The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow Cover

The Sparrow


Often thought provoking, at times rather beautiful, in other places emotionally harrowing and yet despite this praise a book that has left me with quite an ugly taste in my mouth as I can't move past it being a thinly veiled justification for settler colonialism.

The Sparrow is the story of a Jesuit mission to the planet of Rakhat, following the receipt of transmissions from the planet as part of a SETI project in the then near-future of 2019. The story is told in two parts, with alternating chapters from 2019 when the missionaries plan their mission and 2060 telling the story of the sole survivor from the mission.

In this review I'll be talking about the themes of the book, the cultures on the planet of Rakhat and also minor points about the characterisation so whilst there won't be any major spoilers I will mention things which only become apparent during the reading of the book.

So, let's start with some positives. First of all, I did like the structure of the book. The alternating chapters of the build up to the mission and the chapters covering the return of the priest Emilio Sandez largely works. We learn very early in the book that Sandez has returned in disgrace, he has clearly undergone a kind of horrific body trauma and of course, all his fellow companions who he left Earth with are dead. That works quite effectively with the sense of hope that the characters have as they come together to prepare to jet off to several light years away. There's always some good juxtaposition of where the characters are at a point in the story and how it ends up.

Also, at times I found the writing rather beautiful. I'll share more about my relationship to faith and religion in the book later in the review, but there was scene in the book that truly touched my heart. When Sandez first meets a member of the native intelligent species on Rakhat, I could feel his joy, his rapture, that sense that god was shining on him and was 'proof' god walked beside him. That power, in that scene becomes very important later on in the book, but reading it I was struck with the notion that, 'I get why people have faith'. I love moments of beauty in a book, and I think this particular scene gave it us in spades.

I also really appreciated the world building here. This is the second novel I have read in the last month or so that has 'First Contact' as a theme and is written by an author with anthropological knowledge (the other being The Left Hand of Darkness). I observed in Le Guin's novel that she was detached as an author, viewing her world as if in a petri dish. Russell isn't like that, I feel that she is very much part of her world and characters (perhaps too much). I also think she is far gentler on her readers. Instead of mirroring the experience of the humans by continually confusing the reader like Le Guin did in 'The Left Hand of Darkness' here we have no real sense the reader is the 'stranger in a strange land'. We discover things retrospectively (mostly due to the alternating chapters) and we are gently led to work things out and discover more about Rakhat culture and join the dots. Even though it is difficult for the characters and they pay for their mistakes and misunderstandings dearly, at least it isn't difficult for the reader! There is some fine world building in here, there are no 'info dumps', it's all done well from multiple perspectives.

I really enjoyed the teasing explorations of sexuality and gender in the book. My main reason for picking up this book was to include as part of my speculative fiction LGBTQ reading challenge. In that regard I am a little disappointed as the only LGBTQ content is that one of the characters is an in the closet gay man, and other than a couple of pages eluding that others are aware it is quickly forgotten about. I suppose in 1992 it may have been considered noteworthy but I don't think, 'one of my friends is gay, but it's okay because he is a celibate priest who can never live as a gay man' is as forward thinking as it could be.

One of the characters, a nearly retired doctor and anthropologist has some quite forthright views on sexuality that are teased, and I'd have loved them to be explored more. Dr. Anne Edwards, in this regard shares many of my own views - that monogamy, and, or celibacy can struggle when they bounce into the real world and relationships. That actually, no one is bothered if you are attracted to different genders. That attraction can take many forms, and that love, friendship, romantic attraction and sexual attraction can fluctuate and are not always necessarily best packaged up into single relationships. Since many of the characters are priests, the role of celibacy is explored throughout and Anne often draws focus to celibate life intersecting with romantic and, or sexual needs being met temporarily elsewhere and how it may not impact a relationship with god (or a partner). There is some flipping of gender roles and misunderstandings of gender but not enough to make it feel like LGBTQ content.

Indeed, in the book there is a wonderful opportunity to explore this, and it is kind of teased in the form of a potential love triangle, but in the end, in an attempt to reconcile I kind of think it ends as a cop-out and a much more interesting novel would be for characters not to conveniently settle elsewhere, but instead be more daring in how they feel.

In places this is quite a challenging read for me as an atheist who has a strong sense of my own spirituality, whilst having a youth spent as a practicing Catholic. I guess this is where the novel becomes quite problematic for me. I mentioned that Russell is part of the world-building, that Dr. Anne effectively speaks for her. In matters of faith, sexuality and colonialism I get a strong sense throughout I am being preached at, that Russell the author is asking me to consider the questions she is interested in, and also that I am bombarded with her world view (which at times has a racist undercurrent to it). This may sound unfair - after all, what writer doesn't inject some of their self into their writing? I know my own values scream out in any creative writing I have undertaken, and yet throughout the book it is so obvious I just want to ask her to shut up and just tell me a story.

The general question of faith in the book can largely be distilled into, 'does god exist'? and 'what is god responsible for?' which then leads to an additional question from me which is, 'so what is the purpose of god?' The way the characters come together so perfectly, the way that the mission overcomes insurmountable odds, the fact that they can make contact with an alien species - all this is 'proof' that god is guiding the way and 'everything happens because god wants it to'. Obviously, when everything goes disastrously wrong, this leads to the challenge back of, 'if god gets the credit for all the good stuff, why isn't god blamed for all the bad stuff too'? There is some theological discussion throughout the book but the same points appear to be made multiple times. It's interesting to a point, but if one has no faith, or are assured in their faith and has little interest in the question then I feel there are slim pickings here. As characters wrestled with this stuff, as a reader I wasn't to fussed.

The pacing isn't to great. It seemingly takes hundreds of pages to get the mission together, bring the characters into the same place and set off for Rakhat. It is very slow to start. The key plot in the novel, 'so what happened to everyone' is exceptionally rushed, including the reveal of what happened to Sandez. I know I sound unkind but it reminded me of writing a story at school and not knowing how to end it so just writing, 'and then everyone died. The end'. It's quite unfulfilling and a huge disappointment. Likewise, it seems hundreds of pages are spent with a bunch of priests interrogating Sandez as to what happened, in pages that just go nowhere fast.

The characterisation is off. Everyone is just a little too perfect, to friendly, and 'perfectly suited'. One character Sofia Mendes at least has the opportunity to be interesting as she has a harrowing introduction, is treated as a hyper intelligent, yet emotionally cold and distant woman yet all the men are insanely attracted to her. Considering she is a love interest, and she shows limited to no interest in the male characters for a long time it's clear it is her body and face that people fall in love with and not her. When she does open her heart she loses everything that makes her interesting and becomes a housewife (more or less).

The mission has a cast of eight and other than a couple of them they kind of just drop in and out. Sometimes a minor character you haven't read about for 300 pages suddenly has a personality for a chapter. I'm not sure it works.

I am not sure the author intended it but the reader has to suspend a lot of disbelief in how they get to Rakhat and also the dumb stuff they do when they land. It's like if the A-Team had a space travel church group. I'm all for hand-waving in a novel to get to the good stuff, but in a novel that questions the nature of faith so strongly the reader shouldn't be laughing at the inept way they get to another planet. It's definitely not a strong part of the book, and it takes a while to get there.

Likewise, I had a reflection that I haven't seen anywhere, and it's the comparator to how brutally unfair and morally wrong speciesim is. There are two intelligent species on Rakhat, a dominant 4% carnivore species and a vegetarian species making up the 96% who do all the work and are effectively bred for different types of servitude. At times it is considered a systemic relationship rather than a brutally oppressive one. The Ruana, who are the 'lesser' species take our party in, feed them, let them have access to their homes, have no notion of private property and a strong sense of community occasionally leave. Our brave heroes then go murdering the local wildlife because they miss meat so much. They completely miss the point about the relationships on the planet, or how they are perceived. I'm struck by the notion that when bad stuff happens to our characters that they kind of deserve it, that their uncaring and unfeeling sense of entitlement to other life despite their faith means they have it coming.

I mentioned about the worldview of the author and how it is loud and clear in the book. Indeed, the reason for writing the book is a critique against 'revisionist' histories of Columbus and to not put modern values on their actions. That alone means we should never review the history and impact of actions and instead just say, 'well they knew no better?' Does she really think the quest for gold and slavery has been unfairly judged? She mentions the PKK as a possible influence for a war that devastates the Middle East - yeah because the Kurds are the bad guys in Syria, Iraq and Turkey? She describes Sandez's journey as a 'personal Holocaust' and compares his relationship to god with that of modern day Jews. There is a line about 'modern day Israel rising from the ashes of the Holocaust' which feels exceptionally problematic in a book that seems to be an apologia for colonialism. A blasé approach to, and justification of subjugated people on Rakhat feels a bit grubby when you read lines which use real world history and exclude perspectives from the oppressed. Indeed, the concept of Catholic men lusting after a Jewish woman based on her superficiality, rather than who she really is kind of makes me uncomfortable.

This 'ick' factor is compounded towards the end of the book, (strong content warning) I think I get what she is trying to say about the nature of god and real life analogies but in answering her big questions, I am finding her answers and I am not sure I can accept them.

I'll go back and forth on this one. It's quite well written, there is an interesting story and it definitely makes you think. But, it's the first time in a long time I've felt I've read a book by an author I don't think I'd like. I doubt I'll be reading the second book in the series.