The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

thesparrowThis book is really worth reading. The Janus-like bipolar cover can be confusing, but the words inside will blow your mind.

Here’s a very brief overview to entice you:

In the not-distant future, a young scientist monitoring signals from space discovers music coming from Alpha Centauri. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) organizes the first expedition to the planet of Rakhat, the origin of the music. Father Emilio Sandoz, along with seven of his colleagues, both secular and religious, travel to the planet to investigate the source of the music and make contact with the Singers.

The story is told in alternating time frames between the events of the mission to Rakhat and the subsequent interrogation of Father Sandoz, who is the only member of the expedition to return alive.

I alternated between loving this book and being tempted to bail on it. Here’s why:

What I didn’t like:

The rampant, overt Catholicism, and the nauseatingly saintly, outrageously open-minded, pious characters with tolerance for each other bordering on the saintly. The characters are locked in a spaceship for years together and never really have so much as a spat. When there is catastrophe, no one blames anyone else, no one loses their mind, no one has a breakdown. I find that level of absurd harmony harder to believe than aliens singing songs from Alpha Centauri.

What I really liked:

This book is brilliant in its anthropology and science of discovering a new people. The anthropology bent was interesting; the social framework of the aliens on Rakhat was well-grounded and fascinating. I love reading about possible other worlds, how the inhabitants organize social structure, language, government, and familial relationships. When the structure is well done, as it is in The Sparrow, the book seems believable and possible. If you like books with an anthropological concept, consider these others as well:  Anthropology in Fiction

The first 100 pages are all strictly for set up, so don’t let that deter you or tempt you to bail. The next 200 pages are really interesting, but repetitive. The last 100 pages fly by quickly, and the plot development is frenetic. The last 15 pages will make you read frantically, wide-eyed in disbelief and anguish, and then you’ll need to call your best friend and sob about why you’re in existential turmoil and how you’ll never be the same.

The major question this book offers is the religious cliché “why do bad things happen to good people?”, which is unanswerable. The bad things that happen in The Sparrow are beyond comprehension.

There is a sequel available, Children of God, in which Emilio Sandoz returns to Rakhat, but I’m not quite ready. I need to stare into the middle distance for a while and get my bearings before I read more. But I’ll definitely read more. I can’t look away for long.

4 thoughts on “The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell”

  1. I read this over a year ago and had really high hopes for it. The blurb was really intriguing. My kind of stuff. BUT- I was disappointed. I wanted this to be a work of visionary fiction and it wasn’t. I wanted more connection to the inner life of the characters and their ideas and less external world building. The pace has some major problems and whole sections could easily have been cut.

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