After a couple hundred pages or so of spinning a tapestry so rich with living characters and plausible interactions therein, Mary Doria Russell earns this little moment of levity which both perfectly summarizes and cheekily acknowledges the preposterousness of her novel’s premise. But then again, what is Science Fiction without a touch of the impossible and, out of context, even laughable.
“The Sparrow” has sat pretty high on my list for awhile. With all my searches of local used book stores (sorry, but budget!), I suddenly and happily found a copy sitting in my library of all places. The high recommendations that led me to this book all proved to be true, even insufficient.
It’s a complex narrative that begins nearly at the end, with the return of the sole survivor from the mission to a planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centuri from which we unexpectedly begin to detect not just signs of life but music. While the details of the mission and its failure are forthcoming, we are immediately tipped off that Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, is not exactly heralded as a returning hero. The following narrative shifts back and forth between Sandoz’s pained present and the early days of the mission.
“The Sparrow” is not only an intriguing and well-plotted story, but it’s populated with richly-drawn characters. Each of the main characters sent on the mission represents an archetype without ever reverting to a stereotype. Obviously, Emilio is the Jesuit priest, the religious devotee among the group. Anne Edwards, gives us the agnostic point of view. Her husband George claims to be an atheist at some point in the story. Jimmy Quinn is a clean-cut, WASP-ish All-American who’s never explicitly associated with any particular denomination yet feels like a Protestant counterpoint to Sandoz’s devout Catholicism. And then we have Sophia, steeped in conservative Judaism. Again, while I feel these are the larger arcs that inform these characters, they are in absolutely no way presented in as simplistic a fashion as I make it sound here. They each contain gradations and complexities that belie these labels.
And just as the characters aren’t as simple as that, neither are Russell’s treatment of religious themes:
“It is the human condition to ask questions…and to receive no plain answers…Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts. We are afterall, only very clever, tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic.”
Or my favorite:
…The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”
So I encourage you, if you’re a fan of sci-fi or character-driven drama or just plain great writing, don’t let the subject matter put you off. It’s an honest, disturbing and ultimately moving examination of human nature that deserves all the praise it has gotten from my peers and a fair shot at your reading list.