Emma Newman on Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.
The Sparrow, written by Mary Doria Russell, is one of those rare science fiction novels that not only transports you to an alien planet, but also into the deepest psychological recesses of its protagonist. Published in 1996, it won the Clarke Award, the James Tiptree award and the BSFA award for best novel and was also critically acclaimed outside of the SFF community.
It’s not an easy read; it demands patience and close attention, but the emotional pay- off is extraordinary. The novel draws the reader into the story via two parallel threads of one man’s life, a Jesuit priest called Emilio Sandoz. One thread recounts events beginning in 2019 when a radio telescope picks up signals from a planet that suggest alien intelligence, leading to an expedition to the planet of Rakhat organised and funded by Jesuits. The second thread is set decades later during an enquiry into the events that took place on Rakhat, the only witness and survivor being a broken, traumatised Sandoz who is reluctant to say anything about what transpired and why he was the only returnee.
Russell takes her time, giving the reader a beautifully written study of the young Sandoz, full of incredible energy and optimism as he meets and gets to know the people who later become fellow expedition team members, alongside an exploration of his physical and psychological suffering after the mission. The difference is stark, building an intense desire to find out what terrible thing happened to break such a remarkable man. As Russell introduces the other team members, drawing their personalities with such deft and loving strokes, the need to know why they didn’t come back with Sandoz builds into a compulsion, driving you through the last third of the book while your guts are twisted into knots. It’s so easy to fall in love with these people, and every turn of the page is one step closer to discovering how the mission unravels. Thanks to the structure of the novel, instead of reading to find out if the characters you care about survive, you read to find out how it all went wrong. It’s very clear that it’s something truly awful and the tension is exquisitely maintained, giving an immensely cathartic emotional climax when you discover where the title of the book comes from.
Russell has an academic background in paleoanthropology with an impressive knowledge of human history, along with an interesting personal experience of faith ( she was raised as a Catholic, left the church and was an atheist for 25 years and then converted to Judaism). In an interview, Russell explained how she didn’t necessarily set out to write SF, but instead the story she wanted to write chose the genre. She started writing the novel during the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World and wanted to explore the “radical ignorance” experienced by explorers when meeting a new civilisation. Short of a historical novel, what better way to examine those challenges than arriving at a new planet?
Like all the best science fiction, The Sparrow invites us to consider an array of issues that go beyond the challenges of a first contact situation; the preservation of faith in the face of the horrific, the strengths and weaknesses of religion and the impact of societal structures including the privileged elite living off the labour of an oppressed underclass.
If you like your science fiction to have depth, complex characters and a compelling narrative that keeps you reading into the small hours, then The Sparrow is one of the best novels you could choose to read.
Emma Newman’s Planetfall is out now.