They say not to judge a book by its cover, and I’m sure that includes its title. But a book called The Sparrow just didn’t sound like a very exciting book. I had requested it from the library based on ModestyPress’s recommendation, but by the time it finally became available, I had forgotten what he had said it was about.
Once I finally picked it up and started reading, I was completely engrossed. As ModestyPress had said, it is about “starship travel, discovery of alien intelligence, and calamitous attempt to send a Jesuit missionary,” but it is also so much more.
I have read a lot of sci-fi, and I have no idea how many books I’ve read about starship travel and discovery of alien intelligence. Most of them are moderately entertaining but lack depth and originality. From the first chapter of The Sparrow, I knew it was very different.
The characters are well-developed, and most of them are different from any I’ve encountered in typical sci-fi stories. The plot includes a certain amount of science (the “starship” is a hollowed out asteroid ingeniously converted for interstellar travel), but the focus is more on cross-cultural communication.
Having planned at one time to be a missionary, I have a great deal of interest in this topic. (Though I can’t say if that’s because I had planned to be a missionary, or if my interest in being a missionary was based on my interest in cross-cultural communication.) Even before the trip across space, characters from very different cultural backgrounds on Earth are encountering serious conflicts with one another.
One thing I found particularly refreshing about the novel is its guesses about the future here on Earth. Many science fiction books either assume a completely altered Earth (either post-apocalyptic pockets of civilization or a unified terrestrial society), or one which is little different from today except for the advances of science.
In some ways, Mary Doria Russell’s future Earth has changed little, but society has also changed in some surprising ways. This forms a vision of the future much more true to what many of us have seen actually happen over the past several decades than what the sci-fi books I read as a child depicted.
The story of the calamitous mission is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks. We know from the beginning that the sole survivor of the trip is broken in body and spirit, but it takes the entire book to find out why. Russell drops hints of looming disaster and delivers details at a pace to keep the reader engaged but unable to guess the final outcome.
Not surprisingly, where the central character is a Jesuit missionary, the book deals with issues of faith. Unlike books marketed as “Christian fiction,” however, it does not attempt to present faith as the answer to life’s problems and questions. Nor does it advocate rejecting faith. It explores the issues, but does not tell the reader what to think – a mark of a good novel, in my opinion.
What the book does make clear is the importance of relationships. Love in its various forms (of which romantic love is an important one, but only one) is essential, though it does not always come in the ways we want or expect. Primarily this is among humans, but there are also examples involving the “aliens” whom the humans meet and get to know on the planet ?
And the reader is left to think about what it means to love – or to be loved by – God.