The Sparrow is, simply put, a book about Jesuits in space.
Sounds strange? In some senses, yes it is – in a wonderfully, refreshing way. But in other senses, Mary Doria Russell is intentionally tapping into the familiar and age-old history of New World exploration and colonization, in which the Jesuits played a significant role. The Society of Jesus (or Jesuits) is a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church that prioritizes education, innovation, and discovery. With this in mind, it’s really not surprising that Russell positioned Jesuits as the first human organization to initiate contact with a newly discovered alien civilization, their songs overheard through our satellites. The result is a powerful piece of science fiction that beautifully blends tradition with transformation.
When Frank Herbert wrote his masterpiece Dune, he focused on the world of Arrakis primarily through the lens of ecology (especially if you consider politics as merely an element of ecology). In a similar fashion, Russell took her own area of expertise, anthropology, and used it to shape her readers’ encounter with a completely new society. The Jesuit’s entire expedition is consciously aware of the devastating consequences of Europe’s initial encounters with the New World, so their project is centered on leaving a minimum impact on the societies they find, while gathering the maximum scientific data. But Russell, as an anthropologist, knows that any type of interaction between civilizations always irreversibly changes both parties. It is impossible to observe a culture while remaining detached and uninvolved. The Sparrow wrestles with this tension as the eight members of the crew seek to redeem Earth’s controversial history of exploration in a genuine desire to befriend our alien neighbors.
From the first chapter, I found myself quickly drawn into Russell’s writing. She does a beautiful job of weaving together fascinating philosophical and theological questions with compelling and relatable characters in a future that is still recognizable. The text cuts back and forth in time, jumping from the end of expedition where the team’s sole survivor is being interviewed, back to the original formation and execution of the mission. At the start, we realize something must have gone terribly wrong, but for as much as we know, there is far more that we don’t know and those gnawing questions propel the reader through the book.
To conclude, this is one of the most compelling works of fiction that I have read this year. The characters and situations have stuck with me for days following the moment I put it down. That being said, one of the reasons the book has stuck with me so vividly is because of its extremely disturbing resolution. While Russell is intentional and restrained with her descriptions and narrative, her conclusion is necessarily uncomfortable and gut-wrenching–something you know is coming from the moment you start the book. Russell wants her readers to struggle with questions about morality, the nature of the humane, and God’s presence and goodness. If you are sensitive to disturbing imagery or going through a rough spot in life, this is not the book for you.
For everyone else, grab a copy, dive in, and then tell me your thoughts because I would love to discuss it with someone. (You can pick up a copy for just a few bucks on Amazon!)
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The featured image is by ESO, Claus Madsen (Alpha Centauri and the Southern Cross) found at http://bit.ly/1K9BULs and republished with a CC License [CC BY 4.0 (http://bit.ly/1htZ1pk)], via Wikimedia Commons.