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The Sparrow

The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell
“Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” (Matthew 10:29)
“But the sparrow still falls.”
I think the second sentence in the above quote (from page 401) basically says “shit happens”. It does encapsulate the major theme of the novel quite well I think.

The Sparrow is one of those books I hear people raving about and immediately put on my TBR list, but it won’t stay there quietly as I keep hearing about it almost on a weekly basis. So I have to capitulate or go mad and move it to the top of the pile.

In a nutshell The Sparrow is about a mission organized by the Jesuit order to a planet called Rakhat where a satellite received transmission of alien music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri.

The novel has a dual timelines narrative structure. In the “present day” timeline at the beginning of the book it is revealed that the protagonist Father Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of the mission. He is in very poor shaped with grossly mutilated hands and he is on trial for a couple of heinous crimes he allegedly committed on the alien planet. This leads to the flashback timeline where the details and mysteries of the mission gradually unfold.

As with most novels the shorter the synopsis the better I think (plus I hate writing them). Mary Doria Russell certainly plays her cards close to her chest. I was intrigued pretty much from beginning to end and while The Sparrow is not a fast paced novel it is something of a page turner. I had no idea the book has a dual timeline and initially I made the mistake of not paying any attention to the date indicated at beginning of the chapters and had to backtrack. So I would recommend paying close attention to begin with until you are hooked.
“The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances, is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”
While it is certainly a science fiction novel the emphasis is not on the sci-fi-ness of first contact with aliens, it is more an exploration of faith. Not in a proselytizing sense, Ms. Russell is not badgering the reader to accept God, she is writing about what can happen if you do, what can you reasonably expect to get for your faith. Should you believe that He watches over you 24/7? (She describes this as the belief in God’s micromanagement). Without really spoiling the book I can tell you that some very awful things happen to very good people, including the pious ones.

In spite of the religious theme the First Contact with aliens aspect of the book is not neglected. The conditions of the planet Rakhat are clearly described and the alien native species is vividly imagined. They are very similar to humans in many ways but extremely alien in many others. The exposition of their biology, culture, cities etc is just the sort of thing most sci-fi readers would enjoy. It also leads to the secondary theme of the danger of First Contact, of interfering (even with the best of intentions) in a culture you don’t really understand but think you do because of a few similarities to your own.

The seriousness of the main themes is nicely balanced by the infusion of humour throughout the book. The author does have quite a flair for witty bantering dialogue and the prose style is nice and smooth. The characters are very well developed though I would caution you not to become too attached to any of them. My only complaint is the mention of “Van Halen’s arena rock masterpiece, 5150”. Please! That’s like Van-Hagar! (if you have no idea what I’m on about just ignore this complaint).

OK, I’m almost done, just a quick look at a quote from Wikipedia:
"Nancy Pearl, a reviewer at Library Journal, felt that this book was mistakenly categorized as science fiction, and that it is really "a philosophical novel about the nature of good and evil and what happens when a man tries to do the right thing, for the right reasons and ends up causing incalculable harm."
When a “literati” type finds a sci-fi book that they like they tend to immediately declassify it as “not sci-fi”; aliens, spaceships, futuristic techs etc. notwithstanding of course. The Sparrow is definitely sci-fi, it even says so on the tin. Very good sci-fi it is too (unless you dislike religious themes then this is not for you). The sequel [b:Children of God|16948|Children of God (The Sparrow, #2)|Mary Doria Russell|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1373509005s/16948.jpg|882029] is very near the top of my TBR.

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Note:
We are having a good discussion about this book at Print SF (on Reddit) if you are interested.