The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (37/107)

I started reading a John Updike book, because it sounded dystopic and vaguely relevant to the Dredd fic I’m writing. Made it about twenty pages before I was like, “Man, fucking boring old people.”

Then I picked up Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and found fucking AWESOME old people.

The Sparrow tells one story in two parallel timelines: when humans discovered that they weren’t alone in the universe and eight brilliant people set out to make first contact, and then decades later when the single broken survivor came limping home.

This is intelligent science fiction of the very best sort, coming from an author who has not only the Big Ideas that make sci-fi worth reading, but also a beautifully compassionate understanding of people and the way they connect and disconnect with each other. I loved her characters, they are believable and sympathetic and frequently hilarious — for all that this is a book dealing with Serious Questions about the nature of God and faith and humanity, it also had me laughing out loud more often than anything I’ve read recently. I love it, because that’s how the world works; as George Bernard Shaw put it, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh,” and this book gets that.

The central character is a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz (“Father What-a-Waste” since he’s hot and smart and possessed of an excellent sense of humor), one of the key members of an interplanetary expedition planned and funded by the Catholic church when proof of intelligent alien life is discovered in Alpha Centauri. (Cuz what do Jesuits do, right?) The six core members of the expedition were friends even before setting out, which makes for delightful group dynamics and a lot of excellent banter. Everything goes beautifully as they make contact on this alien world, until it doesn’t.

Religion is an integral part of this book, but very well handled. Russell writes religion the way I love to see it written in speculative fiction, as a believable force in the lives of her characters without ever feeling like author-fueled propaganda. Her agnostics and her atheists get as much of a voice as her Jesuits, and are just as likely to have insight into life’s great mysteries. Some of the most unobtrusively profound moments in the book involve Anne, an older woman who becomes friends with Emilio and his motley crew, because she is one of those precious rare fictional characters who’s lived longer than most and actually seems to have learned something from it. She’s an atheist the way Emilio is a Catholic: in that they’re both agnostic. Their conversations are thought-provoking and a far cry from a retread of the old theist-atheist debates that go in circles and get nowhere.

(Turns out the author is a lapsed Catholic, was atheist for about thirty years and then converted to Judaism in later life, so the religious sentiments in her book speak to a universal spirituality rather than preaching on behalf of any particular dogma. The edition that I read featured an author interview in the back, and of her conversion she said: “When you convert to Judaism in a post-Holocaust world, you know two things for sure: one is that being Jewish can get you killed; the other is that God won’t rescue you.” The latter sentiment is definitely a recurring theme in The Sparrow, for all that half the cast is career-religious.)

The other two elements that interested me are relatively minor to the story, so to dwell on them in a review would likely skew readers’ impressions of what the book is about, but they do happen to be Relevant to My Interests. The first is language — how it works, how they differ, how language acquisition happens. That’s something a lot of authors screw up, either because they don’t do their research or just don’t care, but Russell fucking nails it, and for that wins my undying affection. I’d like to do a longer, separate post on that topic, but I may forget to.

The other is Emilio’s celibacy — institutional celibacy being very much on my mind lately in the context of Judge Dredd. (The fic is currently 20k words and counting, I think I figured out the secret to productivity.) It’s a subject that comes up fairly often in the book — partly due to other people’s morbid curiosity about it, sometimes when he finds his resolve tested, and other times as he works out for himself why that resolve is worth keeping.

It would not have surprised Emilio Sandoz that his sex life was discussed with such candor and affectionate concern by his friends. The single craziest thing about being a priest, he’d found, was that celibacy was simultaneously the most private and most public aspect of his life.

Russell presents it with the same insight and thoughtfulness that she handles all the religious aspects of the book — so that you feel like you’re listening to what the characters have to say than listening to what the author has to say.

(I do, however, violently object to the idea that this is in any way a gay novel. It got on my radar in the first place because it won some gay sci-fi award, and it is indeed a magnificent book that deserves all the accolades people wish to throw at it, but it’s about as gay as prison rape.)

All in all, an excellent book, but not always easy reading and I’m not sure if I’m going to try for the sequel, Children of God.


I also read Rachel Maddow’s Drift even though it wasn’t on my list, because my roommate has a copy and I figured I should read it before I moved out. The book’s subtitle is “The Unmooring of American Military Power” but might as well have been “The History You Were Too Young to Understand When It Happened.” Iran-Contra? Uhh, I’ve heard of that. Gulf War? Involved sand.

Maddow’s unrepentant liberal bias (which I share, don’t get me wrong!) does make me wonder if she’s skewing her presentation a bit — I don’t doubt that she’s telling the truth, I just wonder if she’s telling the whole truth or leaving out facts that would undermine her thesis — but after reading it, I feel rather enlightened on a number of things I hadn’t understood before. It’s funny how, prior to reading this book, I could have told you more about about Philip I of Macedon than Ronald Reagan, and strikes me that there might be something wrong with our public education.

3 thoughts on “The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (37/107)

  1. Yes, read Children of God since it is a coda to The Sparrow. I read it when it was published, and remember feeling that is was a satisfactory book, but not nearly as devastatingly gorgeous and moving as The Sparrow.

    Mary Doria Russell is a local (for me) author, even if she no longer lives in Cleveland, she returns to our library system regularly as a guest.

  2. Was the Updike novel “Toward the End of Time”? I have problems with David Foster Wallace, as I think he got more and more theist and anti-intellectual over the course of his life, the poor devil, but I think he was right about TTEOT in this devastating and hilariously entertaining review:

    “The Sparrow” sounds wonderful!

    And you are absolutely right about public education and post-WWII history.


    It was indeed Toward the End of Time — though that’s not the only book I’ve read and was like, “This is shit. Does anyone else think this is shit? …No? Just me? And my opinion doesn’t count because Fuck You, we don’t care whether queers find anything meaningful in our novels.” -_-

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