Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.
When SETI finally hears a song from the stars, some of the first people to understand the potential are a close knit bunch of friends led by a Jesuit priest. Their story of first contact – of acceptance and separation, of disclosure and secrets, of exploration as the will of God – will make you think about a modern Columbus and what we’ve learned from the past. It will also make you explore the notion of “God’s will” and will make you take a close look at the sacrifices needed and made for the better good. And in the end, it may make you ask why God lets sparrows fall at all.
I’m not an overly religious person, and I was a bit surprised at how religious this book actually was. I didn’t find it preachy though and it approached the questions of faith and what it meant to truly devote your life to God in an interesting way. Although there is a compelling cast of characters, this is really the story of Emilio Sandoz, a devout Jesuit linguist who is searching for his connection with his church and his faith.
As Emilios story unfolds, we see him come to terms with his past and learn to accept his future. This isn’t an easy journey to watch, and there were times when I wanted to reach into the book and shake him. This may be partially due to my own background, where I often felt that church rituals and rules took many of the good things in life and made them sinful. I won’t go into a theological discussion here, but I would be interested in seeing what people with other views thought. I was sympathetic to Emilio, but found myself exasperated with him. I absolutely credit the author, Mary Doria Russell, for allowing for some personal interpretation of what faith might mean, and not writing a pure “glory be” novel under the guise of exploration.
Speaking of which, this story is an emotionally hard read at times. We learn early on that Emilio is the only survivor of the mission to Rakhat – the foreign planet. Russell tells the story using chapter length flashbacks, and the juxtaposition of the “pre mission Emilio” and the “post mission Emilio” creates a much more powerful impact than a linearly told story might have. In some books it’s hard to keep it all straight when it jumps around, but I didn’t have that issue with this one.
If you like first contact, character driven, philosophical sci-fi stories then you will probably like this one. The religious aspects are worked into the story naturally and logically and it doesn’t feel like a Sunday sermon if you’re not looking for one. Russell says that she wrote this book when she was bringing religion back into her life, so it’s really a semi-exploration of what place religion can or maybe should play in life rather than preaching. I think she’s done a masterful job in this one. This book is the first in a series and, while I’ll borrow the second one to check it out, I don’t know that I feel compelled to see how the story could move on from this book. I did read that Brad Pitt’s production company picked up the rights to this one… and I bet we already have a few people that would join me to see this translate to the big screen.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, 405 pages