Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel, The Sparrow, is ostensibly a science fiction tale focused on a group of humans who travel across space to make contact with an alien culture whose radio broadcasts have reached earth. In reality, though, the novel is one of the most gripping accounts of spiritual conflict written in recent times.
The novel begins in media res, with the central character—Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz—back on earth, recounting the mysterious and controversial particulars of his missionary team’s expedition to the alien world—an expedition which starts promisingly but ends in unmitigated disaster. As Sandoz recounts to his Jesuit superiors, humans first become aware of the planet’s intelligent inhabitants when a SETI observatory receives radio broadcasts of their music. Believing the music to be a divine revelation, Jesuit order funds an exploratory mission to the world in order to contact its inhabitants.
After reaching the planet (known as Rakhat) using an interstellar travel-equipped asteroid, the Jesuit team makes contact with gentle, vegetarian, gatherer inhabitants known as the Runa, to whom the Jesuits introduce agriculture. The mission soon encounters another species of intelligent beings on Rakhat—the carnivorous Jana’ata. The Jana’ata are stewards of the planet and feed on the Runa, whose population they closely control in order to keep the Runa’s numbers sustainable. Eventually the mission team’s collaboration with the Runa leads to tragedy—the introduction of agriculture allowed the Runa’s numbers to exceed sustainability. When the Jana’ata arrive to cull the young Runa, the parents and Jesuits attempt to defend them and are massacred—all except Sandoz. As the rest of the novel unfolds, Sandoz narrates an increasingly harrowing series of events that leave him physically and psychologically abused and broken and—on his ultimate return to earth and his Jesuit order—an unbeliever.
What I love about The Sparrow is that it deals with one of the most troublesome issues of religion and spirituality—theodicy, the fact that evil still exists in the world despite God’s supposed love and justice. In spite of the characters’ Jesuit affiliation, their (and Sandoz’s) struggle is familiar many of us, whether we’re explicitly religious, agnostic or atheist. Russell’s placement of Sandoz in a completely alien setting tests the universal message of his Christian faith, and brings up many more interesting spiritual questions: How can something that seems brimming with promise—an opportunity to expand the beauty and totality of creation—become instead a morally clouded cross-cultural disaster of epic proportions? Are any religious tenets truly universal? How much hardship can a person endure before feeling that God either doesn’t exist or has completely abandoned them? Clearly, this novel is food for thought for any active spiritual or philosophical thinker!
Despite its weighty subject matter and science fiction themes, The Sparrow is an eminently readable book—the science fiction details are neither self-serving nor arcane, and Russell has a flair for dialogue that makes for quick page turning and well-developed characters. By its end, The Sparrow brings up quite a few more questions than it answers—just the way I like it, personally, but if you enjoy the novel and are interested in more development of its themes and more closure from a plot perspective, its sequel, Children of God is a must-read.