by Mary Doria Russell
Cover by Giotto di Bondone
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Mary Doria Russell's first novel, The Sparrow, tells the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Puerto Rican Jesuit priest, and his circle of friends. On the surface, hardly a novel which could be classified as science fiction. However, there is a long tradition of religion in science fiction, including the Jesuit Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez in James Blish's A Case of Conscience.
Russell's novel is told in two time frames. The first begins in the year 2059, when a physically mutilated and spiritually devalued Emilio Sandoz is recovering from his trip to the planet Rakhat in a Jesuit mission. Although Sandoz has the knowledge of his actually trip and his keepers, Father General Giuliani, and Brother Ed Behr and Father John Candotti, have knowledge of the time passed on Earth, Russell only reveals all this information to the reader slowly, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions from partial knowledge as the novel progresses.
The other time frame begins in 2019, when Jimmy Quinn, a friend of Sandoz's who works at Arecibo, discovers the first intelligent extraterrestrial radio signals emanating from a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. Eventually this story line, which follows Quinn and Sandoz as they put together a secret mission for the Jesuits which leaves to explore Rakhat, catches up to the hearing on Emilio Sandoz in the 2060s.
Because Russell uses a variety of characters and time frames, she is able to use foreshadowing extremely effectively throughout the book. Dropping hints here and there which the reader notices, but the characters, due to their knowledge or lack thereof, do not always comment on. Eventually, Russell manages to tie everything together and provides answers to the various plot questions she raises.
Russell's questions of plot, however, are secondary in The Sparrow. This novel is an examination of faith and what it means to question, or even lose, one's faith. Although the majority of the crew which travels to Rakhat is Jesuit, the mission includes a variety of aethiests, a Jew, and a non-Jesuit Catholic. Many of these characters begin to question their beliefs, or, in some cases, grab hold more firmly. While D.W. Yarborough, the Jesuit in charge of the mission, sees Sandoz as a saint, Sandoz himself is continually wondering whether his faith is strong, or real, enough. As the mission progresses, Sandoz's physical injuries become a visible sign of his own crumbling belief in a caring deity.
The Sparrow is more philosophical than many science fiction novels and makes the reader think about the questions of religion it raises. On other levels, the novel does not work as well. Despite the backing of the Society of Jesus, the mission ot Rakhat retains the flavor of a 1950s sf novel in which the characters decide to build a spaceship in their backyard. Although Russell includes many of the trappings of an hard science fiction novel, her hardest science is linguistics (although Emilio's discussions with Sofia Mendes about Rakhat vocabulary and grammar are inspired).
The Sparrow is a novel of ideas and characters. Not the sort of ideas which make the reader gasp and say "Wow," but the type of ideas which make the reader continue to think about them long after the book has been set aside. Russell presents her ideas through characters who are extremely likable, although they also harken back to the Heinleinian superman of the 1950s and 60s.
Russell has recently received the John W. Campbell Award on the merits of The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God. The Sparrow is one of the strongest debut novels I've read in a long time and is certainly deserving of the award. If the action occasionally slows to allow more philosophical and religious discussion, it does so in order to make The Sparrow a stronger novel.
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