers, need to know why!

The second timeline goes back to how the Rakhat mission came to be. In fact, it starts even earlier than that, with a young Emilio Sandoz who is not just a priest but also an incredibly skilled linguist. He travels around the world, picking up languages left and right, and ends up working as a professor. Which is where he meets 60(ish)-year-old Anne Edwards and her husband, a doctor and science all-rounder respectively. They become a sort of found family.
When a man named Jimmy Quinn who works with George at the Arecibo radio telescope picks up a signal that sounds like nothing he’s ever heard before, he joins the group as well. Soon they realize that what they’re picking up is not only alien in nature, but is actually alien music!
Last of the bunch is Sofia Mendes, a Sephardic AI specialist, and super smart person who is connected to Emilio and Jimmy.
Although they first aren’t quite sure how to proceed (inform the authorities etc.) Emilio knows that there’s only one thing to do: Go meet the aliens who make this music! And so, with a little help from the Jesuits and under the leadership of priest D. W. Yarbrough, they go…

There is so much to unpack in this novel that I don’t know where to begin. The characters are all brilliant and the found family they slowly build together was a thing of pure beauty. And funny enough, although I knew right from the start, that only Emilio would survive this tale (he is the only one who returns from Rakhat and we learn this in the very first chapter) I couldn’t help but fall in love with all of them. D. W.’s Texas drawl, Emilio and Sofia’s feelings for each other, Anne and George’s wonderful marriage and the way they become surrogate parents to the younger ones… man, it’s bringing tears to my eyes just thinking about it. The fact that they are all brilliant scientists just makes them even more interesting.

This is often cited as a work of religious science fiction, and I guess in a way it is. But the religous aspects are subtle or at least restricted to the characters who actually are religious and I always felt the novel kept a great balance. Anne, for example, does not understand how people can believe in God and she considers Emilio’s celibacy as a waste. I’d love to say that him dealing with his vows to God and his feelings for Sofia were the most interesting part of this novel, but there is so much going on here that it sort of faded into the background. Emilio does struggle but that struggle is part of the deal, in his opinion. And there is a lot more to him than his decision not to have sex.

I could tell you so much about each and every single character in this book, even the ones that don’t show up all that often. Because Russell writes with such ease and creates fully fleshed-out people on the page effortlessly. The quippy banter that often goes on between our protagonists helps, of course, and gives the book the much-needed levity to balance out its seriousness. She also managed to convey the joy the characters felt whenever they got to nerd out over some discovery on Rakhat, whether it’s an animal species or a particular plant, a bit of grammar from the Runa language – they clearly all love their jobs and eagerly record their findings for the people on Earth.

But doom hangs over the novel and we are reminded of it every time there’s a chapter switch and we return to present day Emilio Sandoz and his interrogation by the Jesuits. Over the course of the novel, more and more information comes to light that gives you an idea of where Emilio ended up. But – as with all the best stories – it’s the how that’s important and the why. And trust me when I say this, although the closer you get to the end of the novel, the more you can sort of guess the direction things will move in, it will still hit you like a rock when it does. I can’t explain it to you. I knew characters would die in this novel because I’ve known it all along. And yet I felt so sad when it happened because this found family had grown so dear to me that a part of me kept hoping against all better knowledge, that there would be some twist along the way that would let them live.

Probably the central theme of this story is the first contact itself. How humans interact with an alien species that has its own culture, language, anatomy, etc. in a way that doesn’t disrupt their lives but also lets them learn all they possibly can. Our scientists are incredibly careful when it comes to the alien Runa. They take all precautions, and once they do make contact, they are respectful of the Runa’s needs, oftentimes at the cost of their own comfort. But this book shows that even the best intentions can lead to terrible things. Saying any more would be a spoiler but as I said – the tone of the novel sets the story up for Something Terrible and while you don’t know what exactly happens and why, you know that things won’t go perfectly.

I didn’t believe this year would bring me another book that could make me ugly cry (the first was Doomsday Book by Connie Willis), but 2020 is the year that keeps on giving, I guess. I wish I was a more eloquent person so I could properly tell you how much The Sparrow meant to me. I kept returning to it with both eagerness and dread and the more I read the less I wanted to finish. But it’s quite impossible to put down and so I ended up finishing it way past my bedtime, crying into my pillow and not knowing what to do with myself afterwards.
Needless to say, I have the sequel on my e-reader already, but I think it will be a while until I’m ready to return to this world. But when I do you can bet I’ll prepare tissues.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!



8 thoughts on “A Heartbreaking First Contact Story: Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Gosh, yeah, I loved this book too. I’ve never felt the same about anything else I’ve read by this author, although I admit I haven’t tried the sequel to The Sparrow. I keep thinking I want to reread this and then not feeling quite up to all the stuff that happens in it and how distressing it ultimately is. But it’s so good!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dina says:

      Yeah, your words exactly. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read but I don’t know when I’ll want to put myself through this emotional journey again.


  2. Lexlingua says:

    Absolutely agree with all that you’ve said and the rating. This was such a powerful and tough book. Especially the author’s explanations/ afterword, where she explains how we assume that if we do good, we expect “God” to do good for us in return — as if it’s a unilateral contract. It left me feeling hapless for weeks after I read this, but the book had lingered in my mind since then.

    Liked by 1 person

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