The Sparrow (1996)

by Mary Doria Russell

Even as it employs such science fiction conventions as a futuristic timeframe and first contact with an alien culture, The Sparrow transcends the genre, offering general audiences an accessible philosophical investigation. The plot moves back and forth between two times in the 21st century, 2019 and 2059, with Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest and linguistic specialist, the main character in both.

In the first period, an astronomy station in Sandoz's native Puerto Rico picks up singing from around Alpha Centauri. Sandoz organizes a Jesuit-sponsored space mission to find the source of the first indication of life on another planet. Forty Earth years later, Sandoz, the only survivor of the eight-person expedition, has returned in disgrace. Despite horrendous physical and spiritual aftereffects, he must face a Jesuit inquest into why a well-intentioned mission to learn about life elsewhere deteriorated into murder and degradation.

If, as Sandoz believed, God willed him to launch the exhibition to the planet Rakhat, how could God have let things go so wrong? After all, according to the famous biblical passage from Matthew's gospel, "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it." It's not that Sandoz no longer believes in God — but he doubts God's benevolence. Sandoz doesn't find a conclusive answer, but in an interview published in the back of the book, author Mary Doria Russell suggests that we get into trouble when we think God is pulling the strings.

This ambitious first novel by Russell won several science fiction awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Award. Russell wrote a well-received sequel, Children of God, that returns Sandoz to Rakhat and explores misunderstandings between cultures.


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