The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

Cover image

Series: Sparrow #1
Publisher: Fawcett Columbine
Copyright: 1996
Printing: October 1997
ISBN: 0-449-91255-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 408

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The Sparrow is a novel about first contact, and takes a structural approach that I think is very risky. Normally much of the suspense in a first-contact story concerns how the contact will work out, but at the very beginning of this book, the reader is told the general emotional shape of the ending, if not the exact details, including the fact that everyone on the contact team dies except for one man. I wondered at first if this would take a lot of the suspense out of the story. In the end, I was very grateful for it.

This story is both dark and intense, the tension built up by the struggle to understand what happened or will happen as the story moves between the two threads of the mission as it happens and its aftermath years later. Despite knowing that they were already doomed, I found myself identifying with and caring about the contact team a great deal, and by the time the horrifying conclusion played out, I was glad I was warned in advance and had time to prepare for it. The pacing between the two threads was quite good; only once in the book did I find myself wishing for a thread switch when the narrative didn't make one. Given that my normal reaction to books with two interweaved stories is to lose interest in one of them and wish more time was spent on the other, I found this impressive.

Russell is a professional anthropologist, and The Sparrow focuses on people and their relationships rather than on technology. Linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and religion are the keystones of the plot, which is an interesting and welcome change from the normal science fiction emphasis on the traditional hard sciences. The mission is sponsored by the Jesuits, and includes priests, an atheist, and a Sephardic Jew, and the interplay of religion, morals, and beliefs is handled deftly and respectfully, reaching a beautifully multi-faceted ending that asks hard questions without assuming any answers.

As a first contact story, I found The Sparrow more thoughtful and detailed than most. There are a few unlikely but convenient assumptions made (the alien speech has a similar structure to ours and can be made with human mouths, the aliens are close enough to human for human anthropology to be relevant, and the characters aren't faced with much true alienness), but despite that, the aliens do feel alien, with a feasible and detailed society of their own. The disaster is both unexpected and inevitable in retrospect, and the alien culture both supports the conclusion and doesn't feel like it was constructed solely to make the conclusion feasible.

Both sides of the story can be depressing. The first contact story is mostly a story about how easily such missions can go wrong, even with a party of experts and the best of intentions. The religious story raises deep questions of what it means to be following God's will, the nature of religious ecstasy, the purpose and worth of priestly celibacy, and what happens to faith when everything goes horribly wrong. I loved the mixings of different religious perspectives and the lack of easy conclusions, but that does mean that the ending offers no real resolution, just a portrait of one person and how he chooses to respond. This is not a book to read if you're looking for happy endings.

This is a very good book. It won the Clarke, British SF, and Tiptree awards and deserved all of them. I found it a little unsatisfying at the end, but the story is haunting, and I will definitely be reading the sequel. (While there is a sequel, this is a self-contained story that stands well on its own.)

Followed by Children of God.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-09-16

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21