I’ve read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell twice before. I remember vaguely picking it up when it first came out in 1997 – I suspect as a result of a review from SFX which was one of only a handful of sources of science fiction book reviews at the time – and about 10 years ago. It seems like it will be one of the books I need to come back to every ten years or so. So I picked up my smelly, dog-eared and stained Black Swan paperback edition and settled back with a smile on my face.
The Sparrow is, at a fundamental level, an alien first-contact novel. However, when you consider that this story is about Emilio Sandoz and a mostly Jesuit party who are party to the discovery of alien life, and who subsequently travel to the planet Rakhat, you realise that this is about God, religion, faith, colonisation, acceptance and more. The narrative has two time-streams. The first is on Emilio’s return to Earth, a physically and emotionally destroyed man. He is facing charges of murder and prostitution on the alien planet. He is the only survivor. The Jesuits are also under scrutiny for his behaviour. The second stream starts with the pulling together of the core group of friends who eventually find love and the alien signal. They travel to Rakhat where they make contact with two sentient species. Russell skilfully plays the narrative time streams off against each other, as you warm to the characters and feel their joy and pain and tragedy.
The first 100 pages
It was remarkable how easily I recalled all the characters and the plot within the first few pages. When Sandoz is helped by Brother Edward and John Candotti and has his braces fitted, I started to recall the trauma of the journey to come. The story flooded back to me. And when he meets Ann and George, and eventually Jimmy and Sophia, the initial warmth and comfort of the characters was replaced by dread, as I recalled their fate. It is a testament to Russell’s writing that in the opening chapters of this book, you fall in love with the characters (again, for me) and really enjoy spending time with them regardless of the story. The characters in the ‘after-the-event’ time are perhaps less well-rounded and while not cyphers, you never connect with them on any emotional level.
Within the first 100 pages, there are hints of tragedy and signposts to much worse, but the actually science fiction and alien elements are largely missing from the story (Sophia’s AI work excepted). While clearly and proudly science fiction, it only dwells on these certain elements in passing. This is a story about people and their love.
The next 100 pages opens with a litany of abuse against the Jesuit church. I wondered if this was Russell’s personal attack on religion, but then I remembered that it is fiction and the views expressed in any book aren’t necessarily those of the author. And then…
Then Russell writes the warmest and loveliest description of friends becoming a family, even with what happens to poor Jimmy (I’d not fully recalled the plot towards the end), I have ever read, just before they are all brought together before god and alien contact. Although there is the duel narrative structure, this line in particular is very linear storytelling and fairly obvious in hindsight, but so wonderfully written it does matter?
An interesting parallel comes to light in this section. All the characters from the time of discovery of the alien signal have the correct experience (astronomy, linguistics, engineering, computer programming, medicine) and relationships with each other. Sandoz and others start to believe this is the work of god, bringing them together. Is any author, god, then? In all books, characters and plots must have the required coincidences to make the story work. Life isn’t a story because it isn’t full of these coincidences but all fiction must. Is Russell acknowledging this? I think so. Turtles and fence-posts.
There is a scene on p188 of my copy when the crew first board their vessel, where Anne and George attempt to complete a mission of their own in zero g. Rarely does a book make you smile at the dialogue and interaction of a bunch of fictional characters as The Sparrow does. It is so convivial and warm. It is like a favourite pie in winter or ice cream in summer. And yet Russell signposts the tragedy ahead a few passages later. Perfect storytelling.
And at this point, 2/5 of the way into the book, we still don’t know why the book is called The Sparrow.
As I passed the half way mark it occurred to me that there can’t be many alien contact novels that can get to this point without actually contacting the aliens. [Spoiler alert] Around this point, one of the main characters dies. However, he was never really one of the main, main, characters so while the method of his demise was unexpected, the fact he was the first to go wasn’t a surprise. Bit of a red shirt moment, and doesn’t really add anything to the story. In fact, it counters the rest of the narrative. When others die, there is deep and prolonged grief. While this character who dies was never core, his death appears to be too quickly forgotten.
And now to the main course. Russell explains the alien cultures as experienced through Sandoz and the team. It made me consider how tricky it must be to invent an alien culture in fiction. It needs to be alien yet comprehensible to the reader. It needs to be plausible but different enough to be interesting. It was fun when Russell includes the Star Trek reference to make that point. There is no point in having aliens who all speak English and act like us. Russel takes proper zoological and ecological theory and weaves a believable yet alien civilisation. Of course, many, many other science fiction authors have also achieved this, but still, it can’t be easy.
And then, when DW – Sandoz’s father figure – falls ill the dread returns. Having read the book before I know he dies, but I couldn’t recall quite how…
As the 400th page approached, one of the main issues with re-reading a novel comes to the fore. You know something bad is coming – there are still 6 of the main characters to die – but you can’t quite remember the precise moment, or page. Every event, every new chapter might bring death.
Re-reading an old favourite is a mixed blessing. I must have read a fair few hundred books since I last read The Sparrow. I’m 10 years older. You always bring something of yourself to every novel you read. Different experiences in real life and in fiction. I was glad I’d forgotten (even mis-remembered) how DW had died. However, as everything really tragic happens in the last section of the book, this time round his and the rest of the crew’s demise felt a little rushed. Even though the plot demanded it, the explanations of how the contact had changed the aliens, and how the aliens had changed Sandoz could have played out a little longer. I was still gutted by the finale, although due to my years of reading, the dramatic conclusion was a little less shocking than it was 20 years ago. And as for the title, it is only revealed on page 499: Matthew 10 v29. Apparently.
I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading The Sparrow. It every bit as good as I remembered. The characters every bit as warm and the writing as engaging and as thought-provoking. I only wish Russell had continued writing SF (sequel aside). There is so much depth to her story, although it didn’t make me think much about god and religion, or faith. It did make me think more about how our actions affect others, even the seemingly harmless ones. Even when we think we’re doing a good thing. We cannot know how other people think or will react to us. Russell seems to understand this both personally and culturally.
The Sparrow won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award, which it thoroughly deserved.