Emma New­man on Mary Do­ria Rus­sell’s The Spar­row.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - By Mary Do­ria Rus­sell, 1996

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.

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